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Fairy Tale Kingdom

Mira Dayal


LEGEND HAS IT that a young King Ludwig II of Bavaria, known as the Fairy Tale King, told his governess: “I want to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.” Arriving at his magnifcent castle more than a century after his death, we could see instantly that his dream had come true.

We were there to celebrate the 80th birthday of Franz Herzog von Bayern (the Duke of Bavaria), head of the Wittelsbach family and a descendant of Ludwig II. We reached the royal palace after driving several hours on the Autobahn, followed by a boat ride across Bavaria’s largest lake, Chiemsee , to the island of Herreninsel, where a walk on a path through the woods took us to the castle.

Construction of Herrenchiemsee (New Palace) began in 1878 but was not completed until two years after the 42-year-old king’s mysterious death in 1886. 

The so-called Bavarian Versailles, which was modeled after the French palace, boasts elegant staterooms, a huge state staircase and the Great Hall of Mirrors. Ludwig, however, preferred his small apartment designed in the French rococo style. The large garden, with its now-famous fountains, was not completed until after his death.

We passed through the north wing to the Fairy Tale King’s awe-inspiring masterpiece. In a two-story section of the castle marked by unfnished brick walls, there were exhibition spaces flled with works by Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Arnulf Rainer and Eugen Schönebeck. Also on display were installations by Dan Flavin, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and John Chamberlain.

The spectacular exhibition of American art in this historic setting marks the intersection of modernism and tradition, where Europe meets America. And while it may appear striking that the historic castle features art which postdates its walls, the exhibition was, in fact, building on the House of Wittelsbach’s long history of collecting works by the world’s best artists during each respective generation and making these collections available to the public.

Franz was born in Munich in 1933 to Duke Albrecht of Bavaria and his wife, the Croatian Countess Maria Draskovich. His family staunchly opposed the Nazi regime and left Germany for Budapest in 1939. They lived there in exile until 1944 when Hitler invaded Hungary and ordered the arrest of the family, including 11-year-old Franz. The royals spent the remainder of the war in various concentration camps, including Dachau, until American troops liberated them in 1945. The duke resumed his education, eventually studying economics and business in Munich and Zurich.

Meanwhile, a debate continues in England over amending the 17th-century Act of Settlement, which could technically place Franz in the direct line of succession to the British throne. The act, which created a parliamentary monarchy and prevented any Catholic from ever ascending to the throne, was established after Franz’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great- grandfather, King James II, was deposed during the Glorious Revolution.

Succession passed to James’ Protestant daughter, Mary II, who ruled jointly with King William II. They died without heirs, and the throne eventually passed from the Stuarts to the current House of Windsor. The law stands, but is amended periodically (most recently to allow frst-born royal ofspring to inherit the throne regardless of gender), and the Protestant requirement continues to be debated. 

But the duke does not spend time dwelling on royal succession, focusing instead on the Wittelsbach family tradition of promoting the arts and sciences. He is a member of the board of trustees for both the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich and the German Museum. He is also a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, chairman of the Society for the Promotion of the Alte Pinakothek, vice-chairman of the Munich Gallery Society and chairman of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

And so it was ftting that the duke decided to celebrate his birthday with a spectacular debut of artworks from Munich’s world- renowned Pinakothek der Moderne, where many masterpieces from the duke’s private collection are on permanent loan.

After viewing the exhibitions, we mingled with guests outside the castle, overlooking the magnifcent fountains. We refected on the vision of Ludwig II over 100 years ago and the continuation of that vision through Franz today. Before heading back into the castle for dinner, we could not help but believe that fairy tales do exist. One has only to dream.