Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Confusion of Personal Art

Expat Year 3, a phrase we never would have predicted in the summer of 2010 when we fled unemployment for what we expected to be only a year-long adventure in economic survival.   The first two years, as displaced Americans who didn’t speak German or know Viennese culture and had zero preparation for a hurried move across the ocean, we were immersed in a strange brew of excitement and trepidation; expectation, discovery, thrills, and disillusionment marked the months. This was perhaps especially true for me as Jim immediately began his work at an English-speaking institute and Keir was thrown sink or swim style into the currents of the American International School.  Me, the trailing spouse?  I was utterly isolated.

For two years, I’ve walked the streets of Vienna (given that prostitution is legal here, let me rephrase that). For two years, I’ve explored Vienna, often by myself.  I’ve put thousands of kilometers on these calloused, bunioned feet. I’ve looked up and looked out and met people and embarrassed myself and found delights in small corners and awe in the beauty to be found in architecture and statuary, an elegance  made more intriguing by its contrast with the haze of ugly history that still hangs in the Vienna air.

Year 2, I met more and more people, but people with whom I could speak English, people to whom I could finally express myself truly and without misunderstanding or hesitation.  Unlike a character in Malamud’s “The German Refugee” my tongue no longer “hung useless.” I was a human being again, complicated and aggravating and articulate and silly.  I still walked, but in a different direction, still embarrassed myself, but cared less.

Figs in the Rain 
Now, it’s Year 3, and as Jim mentioned in the last blog, it feels different. It’s not just the new apartment that we love and feel so at home in (it’s a dark, rainy day and opening the windows above the turtles and watching the rain bounce on the apples and figs and plums in the abundant trees and leaning out, taking in the smells, was heaven).

It’s not just the reality of having friends, understanding the environment, not just being empty nesters. This year, the questions are not only about continuing to discover Vienna but also about exploring how this ongoing experience has changed us, not young people but older people, 59 and 62, an age at which some things seemed “set,” immutable.

For those who read our first blogs, you might remember my discovery that despite my basically non-materialistic attitude, that first year, I really missed my things. Art, my piano, piano music (few things are more intriguing to me than a sheet of music), gifts from my husband and the stories connected to those gifts.

Chase and Statue 
I missed my Grecian garden statue that crazy, extravagant Jim bought me more than 20 years ago. It weighs about 700 pounds (we can't find a proper picture, but the statue can be seen in the distance, just beyond our dog Chase) and Jim bought it after seeing me throw my arm around her shoulders and declare her my sister.

After he bought it, he needed to get the surprise home, so he stopped in at a Minneapolis gym and enlisted the help of overly confident weight lifters. No hernias that we know of, but those brutes finally dropped her in the grass, and let her roll; big, muscular guys, sweaty, achy and humbled, her expression unchanging, sweet but inscrutable. When we moved her to Virginia -- yes, in August in the horrible D.C. heat -- the movers swore because she broke one of their trolleys. They planted her nestled up against our new wall, and said I’d be better be happy because they damn well weren’t about to move her again. She’s still in Virginia, “holding down the fort,” as my dad would say.

The Clock
I missed my things and the history they represented. So, this year, before we went home we thought about bringing things back.  This is more difficult than you might imagine because our possessions are packed up and stored away in a variety of locations – closets in our home off-limits to our renters, in family attics, spread around in friends’ homes.  Sometimes I lie in bed and try to remember what was on which wall of our home, which figures stood where. And sometimes I can’t remember.

Ancient Chest
So, we grabbed what was handy -- a couple of photographs by Minnesota photographer Jim Brandenburg, famous for his photographs of wolves, that we bought in a cosy gallery in Luverne, Minnesota, on our drives to and from South Dakota; small artwork done by my artist son Reeve years ago; my favorite photograph of me and 9-month-old Keir. We brought them to Vienna, and although the glass broke in transit, and we haven’t replaced it yet, here they are.

And they don’t feel right. They seem awkward, out of place.

The art in this flat is levels above the art we lived with in the old place. I try not to criticize people’s choices of art in their homes. I remind myself that aesthetics are deeply personal, rooted in ineffable sources and emotions. The instinct to beautify, to personalize, that’s what’s important.
Classic Scene

The Depths of Winter
The art here includes some fine classical paintings, an ancient chest, an antique clock. For most of my life, I’ve tended more toward modern art and style; the intellectual stimulation contemporary art, music and furnishings often affords, the exasperation, the occasional transcendence move me. But now, I’m less dismissive of more classical works.

Now, I’m confused.

Prairie Grass
So, the color photograph of a Minnesota farm in the depths of winter, that looks like a black-and-white photo and represents a landscape once so familiar, is now leaning juxtaposed beneath a more classical scene. My eye flicks between them, and I no longer know which I prefer. 

Still Life 
And then the still life of flowers or the photo of prairie grasses? The small traditional portrait of a man I don’t know, or Reeve’s multi-media work of a man I don’t know? The painting of a woman that reveals nothing about her as wife or mother or the photograph of me as both?

 Hmmm.  I know I don’t have to choose, but some change is afoot and I can’t predict what will elicit a reaction from me in the months to come. We have so much of Vienna, and beyond that the neighboring cities and countries, still to explore and ruminate about and create lasting impressions of. The third year question seems to be: Who will we become, expats far from home, daily imbibing the sights, sounds, smells, attitudes, history of Vienna?  What will speak to us?

Other Man
Jim just reminded me that we already have a hint. The photo at the top of the blog is of a monotype titled, “The Road to Vienna,” done by friend and artist Tom Hipschen, who engraved most of the images on American money you see every day,  as well as many of the U.S. stamps you've admired over the years.  The monotype was his way of thanking us after he and his wife Patti stayed with us last year when they were at an engravers’ conference.  This piece seems “right” somehow, fitting our new environment, speaking to our more recent history.

Jim has always maintained that when you feel too comfortable, it’s time to move on.  Given my perplexity about my things and our continuing fascination with Vienna, that time won’t come too soon. Who knows where we’ll be or who we’ll be at the end of Year 3.
Mom, 1993

Mom (?) circa 1843