Saturday 18 July 2009

'Let's save Dracula!'

When in Germany and Austria I have been amazed that there is an audience for magazines that are pretty high brow. In one of the news stands at the Vienna airport I saw a magazine on romanticism that contained e.g. an article on Caspar David Friedrich. It would be impossible to sell something like that in Denmark, but as the above photo shows, the so-called 'historical' Dracula is at times the subject of magazines here in Denmark.

A reader from Romania recently sent me an e-mail with the subject line: 'Let's save Dracula!'. Although it is hard to be interested in vampires and posthumous magic without reading about Vlad Tepes, I personally devote very little time to the subject of this 15th century Valachian ruler. So I had to answer that I probably am the wrong person to involve in an enterprise concerning Vlad Dracula.

But I would like to devote a few lines about a recent effort that shows the way of dealing with both Dracula and vampires, namely an exhibition at the Austrian Castle Ambras in Innsbruck, which I unfortunately was unaware of at the time in 2008. I recently acquired the beautiful and excellent catalogue which documents this stunning and extraordinary exhibition, and I certainly regret that I did not get to see the exhibition :-(

Judging from the catalogue, the exhibition must have been divided into four sections, the first one concerning Vlad III. Dracula, including portraits and manuscripts. There are a number of portraits I have never seen before, and all are remarkably reproduced. The second part concerns Balkan from the period of Vlad Tepes in the 15th century to the time of the vampire cases in the 18th century, including portraits of some of the key persons from the period, maps, weapons, pieces of dress etc.

The following part is about vampirism and traces the vampire in documents and books from Glaser, Flückinger and Ranft and onwards, so here are e.g. examples of the original reports on vampires (in the photo below the report on the presumed vampiress Dorothea Pissin in Banat in February 1753 is shown). The relationship to bats and the fictional vampire are explored, including some of Stoker's notes for Dracula. In the final part the cinematic Dracula is traced through posters and film stills.

In the catalogue each part is introduced with an essay, and every item is described and explained in detail. The catalogue also contains a tabular overview of the German tales about Vlad Dracula, some source texts, and a bibliography.

Obviously this is the way to do it, as I can hardly imagine that anything like this exhibition has been put together before! The catalogue itself is not only stunningly beautiful, but well written and researched, and can be used as a comprehensive resource on Vlad Tepes, Balkan, and both the historical and fictional vampires.

It is, of course, written in what appears to be the lingua franca of this subject: German, but everyone can enjoy the illustrations. To understand the context, you must however read the text.

Even when it comes to the souvenirs there is more class to this extraordinary exhibition than the plastic souvenirs we are used to. The pendant shown along with the catalogue in my photo above is 22 ct gold plated! So I think it is fair to say: Forget about Hollywood, wax museums and the usual Halloween plastic. In stead look to the people at Schloss Ambras and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for inspiration. They have certainly set a new standard for approaching and presenting Dracula and the history of vampires.


Niels K. Petersen said...

As a post scriptum I will just mention that I wrote about an aborted attempt at arranging an exhibition of vampire books here in Denmark that in this old post.

klavaza said...

Excellent post. Where can I get a copy of the catalogue? Speaking of saving Dracula, I remembered what Roger Ebert said about Murnau's Nosferatu: "To watch F.W. Murnau's ``Nosferatu'' (1922) is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires".

Niels K. Petersen said...

You actually just need to go the web site of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and "enter" the online shop to find the goods.

jola said...

Apropos both the historical vampire and Roger Ebert's trenchant observation, I greatly enjoyed reading a scholarly and very stimulating book entitled, "The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature," by James B. Twitchell (Duke University Press). In the introduction he provides a useful prehistory of the vampire legend, including a pithy and gory account of Vlad II. The book centers on the influence of the vampire legend on Romantic literature, and is full of fascinating analyses and detail.

Here is but one thought-provoking example, a quote from the 19th century English critic Walter Pater, with which Prof. Twitchell begins the chapter, "The Female Vampire":

"[The Mona Lisa] is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all 'the ends of the world are come,' and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for one moment beside one of those Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed. All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and molded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the Middle Age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave."

As Professor Twitchell observes, "her story is one the young Romantics never tired of telling."

Anyway, great fun, and far from mindless!

P.S. I enjoyed another book of Prof. Twitchell's too, entitled "Where Men Hide" - in virtual caves of all sorts (bars, barbershops, strip clubs, cars, boxing rings, lodges, basements, garages, workshops, offices, etc., etc.). He is certainly on to something!

Anthony Hogg said...

I checked out the link you provided, Niels and found my way into the gift shop. It certainly does look like a beautiful volume.

But I also found out that the postage to Australia would cost 18 Euro. Yikes.

Gonna have to start saving for that one!

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