67. Old Masters

IF YOU HAD TOLD me, when I was a 20 year-old tearaway, that I would be spending my entire life surrounded by old masters, I would have laughed in your face. Twenty-eight years ago, when I first started this job, I had no feeling for it. To me, paintings were pointless, a waste - at best, something you used to hide an empty wall. In the course of those twenty-eight years, there’s no denying my thoughts and feelings have changed. It is of course a boring job, and it requires a certain temperament: you’ve got to be happy with your own company, able to spend hours on end with your own thoughts. I like to think of myself as a cat that seems to be dozing and yet is ready to pounce on its prey at any moment. And my prey, in this case, is of course those patrons determined to put their oily hands on one of the artworks. The paintings are particularly vulnerable, but for some reason patrons are fondest of the sculptures. There’s something about a sculpture that is crying out to be touched, and it’s my job to be ever vigilant to prevent it from happening. Schoolchildren are the biggest nuisance – hordes of them traipsing through here on weekdays. Thankfully, the older and uglier I have become the more frightened they are of me. But then every few years someone will try to take a painting, often in broad daylight, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Who can blame them? Some of them are worth millions. This is something I never really understood. How can a painting be worth so much money? And then you have the crazies, the lunatics who smuggle in knives and spray cans and what have you and try to destroy an old master. What is it about a painting that can generate such passions? I must admit in twenty-eight years this is one mystery I have not solved. Even we as guards are not immune. Even I, who once considered myself immune to the charms of the old masters, have felt it. It is as if all the dramas depicted in the paintings cannot be contained, and they spill over invisibly into the very air we breathe. This is the real reason why so many patrons find the atmosphere here soporific: this museum isn’t boring, on the contrary, it’s like a hothouse where every tropical flower known to man is blooming at once. If I have learned anything in twenty-eight years it is that underneath their pieties the old masters were interested in one thing only. All those strapping young rosenkavaliers and plump gilded heiresses, all those square-shouldered Davids and tremulous Ledas. Of course, there is love and death, too, but I have concluded after much thought that love and death are merely subsets of sex. No doubt you will accuse me, like my ex-wife Ilsa used to do, of being sexually obsessed, but pick out any old master in this museum and study it long enough and you will no doubt see that, whatever it is about, like life itself it is ultimately about sex. This is my conclusion after twenty-eight years, one I arrived at far too late – for in those early days it drove me mad. I was like any other young German of the time, I was interested in two things only: women and football. And forget your musty old paintings, the real works of art were some of the patrons who passed through here. In those days it was not unheard of for me to ask a pretty visitor out for a drink, particularly late in the afternoon, towards closing time, if she was visiting the museum on her own. I was passably handsome in those days, well built with a full head of hair. And we wore rather handsome uniforms, so that a tourist might almost have taken us for a member of the police force. It did a guard’s career no harm. On the contrary, at one point I was even being talked about as a future head of security – until I made the mistake of approaching a visitor who turned out to be from the ministry, high up in the ministry, no less. She filed a complaint and I was called in by the old museum director. He was able to see the funny side of things, I’ll grant him that. He even offered me a cigarette to ease the tension. Nevertheless, he said almost apologetically, he had no choice but to issue me with a formal reprimand. So I mended my ways and married Ilsa, one of my fellow guards, and we were married for eleven long years until we decided we had better separate. She was a career woman, whereas I was happy with my life as it was and didn’t see any need to rock the boat. Nowadays she is the head of security at the museum, whereas I am still just an ordinary guard. My apartment is what was once the cellar underneath the house we bought after the wedding. Nowadays, as with each passing day I can feel my life force slowly draining out of me, there are days when a solitary woman strolls by in the late afternoon, gazing at the nakedness of all those Davids and Ledas, looking straight past me as if I were one of the sculptures (one of the unremarkable sculptures)… Well, of course, people my age aren’t supposed to say such things. It is considered tasteless and obscene. And yet, at such times, I am not ashamed to say I feel the warm afterglow of a once all-consuming fire, and as much as I feel a yearning for its white heat, at the same time I sense a relief that the flames have just about burned themselves out.