In Ringberg

In Ringberg

Ringberg castle — do you know it? “Schloss Ringberg” to those who speak German. A castle in the forests of Bavaria. I’ve just spent five days there, from the Sunday before last, to Friday morning. An easy journey to make, a one hour flight from Paris CDG to Munich, then a one-hour bus journey. Heading south, to the mountains. The alps. Forests and trees. A flat level plain, then suddenly steep hills, mountains. The castle gate, the heavy wooden door: we had arrived. I say we: I was there for a meeting, there were perhaps forty of us lodged in the castle for the week. A strange and incomplete place. Incomplete seems to be the best word I can think of to describe it. Of course, now, it is completed, but not to the original design. Not what the makers had intended. The architect and the archduke, hopelessly separate from each other who could only be together whilst they worked on this project which would never be finished.

Over the course of the five days I was there, I filled in the details of the construction of the castle, how it got to be the way it was. My understanding deepened. But I was surprised, constantly, by at least one or two ghosts peering over my shoulder, by figures appearing two steps ahead of me, by a long look that I wasn’t expecting in place where there was no one. Crossing the castle garden at midnight, past the swimming pool empty of water for decades, I would be be surprised by a sudden shadow in the bushes — then I would realise, again, for the tenth time, that it was a nothing more than a silent static statute which had unnerved me. Opening the door of the tower where I was sleeping I would be greeted by the architect, peering back at me from his canvas, one of the many self portraits he had painted which were hung throughout the castle.

The paintings, yes, I knew I would have to talk about the paintings. An early period, a late period. The early period carries heavy echoes of all that happened here in Paris, that play of light and colour seen for the first time in canvases at the start of the century. After that, it is man and nature, together. Heavy-handed obtuse attempts to convey the elemental nature of the world, spring, virility, the seasons, life. A great theme. But in this man’s hands it becomes a figure in lederhosen happily pole-vaulting over a half-sleeping cow. Or a man in the forest with dog at his heel, surrounded by abundant forest life, hands clasped in prayer, radiant light streaming from him to the animals around him.

On the castle’s main staircase hangs the central work, the dead heart of the castle. An enormous tableau which had been hidden for years, but now is visible to all. Two men stand side by side on hilltop. They are looking towards their castle, which either has not yet been built or is finished, completed. It is the archduke and his architect. Behind them far below are the blue waters of the Tergensee, the tiny houses of the village. A dog sits attentively at the Archduke’s feet. There is a tense air in the space between the two figures. An attraction, but too many lines to be completed, paths to be found which do not exist. In the painting, the colours, shades, gradation of light and dark are horribly off, terribly wrong, incorrect. It is enough, really, indicate that these figures exist, and not to make them real.

The Archduke would never live in his castle, preferring the luxury of a hotel in Munich; and the architect would die alone there, in 1947, the depths of winter I suppose, his project unfinished. Do I really need a castle like this, the Archduke asked himself at the end, a man like myself, with no family, no retinue? A deal is made, eventually, the castle is given to the Max Planck society, and money is found for its upkeep, refurbishement. Scholars now arrive from remote corners of the globe to discuss pressing issues concerning the distant Universe. Or any field of human endeavour. But when I think of that place now I think of that canvas hanging over the castle’s staircase, of these two figures, the Archduke and his architect. Lines not drawn to their point of completion.

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