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Swiss Tryst

My grandfather's painting does not reside in Davos's Kirchner Museum, it turns out, but in another one, in Chur. As a consolation, Dr. Scotti led us to the basement and a chest of metal drawers filled with black notebooks. "We have 160 of his sketchbooks," Dr. Scotti said, beaming. "Only a few others are scattered throughout the world." He held one open and began to flip the pages. The artist's familiar line was there in the barest form. Mountains, trees, hands, cows. Then came trembling lines that blurred into one another, like a lie detector gone berserk.

"These are letters he tried to write," said Dr. Scotti. "A bit like Cy Twombly, don't you think?"

"That's his attempt at handwriting?" I asked.

"He was very ill from morphine," said the curator.

"He was ill and was using morphine, or he was ill from morphine use?" Elizabeth asked.

Kirchner was a junkie, to put it bluntly. I found this scandalous, then realized my naïveté: in the confines of a museum, or even the house of my grandfather, whose life was not devoid of despair, there is still a huge remove of the artist from the artwork; the artist's anxiety or despair is an invisible presence lurking within the beautiful, valuable thing.

On the way out of the museum, I saw that the gift shop had a postcard of my grandfather's old painting, which I bought. There was no sense of dissatisfaction about not having seen the painting itself; I'd entered it instead.

Mann refers to the "tidy clouds" of the Alps—once one descends from the basso profundo of the Flüela Pass, pleasant white cream puffs dot the sky. We came upon the incredibly intense blue of Lake St. Moritz. The whole sky- mountain-lake combination triggered a memory of an old postcard. It's a familiar scene, but the colors are desaturated and a bit flat, as though the camera itself were overwhelmed by the lushness of what it sees. A slight element of kitsch, as if Julie Andrews might at any moment burst into its frame, singing. My postcard isn't stored anywhere except in my memory—I had only seen the Alps once, in Zermatt with my parents, when I was six—but it's tangible nonetheless, an image that for years lay dormant in my mind until Elizabeth and I began to wonder where we might go on our honeymoon. Then it presented itself just as palpably as if it had fallen out of a drawer. And now, rolling into St. Moritz, we were inside it.


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