empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


ludwig & the death masque of shagspear

Marie Antoinette walks under trees, across brown dry curled up autumn leaves, towards the Palace of Versailles. We don't know what year it is, only that it was before 1793. It's not her fault, any more than her Hapsburg nose; but when we go close on the leaves we find they are actually dry curled up bodies of men & women incinerated in some historical catastrophe or other. We don't know what year it was, only that it is after 1793. Exactly 54 years later an indigent painter, having given up his job at the court of the archduke in order to nurse his sick half brother, Karl, buys in a second hand shop in Mainz a picture of a poet on his death bed, wearing laurels, with a tall thin candle burning by the bedstead. The small painting, oil on linen, is in a kind of fold-up wallet & bears the caption: Shakespeare. And a date, 1637. The painter, distraught at the languishing of his brother, from typhoid, becomes obsessed with the painting; he believes it is after an earlier work with the same subject, or perhaps even from a death mask. When he learns that there was, in the same collection that the painting came from, a plaster head, he begins a search for it in the antique & second hand shops of Mainz. Two years later, in the shop of man named Wilz, he finds it, buried under rags and other surplus stuff, & very dirty. He believes this to be the death mask of Shakespeare, as well as the inspiration for the painting. There is a date on the back, 1616. He thinks it will make his fortune. He takes the cast to England, where another half brother, Ernst, has been appointed the intimate companion & secretary to Prince Albert. The death mask of Shakespeare is celebrated in London, it is even exhibited at the British Museum; but since no-one can work out how it came to be in Germany in the first place, it is not authenticated & no-one, not even the Museum, will pay the 5000 pounds he wants for it. The painter, also a naturalist, attends a scientific conference in Edinburgh & travels in the Highlands. Later, his friend & patron, the zoologist Kaup, lends him the money to go to the Antipodes. He sails via Rio de Janeiro to Van Diemens Land, where he is valued for his skills at conversation & his expertise in the arts & sciences. After the gold rush he goes to Victoria, prospecting on the Bendigo fields & finding there enough gold to repay Kaup. Later he joins high society in Melbourne, & later still is appointed official artist on an Expedition of Discovery into the Interior, during which, persecuted by the Irish policeman who leads the party, he dies, aged fifty-two; though not before executing some luminous watercolours that still seem to tell of a world hithertofore unapprehended. In December the same year (1861) Prince Albert also dies & the indigent painter's half brother Ernst, lacking employment, returns to Germany, as does Shakespeare's death mask. It will be another hundred and fifty years before anyone dares authenticate it & even then there will be skeptics; by which time it will be known that the small oil painting shows, not Shakespeare, but Ben Jonson on his death bed. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette moves slowly towards the palace, her delicate shoes crunching over the corpses of leaves, unconcerned, indeed oblivious, as to whether she is walking into or out of history.

No comments: