Schwäbisch Hall, August 2009, by Susie Mallett
The steps of St. Michael's church, with artists
The old Löwen Brewery buildings
"Afternoon tea with David "
A day off, from what? Perhaps from trying my hardest not to be distracted from my work by every other lovely detail of life.
Today I have taken a day out to do just that, to be distracted.
The whole day is for me
During the week I went to the railway station and bought myself a ticket for the Regionalbahn to Schwäbisch Hall. This town lies westwards from Nürnberg in the direction of Stuttgart, about ninety minutes by Bummelzug, a train that stops anywhere and everywhere,. I had never been there before, and I only recently even heard the name.
The train went from the state of Bavaria to Baden Württemberg, passing on the way through Stein, a part of Nürnberg where the Faber-Castell pencils are made, Roßtal, Wicklesgreuth, Dombuhl, Ansbach, Crailsheim, Ekertshausen, Ilshofen to Schwäbish Hessental, where I changed trains for a five-minute hop to Schwäbisch Hall.
It was at this last stop that I stepped into Fairyland. Not immediately though, as the railway station had that feeling of neglect which one sees and feels in many small towns in Germany.
Weeds growing up between the disused tracks and cracks in the platform, derelict buildings and no ticket office any more, just a machine and an information post with a loudspeaker.
On leaving the train I had to take a walk of a couple of hundred yards, following the sign at the end of the platform that pointed in the direction of the town centre. I turned a corner at the end of a high hedge and there, through the windows of a modern glass tower construction containing a lift and a stairwell, I got my first glimpse across the very deep limestone valley of the medieval town.
I could not believe my eyes. I had not been expecting such beauty. The red-tiled roof tops on the many-windowed crooked houses were framed by a backdrop of lush, green woodlands. Absolutely gorgeous.
It had taken me twenty years living in Germany to cross the border from Bavaria into Baden-Württenberg, and discover this idyll, this magical town.
Not only a place of beauty, but a centre for the arts too, with its arts festival, a summer arts academy, many museums and wonderful art galleries showing both modern art and that of the old masters. I wonder how I missed this town for so long.
Until today there were probably only three places that I have visited on my journeys around the world that have literally taken my breath away. Places that on first sight have caused me to open my eyes wide in astonishment and left me for just a moment speechless, just as I was today.
These three delightful spots are Walberswick in Suffolk (I visit it often and it always has the same effect), Visby in Sweden, and the Széchenyi Bridge at night in Budapest (this I also see often and it never looses its ability to amaze me). Now, added to this short lis,t is Schwäbisch Hall. It really was a breathtaking first glimpse, and there were many more such during the day.
A thank you
Who do I have to thank for this new discovery? None other than Gillian Maguire.
I have taken this magical mystery tour all because several months ago Gill read somewhere or other, during her Internet searches perhaps, that David Hockney, by far my favourite living British artist, was exhibiting here in Schwäbisch Hall at the Würth Kunsthalle.
"Nur natur” ("Only Nature"), is the first full exhibition of Hockney’s most recent works. These are landscapes, huge landscapes, painted en plein-air just like the impressionists did. Also exhibited are his numerous mouth-watering leather-bound watercolour sketchbooks, and charcoal and pencil sketches on paper, all the planning stages for the big oil paintings.
Breakfast time with the artists
As I write this first instalment of my first impression in Fairyland I am sitting on the high, steep steps in front of St. Michael’s church (built in 1150), looking out over the Market Place. It is swarming with people, like bees round a honey-pot, purchasing fresh products with amazing colours and smells. There are fruits and veggies, breads and cheeses, honeys, wines and fish, and of course sausages. I am lucky I have picked Market Day for my visit, as it gives a certain ambience to the square that I am sure would feel quite different when it is empty. It also makes choosing breakfast far more exciting than having it brought to me in a café!
I am perched on the steps amongst a group from the “Wednesday-morning art group”. Their teachers are not doing a very good job at inspiring them to see what they are looking at. Not really succeeding in helping them to decide which bits of what they see would capture the atmosphere and the soul of the place, and how this all could be put down on paper.
It is hard for me to listen, I want to inspire them with my own enthusiasm and my enthrallment in this amazing medieval town. Motivate them to paint the life going on down there, instead of splodging muddy colours about on very expensive paper.
Oh well, they seem to be happy and content enough, all except the one who packed up and went home saying just how unmotivated she was.
I have the day off, so I will keep quiet and enjoy the view, enjoy having forgotten to put my own paints in my bag, enjoy making my memories without paint.
As they paint I sit on the stone steps with my breakfast of fresh raspberries and a Breze, bought at the market below. I look down on the shoppers and the beautiful buildings. I peer through the tiny stepped passages between them, leading to the secret magical courtyards and gardens that I walked through on my way up here.
I paint the picture of the buildings, the streets and the raspberries in my head, with a reminder of the raspberries' many different colours staining my fingers and white shirt. I remember the different tastes of the darkest ones and the lightest ones, and I leave the mouldy ones in their punnet.
Was that all the art for today, as I had left my paint-box and brushes at home?
Now it is time for a walk through the streets, soaking up more of the magical atmosphere, time to meander my way like the river does below, in the direction of the art gallery and find the real art of the day.
A bit about the place from my guide book
Right at the end of the day, in my last minutes at the art gallery, I found a book about Schwäbisch Hall and its surrounding area. I am so glad that I did not have this to browse through earlier. I think that it would have spoilt the lovely surprise.
Only a couple of the streets, or rather alleyways, have their original medieval buildings, fires and wars having taken their toll. It has all been beautifully rebuilt, with extras, like the huge steep steps that I have been sitting on, built in 1507, added over the years. The most recent modern additions in the town are often glass structures combined with limestone, which reflect the old stone building materials and allow for breath-taking vistas across the deep-cut valley floor where the Kocher River meanders its way through parkland and gardens before eventually joining the Neckar.
The name Hall probably comes from the word which means “drying by heating”. This could refer to the method used to produce salt from the salty ground water of the area. The Celts were distilling salt here as early as the 5th century.
One of the towers and bridges, Sulferturm and Sulfersteg are positioned at the ford that was the crossing point on the river used to take the salt to market in the larger cities.
Close to this point on the flood plains beside the river is a mini Shakespearian Globe Theatre, built in 2000 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the arts festival. I couldn’t believe my eyes when first I saw it, I thought I was in London (although actually it actually looks more in place here than squashed between the buildings on the banks of the Thames.
In the twelfth century the Heller was minted here. These silver coins were produced in huge quantities and were the first currency to be accepted throughout all the states of Germany, perhaps the forerunner of the Euro! The salt and the minting of money saw the rise of the town, but in the 1800s many people left the region, often emigrating to America when the town could not keep abreast with the industrial revolution. It just didn’t take off here because of lack of road and rail communications.
Enough of the guide-book history of this gorgeous place and back into its winding alley-ways, past cafes and museums and back across the river on the only bridge in the centre that takes motorised traffic. In the middle of this bridge, built into the wall is a 'cabinet'. Inside the cabinet were marionettes. An elderly couple singing children’s songs, but with a difference. Alternative, quite risque lyrics replaced the normal ones and the children in front of me, watching and listening intently with their Mums, were in fits of laughter as Alle Meine Ente didn’t quite sound like they were used to!
On the other side of the bridge I was very tempted to explore the wine-and-literature shop but I kept my best foot forward in the direction of the Kunsthalle (art gallery) and David H, as time was getting on.
The Kunsthalle is not far from the railway station, about a five-minute walk, so I had nearly three hours before the train that I had planned to catch left. I decided not to go for the last one just in case I missed it or it was delayed.
I could smell it before I saw it
I meandered a bit more up and down the valley side keeping the big chimney of the old Löwen brewery that is part of the art gallery in my sight. I also began to follow my nose.
I was suddenly taken back to 1975 and my first days at art school. The time when that heady, sickly smell of oils paints mixed with linseed oil took some getting used to. I could smell paint, real paints.
Between two rickety buildings was the narrowest passage way ever, and sitting at a table under an umbrella were two elderly ladies and their teacher mixing paints from powders and oils. Beyond them were severel more energetic summer academy artists, hammering away at huge lumps of stone. They were creating an array of abstract designs and realistic busts.
I had arrived, but I still put off the moment. I walked around the courtyard taking photographs of the chimney and the old red brick brewery that reminded me of the buildings on my model railway layout. I photographed the British and English flags flapping in the breeze, I looked out through the glass panels across the valley to the church where I had been sitting earlier.
Finally I went in
I left my bag in the locker then collected my tape recording in English, along with a plan of the gallery, but still I didn’t make a start. I wandered around the small shop, watched the people passing through and got a feel of the place. I knew that as always I was going to be absolutely thrilled by David Hockney's paintings. I had seen enough in newspapers and on the web-pages to know I could expect something spectacular. I was savouring the moment.
And the moment came as I left the wonderland of the medievil town of Schwäbisch Hall and stepped into the wonderland of Hockney’s trees and landscapes.
I was not enthralled this time. I was betwiched. I was smiling from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat and the cat-that-got-the-cream both rolled into one!
I walked round and round, back and forth from room to room, as if in a dream. Transported back to the green and pleasant land that I still call home by the paintings of an artist who has been my hero since before I started art school. Managing at one point to pull myself away from the paintings, I sat down to listen to Hockney’s soothing voice talking about this enormous project that took him years. He had spent many hours just sitting, watching the Yorkshire hills and dales, and many more hours painting them.
In a film he described making the biggest painting of them all, to fill the whole of a wall at the Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibition. He said that he chose precisely this size so that no other painting could be squashed on the wall beside his. It is a common cause for complaint at the Academy summer show that the paintings are jammed in like sardines in a tin.
When the show was over, after the summer of 2007, Hockney installed reproductions of this painting, one of which was on show here in the Kunsthalle, on to the other walls too and posed some amazing photos of the images and stategicly placed viewers. I imagine that one felt like being in the middle of a temple of trees.
I sat writing some notes for this blog as I watched David Hockney on film, thinking that the artists by the church would have been more inspired by hearing these few words by Hockney talking about the changing landscape about the speed at which he had to work to capture the colours and the form, and his joy of working outside even on cold winter days.
Drawn into another world
I wrote in my note book:
I am reluctant to move.
I am reluctant to leave. I am hypnotised not only by the paintings but by his voice, still speaking with such enthusiasm about his work, after so many years. As I watch and look and listen I realise why I have loved his painting from the very start, from the moment that I saw the first paintings of “Celia” and "Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy". Despite the flatness of the paint Hockneys paintings live. Whatever the subject, a dog asleep, his mother, the Grand Canyon, a swimming pool or a vase of flowers, they all live. Light flashes over his canvases and they come to life. He dares to use the colours that he sees, not just use the colours that he is expected to see. He daubs paint on the canvas in much the same way that Vincent van Gogh did in his later years. Hockney's brushstrokes are not so thick and the paint not quite so googey, but nevertheless they catch the light and the life of the moment so well.
I walked through this modern, white-walled gallery feeling like I was being drawn back into each painting as I passed it. I really was bewitched I couldn’t draw myself away. I was drawn again and again into paths between hundred-year-old beech trees. I was invited to walk once more along pathways lined with hawthorn hedging, with the may blossom in full bloom. I could smell its sweetness wafting through the hot summer air.
I imagined that my trip on the Regionalbahn had not taken me to Baden Württenberg but back to England’s green pastures. I had made that trip to Yorkshire in just ninety minutes, followed by a two-hour guided tour around its country lanes.
But pull myself away I did!
I had to leave the paintings behind. I needed time to choose some postcards, contemplate buying the catalogue (it turned out to be irresistable) and of course have coffee and cake in the café where the tables and the walls were also decorated with Hockney prints.
As I sat writing a postcard to my Dad, who would well remember the first expensive book that I bought as a seventeen-year old Hockney fan, I was tempted to risk taking the last train and to go around the gallery just one more time. I decided that it is better to return on another day. I was getting tired. My eyes had feasted enough, it was time to get on the train and trundle home.
The train was on time, as most German trains tend to be. As I travelled home, the church spires, the white sails of wind turbines, the fields full of storks, delighted me in my sleepiness. I was eventually sleeping so soundly that I didn’t even notice when the French punks who had been sleeping in the luggage racks left the train.
All that magic and soul food had worn me out. As the Bavarian actor/writer Karl Valentin said, "Art is beautiful but it is a lot of work". It is hard work to produce art oneself and it is also hard work to look at art produced by someone else, both in a gallery and on the streets of a beautiful town.
I hope that I will be back before the exhibition ends on 27th September, for another inspiring holiday.
Schwäbisch Hall -
David Hockney –
Hungary, Budapest, Szechényi Bridge -