Beautiful furniture painted by farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries, but forgotten for years in attics and barns, is being brought back to life in a tiny Austrian village. Geras is close to the border of Czechoslavakia, about 75 miles north of Vienna.
Eight years ago the monks of the 800-year-old monastery in Geras asked a local farmer who was skilled in the folk art of painting on the reverse side of glass (Hinterglas Malerie) to teach the technique to others. Soon the courses multiplied and restoration and painting of peasant furniture became the principal activity of the Geras School. About 750 students come from Austria and abroad each year to take the two-week courses that run from March to November.
When the members of a new class arrive with the broken, worn or weathered things they are going to restore, the workrooms of the monastery are crowded with ancient cupboards, doors of cupboards, headboards, chests, chairs, wood sculpture, paintings and frames. The paintings are ripped and dirty. The frames are chipped and broken. The furniture may be wormy, with legs and other parts missing, painted designs partially worn off and sometimes, most difficult of all, painted over. Gradually over the two weeks after a lot of hard work and excellent instruction the paintings are cleaned and mended. Furniture is put together again and designs retouched; frames are repaired and regilded.
Twenty-two Norbertine priests and brothers live and carry out their various tasks in the Geras monastery. Dr. Dr. Angerer (two doctorates --Austrians love titles and are precise about them) is the priest in charge of the school. He also is the parish priest of a nearby village and a very busy man. Devoted to the school, he believes folk art speaks to everyone, unlike "modern art, which is sometimes difficult to understand." He feels that today's abundant leisure time should be spent developing creative talents in spiritual surroundings.
There are problems, though. Finding teachers who are highly qualified, able to communicate and willing to share their technical secrets isn't easy, especially as they are aware that some of the students are themselves professionals anxious to learn new aspects of their trade. Dr. Angerer thinks this is not a bad situation because the level of teaching and learning is predominantly amateur with emphasis on discovery and enthusiasm. A recent class included:
An airline stewardess from Luxembourg who found her work material in an antique shop in a neighboring village. It was a huge clothes cupboard, badly in need of repair but with good lines and the old design clearly discernible. She cleaned the surface dirt and old varnish, treated the wood with a solution against fungus and worms, repaired and replaced the broken parts, filled in bad cracks with wood putty (homemade to formula), and began to retouch the missing painting. The cupboard, looking splendid, was crated at the end of the course ready to ship to Luxembourg.
Two women from South Africa, teachers there of folk painting. They especially wanted to learn the techniques of restoration and to study Austrian motifs and methods of applying paint. One did an excellent job of restoring a pretty small chest with paintings of deer in the panels; before leaving Geras she sold it to an admiring fellow student.
A hotel clerk from Passau who brought a beautiful but badly torn Baroque painting to restore, and was very knowledgeable about antiques in general. He said the best source for all kinds of antiques in his neighborhood is a shop stocked by a man who makes regular trips to Czechoslavakia, one of about 10 dealers licensed by the Czech government to take out articles that are not considered national treasures.
A 78-year-old man (Herr Ingenieur) from a town in the Vienna Woods. He had somehow transported an enormous ceiling painting earlier removed from the ruin of a castle in Austria's eastern province of Burgenland. The painting was 30 by 10 feet when laid out on the floor and literally in pieces.He treated the front and back with resins to secure the remaining colors and put parts of it in the press that is available to students. On his next trip to Geras he will mend the painting and start to retouch.
An employee of the Austrian Highway Department whose work takes him through many rural areas. He buys his treasures directly from the farmers, but says you have to know how to talk to them -- they don't want to sell anything. The cabinet he worked on had been painted over in a solid color a century or so ago at a time when farmers first went regularly to the cities and saw the middleclass wooden furniture there. In an effort to be modish they often painted over their lovely old designs with a simulated wood effect. This layer, or sometimes layers, must be removed millimeter by millimeter with a scalpel. Everyone in the class helped from time to time; it was exciting to see the colors and designs emerge.
An elderly Viennese baroness (always addressed as Frau Baronin or no answer) who worked on several badly torn up family portraits and frames ("slashed by the Russians during the occupation").
The wife of a doctor (Frau Doktor) who drove daily three-quarters of an hour to and from her home. She restored the lid of a chest and would use it later as an example to help her with finishing the rest of the piece.
The wife of an Austrian diplomat on home leave from Trieste who found time for the two weeks in Geras.
An American housewife-painter from Vienna (the writer) who had bought her painting to restore in Venice the summer before. In Vienna, old paintings with holes in them are just as expensive as those in good condition because there are so many students of restoration in the city. I once had been able to find an ugly but cheap painting in a junk shop there, but on complaining to the shopkeeper that it wasn't damaged enough to be interesting as a learning project, he said "Gnaidege Frau, when it only costs you 50 schillings, you can afford to poke a hole in it." I was unable to commit the crime.
A retired man from Wurzburg who had shipped only one door of his cupboard -- he himself had traveled 11 hours by train to Geras. His big worry was that he might have to pay duty to get the door back into Germany because of its excellent condition at the end of the course.
An Austrian woman from a wellknown family of antique dealers in Vienna. She had a handsome Baroque inlaid chair with some missing intarsia (multicolored wood inlay) and a beautiful but chipped gold mirror. She learned to repair the chips with a chalk mixture and how to replace the gold leaf.
A Viennese druggist in his white work coat looking just like a doctor as they all try to do. He worked on an ancient wood sculpture of the crucifixion, mending the missing parts of the feet and hands and replacing the gold leaf on the draperies.
In addition to Hinterglas Malerei, restoration and folk painting courses are offered in ceramics, intarsia, icon painting, art lettering, and drawing and portrait painting with the emphasis on old master techniques. There are usually two or three classes going on at the same time, with about 40 people in all.
Students live in spacious, comfortable rooms in a wing of the monastery, or in the Meierhof, the monastery dairy barns built in 1666, where part of the building has been converted to rooms with baths. Another part is still reserved for farm work and for the workrooms of the carpenter, available to help students in their reconstruction of old furniture.
The average cost for the two-weeks course is the equivalent of about $100 and for a room with breakfast (wonderful fresh rolls and strong coffee) about $6 per day. At lunchtime it's a pleasant stroll through the woods to the Geras Game Preserve where a restaurant serves good meals with a strong Czech influence (lots of dumplings).One record menu consisted of liver dumpling soup, pork with dumplings and plum dumplings for dessert. The place has a fairy-tale quality, surrounded as it is with deer, wild boar, mountain sheep with curving horns, goats and little donkeys -- all roaming free. No one would be surprised to see Little Red Riding Hood skip through the trees.
Like the surroundings of Geras, all the countryside north of Vienna is romantic, rolling and heavily wooded. There are few but picturesque villages and a profusion of castles and monasteries. Some are in ruins but many are open to the public as museums. Few foreign tourists are around at any time of the year but the Waldviertel is a favorite excursion area for the Viennese.
In March the school at Geras will conduct its first class for a group from the United States. It will be on peasant painting and Hinterglas Malerei with not more than 25 being enrolled. Although classes are ordinarily in German, this one will be in English.
Inquiries can be addressed to KunstBildungszentrum, Stift Geras, A-2093 Geras NO, Austria. Telephone: Austria 029123/834589.