Free Souls, Chapter 43

Sandy marked those two months as the true beginning of her adulthood. Her mother, she came to realize, wasn’t just the woman who had given her birth and raised her. She was also a fellow female human being, with strong interests and opinions beyond anything Sandy had imagined before.

The discovery was mutual. Over the weeks, in cathedrals and castles, broad boulevards and winding village streets, country gardens and urban squares, they talked and confided as they had never done before. But like the Iron Curtain that stretched across the Continent and prevented travellers from the West from going to regions they might have explored, Sandy had erected an impenetrable barrier around her intimate experience with the men in her life the past four years.

Especially she would not reveal how far Werner had gotten with her, and the part music had played in it.   She was coping with it, of course she was, but if her mother knew, wouldn’t it ruin those pieces for her?  Maintaining silence was best.

She had a close call in Vienna.  They were sitting in the outdoor café on the lower terrace at the Belvedere Palace, discussing the works of art they had seen in that morning.

“Mom,” Sandy said, “I didn’t know the Austrian National Gallery was here before the Tourist Bureau recommended it yesterday!”

“The paintings are spectacular, aren’t they?” Mrs. Beichten agreed.

“I know! I didn’t realize so many of the famous Secession artists could be seen here.”

No one had needed to tell them that a grand tour of Europe would be incomplete without a visit to Vienna, but Sandy had had a particular reason to go there: She wanted to see the art and architecture of the turn-of-the-century Secession group and its production enterprise the Wiener Werkstätte. Architects such as Olbrich, Hoffmann, and Otto Wagner and the artists associated with them had contributed materially to the style that had wrested European design out of the clutches of the 19th century academicians and paved the way for Modernism.

Mrs. Beichten picked up the guidebook she purchased earlier. “I like those Klimt paintings very much. It says here that one of his greatest works hasn’t been seen in public since 1903.”

“Which one is that?” Sandy asked, finding it amusing that her mother would have come up with an art-related fact before she did.

“It’s called The Beethoven Frieze. Apparently it was part of a grand exhibition of a new statue of Beethoven that was shown in the Secession Building back in 1902. It sounds fascinating.”

“Yes, der Goldener Kohl,” said Sandy. She’d heard the name “Beethoven” but chose not to respond to it. “We passed it this morning on the way to the S-Bahn stop. It has that copper dome of laurel leaves, and people call it ‘the Golden Cabbage’ for fun.’”

“Well, it says here that just three years ago the Austrian government acquired the frieze from the private owner who bought it after the exhibition was over, and since then it’s been someplace or other being restored.”

“I remember it now. We saw some old black and white slides in Modern Architecture History.” The images hadn’t been very clear, and she tried to recall what she knew about the frieze. “Professor Louis called it Klimt’s greatest masterpiece.”

“Too bad the restoration isn’t done yet,” said Mrs. Beichten, taking a bite of her Kaiser roll. “I’d really like to see it.”

“So would I. We’ll just have to schedule another trip when they’re finished.”

As they talked and ate, Sandy had noted but paid little attention to a couple sitting the next table over. But as she said this, the young man, who by his style of dress she took to be Austrian, approached their table.

“Pardon me, ladies,” he said in a slight Germanic accent.. “But I could not help overhearing. You were regretting that der Beethovenfries could not be seen. You have a special interest in the subject?”

“My daughter just graduated with her degree in Architecture,” said Mrs. Beichten, unable to keep from showing her off a little.

“Wunderbar!” said the young man. “My wife here– ” He gestured towards the young woman at his table, who got up and joined him– “Renate, she is also an architect.”

“Are you!” Sandy said. It was exciting to meet other women in Architecture, especially abroad.

“Ja,” said the other girl, modestly. “Ich habe since three years worked for Coop-Himmelb(l)au.”

“Oh, yes!” Sandy exclaimed. “We’ve definitely heard of them in America. One of my design professors was always talking about their work.”

“Your family must be very proud of you,” said Mrs. Beichten.

Renate smiled.

“And I,” resumed the young man, “I am a conservator.”

Into Sandy’s mind’s eye flashed the vague image of a forest ranger. She must have looked confused, for the young man said, “I work in art restoration. Our workshop is just over there.” He pointed in a vague southeasterly direction, though nothing could be seen except the Baroque façade of the Schloss.

“He means he works at der Bundesdenkmalamt,” laughed Renate. “Our Federal Office for the Care of Monuments. The workshops for the preservation of art are there, at the Arsenal.”

“Oh?” said Sandy’s mother, clearly scenting a possibility.

“O ja,” said the young man. “When I heard you discussing der Beethovenfries with such enthusiasm, I began to think to myself, perhaps I can do these American ladies a favor. I like Americans,” he said incidentally. “I was myself a foreign exchange student in one of your high schools, in Cleveland, Ohio. I enjoyed myself very well.”

“Oh, that explains why your English is so good,” said Mrs. Beichten.

“He talks about Cleveland all the time,” said his wife.

“O ja,” he said, laughing. “I have a little time this afternoon, and if you ladies are free, perhaps I can show you what will interest you very much.”

“You don’t mean that you yourself are . . . ?” asked Sandy.

“Yes, I am on the project team to restore der Beethovenfries. I apologize, we are not very far along, the funding does not come all at once, you understand. But we have the panels, and I believe I can get permission.”

“Are you sure?” said Mrs. Beichten, hopefully.

“Natürlich,” he replied. “We do not abuse the privilege, of course, but we may have visitors.”

For some reason Sandy hardly understood, a reluctance to go stole over her. She had remembered something else she knew about the work. “How far is it?” she asked, in a tone that hinted that might be a factor.

“Oh, only about a kilometer and a half,” said the young man.

About a mile. No, that wasn’t too far. Her mother would be insulted at the implication it was. “Don’t be silly,” she said to herself. “This is the chance of a lifetime. Don’t lose it being emotional.”

In what she hoped was a dispassionate tone she said, “My Architecture History professor said Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze was inspired by the Ninth Symphony. This is true?”

“Yes, indeed. It is his vision of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, his ‘Freude, Schöner Götterfunken.’  It depicts the noble soul’s quest for Joy.”

So she was right. “Sandy, this isn’t about Werner,” she reminded herself. “It’s about great art. You can do this.” Out loud she said, “My mother and I would be honored to see it, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Oh, no trouble at all! I am going back to work now anyway; you must come with me. Renate and I like to meet for lunch sometimes here in der Schlossgarten, and we are very pleased to have made your acquaintance.”

Renate must have thought there was something lacking in the acquaintance, for she said, “Fritz, you have forgotten. You did not make the introductions.”

“Ach! You are right. Ladies, may I present myself. I am Fritz Thalberg.” He sketched a bow that fell somewhere between courtliness and irony. “And you have met my wife Renate.”

“Ich freue mich, Sie kennenzulernen,” said Sandy, unable to resist.

“O! Sie sprechen das Deutsch!” Fritz exclaimed. “You have spent time over here before?”

“Nein,” she replied. “Ich hatte– einen Freund– aus Deutschland.”

Her mother inadvertently saved her from getting in too deep. “Sandy. My German isn’t that good. Speak English.”

“Oh! I’m sorry, Mom.”

“We’re very happy to meet you,” Mrs. Beichten said to the pair. “I am Karen Beichten and this is my daughter Sandy Beichten.”

The introductions accomplished, there was a pause. Sandy broke it by observing, “But Herr Thalberg, do you have to get back to work right away? My mother and I,” she said, gesturing over the food on their table, “aren’t quite finished with lunch yet.”

“Ach, nein, that is no problem!” he said with an air that conveyed the essence of Gemütlichkeit. “I can make it up. I will drink my coffee and when you ladies are ready to go, we will go.”

“I am sorry to say I cannot remain,” said Renate, extracting her handbag out from under her chair. “My boss will be very upset if I am too late back. Sandy, you will find the boss architects, they are the slavedrivers!”

Both girls laughed, and after Fritz had kissed her auf Wiedersehen in an embrace that would have done credit to a Parisian couple, Frau Thalberg hurried off along the Lower Belvedere towards Prinz Eugen-Straße.

Not long after, Mrs. Beichten said, “Sandy, are you ready to go? I think you are? All right, Mr. Thalberg, lead the way and we’ll follow.”

They took the route through the palace with its lushly-frescoed Marmorsaal and out onto the Upper Belvedere. A gentle breeze ruffled the surface of the reflecting pool; it felt good in the July heat. As they began to skirt the water, Fritz commanded them, “Stop. Turn around, ladies. Look!”

They obeyed, and spread out below them, beyond the parterres of the Unteres Belvedere, was the old city of Vienna, with the Stephensdom visible off to the north, its spire like a finger pointing the eye on upward to heaven.

“Oh!” said Sandy. “Wie schön!”

Fritz grinned. “They say the view has not changed in two hundred years. We have time for you to take a photo or two if you wish.”

They did wish. The view might not have changed, but the sunny skies might.

From the formality of the Oberes Belvedere their route took them across the Landstraßer Gürtel into the bosky green of the Schweizer Garten. Everything she saw– flowers, curious Swiss-style lodges, Modern sculpture– interested her so much that Sandy forgot her trepidation. She found herself looking forward to seeing the Beethoven Frieze, even harboring a creeping pride in having landed the privilege of viewing it in its unrestored state. Someday here she would be, back in Vienna, casually mentioning to her travel companions, “I saw this when it was still faded and crumbling, when I was here before.”

A few short minutes more brought them out of trees to a straight avenue. “The Arsenal,” said Fritz, pointing to the south.

When Renate had said the restoration workshops were in “ the Arsenal,” Sandy had envisioned a concrete Neo-Classical erection like the armory back in Wapatomekie. But confronting them was a four-story red and buff brick building, vaguely Romanesque in style, with crenellated turrets on the corners and a towering turretted fortress-like gatehouse in the center of its façade.

“I love it!” cried Sandy. “Who was the architect?”

“Theophil von Hansen,” replied their guide. “He was from Denmark, but died a citizen of Austria. He was the architect also of der Musikverein, in the Old Town. It is home to our symphony orchestra, but I do not know if there are any concerts in the summer.”

“That’s one drawback to coming to Europe this time of year,” commented Mrs. Beichten. “You do miss hearing some wonderful orchestras in their home halls.”

They crossed the street and approached the colossal round-arched gateway. One leaf of the high, heavily-ornamented doors was open, and they passed through into a groin-vaulted hall, open at the far end to a stone-flagged quadrangle with a corresponding through-way at its far side. Fritz spoke to a guard who sat in an office off the entry, then said to his guests, “All is well. I will take you up.”

On the way up the stairs to the workshops, Fritz commented, “You must not expect that Klimt has illustrated Schiller’s poem. The Frieze is his own conception.”

“I see,” said Sandy, relieved to hear this was so. She would be able to view this work dispassionately, with an artist’s eye. It would not rouse painful memories or useless emotions.

“You must not be disappointed,” he said. He seemed to think she and her mother would be.

“That’s quite all right,” Sandy assured him. “Isn’t it, Mom?”

“Oh, yes, certainly. Every artist has the right to follow his own ideas. We’re both aware of that.”

The restoration workshops occupied a large, well-lit, and cluttered space on the top floor of the building. Statues, wood carvings, and architectural fragments stood or lay here and there throughout the room, in various stages of dilapidation or repair.

“I take it you have a freight elevator to get these artifacts up and down,” said Mrs. Beichten, a little out of breath from the climb. “I’d hate to think of people carrying them up those stairs!”

“O ja, certainly we do,” he replied.

He spoke to a colleague who was working at one of the substantial wooden tables, piecing together the polychrome head of a saint. “Guten Tag, Herr Hohl. Ich habe hier zwei gnädige amerikanische Damen, wie gerne den Beethovenfries sehen würde.”

The other conservator, peering at his workpiece through magnifying goggles, merely grunted and did not look up from his bench. Fritz apparently took this for all the permission he needed, for he turned to Sandy and her mother and said, “Come this way.”

He took out a key and inserted it into the lock of a pair of doors set into an inner wall. Opening the door and flicking on the light, he beckoned the women through.

“The light is not so very good,” he said apologetically.

“That’s probably better, so the paintings don’t fade,” Sandy said.

“Ja, this is true. Though we keep them covered, as you see.”

Around the perimeter of the store room stood what appeared to be slabs of some kind, each about seven feet high and shrouded in a sheet of canvas.

“It is well,” said Fritz, “that I know where they are in order.”

He pulled a stool over to one slab, climbed up, and carefully removed the canvas cover. In the light from the expiring fluorescent bulb, Sandy saw a mostly-blank surface of cracked gray plaster. At its top, a little above her head, the figures of women, their hair dark or gold, reclined or rather floated to the right, their white draperies trailing out behind them.

“They represent the genius– the genii– of humanity, yearning for happiness,” he said. “In German we say ‘die Sehnsucht nach Glück.’ You see their eyes are closed. They do not know how to attain it; they only know it must be.”

She took in the faces of the floating women. She wondered if her face had looked like that to Werner, that fatal night two months ago. “Very effective,” is what she said.

“Look at the ornamentation in the hair of that one!” exclaimed her mother. “Is that genuine gold?”

“Yes, gold leaf.” He moved the stool and unveiled the next. More genii.

“I really like the line of their robes,” Sandy commented. “It does so much to create that sense of forward motion.” A very cerebral assessment, and purposeful: the responses of the heart must be suppressed.

“But you will see that the quest for happiness does not go smoothly,” said Fritz, uncovering a third slab. “For humanity, there is always suffering.”

On the left hand side of the panel they could see three pale figures in profile, all nude: a young girl, hands wistfully clasped, sad, wondering perhaps if her dreams could ever be fulfilled; and an adult pair, thin, emaciated, on their knees, heads bowed, with imploring arms outstretched.

“This is ‘Die Leiden der schwachen Menschheit,’ their docent said, “‘The Suffering of Weak Mankind.’ They are pleading to the knight–” he pointed to a stalwart figure to the right of the pathetic trio– “to help them.”

“It doesn’t appear that he will,” said Sandy’s mother. “He seems to be ignoring them.”

And indeed, the knight in his shining golden armor (flakes of it missing here and there in the fresco’s unrestored state) had his back turned to the frail human creatures and his face was not what one could call sympathetic or soft.

“No, Frau Beichten,” Fritz said. “You see, he has taken up their quest and set his face forward. Their search for happiness has become his. He is der wohlgerüstete Starke, the Well-Armed Strong, and he is responsible to fight for the happiness of all humanity, and for his own.”

A savior figure? Sandy knew Who the Savior of humanity truly was, and wasn’t she proficient at turning her own back on Him and trying to fight her battles on her own! It was painful to face.

Fritz was still speaking. “You see above him the female figures. They are Compassion and Ambition. Both must go with him, for him to achieve success.”

Sandy shook off the urge to see in the knight’s thick brown locks a similarity to the long hair of her musician. “Not mine anymore,” she quelled it. “It’s how it has to be.”

Instead she studied the golden patterns in the armor and in the robes of Compassion and Ambition. “This style was really radical for the time, especially compared to the work of the Artists’ Association, wasn’t it?”

“O ja,” said Fritz. “For some people, it is still radical today.”

He moved over to the next panel. More genii, or perhaps the same ones, flowing ever onward, drawn on by the yearning for happiness.

“Now you will see just how radical Herr Gustav Klimt was.”

Two very large slabs, turgid with color, depicting in symbol every kind of evil and ill humanity is subject to. Sickness, Madness, and Death. Red-haired Lasciviousness, blonde, empty-headed Wantonness, and obese Intemperance hideous in her lavish blue and gold skirt. Gnawing Sorrow as an starved woman, eaten out from the inside. These, and the three Gorgons, too, all under the serpent-dripping wings of the apelike Typhoeus, the personification of Evil.

“Is that how Jesus sees my sin?” she wondered. “Or at least, my sin when I don’t bring it to Him to be forgiven?”

A line of thought no safer than memories of stillborn love. She felt as if someone were inflating a balloon in her gut, and if she didn’t stop it, in time it– and she– would explode.  This art was beginning to play on her emotions.  To allow that in any way would surely plunge her into danger.  She must not feel these paintings; her mind must appreciate them only.

“These are die feindlichen Gewalten, the Hostile Forces,” said Fritz. “The strong knight must defeat them to win happiness for mankind. And he must not give in to them for himself.”

O Lord, help her. The idea of the knight giving in to them. Isn’t that what she had done? She felt herself beginning to tremble, and without thinking said, “I’m sorry!”

“Those women certainly make me shudder,” said Mrs. Beichten, pointing particularly to the face of Death.

“Ja,” said the young conservator, “but in Klimt’s time many said he was adding to the ugliness in the world by painting such things.”

“It is important to face things as they are,” Sandy replied, her tone sober.

“Ja, there is much evil in the world. We know that well here in Wien.”

He pointed to the far right top of the second panel. “But you see that die Sehnsucht nach Glück, the longing for happiness, is not overcome by these great evils. The Genii emerge.” He moved the stool again, and disclosed another slab. “See, here they fly onward on their quest.”

“That’s good to know that Klimt thought so,” said Mrs. Beichten. “I like the way he shows the human spirit is not defeated after all.”

On to the next.  Painted in a style that evoked the ornamentation on ancient Greek jars, it showed a young, black-haired woman in a flowing golden-orange gown playing the lyre. She seemed utterly focussed on her music, as if it was all that mattered in the world and as if the music, in turn, made the world matter.

“Oh, how lovely!” Mrs. Beichten reacted.

“This is Poetry,” said Fritz. “By this Klimt meant all the arts. This panel is called ‘Die Sehnsucht nach Glück findet Stillung in der Poesie.”

The balloon in her gut grew larger and seemed to crowd out her lungs.  “Oh!” Sandy exclaimed, in spite of herself. “Do you think so?”

Their guide gave her a strange look, almost as if he thought she was contradicting him.

“No,” Sandy continued, all in a hurry, her voice shaking. “I– I don’t mean . . . ” But there was no way in present company to explain what she did mean. Could that deep longing for true happiness be appeased in the arts, in music? Or did they only feed the yearning and make it worse?

Fritz must have made up his mind how to take her question, for he said cheerfully, “It is only the happiness of this world that music and poetry and the other arts can give us. It is too bad, but it is true. True joy lies elsewhere.”

Leaving her mother contemplating the figure of Poesie, Fritz Thalberg and Sandy went a little way down the room to the last panel. This one was very wide, compared with the others, and it took longer to unveil.

“This panel,” said Fritz, “is Klimt’s vision of ultimate fulfillment. You might call it Heaven. At least, it is the realm of the Ideal, and where can that be found but with God?”

Sandy flashed him a look. Was he, perhaps, a Christian?

He went on. “These women,” he said, pointing to the five upright nudes they could now see, “some say they represent the Arts, and to be happy one must serve his Art with purity and devotion.”

A flood of conflicting emotions washed through her. Her art was about the only thing she had not betrayed, but had the devotion she had given it been pure?

“Others,” Fritz continued, “say they are the Genii from the previous panels, now come to rest because they have found the place of happiness and joy. That is the interpretation I like.”

“What did Klimt say about it?” asked Sandy, not wanting to engage with that soul-abrading word “joy.” She would be very detached and intellectual.  She realized her right fist was clenched.  Deliberately, she released it.

“I cannot tell you. We conservators are not always the best art historians, however much we love these old artifacts.”

“Perhaps he would say the art should speak for itself.”

“Perhaps. Very likely. We do know what we see here up here. See, the topmost three women are making the gesture to the right. What do they point to? Let us see!”

With that he moved the stool for the last time and slowly, carefully, pulled away the rest of the canvas shroud. There before her was a ranked choir of angels or blessed spirits, depicted as red-golden-robed women with lush heads of brown hair, their delicate hands and ecstatic faces uplifted in a song of praise.

But they were not what fatally drew her attention.

Fritz was saying, “This one panel, it does have the title from Schiller and the Ninth. This is the panel of Joy. It is called ‘Freude, Schöner Götterfunken–Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt’!”

O God, be with her! So Werner was not alone. He didn’t make it up out of his own head, for his own convenience. Others believed it, too, for decades, at least. “Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt”– !

“O Gott!” she cried.

For before her, superimposed on the figures of the celestial choir, stood the image of a nude man and woman, locked eternally in connubial embrace– the muscles of his light brown naked back and loins rendered freely as if they were waves of water flowing down and through him– behind him, all but covered by him, the pale figure of the woman, her white arms twined around his shoulders in an unbreakable clasp– covered by him, all but overwhelmed by him, but standing still, so still, as if she wanted nothing more than to be drowned forever in his overwhelming love– this kiss, this kiss for all the world– at their feet the waters (the River of Life?), over their heads the sun and moon and all the stars in their courses (“wie seine Sonnen fliegen . . . ”)– “der ganzen Welt”– and around them all, a kind of golden enclosure or mandala, as if to say “This one Kiss, it is the Cosmos. This is Life. This is Love. This is true Joy. This is All That Is.”

“O Gott!” she cried again, pressing her knuckles to her teeth, hurting them so the greater pain would not spill over and drown them all.

Her mother had already rushed to her side. “Sandy, what is it?”

Sandy could only shake her head and look away.

Fritz said, “Yes, it is a pity it is in such bad shape. That is what we said when it first arrived at our workshops.”

Did he really interpret her cry that way, or did this kind stranger feel her distress and was trying to save her feelings? He couldn’t possibly know what lay behind them, and clearly, he didn’t intend to probe.

“It is impressive,” Mrs. Beichten said. “What is this one called?”

“In English, ‘Joy, the Glorious Spark of God– This Kiss for All the World.’”

“Hmm,” she said while her daughter kept silence, “I don’t think I’ve ever visualized that part of The Choral Symphony that way. I would have thought the love being talked about was more general.”

“Yes, perhaps,” Fritz responded. “But Klimt and so many others in his time believed that each person, man and woman, carried the whole world within himself. Many believe that now.  They say to love one other person truly with the whole self is to show the love to the whole world. So it is as you see.”

“Oh, I get you.”

At his words the turmoil in Sandy’s heart grew. Werner’s philosophy in practically the same words, the same answering torrent of shock and anger, the same love rising like a zombie from its grave demanding to be reborn!

“Th– Vielen Dank, Herr Thalberg, I do appreciate seeing– Mom, I have to use the restroom– please, excuse me!”

“Do you need me to come with you?” said her mother, worried.

“No, no, it’s all right, I just need– see you in a minute– ”

She made her way to the door as fast as the cluttered state of the room would allow. Behind her she heard Fritz’s reassuring voice, saying, “Your daughter is very sensitive to great art. I had wondered, but now I know. There are not many such. It is a gift.”

“A curse!” thought Sandy, and fled.

In a few minutes she recovered herself and emerged from the W.C. to thank Fritz Thalberg properly. She let him and her mother think what they might think. She herself tried not to think.

She and her mother did not discuss her outburst afterwards. The aesthetics of the Frieze, its overall concept, these they talked over– everything but those cries of “O Gott!” In spite of their growing closeness, the secret that gave rise to that was one thing she did not want her to know.

A very close call.


by Catrin Lewis, 1983; revised 2014.  All rights reserved

This entry was posted in experimental, Fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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