The week I was in Dresden it rained all day, every day, so there was nothing for me to do but visit museums all day long. Fortunately, Dresden has dozens of world-class museums, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice on my part. I spent my third day there exploring the rambling collections of the Zwinger. Originally built as a pleasure palace for Augustus the Strong (he kept his concubines in the galleries and held tournaments in the courtyard), it now houses several museums: the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meisters (Renaissance and Baroque paintings), the Rüstkammer (armory), the Porzellensammlung (porcelain collection), among many others.
The Gemäldegalerie has a reputation of being one of the best museums in Europe, with important works by Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Dürer, Holbien, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and basically anyone else who ever achieved a modicum of fame, but it was it was a less famous work – Ruben’s Leda and the Swan – that really took my breath away.I have long been a fan of this painting, which depicts the maiden Leda being seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan, and I used to keep a postcard-size version of it on my bulletin board when I was in college.
I loved how Leda’s pale skin and the swan’s snowy white feathers glow against the solid black background. And I always found the graceful arch of the swan’s neck as it reach up to give Leda a kiss right on the lips terribly erotic. But it wasn’t until I saw the 10-by-12 foot original, that I realized the painting it positively pornographic! Leda and the Swan were actually “doin’ it,” and the evidence is right their in front of you in all its glory. Needless to say, I bought a new, larger copy of the painting to take home with me.
Next, I visited the Rüstkammer. Now, I’ve never cared much for the history of warfare, but the elaborate gold and silver and jewel-encrusted suits of armor were pretty cool, and so I did like everyone else in the museum was doing and whipped out my digital camera to take a picture. Two seconds later an angry female guard was all over me, yelling in that angry guttural voice that Germans always have in the movies. It turns out that you had to pay an extra 5 euros in order to be able to take pictures in the museum. Who knew?
Anyway, I hated to come across as “the ugly American,” but I wasn’t about to pay 5 euros when all I wanted was a single picture, so I just packed up my camera and moved on. But not five minutes later, I was yelled at again for leaning in too closely to a suit of armor. Yikes! And I wasn’t the only one: Visitors were getting chewed out left and right by the museum’s staff of very severe-looking female guards and for relatively minor offenses. Dresden’s numerous museums are overrun with these dower-looking middle-aged women, about one every 10 feet. It makes absolutely no sense that the museum should employ hoards of people for such a useless task since it already has a thoroughly modern security system – until you consider that the unemployment rate in Eastern Germany is even higher than Germany’s national unemployment rate of 14 percent. People have to earn their daily bread somehow, and I guess the government would rather employ them in useless jobs in the state’s art museums than just putting them on the dole.
This thought softened my heart for a moment, but then, a short while later, I was yelled at yet again, this time for talking to Kevin on my cell phone. Now, normally I would say that talking on a cell phones in an art museum was the height of rudeness (I used to work in an art museum, after all), but I had had the ringer turned off and took the call in a secluded corner of the museum, where I never spoke above a whisper. Besides it’s not like I could have gone outside to take the call – it was raining cats and dogs! Despite my precautions, one of them hunted me down and nearly bit my head off. I was about to give her a piece of my mind, but fortunately, my German wasn’t up to the task. So, I just left.
I wanted nothing more than to go back to the hotel and nurse my wounded pride, but it was still raining, so I decided to take my chances with the guards one more time and went next door to the Porzellensammlung. Now, I’ve never cared much for porcelain – it’s much too frilly and fragile for my tastes – but even I have to admit that the museum’s collection was pretty cool. One large white room contains dozens of nearly life size porcelain animals, all in white. The rest of the museum’s long, narrow galleries display almost two thousand years’ of Asian porcelain in arrangements 20-feet high and set against brightly painted walls in orange and red and purple. The effect on the viewer is like being a tiny figurine in a giant curio cabinet. Or maybe just a “bull in a china shop.”
Anyway, I desperately wanted to take a picture, but again I was too cheap to pony up the 5 euros for a photo-pass. Still, I figured it never hurt to ask, so I mustered up my courage – and my recently acquired knowledge of the German subjunctive – and said to the little old lady guard in my politest voice: “Would it be possible for me to take a picture here, just one?” Of course, her response was, “Do you have a photo-pass?” I shook my head and started to move on. But I guess my use of the subjunctive must have had its affect on her. Or maybe she was just amused that someone my age would want to take a picture of the collection – I was the youngest person in the museum by about 50 years – so she relented and let me take my picture. She even led me over to the one spot in the tight little wing where I could get the best shot!