Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

As a novel set in an art gallery, Old Masters might be of some interest to readers of this blog. Viennese readers especially, since it is set in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Thomas Bernhard narrows things down even further by setting the entire thing in the vicinity of a single painting: White-bearded Man by Tintoretto.

But the good news here is that, unlike another museum based book which sold more than 40 million copies, there is no cryptology in these pages and only a little conspiracy.

Instead there is polemic. 99 percent of the novel is the reported speech of an aesthete called Reger. He writes music reviews for the Times of London and hates art.

He may have a 30-year habit of visiting the same room of a gallery every other day, but here is an example of Reger in full flow on the subject of artists:

“The painters, all these old masters, who most of the time nauseate me more than anything else and of whom I had always had a horror, always served one master and never themselves and hence humanity. They always painted a fake world, faked by them from within themselves, which they hoped would bring them money and fame…”

Other terrifying generalisations made by the snobish Reger include the observation you won’t find one single well painted hand in the whole of Vienna’s greatest gallery. I’d be too stunned to argue.

If you too are someone who tends to venerate the greatest names in the art canon, not to mention those of literary and musical renown, you might find this book of some value.

Bernhard’s 250 pages about the uselessness of art are so far out on a limb that their distance from the common view may well give them equilibrium with the many tomes written in praise of classical art.

So Old Masters is both depressing and amusing. And it will not escape your attention that, for all his bile, Reger cannot give up on art. And if he can’t, what hope for the rest of us?

 I’m not taking commission for this, but you can buy the book on Amazon here. Better still go to a bookshop!

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