16 August 2020

Beyond Visual Arts (1984)

We were not an attractive class. Students in the Science branch never are. Not like the Music branch, with its artistic students, its intellectual students, its cool students. Not like the Sports branch, with its tall-if-slow athletic types.

We, not geeks with a shared interest in the laws of nature, but dullards with an acute absence of talent. Neither literate nor numerate. We couldn't act, or sing, or play a musical instrument. We couldn't run very fast, or hit, kick, or throw a ball particularly far.

We did have advanced classes in Biology, and Physics, and Chemistry, that is true. But we didn't really gain an understanding of what science was. Just more science facts, the usual, that was all. In these subjects, we were taught by the more difficult teachers. It made sense.

What didn't make sense was that in the subjects that were not our forte by definition we were also taught by the more difficult teachers. It didn't seem fair, that the Music branch got off easy.

Which brings me to Werner Pramhaas. 

It was in September 1984, the start of Grade 12, our last year, that Professor Pramhaas took over our class in Visual Arts. He was replacing Professor Klor, a soft-spoken, kind young woman who had suddenly disappeared from our school. Nobody knew where she had gone or why, and nobody told us. There were rumours, of course, but there always are.

But we weren't worried, Pramhaas seemed easy-going.

He wore shaggy, blond hair, and a beard, at least sometimes, and sometimes not. He dressed in washed-out jeans and Norwegian sweaters. He wore flannel shirts five years before Grunge made them fashionable. He was not tall, but he was lean. When he joked, he joked. When he was serious, he was serious. And when he laughed, he laughed with honesty. 

He would let us off easy. 

But he didn't. In fact, Pramhaas's most consistent -- and most perplexing -- quality was that he never let the students off easy. He wanted to teach us something. 

Most teachers go into their profession with their passions intact, I suppose. But years of interactions with untalented, uninterested, lazy, and dishonest students, years of exposure to disillusioned, conniving colleagues, years of battles with mindless administrators whose sole ambitions are political, all of that must take its toll. A slow deep erosion of passion, what rivers do to rocks. And then one day the teacher wakes up, and there is nothing left. 

Maybe Pramhaas was still too young. In 1984, he was not thirty yet.

Three lessons come to mind. 

It was early in the school year, September or October, and Pramhaas wanted to introduce us to a technique we hadn't used before. He gave us a brief introduction to drawing in ink, handed out pens and inkwells, and gave us our theme, "A frightening place". We weren't really keen on it, but at least Visual Arts classes provided some relief from the harder subjects, Maths, German, French. 

I was about an hour into drafting when Pramhaas stopped at my desk and looked at the vague outline I had drawn in pencil. There was a frown on his forehead.

"Anything wrong?" I asked.

"Hmm," he said.  He wrapped his hand around his chin as was his habit and stood in silence for a few seconds. "You are using bird's eye view." 


"The thing is," he began, then stopped. "I want you to imagine a monster. In your mind's eye, how do you see the monster?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Do you see the monster in bird's eye view, you looking down at the monster? Or do you see the monster in worm's eye view, you looking up at the monster?"

"Looking up at the monster, I guess."

"Exactly. You looking down at the monster means you are larger than the monster, the monster can be defeated." He tapped his finger on my draft. "On the other, you, looking up at the monster means you feel small and vulnerable, the monster appears unbeatable. You see what I mean?"

I did and I do. But I was a lazy bastard, and once Pramhaas had moved on to the next desk, rather than starting from scratch, I continued. 

A couple of classes later, I was done with my ink drawings and shadings. A couple of dilapidated houses in bird's eye view, narrow alleyways between them. On one of the houses, a huge black shadow of a man in a coat. Just the shadow. You couldn't see the man. 

(Thirty years later I discovered a painting by Hans Baluschek called "Arbeiterstadt". And while Baluschek's painting is of course infinitely better and much greater in detail, it gave me the same uncomfortable feeling that my ink drawing had given me then.)

In any case, I submitted my work for marking, and Pramhaas looked at it for a while, and then called me out to his desk. 

"I didn't think it would work, Baumann," he said. "But somehow you pulled it off, a frightening place in bird's eye view. Who would have thought? Well done." 

Lesson learned: Admitting to an honest error in judgement does not diminish your authority, it does the exact opposite. 

A couple of weeks later, I watched Pramhaas and our class president Thomas Bes engaged in a conversation, about what, I don't know. They were standing at the front of the class when Pramhaas suddenly lifted his right knee into a side position, then quickly turned his body in a counter clockwise rotation while at the same time snapping his leg up to the side of Bes head. Bes was a head taller than Pramhaas. 

"It is called Mawashi Geri," Pramhaas told Bes without pretence.  

I can't remember how it came about that Pramhaas invited me to join him at the dojo one evening. But I do remember that when I arrived, I was both disappointed and intimidated. Disappointed because the dojo was really just a high school gym. Intimidated because there weren't many people at the practice session, maybe ten, maybe twelve. What made it worse was that the only person who wore a white belt was Pramhaas. The rest was purple and up with four or six of them being black belts. 

It was a strange collection of men, indeed, and they were all men. There was Sensei Franz. I never called him that, but I still find it funny to say. Franz was in his late forties maybe and worked at the Revenue Office. There was a brown belt whose name I cannot remember but who had an uncanny resemblance to Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror fame. A lean body, thin, stringy hair, a wicked sense of humour, a photographer by trade. Then there was Drago, a purple belt, who could jump and kick so high over his head that his foot touched the net of the basketball hoop, and that was at warm up. There were others, equally impressive. And there was I, a pale, clumsy high school idiot dancing around in his gym outfit. 

I bought a karate gi the days following my first session, and with it I felt somewhat more confident. What I quickly realized was that given only two or three beginners in the practice sessions, you were usually paired up with someone who knew what he was doing. 

If your punch didn't touch their chest, they would pull you in. If your stance was off-balance, they would push you over. If your leg didn't snap fast enough, they would catch it in mid-air. When they punched, they punched hard within an inch your chin. When they kicked, they kicked hard within an inch of your ear. You learned so fast, you had no choice. And they were nice about it. They were probably the nicest people I ever met as a group. 

(Lesson learned: If you learn something new, learn it from people who know what they are doing.)

Figure: Werner Pramhaas around 2017, older and wiser as we all are, and hopefully with the same passion with which he taught me. Source: https://www.kultur-plattform.at/event.php?id=786

Back to Pramhaas, or Werner as I called him at this point. 

In our Visual Arts class, Werner had discussed Christo, an artist famous for his large-scale and often controversial art installations. He was in the news at the time. 

They were actually an artist couple, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but I cannot remember hearing about her. They had put a giant orange curtain across a valley in Colorado. They had erected a 39-kilometre long, five-metre-high white fence in northern California. They wanted to wrap the Pont Neuf in fabric. (I later learned that Christo and Jeanne-Claude refused grants and scholarships, and instead financed their work from the sales of their artwork. Not a bad philosophy of independence, I still think.)

"I don't get it," I said to Werner in the change room after one of our practice sessions. "What does it all mean. Why is it art?"

"Well," Werner said. "What happens after you wrap something? Can you still see it?"

"Of course, not, I said. 

"And once it is unwrapped, can you see it then?"

"Of course," I said.

"Christo does the wrapping on a large scale, like a valley or a bridge or a building. He is changing your surroundings. He is manipulating your awareness of things. By hiding what is familiar, he makes it noticeable. What you knew all your life is suddenly different. And when he removes the wrapping, you become more aware of the familiar. As if seeing it for the very first time."

It made sense then. It still does today. 

A couple of weeks later, just before our February report cards, I had my oral exam in Visual Arts.  

"Michael," Werner said. "We talked about Christo's art installations a few weeks ago. What is it that Christo is trying to do?"

Needless to say, I repeated what Werner had said to me. And undoubtedly my classmates were thinking: How the hell does Baumann know any of this? At the time, I thought Werner was just being kind. But maybe he wanted to teach me another lesson.

Lesson learned: No matter where you are, you can always learn something new. Even when you just got out of a gang shower and sitting naked in the change room of a high school gym.

Sometime in spring, Werner had reserved the audio-visual room, the A.V. room as we called it. We usually liked going to the A.V. room because it meant that we could spend an hour or so doing nothing, pretending to watch some video we didn't care about. 

The room was located on the ground floor of the school building. It was the room where the school kept a television and a video recorder, both the size of a small refrigerator. The room had narrow horizontal windows along the top of the west wall, which made it easier to darken the room but also gave it the atmosphere of an air-raid shelter. (It was also the room where we would have our final oral high school exams, the room where I was the only student in my class to fail the final exam on the first go.)

Werner introduced the film we were about to watch. He said that it was about guest workers and that it had three parts, the first two parts about ten minutes long each, the third part about thirty minutes.

Guest workers are workers on temporary work visa. They used to come from Yugoslavia, then still intact as one nation state. Austrians had, and probably still have, an ambivalent attitude towards their guest workers. On one hand, they needed them to fill positions mostly in the construction industry. On the other hand, they went so far as to mock them publicly for not speaking proper German, assuming that some of the dialects Austrians speak can actually be called that. 

(It remains a mystery to me how you are supposed to learn a foreign language when every native speaker communicates with you in nouns and infinitive verb forms only? You shovel to get. You ditch to dig. You dirt to move. Is it possible that the guest workers thought that the German language is devoid of verb forms and tenses, compound sentences and conjunctions, and adverbs and adjectives, grammatical structures that were surely present in their native Slovenian or Serbo-Croatian?)

I did have a personal experience with guest workers. About a decade earlier, I had slipped on a hike, fallen off a cliff, and landed on my head. After a couple of days in I.C.U., I was transferred to another room, a room with six beds, mostly occupied by guest workers injured at construction sites. All of them made sure that an eight-year-old Austrian boy with severe head wounds was properly taken care off. I doubt that their kindness was ever repaid. 

Come to think of it, Drago, the purple belt at my karate dojo, was also a guest worker. 

In any case, Werner showed us the film. 

The first part showed the unsafe working conditions at construction sites, the legal limbo that guest worker find themselves in, the effects of an unregulated job market and housing market that targets foreigners. The greed of employers and the avarice of landlords. The guest workers themselves talked about the anguish they suffered from being separated from their wives and children.

The second part of the film portrayed guest workers as lazy, and cheap, and dirty. As men who chose to send all their money home, spend no money in Austria, and therefore live four, six, eight of them to a room. They skipped work contracts and often their rents. The evidence provided were the words of interviewed employers and landlords, and some footage of a dirty, windowless room filled with mattresses. 

The third part showed the raw footage from which the first two parts of the film had been cut.

It blew my mind.

Lesson learned: In the manipulation of people's opinions, omission of information is equally powerful as lying. Always strive to get the whole picture, always provide the whole picture. 

I am writing this in 2021, thirty-five years after I have seen Werner last. What can I say to him after all that time? The greatest reward a teacher can hope for is having your lessons survive in the minds and lives of your students. I teach university students. I know.