Monday, December 18, 2006

Identical Gifts

The weekend is over. My parents' entire house is spotless from top to bottom, the Christmas decorations are in place, and my mother's Christmas baking is completed (at least for now--she will do more baking on Thursday, and she will do more baking throughout the holidays once my brothers arrive on Friday).

There is no more work to be done until Thursday. On Thursday, after work, Joshua and I will get our things together and go over to my parents' house and remain there until January 2. On Thursday night, Josh and I will give everything at my parents' house a quick vacuuming, which will be quite easy--most of the house is now sealed off from the dog, and he can only shed hair in the kitchen, in the downstairs family room, in my parents' upstairs bedroom, and in the stairwells and hallways. And the dog does not mind not having the run of the house, either, because my parents generally use only those three rooms anyway, unless they are having guests over or unless their sons are home.

Tonight we placed the Christmas gifts under the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is in the living room, and the living room HAS to be sealed off from the dog--otherwise, he will rip the wrapping paper from the gifts and then chew on anything that happens to look interesting to him.

Of course, there are gifts for him, too, under the tree: toys and bones and snacks and such that he will enjoy. He will open his own gifts on Christmas morning, just like every other member of the family. We will place the gifts before him--one at a time, of course--and he will tear the paper off with his teeth and with his paws and he will have a wonderful time. We do not put any ribbons on his gifts, so that they are easy for him to open.

When we were placing the gifts under the tree tonight, I recognized the gift my mother got for me because of the size and shape of the package. The package contained an oddly-shaped book--a large art book, obviously--of exactly the same dimensions as the large art book I got for her.

I did not say anything, but a few moments later my mother noticed a gift of similar size and shape under the tree, and she picked it up and she saw that it was for her, from me. She looked at me and I could tell, instantly, that she realized what I had just realized.

Very quietly, she asked me "Do you want me to send it back?"

I told her "No, of course not", and I told her that I would be the one to send HER gift back and that I would get her something else.

What was the identical gift? Werner Hofmann's "Caspar David Friedrich", the 2001 volume on Friedrich and his work by the former director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, a monograph which includes almost 200 reproductions of Friedrich's paintings and drawings, 150 in full color. Both of us had ordered it online for each other, as it turns out.

After I told my mother that I would return my copy and get her something else, she said "Then I'm going to get you something else, too. We'll make this one the family copy." And she removed the wrapping paper of her gift to me, and all four of us sat down in the living room, and looked through the book, and examined the full-color plates, noting the many Friedrich paintings we had seen in Hamburg.

While we were in Hamburg, we had visited the Kunsthalle four times, and on three of those visits we had viewed the special Caspar David Friedrich exhibition.

The exhibition was a magnificent one, one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen, and the only unpleasant aspect of the exhibition was that it was absolutely mobbed with exhibition viewers. The first time we visited the exhibition, we were dumbfounded how crowded it was. On our second visit, it was almost as crowded as our first visit. Finally, for our third visit, we decided that we would visit the exhibition on a very, very late Thursday afternoon--Thursday is the Kunsthalle's late night--and hope to view the exhibition in a less crowded environment, after the day crowds had thinned out but before the night crowds arrived. This strategem worked, and worked well, because on our third visit we were able to see these magnificent works without a lot of jostling and without the press of innumerable bodies.

Friedrich is the greatest German painter after Albrecht Durer and Adam Elsheimer. His paintings are stunning--they are both realistic and yet idealized, highly detailed and yet highly abstract, tributes to the glories (and dangers) of nature but also very spiritual and very religious in nature. His use of color is extraordinarily subtle, and the way he captures light is highly original and endlessly fascinating. He was a master at evoking moods in his landscapes as well as in his marine paintings and in his interiors. There is an obsessive quality about his paintings, the same obsessive quality that is apparent in the paintings of Durer and Elsheimer, too. It is too bad that there are only a handful of his paintings in the U.S.

All five of us had enjoyed the Friedrich exhibition immensely--it, alone, had made a transatlantic trip worthwhile--and I suppose it was only natural that both my mother and I would seek out books about Friedrich as prospective gifts (even though we HAD bought the catalog to the Hamburg exhibition while we were there).

The Hamburg Kunsthalle is a great museum. Not only did we view the special exhibition about Friedrich, but we also viewed the museum's permanent collection. The North German medieval altarpieces were quite amazing, unique in all the world, and the museum's holdings of German art from roughly 1800 to 1930 were near-spectacular and near-comprehensive. There were innumerable German painters of the very highest quality, virtually unknown here in the U.S., throughout the romantic and realist and impressionist and early modern periods. They put American artists in those comparable periods to shame. It is regrettable that so little of this work is known or available here in the United States. Americans tend to forget what a highly-developed culture Germany had prior to World War I, and that this culture extended beyond science and music and literature and theater and philosophy to the visual arts. German painting, from 1800 to World War I, lies on an altogether higher plane than British or American painting from the same period.

We visited the Kunsthalle's permanent collection on each of our four visits to the museum. Unlike the Friedrich special exhibition, the Kunsthalle's permanent collection was sparsely visited while we were there. Many times, we were the only visitors in a particular room.

The Kunsthalle occupies three different buildings. The Kunsthalle's 1869 building and its 1919 building were magnificent structures, inside and out. The third Kunsthalle building, the 1997 building, looks like bad Mies Van Der Rohe, thirty years or more out of date by the time of its design. Still, the entire complex is a wonderful place in which to get lost for hours at a time.

We ate lunch there during three of our visits to the Kunsthalle, and we ate dinner there on one visit. The Kunsthalle has a large cafe looking out upon the Alster lake, and it also has a restaurant grandly situated in one of the elegant columned halls of the original building. We ate at the cafe twice and at the restaurant twice, and we loved them both.

However, truly, nothing compares to my mother's cooking, and she has outdone herself in preparation for the next two weeks. On Friday afternoon, after work, Josh and my mother will head for the airport from home in one car, and my father and I will head for the airport from downtown Minneapolis in another car, and we will pick up my brothers and my sister-in-law and my nephew and bring them home. We will have a very, very special dinner Friday night, and get our holidays under way. I cannot wait.

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