Half a century after the death of Ludwig II of Bavaria, mountain peasants were still talking about "our king" and some wore his picture on the suspenders of their lederhosen.
The old men would tell how they had seen their "kinnie" ride through the snow at night in a golden sleigh drawn by white horses, his mounted footmen lighting the way with torches.
And there was always someone who, after his fourth or fifth mug, would noisily inform the whole bierstube that there was nothing mysterious about the death of the 48-year-old Ludwig, who had been declared insane and confined in Schloss Berg am Starnberger See. He was strangled by Bismarck, of course.
The Bismarck story is ludicrous. The Prussian chancellor had gotten all he wanted from the eccentric Bavarian king.
But the nocturnal sleigh rides are fact. You can still see the gilded sleigh -- a fantastic contraption acrobatically supported by a fat, Teutonic Neptune, a buxom mermaid, half a dozen bouncy putti and not a straight line -- at Scholss Nymphenburg near Munich in a hall full of equally unlikely rococo coaches.
You can now also see the drawing for this sleigh along with hundreds of other drawings and items that made up King Ludwig's fantasy world, in a superbly mounted exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City.
Designs for "The Dream King -- Ludwig II of Bavaria," opened last week and will run through March 25. It was organized jointly with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is, however, supplemented by several astonishing artifacts from the collections of the Bavarian state which the Cooper-Hewitt brought directly from Munich. Although much smaller, this exhibit has some of the breath-taking magnificence of the "King Tut" and "Splendors of Dresden" exhibitions. All these shows are so enormously popular, because, after decades of Modern chromed-steel and polished austerity, if not rough, dirty concrete, we seem to have a craving for richer fare -- shamelessly luxurious ornamentation, color, materials and even a little sensuous nawkishness.
It was that sleigh and those dream castles, the sweet scent of decay in his Venus grottos and mirrored halls, the romantic Wagnerian stage sets built for real, that made Ludwig II a lasting legend. Without his edifice complex he would be all but forgotten -- a melancholy, withdrawn, ineffective, homosexual ruler, without much ability.
Frustrated as the absolute ruler he wanted to be, the king resolved at least to build like a king.
Ludwig was a creative client who thought up and supervised every detail of his everlasting architectural creations and furnishings. Amazingly, his subjects let him do it. The mass of the people were proud of his castles long before they turned into a lucrative tourist industry.
Ludwig somehow realized the people's vague dreams of beauty and the good life. And while his catles, with their lavish halls and chambers and gardens, were not exactly accessible to the public, they celebrated human life on earth. Most people knew such splendor only in ecclesiastic buildings, promising the glories of the hereafter. The king realized everybody's profane dreams.
In a sense, the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit tells us more about Ludwig's art than would a visit to fairy-tale Neuschwanstein, Versailles-like Herrenchiemsee or rococo Linderhof. We can dwell on design and detail rather than being overwhelmed by effect and mass. We see the essence of this art as clearly in an inkwell, tooth-powder box of coffee cup as in a whole palace.
The Dream King's art, architecture and artifacts are in no way original. As the excellent catalogue points out, Ludwig was not even up-to-date in the eclectic historicism with which he embraced Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, French Rococo, Moorish, Chinese and pre-Disney Fantasia.
Ludwigian design replaces originality with literate craftsmanship. The Cooper-Hewitt show takes pains to acquaint us with the individual architects, stage designers, weavers, clock-makers, cabinetmakers, silversmiths and other virtuosos who achieved such astonishing harmony.
Ludwig achieved, come to think of it, precisely what the Bauhaus hoped to achieve but never did: architecture as Gesamtkunstwerk , a totally symphonic and harmonious work of art, that the working people loved.
It is a pleasure to see such craftsmanship. It shows with amazing exactitude, even in the drawings for the designs.
It is an even greater pleasure to see design that does not feel compelled to be innovative and original. The Dream King's designers were content to do perfect work.
There may be a message here that transcends the fascination of a romantically mad king. It is a message of some importance, particularly coming from the Cooper-Hewitt, which is the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design.