Wiener Kunstreise
November 2005

When you study art history, you see “Kunsthistorisches Museum” as the repository pretty often. When you go to Vienna, you get to see those paintings, and architecture by a host of interesting architects. I spent a week in Vienna just before Thanksgiving and came home pretty well sated but with plenty left over for another trip or two or three.

I flew over on November 16th and walked to my hotel from the Wien-Mitte train station after taking the train in from the airport. The hotel room wasn’t ready so I went off and wandered in churches and into the lobby of the Loos Haus. The latter is one of the seminal works of modernist architecture but, alas, was shrouded in scaffolding which hid its severe facade. The main area is now an exclusive bank and you cannot wander very far into the building. The interior is lush. One of the churches I visited was the Augustinerkirche which houses the tomb of Maria Christina by Canova. Another of the greatest hits from Art History 101 and truly splendid. Last year when in Venice, I saw Canova’s tomb which is based on a similar pyramidal design though completed by a student of his.

After I got into the room and decompressed for a bit, I went out again and found the Secession Building by Olbrich. Though the Secession was between shows, the basement room with the “Beethoven Frieze” by Klimt was open. And they had a nice bookshop too. The Secession Building is near the Karlsplatz stations by Otto Wagner and the Karlskirche. In the Karlskirche, you could ride an elevator up into the scaffolding for the cupola fresco restoration. A few flights of stairs and you were in the very top of the cupola with a 360° panorama of the city. From there, I could see the Leopoldskirche, Gasometer, some of the flak towers, the historic center, and all sorts of other things. Good for orientation.

I meandered some more and found something to eat, went back to the room but it was too early to go to bed though jetlag was taking a toll. I walked over to the Stephansdom, the main cathedral. A mass was going on so I couldn’t go very far into the church. On the way back to the hotel, I noticed the lights were on at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and, indeed, it was late night at the museum. That first visit ended up being my only visit to the museum but the two hours there were splendid. The Mantegna “Sebastian” is just alive with light, and much smaller than I anticipated. Size and proportion are lost when seeing reproductions and projected slides. Sometimes a work is about the size you’d expect; other times, the size will just knock you off your feet. Just after seeing the Mantegna, I entered a gallery that almost caused me to faint dead away. On the left wall were Correggio’s “Io” and “Ganymede”; on the end wall was the Parmigianino self-portrait in a convex mirror; on the right wall a Parmigianino Amor and a copy after. Wow. Lots of Caravaggio, Rubens, Orazio Gentileschi, Holbein, Vermeer, Bruegel, and the 15th-century Flemings. Sharon Chickanzeff, my Venetian traveling companion last year, had lent me her cashmere scarf, saying that it wanted to go to Vienna. Sharon is a fan of ponies, drawing ponies at many a department manager meeting, and as I looked at a Titian with a pony or two, a whiff of the scarf (grapefruit perfume, Sharon tells me) crossed my senses and it was a full moon, another reminder of Venice. The scarf became a sort of talisman and companion. While looking at the Bruegel peasant wedding, I was reminded of my ex wife Dorothy who looked a bit like the bride at the wedding feast. Finally, I let myself leave the paintings (actually, they were ready to close) and toodled off to bed.

The next morning I walked over to the Liechtenstein Princely Collections, passing the neoclassical Parliament, the ornate city hall, and the gothic revival Votivkirche on the way. The Liechtenstein collections brought more Rubens and lots of wonderful wall paintings. It’s a very sumptuous building, rather recently reconverted as a museum of works from the Liechtenstein collections, having spent some years as the Museum Moderner Kunst. The library on the main floor was interesting to visit, though the classifying seemed to be mostly by color of binding.

After leaving the Liechtenstein palace, I decided to walk over to the Karl Marx Hof, 1920s public housing. On the way, I passed the steam plant decorated by Hundertwasser which has a golden ball on the smoke stack. It was very interesting to see the well-known Karl Marx Hof in context. The photographers of book and magazine illustrations obviously use sophisticated cameras and lenses but the building is much more part of its neighborhood than the photos let on. And there are other similar apartment buildings in the immediate area. Nearby and elsewhere around were public housing that was much less “modern” though considerably later in date. Checking my architectural map, I noticed that there were three houses by Josef Hoffmann on the hill above the Karl Marx Hof. These three houses were quite different: an arts and crafts bungalow rather laden with ivy, the house next door that might have looked similar but had been stripped of any plants and was freshly painted, and a smaller house around the corner that had nice edge trim. I took the tram back to the hotel and rested a bit before getting some supper and coffee before the concert at the Musikverein.

They said it was easier to get concert tickets here so I checked the concert schedule and picked a Mussorgsky, Gubaidulina, and Stravinsky concert with the Radio Symphony Orchestra. I’d never heard a Gubaidulina piece live and it included a duet between the cello and tympani, very beautifully played. Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” was sublime, the orchestra playing as one voice.

On Saturday, I decided to walk around the western residential areas beyond Schönbrunn. I had a good architectural guidebook with solid maps as well as a city map. There are several Loos houses (Steiner, Horner, Scheu) in this neighborhood as well as the Villa Skywa-Primavesi by Josef Hoffmann, an apartment house by Plecnik, and the Beer house by Josef Frank. The Steiner House is splendid and it was delightful to see it in person (and it was only here that I saw other architectural tourists), but the Horner House stole my heart. It is a modest house with a semicircular roofline. As I meandered about, there were fluffy snow flakes in the air, not cold enough to be annoying. The maps in the guidebook don’t seem to have suffered much from the snow falling on them. Not too far away is the Werkbund Housing Estate from 1930 which includes houses and apartment buildings by several modernist architects. There’s a wonderful Neutra house in the complex which was inspired by the Weissenhof project in Stuttgart which I had visited in 1987. A cup of coffee refreshed me and I walked over to the Kirche am Steinhof, a glorious church by Otto Wagner. It was quite a long walk but I passed a variety of sights including an area of small houses that are apparently the “country houses” of the Viennese. I saw similar houses from the train, sometimes in the back yard, sometimes in clusters near community gardens. Alas, the Kirche am Steinhof was behind scaffolding and I wasn’t able to see the interior with decoration by Kolo Moser.

After taking the bus back to the center, I stopped for a Käsekrainer (sausage, recommended by Sam Albert) behind the opera house and continued to the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (MAK) which is free on Saturdays. The MAK has a beautiful historicist atrium with polychrome decoration, rather like the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin. The collections are elaborately installed but just inside of overdone. There are some wonderful things in the collection, including Hoffmann furniture and the studies for the Klimt panels in the Stoclet House in Brussels. I heard the guard say “Jenny Holzer” to some other visitors and looked through the window into a gallery below, blue light that could have been Holzer though there was no label. Holzer did a project in NYC recently that included projecting declassified documents on the wall of Bobst Library where I work.

After a couple days of city touring, I decided to take the train on Sunday to Melk Abbey which was rebuilt ca. 1700 in high baroque. The interior is golden and rosy stone, with lots of painting and sculpture. Without being on a tour, you cannot visit many of the buildings. During the winter, you cannot go onto the front plaza that overlooks the Danube. I’m thrilled that I went to Melk but I’d recommend doing it with a group during the warmer months. Again, there was considerable snow in the air but not much accumulation. That is, not enough to get above the soles of my Birkenstocks.

Schönnbrun called on Monday so I went to that palace and its gardens. The palace is rather severe inside and I preferred the Belvedere which I saw on Tuesday. November is not high season in the gardens but there is a wonderful pavilion-monument on the hill above that gives a splendid view around Vienna. There is also a wonderful Roman ruin in the park. Monday was splendid, weather wise: starting with fluffy snowflakes, clearing somewhat followed by light hail (soft pellets of snow rather than ice), and then dry again.

After resting up a bit at the hotel, I went to the Leopold Museum where the special show was masterworks from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. That meant that I got to see the Manet flutist, the Caillebotte floor scrapers, and a bunch of other French masterpieces as well as the Schieles and other Austrians. After leaving the Leopold, I walked over to the Postsparkasse building by Otto Wagner. The banking hall was already closed but you could meander about the front lobby and look into the banking hall. Then over to the Hundertwasser Haus just after dark. It was magical. I then took the U-Bahn to the Gasometer complex which is four circular industrial buildings which have recently been converted to housing. A new building by Coop Himmelblau is attached as are new buildings by several other prominent architects. Since the Architecture Center is open late, I stopped there before returning to the hotel. The special show on wine architecture was mostly documentary but included a wonderful project by Boris Podrecca in Slovenia. After I got home, I found a nice Podrecca catalog from a while ago at the Strand Book Store. His was a familiar name but I really like his buildings.

Tuesday was my last full day in Vienna and it was a little hard to decide what to do with the day. I walked past some wonderful apartment buildings by Otto Wagner near the Naschmarkt and then went to find the Coop Himmelblau project on the top of a building near the Postsparkasse. You cannot see much of the Coop Himmelblau but it was the first building by them that hit the press. Since I was near the Postsparkasse, I went into the banking hall and the small Wagner museum there. Delightful, then on to the Belvedere.

The Lower Belvedere houses the earlier parts of the Österreichische Galerie. I very much enjoyed the building. A fountain from one of the market squares is now in the museum and it includes some wonderful river god figures. Maybe not Bernini but pretty nice. Here I also found a painting of Sebastian by Paul Troger in a different position than the “normal” standing figure with arrows. He is hanging by one arm, his body stretched almost to the breaking point, rather like a Deposition. There was a mid 17th-century Sebastian sculpture at the Liechtenstein in a similar pose. A new topic -- the dangling Sebastian -- for that art history thesis I have no intention of doing.

The Belvedere medieval galleries are in the Orangery. After visiting them, I walked up to the Upper Belvedere. As I walked through the garden, the snow was falling somewhat vigorously. By the time I got to the upper palace, the city was rather obscured by the falling snow and low clouds. By the time I was half way through the show in the Upper Belvedere, the snow was thick enough in the air that you could barely see the Lower Belvedere and the rest of the city was not visible. Still, it didn’t accumulate as much as an inch.

The show in the Upper Belvedere was “The new Austria” and it was mainly documentary. The show was woven around the modern collections where one gallery had Klimt’s “Kiss” and four other large Klimt paintings, an incredible feast.

Before retiring for the day, I went to the painting galleries of the Academy of Fine Arts where they have the incredible “Last Judgment” by Hieronymus Bosch, a fine “Crowning of the Virgin Mary” by Dirk Bouts, an early Van Dyck self portrait, more Rubens, Guardi views of Venice, and several good Dutch animal paintings. Not a big or comprehensive collection but some truly magnificent works.

I also stopped at “geheimsache:leben” at the Neustiftshalle which documented gay and lesbian life in Austria in the 20th century. In addition to the documentary material, there was a gallery of interesting works including some more Anton Kolig drawings (I was not familiar with his work but “met” him at the Leopold), four large Matthias Herrmann photos (him, I’m quite familiar with and he’s the director of the Secession), and a video by Christina Goestl that reminded me of the work of Tee Corinne with whom I edit the Queer Caucus for Art Newsletter. In one of those stupid moments, I thought “I don’t have enough cash, I’ll buy the catalog when I get back to the U.S.” Of course, the catalog is elusive here and I should have just spent the remaining cash I had and run off to the ATM. And they had a Kolig catalog but that has already been requested on interlibrary loan.

I finished A confederacy of dunces by John Kennedy Toole on the airplane over, read The disinherited by Han Ong, and then started reading the biography of Emma, Lady Hamilton by Flora Fraser. Lady Hamilton lived for many years in Naples where she was a friend of Maria Carolina, who was a sister of Marie Antoinette and daughter of Maria Theresia who is evident all about Vienna. It never hurts to be “in context” when reading biographies.

Of course, I did eat and drink as I meandered but I went for the art and architecture, and found it in bundles. The Albertina is probably at the top of the list for the next trip but there’s lots else to do as well. I had contemplated a day trip to Budapest but didn’t make it there. I didn’t even make it to Klosterneuburg and that’s barely out of the city. I did see a road sign for Prague but that’s also still on the unvisited list. As we rose out of town on the plane on Wednesday, I saw the Werkbund Siedlung, the Kirche am Steinhof, and other places I’d visited. Soon we were above clouds and I returned to reading Beloved Emma by Flora Fraser.

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