Mariah Proctor is currently at BYU’s Vienna Study Abroad program.
It is a photograph of Schönbrunn Palace that advertises the Vienna study abroad all over BYU campus. The image of the summer residence of the Hapsburgs was one I had seen many times, but seeing it in person turned out to be meaningful in an unanticipated way. It was not the beauty of the gardens or the ornate detail of the neo-rococo interior décor that stuck, it was the stories of the royal residents themselves. My knowledge of Elisabeth, Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted, before this time, of what I had learned from a series of three movies about her romance with Franz Joseph made in the 1950s. It romanticizes the life of a princess, convinces you that the love between the future emperor and his chosen bride was the stuff of fairy tales and generally leaves you with an It’s a Wonderful Life glow lighting your insides.
Upon hearing of the death of his wife Sisi (Elizabeth), Franz Joseph said “you do not know how much I loved this woman.” He truly worshipped her all of his life in a way that perhaps puts the superficiality of the 1950s film relationship to shame. She, on the other hand, thought that marriage was a trap that someone entered into before they knew what it meant and were then stuck with for the next 30 or 40 miserable years. In my just under two weeks here, I have come to truly and deeply resent this enshrined lady-royal of seasons past. My opinion of a now dead queen should not matter so much to me or anyone else, but it seems to be always somewhere in the back of my thoughts and even makes appearances in my dreams.
The museum about her at the Imperial Apartments inside the city gives a more intimate insight into the person that she was. Seeing her parasols and dresses and poetry scrawled upon the walls as a soothing British female voice explained how it is was all connected made it clear to me that Sisi was not completely healthy mentally, but that knowledge did not allow me to assuage the parts of myself that are so repulsed (and compelled) by her. Even as Franz Joseph decorated full palace rooms with murals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which she loved, she would write that “Tatania should not go among people in this world where no one understands her” and that “no companion share[d] the life of [her] soul.” She didn’t even notice how desperately he was trying to be allowed into her soul or be grateful that someone would want to understand her so badly.
This city is full of art, populated with people that seem to want to work hard and love well. These people seek productivity, but never at the price of life’s pleasures. I went to the Kunsthistoriches Museum today. I was emotionally overwhelmed by the beauty of everything in that place. Every once in a while you find a work of art that is so perplexingly magnetic to your soul that once you’ve walked away you begin to experience withdrawal and in a panic cross three rooms of masterpieces just to get a look at this rather overlooked and obscure piece again. I found a piece like that. A portrait of a man called Dirck Tybis. The picture has a conspicuously less pleasing color palate then those around it in the display; he isn’t making haunting eye contact with the viewer or anything. In fact, he seems to be looking just pass you in a way that makes you want to say, “just look at me!”
I only made it through about six rooms of one floor of this museum so far because I felt tethered to this painting that I kept taking the time to go back to. There is something magical about a visual representation that a man painted 400 years ago in a land far away from the one into which I hadn’t yet been born, finding this inexplicable way to touch me so. A stranger, a dead stranger in strokes and colors found a way to understand me. You must enter an art gallery, that temple to the masterpieces of people across ages that have felt things deeply, with a soul open to being moved or even understood. Occasionally I will spot the subject of a painting, a face or an old barn or a clenched hand that seems to be calling out to me “you’ve got a pen, a heart, and a tongue, tell my story!” Then, once in a rare-refined while, you come upon the subject of painting that need not call out, but rather whispers “I’m already a part of your story, come and find me.”
Perhaps there is no way for you to comprehend what I mean if you have never found yourself exposed to a painting. Anthonis Van Dyck painted a portrait that hangs in the same museum that shows a young man with a tumultuous landscape out the window behind him. The boys face seemed expressionless until I looked past him into that landscape of his soul and suddenly I read the manuscript of his face differently than I had at first. Suddenly his relaxed pose seemed strained, he looked at once indignant and embarrassed, naked in some way as though he did not appreciate finding himself being observed at such close proximity. To allow another person to understand, show them enough of your inner landscape to try, is terrifying. Johannes Brauhms, gifted in the art of musical vulnerability as he was, never married because the thought of allowing another person to live in his home and be fully at liberty to sympathize with every aspect of his life was too much to even consider.
The dead queen of a foreign land disgusts me because I see myself in her. She was someone who influenced those around her merely by virtue of her presence, she had the world at the end of reigns that she wielded and walked away from it. Sisi was convinced and expressed in verse over and over that she stood alone, that no one could ever be capable of understanding who she really was, the emotional fabric of her inner canvas. She dealt with things I could never dream of, so I have no place to be critical, but I refuse to continue to believe that no one can understand me.
I often feel that I occupy a realm that no one would begin to relate to, but I cannot and will not get to the end still concluding that “the soul was never born that understood me” (Sisi). People often compliment my mind or the way that I speak without having even an inkling of what’s at the core that produces such thoughts and words. A part of myself feels more alienated than flattered by such compliments because ‘they don’t understand.’ But I will not be Sisi. I will allow myself to be moved, I will admit when a 17th century northern renaissance artist manages to capture a bit of me even when the reason remains unknown. I will give credit to those that attempt to be close to me, and though I may not spend every moment feeling perfectly comprehended or finish every conversation more emotionally intimate with that person than when I started, I will love those that want to love me, and one day finally know that I can finally be known.