German and Alpine hay.
German and northern Alpine hay: art, nostalgia and therapy.
Two weeks of August 2007 in southern Germany and the northern Alps reinforced the impression that loose hay-making, except in such relict landscapes as Maramures, is now almost completely confined to museums and such ancillary boutique industries as Heukur and Heubad. So this essay, necessarily short, will focus on art, nostalgia, and therapy. Admittedly, the weather was too overcast and unpredictable to encourage much hiking in the high Alpine meadows, although rumors of people scything and bundling hay up near the Swiss glaciers almost led to some serious mountaineering in search of two kinds of shrinking geographical phenomena.
The wet summer evidently persuaded the modern, technologically sophisticated and risk-averse grass-cutters, not just of sub-Alpine Bavaria and Swabia but even in the high mountain meadows, to wrap their crops in plastic. As we have shown elsewhere, in the Wales to Wisdom essay, the textural and geometric simplicity of these forms give them an aesthetic appeal which is both minimalist and monumental. Here are a few new examples.
Swiss silage bales.
Bavarian silage bales.
Eventually these silage bundles may find their way into the art museums which now shelter the memories of how hay used to be made. Visits to the Kunsthaus in Zurich and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich were rewarded by the discovery of several new images, either on the walls or in the bookstores.
Rudolf Koller’s mid 19th century Swiss romanticism.
Otto Frolicher and Charles Giron.
Koller is best known for his depiction of a stage-coach hurtling over the newly constructed Gotthard Pass, through a herd of puzzled cows. The middle of the three hay paintings shown here has many of the same contrasting elements: a rustic Swiss landscape full of the frantic activity of brilliantly depicted animals and their humans under a threatening sky. The other two pictures are more tranquil. The one on the right needs to be added to our sub-theme of resting in the hay.
Two other Swiss painters are illustrated here. Frolicher shows a distant hayfield; and Giron an encounter between two haymakers in an Alpine landscape. The latter is off particular interest, both for its implicit romance
and for the characteristic method of bundling hay in cloth, reportedly still practiced in those high meadows which are beyond the reach of wheeled vehicles.
Dutch haysheds in the Alte Pinakothek.
Since the Munich museum is far more than a regional institution and has particularly strong collections of Dutch and Flemish art, there were also items for our friend Wim Lanphen, by his 17th century countrymen, Philips Wouwerman and Pieter de Bloot.
The Alte Pinakothek also allowed close-up views of such old favorites as Rubens’ 1637 Landschaft mit den Regenbogen, with haystacks like pots of gold at the left end of the rainbow, and Van Goyen’s Bauerngehofte am Fluss (Village at the river), with prominent hayshed and hay-barge, painted the previous year.
Desiree Thomassin: Bavariations on a theme.
My familiarity with traditional Bavarian haymaking came initially from a fine original oil painting on the wall of a dear Santa Cruz friend who had brought it with her in her migration from Vienna before the War. She knew of my interest and asked me to discover what I could about the artist, Desiree Thomassin (1858-1933). I was please to discover that Thomassin, born in Austria but most active in southern Germany, seemed to be almost exclusively a hay painter, sharing with Martin Johnson Heade
and Julien Dupre
a tendency to combine and recombine an intricate pictorial vocabulary of hay-making activities. These variations on a theme must have been popular when composed early in the 20th century and they continue to appear for sale in galleries in the 21st. Thomassin's charming hayscapes are evidently absent both from today's Bavarian meadows and from the great museums of Munich and Vienna. Most of the following scenes were culled from the internet at the time of their sale to private collections.
Given the style and content of the first image, I had originally put the work in the 19th century, but later discovered the very similar second image dated 1916. The Great War may explain the relatively high number of women workers. Thomassin paintings, with Munchen under the signature, led me to change the place from Austria to Germany. Note the unusual pairing in number one of horse and ox under the same yoke. A rare variation in number two is the presence of two equally prominent wagons, the slightly smaller horse-drawn load oriented, eccentrically for Thomassin, towards the left of the frame.
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The third image is the one I have closely inspected in the original. It shares with all the other works perused less directly a low horizon, luminous, slightly threatening sky, and half-a-dozen figures working cooperatively. The women, usually in the majority, wear red kerchiefs and blue aprons. All these features are present in the image next to it. The overlapping poses of the figures to the left of the wagon are almost identical.
The next image, dated 1916, has the usual tableau, but the title given by the dealer, “Harvest time,” seems unduly influenced by the golden crop of grain at left. The material being loaded is clearly hay. The one at right, painted in 1930, is unusual in its composition and content, and the figures of both animals and human seem more awkward, literally less practiced than Thomassin’s usual poses.
The title of the next image is “Harvest in Upper Bavaria” giving more geographical precision than usual. This and the one next to it were borrowed from an online image bank with disfiguring watermarks at lower left.
The following were all discovered after our recent visit to Austria and Bavaria. The one on the left was offered in a September auction at Hampel Auctions in Munich for an estimated range of 2500 to 3500 euros.
Two more Thomassins sold this year: the first at a May auction in Vienna for about 3000 euros; the other for 4200 euros on ebay, which retains an excellent suite of details, one shown here to demonstrate again the anomaly of horse and ox yoked together.
Italian folk art in Austrian inns.
Folk art, probably from the Italian Alps, decorated the walls of two of the three guest houses we stayed at. By coincidence, a suite of four in the in the Austrian Alps and a pair in west of Vienna, each, like Bruegel and the Books of Hours, celebrated seasonal activities, and each included haystacks in every landscape. Though hay like this is no longer seen beyond the walls of inns and museums, it is evidently still evocative enough of Alpine traditions to used as a decorative trope.
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Heimat and Heinzen.
In Southern Germany, where a deeply rooted sense of place (Heimat) is everywhere apparent, small towns and even villages are likely to have agricultural museums, displaying tools and structures no longer present in the rural landscape. We spent almost a week in Wilhelmsdorf with our dear friends the Blickles, parents of our cousin-in-law Peter who has actually published a book on Heimat. Their local museum had a traditional hayrack, but even more delightful was the pair of Heinzen, as they are called, which Herr Blickle had constructed to welcome us in his own backyard. These hay prisms were so skilfully constructed that a week of frequent rain failed to penetrate the outer layer. Infected by our enthusiasm, he also pulled out a postcard recently received from his son, Frieder, a well-known photographer whose work promotes Tyrolean tourism, celebrates New York, and makes gourmet food pictures good enough to eat. His aptitude and possibly his appetite may stem from experiences with a family that evidently loves to celebrate around good meals. A few pictures of other members of the family, Peter's brother Martin and sister Ann and Ann's husband Helge, and their beautiful, talented children, are included, not because they are directly related to hay, but because they make us remember Wilhelmsdorf, their Heimat, with such affection.
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Other members of the Blickle clan.
Austrian Heinzen or Heumannschen.
Several books in the Blickle library included Swabian, Swiss and Austrian hayscapes of the not-too-distant past. In anticipation of our visit, I had sent them a copy of our favorite book of hay as art, Sotriffer’s Heu und Strohe, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Frieder had discovered the book independently and, hearing of our interest, had sent yet another copy to his parents! A trio of images from Sotriffer's book, taken in subalpine Austria in 1989, suggest how rapidly this region has changed.
Postcard from Switzerland.
Three Rudolf Leser photographs of Heinzen in Upper Swabia.
Frieder Blickle sent this postcard "Heuernte bei Crasta im Fextal" to his parents to show them and me what Alpine haymaking looked like 80 years ago.
Rudolf Leser has contributed his magnificent photographs of the region to Kontraste in Oberschwaben
and several other books, including the mysterious cover of one of the novels listed in our Books Covered in Hay
section. Herr Blickle pulled one of them from his library, having remembered a panorama of Heinzen shadows. Judging from the rhythm and pattern of the shadows and their construction on single stakes, these appear to be less triangular and more humanoid than the ones in the garden. There are legends of would be invaders to the region being deterred by what appeared to be endless ranks of defenders on the hills. In parts of Romania, hay structures like these are known as "Germans"!
Contrasts in the village of Steinhausen.
We visited the small village of Steinhausen to see the incongruously magnificent baroque church, which towered over the the seat of secular authority and the farmhouses clustered around it. On one of the latter was a mural recalling the old methods of hay-making. Nearby was a modern silage dump, weighed down with tires, and a plastic-wrapped bale under a plum-tree.
A new role for hay.
Hay, now uniformly wrapped in rolls, has another role to play in the regional tourist economy. Intrigued by a brochure at the Blickles and nudged by several members of the family to experience the phenomenon for himself, this hay connoisseur exposed his bare skin to hot, wet hay in a Heubad (hay bath) at the nearby resort of Höchsten . The hay-bather is not immersed in water. Instead, he lies on a bed of fresh hay separated from a very hot, conventional water bath by a sheet of plastic, not unlike the material used to wrap the silage. Then another layer is spread on his front and also covered by plastic. Then the whole bundle is lowered mechanically into the hot water which surrounds but does not penetrate the package of human and hay. The initial itchiness persuades the bather to lie completely still, which in turn induces an increasingly euphoric, meditative state. The fragrance alone has a soporific effect and the thirty minute exposure passes pleasantly. Only the best Alpine hay, a mix of dozens of herbs alleged to have ancient therapeutic value, cut by scythes and cured in the traditional way, is used in the Heubad (or as it is called in many of the German and Austrian spas Heukur). This use of hay is advertised widely on the internet. Here are some examples from the several thousand listed: Heubad auf der Wiese; Hotel Berg Panorama; Oasol, Zermatt, Switzerland; Spa Visions, Kraxen Stove; and Heukur newsletter, Pfronten Weissbach.
Promoters of these hay cures report that shepherds or haymakers, aching from hours of climbing in the high Alpine meadows, found that a night’s rest on a bed of hay miraculously soothed their muscles, cured rheumatism and revived their strength. We are willing to support any legend which supports the conservation of diverse flowery hay-fields and traditional modes of harvesting them. The demand for Alpine hay of the highest quality has already spread as far as Bath in the west of England, where an expensive spa
, close to where the Romans relaxed two thousand years earlier, imports all its hay from Austria. While the intrepid hay investigator was not allowed to see the Bath hay-baths, their description implies the very latest system, known as a Kraxen Stove, where skin does not actually touch the hay. Spa Visions, a North American company, offers the following strange description: "This facility provides a mild herbal steaming in the area of back, shoulders and sides of the body and an overwarming of the pelvis. In the Kraxen Stove, alpine hay is held in a back-grating, which is placed in the niche of a stove. In this way, the client does not come in direct contact with the hay and therefore, it is not required to change the hay after each treatment. In addition every clients gets a hay pack which is used as a seat pillow, guaranteeing personal hygiene."
Posted by Alan Ritch at 01:49 PM