Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bitola & Kruševo

Mount Pelister from Stiv Naumov street, Bitola
Well, my first day working on my project today, and what an absolutely remarkable day it's been.

I arrived in Bitola yesterday- the second largest city in Macedonia. It's a fairly interesting place, known as "the city of the consuls"- during the latter days of the Ottoman empire, Bitola was a centre of diplomacy, with many countries basing their representatives here. There are still a dozen or so consulates here today, although how active they are is a moot point.

"Sirok Sokak", Bitola, Monday evening

The centre of Bitola is officially called ul. Marsal Tito (Tito Street), although no one actually calls it that- it's known by everyone as Sirok Sokak (Wide Street)- in the dimensional, rather than the Scottish, sense of "Wide". This is also a remnant from Ottoman times in Macedonia. Sirok Sokak is the main social and shopping street in town; I'm just back from there, and it is absolutely mobbed- at 9.30 on a Tuesday night, in a manner frankly unimaginable in old stomping grounds such as Dundee or Perth. At the top of this thoroughfare, there is a statue of the ancient Macedonian king, Phillip II, a melodious clocktower, and two very impressive mosques. Behind the mosques a little bit, there is the Stara Carsija or old bazaar. In Ottoman times, this was a centre of artisanry and trade- apparently, at one time, 250 different trades were crammed into this claustrophobic rabbit warren of narrow streets. There are still trades there today, albeit in far fewer numbers; the main source of business now seems to be leatherwork, parts for 1980s cars ranging from Yugos and Ladas to Escorts and Sierras, and, er, a shop selling scarves for the local football team, FK Pelister Bitola. Pelister are at a low ebb however, having been relegated from the Macedonian Prva Liga last season- so they really must be dreadful.

Dalmatinska ulica, Old Bazaar, Bitola
Bitola is not a city for the street-sign dependant map readers amongst you. Street signs, even in the city centre, border on the non-existant, whilst directions to other vaguely important places- Skopje, for example- seem to date from the Yugoslav era and have either worn away or are falling off the lamp-post. One has to navigate by a mixture of landmark, repetitive walking, and osmosis. It's a city, too, where clear signs of the Yugoslav past remain; not only the obligatory regular monuments to fallen partisans from the great struggle of 1941-44 (the Bulgarians had been booted out of here by late 1944, by the Macedonian partisan brigades), but also street names that have mostly been replaced in other ex-Yugoslav countries. Here, streets are still named after Lenin (Leninova), and long forgotten Yugoslav Communists such as Eduard Kardelj, Ivo Lola-Ribar, Boris Kidric, and Ivan Milutinovic. Partisan heroes are also commemorated- Stiv Naumov- alongside martyrs of the Illinden period. Macedonia seems to have the least amnesiac relationship of all the republics with the Yugoslav past. For every Macedonian nationalist, who bemoans the "lost" parts of Macedonia, in present-day Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania, you'll find someone who bemoans the end of Yugoslavia, and the apparently easier life of those times.

Kruševo from the Martinovski museum
Enjoyable though Bitola is- another real livewire of a place at night- the spectacular highlight so far has been today's trip to the little mountaintop village of Kruševo, about 30 miles north-by-north-west of Bitola. I drove there this morning for my first day of research, and after hesitantly sputtering along a slippy and rutted tarmac road, which featured spectacular hairpin bends for the last twenty or so kilometers, I was richly rewarded.  As well as being a modern day ski and winter sport centre, Kruševo is significant both in Macedonian history and the Macedonian present; firstly, as the seat of the Illinden uprising of 1903, against the rule of the Ottoman empire; secondly, as home to the "first Macedonian modernist" Nikola Martinovski; and, thirdly, as home and location of a memorial to the "Macedonian Elvis Pressley, Tose Proeski. It's also, nearly 4,000 m above sea level, the highest town in the Balkans.

I began by trying to find the Martinovski museum, eventually discovering it at the end of a narrow cobbled street, about ten minutes from the centre of the town. It is located in a lovely old town house with spectaclar views of the rooftops and the surrounding mountains. A grey working donkey, tethered to a pile of logs, was honking and braying loudly into the bargain, just below the museum walls, in between munching on what seemed to be a gigantic pyramid of carrot peelings.

Nikola Martinovski, Wet Nurse, 1948.

Nikola Martinovski died a few weeks before I was born, in early summer 1973. Five years before his demise, the federal Yugoslav government provided the money to buy this handsome building in Kruševo and do it up, to house the majority of his paintings. In 1924, Martinovski left Macedonia for Bucharest, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts for three years; after completed his studies in Romania, he spent 1927-28 in Paris, spending time working at the Grand Chaumière, under de la Bissière and Moise Kisling.

On his return to Yugoslavia in 1928, Martinovski participated in the first showing of contemporary art in the Macedonian capital, and was part of a pan-Yugoslav modernist grouping called Oblik ("Form"). He was to spend the next 45 years in Skopje, with regular visits to Kruševo and to Paris to see old friends. Martinovski was a good example of the strong Francophile orientation that inter-war Yugoslav painting had; his work shows a thorough understanding of the work of Modigliani, Matisse and Chagall. During the war, Martinovski contributed visual images and propaganda to the partisan struggle; a study of a partisan, completed in 1944, still forms an important part of one of the rooms.

Martinovski's wartime work and pre-war fame ensured that he was well-placed to play an important role in the Yugoslav art world, during the presidency of Tito (1945-80). He exhibited regularly in Skopje and Belgrade, and was a significant academician and art world politician in the 50s and 60s. In the post-war period, Martinovski chose to concentrate on the themes of family, motherhood, and social studies of everyday life in Kruševo. This collection is extremely interesting and wide ranging, featuring oil painting, drawings and lithography. Although Martinovski is little known outwith the former Yugoslav countries, his work is well received and popular; in Macedonia, his work enjoys the same kind of status that a Fergusson or Peploe does in Scotland.

The extraordinary monument to the Illinden uprising (1972-74)
The real surprise of the day, however, was the monument to the Illinden uprising, on the crest of the hill about 2kms from Kruševo town centre. Briefly (you can read the wikipedia article linked to above), the Illinden uprising involved macedonian and Bulgarian peasants rising against ottoman rule, in 1903; a ten day "independent republic" or Kruševo was declared. The Ottomans put down the revolt with pitiless harshness, liquidating the independent political leadership, conducting a wholesale massacre of the civilian population of the town, and handing out long sentences of imprisonment or deportation to many survivors.

The monument to this tragic incident in Macedonian history was first conceived as a project by the federal Yugoslav government in 1972; the remarkable structure was opened to the public in August 1974. Conceived by the sculptor Jordan Grabuloski and his architect wife Iskra, this is probably the most unusual and extraordinary building that I've ever seen. Featuring biomorphic sculptural reliefs, beautiful blue and green ovoid stain glass windows, and an exterior that is part Rollerball, part over-sized limpet mine, part Le Corbusier on powerful hallucinogens .

In Yugoslav times, the monument was supposed to stand as a symbol of the centuries-long struggle for Macedonian freedom from oppressive imperial rule; a struggle that, back then, was supposed to have reached its peak with the establishment of a Socialist Republic of Macedonia, within a broader Yugoslav federation. The interior decorations present the Illinden uprising as a premature revolutionary outburst doomed to failure from the outset, lacking the necessary Marxist understanding of history alongside atavistic nationalist sentiment. In this way, the monument marks the appropriation of a nationalist uprising by a broader state-socialist, Titoist ideology; it opened on the 71st anniversary of the uprising but, more importantly back then, it also marked the thirtieth anniversary of the first meeting of ASNOM (the Anti-Fascist Liberation Council of Macedonia- the wartime military-political umbrella body that resisted fascist occupation in this part of the world).

Whilst the main accounts of the Yugoslav partisan war, by Milovan Djilas and Vladimir Dedijer, focus on the struggle against the Germans and Italians in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, here in Macedonia the struggle was run almost independently, under the leadership of Svetozar Vukmanovic-Tempo; Tempo accepted Tito's overall supremacy in Yugoslavia, under AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist National Liberation Council of Yugoslavia), he had a largely free hand in Macedonia to conduct resistance to a rather savage occupation by Bulgaria. Little is available in English on the subject of the partisan war in Macedonia.

Stained glass glows through one of the main portholes of the monument
These days, of course, the Communist iconography is little understood, and the Communist interpretation of Macedonia's development is flatly rejected as outdated and anachronistic; the building now is a cradle of Macedonian nationalist sentiment, with a new nationalist narrative from Illinden, to secessionist upheaval in the 1920s, to independence in late 1991, now suggested. Aesthetics aside, it is this tension in function that makes the structure so fascinating; as a monument to the Macedonian past, filtered through the Lens of Titoist and Yugoslav ideologies, now re-interpreted for a post-Communist present. the building is at once a virtuoso display of the vibrancy and invention of Yugoslav socialist modernism, at the same time as being a contemporary tombstone for a thoroughly dead ideology.

A giant portrait of Tose Proeski faces his monastery and memorial
 Just how much has changed since the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation in the early 90s can be witnessed by the monument to the Macedonian folk and rock star, Tose Proeski, which occupies a large space at the bottom of the hill, under the Illinden monument. Before his death, Proeski invested heavily in a monastery and space for spiritual contemplation; he was killed, at the horribly young age of 26, in a car crash in Croatia, in October 2007. I know nothing about Proeski's music, but he is one of the few figures in post-Yugoslav times who has an eager following all over the Balkans. Several busloads of tourists were in attendance at his memorial and monastery today, and local flower, teddy bear and bottled water sellers were doing a brisk trade out of the back of their Stojadins.  Religion was grudgingly tolerated in Tito's era but the emergence of Proeski as some kind of uncanonised saint in the last four years shows just how quickly the Macedonian Orthdox faith has expanded to fill the yawning ideological void left by the end of Titoist socialism.

Tomorrow I'm off to Prilep, the artist's colony and tobacco town. I've had a great start to my work today, if Prilep proves to be only half as interesting as Kruševo has been today, then I'll be content.

PS, if you're not on facebook, you can still see the full photo set relating to this article here

Sunday, 28 August 2011


Ohrid old town from the lake
So, it's been a really enjoyable four days here. Ohrid isn't a big town, but it is permanently busy and, whatever you are here for, there's something usually available to do.

Like many towns in the former Yugoslavia, Ohrid is split between an old town that spirals down from the crest of the hill in a series of tight, cobblestoned-corkscrew streets. Imagine Ansthruther or Pittenweem, with Fife accents and fish n chips replaced by baking heat, burek, and Macedonian, and you're somewhere close. On the other side of Bul Kliment Ohridski is the Tito-era part of town, all rectilinear low rise apartments and hotels in various states of repair.

The old town is quite beguilingly beautiful, as befits a world UNESCO heritage site (Ohrid has held this status since 1979). There are two remarkable churches, one of which- St. Jovan at Kaneo- is widely believed to be the most photographed structure anywhere in Macedonia. The town of Ohrid was founded by St. Klement Ohridski, who has a statue by the plane tree at the lakeside. In the early mediaevel times, Ohrid was a significant religious centre, and the first South Slav university was founded here. Back then there was a continual war between the South Slavs of various origins, and the Ottomans, and the Ottomans eventually prevailed, ruling the roost here until the beginning of the twentieth century.

...and the Lake from the old town
These days Ohrid is mainly a tourist town; Bul. Kliment Ohridski is crammed at all hours of the day and (even Sunday) night. It's like walking on Oxford Street on a busy Saturday. Macedonians are very open, sociable, family-oriented folk; large family groups promenade slowly down to the lakeside, chatting animatedly. The street has its eccentrics, too; a white bearded man, ludicrously sporting some 1970s pink Elton John-style outsize glasses, stumbles erratically through everything from folk songs to Happy Birthday on his wheezing accordion.There is a significant Albanian population here, too, unsurprising with Albania on the other side of the lake. On Friday, as I headed out for a long walk, the call to prayer from the mosque was sounding across the town centre.

It's unusual, too, that the secular and the sacred seem to co-exist so easily here. In the UK, large churches and religious sites have an unspoken small exclusion zone around them, so that no pubs or clubs disturb their peace and quiet; here, Eurodisco and house cranks out from about nine at night, cheek by jowl with some of the remarkable churches on the hill. Much of the tourist population throngs Sar Camuel in the evening, where the main boozers and clubs are. I was delighted to re-acquaint myself with Slovenian Lasko again over the weekend; after the Macedonian Skopsko beer, the smooth, fast-disappearing Ljubljana potion seem the one most widely available.

Yesterday I took a break from watching the 24hr football on Ustream, and went to a real game; 100 denar (£1.25) got me in to the crumbling Biljana Springs stadium to see the local team, newly promoted, against the big city slickers of Vardar Skopje. Or, in Macedonian terms, the Ribari (Fishermen) against the Црвено-Црни (Red and Blacks). The stadium was like a run-down Dundee junior ground, with a running track around it (think Downfield or Dundee Violet, for those of you who know these exotic junior stadia). In truth, watching the capacity crowd of 3,000 was much more entertaining than the actual game, which was brutal- soporifically slow, error-strewn, replete with misplaced passes and woeful timidity in attack.

Flares, Bog Roll and lots of noise as the Ribari ultras desperately try to enliven a dull game
Undeterred, the Ribari ultras proceeded to go absolutely mental in spite of the turgid fare on offer, peppering the little used running track with bog roll and letting off marine flares at the slightest provocation. Ohrid cut open a shockingly bad Vardar defence several times, but sadly their forwards had the penetration of a blunt HB pencil against a block of granite. In the end, the home side were rather unlucky to lose 0-2, to two well taken late strikes from outside the penalty box, as Vardar finally remembered that they had played football before. In a week where Scottish football plumbed new European depths, it was gratifying to note that an Airdrie or a Raith Rovers could comfortably have taken care of these two rank rotten sides.

The Macedonian President's summer hideaway

 Today I went out on a boat on the lake; a little wooden thing with an outboard motor, and a Vietnam-river-boat style old army canvas over the top. We headed off in the general direction of Albania, before cutting back past the summer residence of the Macedonian president, on a secluded outcrop- the building originally put up for Marshal Tito in Yugoslav times. A little police boat bobbed at the edge of the little jetty, indicating that the president was there, although the two officers on duty seemed fully occupied in making their lunch. It was very peaceful, with the water, calm, a deep blue-green.

So, that's pretty much the end of the holiday phase of this trip, and Ohrid was a very good choice to end it in. Macedonia is still off the beaten track for many UK tourists, and options for getting here are limited, but if you get the chance to come to Ohrid, don't hesitate- do it.

This week, I'm basing myself in Bitola, about an hour's drive from here and ten miles or so from the Greek border. Whilst there, as well as looking around Bitola itself, I'm going to Prilep- home of the longest established artist's colony in the former Yugoslavia and still going in contemporary Macedonia, as well as Krusevo, where there is a museum dedicated to Nikola Martinovski, Macedonian's J.D. Fergusson-cum-Chagall. Having written a near dissertation's worth of pure bunkum on here today, my next update will be from Bitola probably on Wednesday night- by then I should have had my first meetings and taken my first notes for the big tome.

On Football & Art

Jeff Stelling cranks out the bad news for the distant. "...And Stranraer have just added a sixth at Montrose in the Scottish Third Division"
It really is hard to escape from football these days. I actually feel sorry for people who are indifferent to, or actively dislike, the sport. It seems hard to credit now, but twenty five years ago, a declared interest in football was met with suspicion, or incredulity. These were the days when hooliganism in England, and on the continent, was rife, and Mrs Thatcher, an avowed disliker of the game, was proposing the introduction of ID cards at football matches. English teams were banned from Europe after the Heysel disaster in 1985, and whilst their Scottish counterparts (notably, Dundee United in 1987) performed gallantly in the second half of that decade, success was elusive.

"Is this a line-out, Kevin? Am i doing it right?"
 Nowadays, it seems almost impossible to function socially without some declared interest in football. Famously, Tony Blair delivered a badly scripted eulogy to his "love" of Newcastle United, and was photographed heading a ball with Kevin "wor Kev" Keegan in the run up to his triumph in the 1997 general election. Alex Salmond is a little bit more credible as a Hearts supporter and talks intelligently about the sport. David Cameron allegedly follows Chelsea, although I'm sure he'd be more comfortable on the subject of the Eton Wall game.

King Kev and Emlyn Hughes hedge their bets in 1980 with Mrs T. Oooft.
Whilst politicians may have rushed to embrace football and football people in their scrambling for electoral success, the relationship between football and art has always been much more complicated. In the UK, particularly, there seems little crossover. Of course, the official line is that the Italia '90 World Cup, and then Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, via the medium of opera and literature, won over the skeptical social-butterfly hearts of the middle classes. Famously, during USA '94, Nick Hornby hosted a panel discussion in which he turned to avowedly highbrow English novelists Martin Amis and Julian Barnes for vindication of his opinions on the game.

Hornby, by focusing on personal biography, and his relationship with Arsenal, managed to circumvent the insoluble problem of it being very difficult to write a decent book about football. Fiction about the sport is very tough, as teams have to be invented (Roy of the Rovers "Melchester Rovers", and their Scouse rivals "Everpool"; Michael Hardcastle's "Scorton Rovers"), opposition and players have to be invented- a strange, unsatisfying, suspension-of-belief parallel world to the real thing.

The two authors who have come closest to writing a good football book under the constraints of fiction are Robin Jenkins, whose The Thistle and the Grail, published in the late 50s, pretty much still tells you all you need to know about Scottish junior football, the many fragile and difficult personalities in the average home dressing room, and the relationship between those players and the small communities of a now long-vanished industrial Scotland.  Brian Glanville's Goalkeepers are Different is also superb, in charting, for a young audience, the relationships, tensions and frustrations of a fictional 70s first division side, through the blinking-scaredly eyes of its teenage goalkeeper.

Glanville, of course, was famously lampooned in the sadly defunct Scottish football fanzine The Absolute Game as "Bruno Glanvilla", a pompous, cigar-chewing oaf who never used one clause, when seventeen would do. Writers and journalists who have attempted to write intelligently about the game have struggled. Take Graham Spiers, who started at Scotland on Sunday and now has a berth at The Times; his thoughtful pieces have attracted quite staggering levels of odium from readers, on the grounds of pretentiousness, assumed poshness, and a stubborn insistence in using words with three or more syllables in them. In other words, he's not "real", not "one of us", not really "a football person".

Roddy Buchanan's AC & Inter photo series
 The interactions between contemporary art in Scotland, and football, rarely attract such attention, simply because they slip beneath the radar of most. The artists associated with the "Glasgow Miracle" period of the early 90s had a regular kick about on a blaes pitch in Cowcaddens most Saturdays. (for non-Scottish readers; blaes is a kind of red sharp-edged shale, a common material for bone-hard pitches in Central Scotland, on which only the insane and the nerveless can perform a sliding tackle, and a dive can shred the goalkeeper's jersey). Two of those artists, Douglas Gordon and Roderick Buchanan, have gone on to produce significant bodies of football-related work; Buchanan, in his photographs of himself, friends and amateur wearing largely Milan jerseys; Gordon, in his epic film involving Zinedine Zidane, first shown in Edinburgh in 2006-7.

"Sporting Art"

However, the very ubiquity of the sport these days mean that artists intervening in this area can often meet with indifference, if not hostility. Buchanan's work was unique fifteen years ago; Gordon has always strongly located part of his practice and artistic personality on his interest in the game.  Despite these precedents, for some in the art world, there may be a questioning of sport as a "proper" subject; indeed, the term "sporting art" connotes images of ghastly, lumpy paintings of horses, greyhounds and terriers. From many in the world of football, the relevance of art to the production and consumption of the game seems at best tenuous, at worst downright unwelcome. This despite both spheres of activity being moved in recent times to play with "nostalgia" and "retro" themes; in recent football shirts, and in the endless trite hankering after popular TV of the late 70s and early 80s, that characterised yBa.

Nostalgia means thinking fondly of a time past, that wasn't very good when you were living through it. Here's a photo of Charlie Nicholas.
Which is why Friday night's durational performance piece / five-a-side football match at Generator Projects in Dundee, entitled 24 hour football, was a bold move intellectually, and no less so physically. Fraser MacDonald, Catrin Jeans and many participants, ranging from local artists to seasoned fives players from Dundee, Perth, and Glasgow, established a realistic five a side pitch and dressing rooms in the gallery space. Kicking off at 7pm on Friday, the game continued non stop until 7pm on Saturday, and broadcast live on the internet, accompanied by gallows humour, in-jokes and references ranging from Colin Hendry to Fred Dibnah on the live commentary. There are only two events that I regret missing by being abroad; participating in this was one of them (the other is missing Janey Muir's opening at AXO / Coup Red in Leith a week today).

The game that will never end: action from early on in the performance
On one level, this was an exhausting physical challenge, in which the participants had to challenge and overcome their physical limits, all within the constraints of the rules of the game. As such, it can be located in the long tradition of durational performance, stretching from Vito Aconci and Marina Abramovic through to Kevin Henderson and Keith Burden. On another, it overcame many of the difficulties that performance art can face. Audiences for performance art in the UK have become vanishingly small in the last twenty or so years; performers work in a very small and, to the uninitiated, seemingly impenetrable milieu. However, this was as much a community performance, a physically unco-ordinated outpouring from the diverse ecosystem of Dundee art collectives and individuals.

On the footballing side of things, the best and worst of the Scottish amateur game was there for all to see. The most memorable example was the lanky process artist Neil Scott, being booted six feet up in the air by a quite dreadful challenge, in the last ten minutes of the game (the brutal Lochee Harp-ness of the tackle was mitigated by it being an accident, and he seemed all right); woeful finishing; sclaff after sclaff, particularly in the wee small hours; set against that, sheer dogged persistence, sheer endurance, some good goals (a shot on the turn from Stuart MacAdam), and a couple of fine saves. The moment of the whole event, though, was the euphoric, exhausted celebrations at the end, at 7pm on Saturday, when the marathon finally ended, with over 1,000 goals having been recorded in twenty four hours. In a final absurdist touch, MacDonald, as the captain of the winning "Blues", was presented with a trophy- a cast Adidas Samba- that he'd actually made himself.

The event generated quite a bit of press attention, from STV, the Dundee Courier and the Sunday Post (surreally, the game briefly stopped to allow a Post photographer to snap the players at about 11am on Saturday morning), and will hopefully begin to generate a new wave of interest and discussion on the relationship between art and football. Both spheres of activity have changed unimaginably in the last twenty years, fro being rather obscure and limited-audience activities, into both becoming key facets of the culture industry. Despite this parallel narrative, football and art have rarely intersected or worked together; maybe this epic encounter will help begin to change that. If it does, then the no doubt agonised and exhausted limbs around various living rooms in Scotland today, will have paid a worthy price for it.

My next post will be about my time in Ohrid, after I've had some tea. Honest.

Journey south-eastwards

Ohrid old town street & Zastava Fiça
So it's time to collect my thoughts after a few days in Ohrid, a beautiful small lakeside resort in the South East of Macedonia. Lake Ohrid is a gigantic expanse of water, surrounded by mountains; 2/3 of it belongs to Macedonia, and 1/3 to Albania, whose mountainous shores stand out clearly on the distant horizon.

It's about 700 miles from Rijeka, where I was last Sunday, and I took it in leisurely style, via overnight stops in steaming hot Zagreb (and some very nice fried Calamari in an old haunt there) and in a beautiful woodland hotel outside Kragujevac, which was filled, of all things, with an Irish television company making a series about the building of the Titanic. Er, Serbia was clearly an obvious choice to make that, then. Apparently it's boom time in the movies in the former Communist countries; the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Serbia are all vying hard to attract film makers via a series of cashback and tax free incentives. there was also a large party of elderly Italian men making the pilgrimage to Kragujevac from Italy, in their little Zastava Fiça cars- they made a very noisy and slow moving, if entertaining, convoy.

Whilst the EU may have been celebrating the fall of borders since the end of Marxism-Leninism, in this part of the world they've been going up in the last twenty years. Had I done this journey in 1989, I could have driven from the Austrian border to here, without once being asked to show a passport. I've had to produce it four times in the last week, with the Serb and Macedonian borders being particularly niggly affairs, owing to the need to buy car insurance. No UK insurer will cover this part of the world (presumably there isn't enough money in it, and the accident rate is high) so I had to part with cash in order to receive a dubious piece of slippy telex paper in Cyrillic writing, in both countries.

A stone-faced insurance agent girned, huffed and puffed over my card for half an hour on entry into Serbia; in Macedonia, I had to leave the car at the border, and take a taxi into the dusty border town of Kumanovo, in order to withdraw cash and go back to the border to get my bit of paper. The facility to pay by card does not exist at the Macedonian border, nor can you get Macedonian denar anywhere but Macedonia, so it was either take the cab or go back into Serbia. The ride was very Butlins; an amiable, animated and genuinely psychotic unlicensed taxi driver got to Kumanovo in 15 minutes, largely by driving his ailing Fiat Uno at 120km/h on the wrong side of the road. There was a rather uncomfortable "chicken" moment, as we overtook a slow moving convoy and found ourselves head on with a big Polish articulated lorry; we abhorted that with about 15 seconds to spare, amidst a feline screech of balding tyres and an elephantine trumpet on the horn of the juggernaut.

A quick photo stop, 20 miles north of Ohrid
 These alarms aside, the roads outside of the towns are much quieter than I'd expected. There was quite a bit of roadkill in Serbia; a dead sheep stinking and rotting in the mid-day sun; various cats and Alsatians, guts everywhere, having met their end at night-time. It was intensely hot, and dusty; two Serb women, in headscarves, had to turn their back at the side of the road as they were enevloped in a huge cloud of dust by a passing lorry. On two occasions I saw horse-and-carts being driven over motorway bridges (presumably a good way of cutting out the seemingly endless motorway tolls in this part of the world). The Serb landscape, dotted with red-roofed white farmhouses and small towns, was baking; yellow, green, and parched.

Through Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia
From Skopje, the Macedonian capital, the road skirts the base of the Sar Planina mountains, and down through Mavrovo National Park. The road down to Ohrid is easily the most beautiful and captivating scenery I've seen yet. After Skopje, the landscape is lush, green, sweltering; the road to Ohrid is like a B-road in Highland Perthshire; narrow, steep inclines, very tight corners, then dizzying descents; deep valleys, steep inclines, long cool shadows cast by thick deciduous woods, also the feeling of being very remote and cut off, save for the occasional hamlet. In bleaker moments in my last job, I'd toyed with the idea of sneaking off down here, with nothing more than a Lada Niva 4 x 4, a big Sarplaninac dog, and a rifle for company. I'm sure my art books would have made a good winter soup, or could at least be sold for glue.

If you ever see me rolling in one of these, with a dog the size of a small bear in the passenger seat, you'll know I've tired of life

Ohrid itself is a very lively town. The streets are packed with folk eighteen hours a day; the many small supermarkets, pubs and souvenir shops never seem to close; the main Boulevar Turisticka is car-choked mayhem at peak times, with elderly Yugos honking irritably at pedestrians and scooters, and accelerating off with a trademark asthmatic rasp from the exhaust. The main pedestrianised shopping street, Bul Makedonski Prosvetiteli, is also the artery to the lake, where everyone goes at night, and to the winding Car Samuel, which leads to all the pubs and nightclubs. My hostel is just off Turisticka and everything is a ten minute walk away.

However, I'm going to go and see some more first, before writing down my impressions of four days here, later tonight.

Mavrovo shines emerald-like in the late afternoon sun

Monday, 22 August 2011

Since Bratislava : Rijeka

Having finally prised myself from intriguing Bratislava on Friday, I'm now just finishing a very quiet four days in Rijeka. Travelling on your own can slightly take its toll and after a hectic fortnight I've been in the mental decompression chamber, getting used to being back on my tod. Or, to put it less pretentiously, I've been sunbathing and reading a lot.

Rijeka is a busy Croatian port, and smaller than I had expected it to be. Folk here seem to be always on the way to somewhere else, rather than staying here for a holiday; boats go to Croatia's coastal fleshpots of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, as well as across the Adriatic to Italy. It's also a very striking town. On the crest of the mountain, six Tito-era towerblocks dominate the skyline; Rijeka tumbles down the mountainside beneath these Marxist exclamation marks, an Italianate-Habsburg blend of apartments and fabulously ornate churches.

It may seem remarkable now, but for eighteen months or so in 1919-20, this city was a key issue in geopolitics. The Treaty of Versailles awarded the former Austro-Hungarian Pflaum to the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, despite the city being populated by an Italian majority. Nationalist Italians, moreover, were somewhat aggrieved by their paltry share of the spoils of the Great War, and targeted the city they called Fiume as their own. A ragtag force of small naval boats and Heinz-57-uniform-varieties of militia, led by Gabriele d'Annunzio, seized the port in the name of Italy and wouldn't budge despite the protests of the new Belgrade government, and the severe censure of the authorities in Rome.

D'Annunzio, up until then, had been best known for writing some pretty poor poetry, for a dabbling with the Futurist movement, and for a wartime exploit. This involved him taking off in an Italian bomber (defined back then as a home made birdcage, powered by two manually cranked sewing machines, with a thick rubber band as emergency back up), and somehow finding his way to Vienna, where he launched a couple of stink bombs, and a French letter filled with water, over the side, at the unsuspecting Viennese. This fourteen-hour marathon earned d'Annunzio huge plaudits in Italy and, with the initial success of the Fiume adventure, he seemed well placed to assume the leadership of the Italian irredentist far-right, to the consternation of the then little known Benito Mussolini.

The new Italian government needed little encouragement to distance themselves from the actions of a man regarded as a deranged crank by many. D'Annunzio and his irregulars were eventually obliged to withdraw, after a serious pounding of the city by the Italian navy, that he stood no chance of resisting. Nonetheless, the adventure in Fiume has since assumed something of a romantic and daredevil status for some historians, as in Mark Ledeen's account written in the late 1970s, The First Duce: d'Annunzio at Fiume. Looking at this incident more cold-bloodedly, it seems obvious that the prototype for Italian fascism received its first test in this place, and its lessons were not lost on Mussolini, who grappled his way the the leadership after d'Annunzio's subsequent disgrace in polite Italian circles. The Italians returned during the occupation of 1941-45, after which the city was incorporated into Socialist Yugoslavia. Oddly, Tito was to have his own "Fiume" moment after 1945; he occupied Trieste, gave it the Slovene name Trst, and only budged in the early 1950s when the Americans threatened to forcibly remove his troops.

The only traces these days of this Italian period in Rijeka's history is the main traffic boulevard called Fiumara, and those slatted, louvered window blinds that protect interiors from the fierce sun here. I'm writing this at 11 o'clock at night, and it is still 33 degrees. The weather has been astonishing; it only seems to get dark here for around six hours, and the sun at midday is as fierce as I've ever experienced. Rijeka, having been fully industrialised in the Tito period is these days a bit of a party town outside of working hours; Korzo and Riva streets are absolutely choked at the weekends, though I've been keeping my head down. One man I spoke to shook his head sadly and said that there had been very little work for people here in the past few years, although the town seems affluent enough.

Korzo Ulica: Rijeka's main drag

Art wise, there's not much to report. There is a museum of contemporary art here, but it is closed for a mixture of summer holidays and re-hang. This building also contains a manuscript in Glagothic script - one of the early touchstones and validators of present day Croatian identity, leading some publications to claim that Rijeka has a central place in the modern Croat sense of self, though I'm not really sure how true that is. There is an exhibition of Marcus Doyle's photographs, entitled rather unpromisingly Rijeka Souvenirs but that's been closed as well- a pity, as I like his work. The City Museum, where I had been hoping to see some more of Rijeka's startlingly rich history is, you've guessed it, also closed, though it should be open. And there's a Torpedo Museum. Yes, that's right, a torpedo museum. Apparently, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Rijeka was at the forefront of torpedo research and development, but I decided to stay in the sun instead of looking at endless technical diagrams and models of long forgotten ordnance. A few menacing metal marine cigars sit rusting in the museum's grounds, surrounded by long grass.

This week's a driving week. I have to find my way down to Ohrid, in Macedonia, by Thursday, where I am booked in for the weekend as the very last few days on my holiday. So, I have an overnight in Zagreb tomorrow, a short hop of a couple of hours, then two marathon drives; from Zagreb to Kragujevac, the Serbian Detroit and home of the Yugo, for another overnight, then Ohrid the next day. Both these journeys are between 6-8 hours on roads of steadily reducing quality and safety, so I shall look forward to getting those behind me. After my final fallow weekend in Ohrid, I'll be starting work by going round Macedonia anti clockwise: Ohrid-Bitola-Prilep-Krusevo-Skopje, the capital, where I shall stay for about a week-ten days. Bitola, the week after this one, will be the southernmost point of this long trek.

Next update from Ohrid probably over the weekend.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bratislava : Danubiana

Danubiana Museum from the Sculpture Garden
It's been a sultry couple of days in the capital of Slovakia. A mere two hours from Brno, Bratislava is a very intriguing place. On the whole, I have found it to be a little like a cross between Tallinn and Warsaw; it has the brash commercialism and sense of constant, urgent change of the former, and the high-rise architecture and very small old town of the latter.

Town Hall, Hlavni Namesti, Bratislava. This square and a few old town streets around it are all that remain of Habsburg Pressburg

This city has been squabbled over for centuries, between Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs and Russians. It was Pressburg in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Hungarians called it Pozsony; it became the second city in the former Czechoslovakia, devoutly Roman Catholic in contrast to the sturdy indifference many Czechs feel for organised religion. Painfully, it briefly became the main city of "independent" Slovakia in late 1938, a German vassal state from then until May 1945; its architecture was altered completely as the Red Air Force bombed the place relentlessly, then their army counterparts smashed their way in in the last days of the war. With that, Slovakia once again became part of the Czechoslovak state, and remained so until the "Velvet Divorce" saw it re-emerge as a legitimately independent country in 1993.

Communist-era statue commemorating nineteenth century Slovak hero and codifier of modern Slovak, Ludovit Stur

If this frantic contracting and releasing of the historical slinky spring isn't enough, it could be argued that the changes that the city has undergone since that point have exceeded any in the previous ninety years. Since the renowned Slovak dissident Alexander Dubcek emerged from twenty years of internal exile, to give his first speech in Bratislava, this place has transformed itself from being a rather drab provincial city into today's "Little Big City".

New shopping centres have sprouted as quickly as athlete's foot in an old trainer. Conspicuous extremes of wealth and poverty are visible; from old men raking the bins for anything sellable, to footballer's wives sweeping past in gleaming new BMWs, chihuahua precariously perched on the lap. Big business has taken over; Bratislava is now an engineering city, old smokestack factories left to fall down whilst the likes of VW, and Kia, further north in Zilna, have established hugely profitable new facilities. Wealthier Slovaks now find land cheaper on the Austrian side of the border than in their own capital; opera buffs go to the opera in Vienna on the Danube boat, just as would have happened a hundred and twenty years ago.

Everyone seems in a hurry, much more so than next door in the Czech Republic; Bratislava is ranked in the fifty most expensive cities in the world, and it seems like the locals have to work very hard in an attempt to keep up with the frantic pace of economic change in their city. For all the pressure they seem to be under, the average Slovak in the street is very friendly and helpful, although noticeably less English is spoken here, even by younger people. It seems almost comical, now,  that there are still streets named after Soviet republics (Armenia, Kazhakstan, Uzbekistan); bar these lingering remnants of nomenclature, and the architecture, it's now hard to envisage how this place could have been so very different, very recently.

Sculpture Park, Danubiana
Today I took a little drive, 20kms south of Bratislava, to visit the Danubiana art gallery. This is a space set up and financed by the Dutch electronics magnate and cultural entrepreneur, GW Meulensteen. One of Meulensteen's interests is in Slovak art and culture, and this space has been established by him on a little spur in the Danube, to show an ambitious range of Slovak and Eastern European contemporary artists. The gallery, an ovoid sliver, nestles amidst trees and a very well put together sculpture park featuring work by Slovak, Czech, Dutch and American artists. Works from both the Communist era, and after, are visible, the show ending in the gaudy focal point of a giant coloured toucan (a corner of which can be seen in the first photo in this entry).

Rudolf Sikora, Czechoslovakia 1969, 1969
Inside, there were two monographic shows. On the ground floor, there was a very impressive retrospective of Rudolf Sikora's work. Sikora has been at work since the late 60s, since finishing at art school in Bratislava, and is an artist of extensive interests; from trying to navigate a way through the then dangerous territory of Utopian modernism, and in particular Kazimir Malevich, to reflections of the fate of Slovakia during the "normalisation" period of c. 1968-89. Sikora also seems very interested in the relationship between art and science, and how the two can combine in exploring and imagining the outer galaxies. These days, Sikora is still teaching (in Kosice) and maintains the same critical distance from present-day neo-liberal politics in Slovakia, as he did as a dissident during the Communist period. In many ways, his work reminded me of the long and varied career of the Estonian printmaker and text artist, Raul Meel; both men are of a similar age, had similar difficult experiences under the Communist system, and both use idioms from cartography, modernism and science in developing their imagery.

Rudolf Sikora, From the cycle Grave for Malevich (Forward!), 2005-6
I had the briefest look upstairs at the work of Milos Sobaic. This was a show of recent work, featuring thickly wrought, heavily worked paintings; the paint stood off the canvas like a Leon Kossoff, whislt bedsheets and fabric were included in many of his canvases, calling to mind Robert Rauschenberg's Bed series of the late 1950s. Sobaic trained in Belgrade, but left the then Yugoslavia permanently in 1972, becoming a naturalised Parisian. His paintings were interesting, but I didn't manage to respond to them in the same way as I had to the work of Sikora.

Annoyingly, I missed out on what looked like two interesting shows at the Slovak National Gallery; one show in particular, a mixture of paintings, photographs and posters from 1918-49, looks fantastic. there is also a show of Polish painting c. 1900 on. Sadly, also, the HiT Gallery, the first artists-run space in Bratislava which has been building a real reputation for a few years now, is closed for the summer.

I had dallied too long today at Danubiana, but will try and nip into town and see the National Gallery shows tomorrow, before heading for Klagenfurt in the afternoon. I have just a night in Carinthia, before taking my first steps on former Yugoslav soil; I am spending four days in Rijeka, from Friday to Tuesday, so expect a few more updates from there. I had toyed with the idea of staying a couple of days more here, as it really is quite a unique city; I also looked into pushing on much further East, to Kosice in the east of Slovakia, near to the border with Ukraine, then unfurling a savage pincer movement down through Hungary and straight into Serbia. But, Klagenfurt was already booked, and couldn't be changed, so in a frankly shameful exhibition of mediocre conservatism, I went with Plan "A" afterall.

Pisspoor Facebook self-portrait compositions no. 174: your humble correspondent in Danubiana's mirror glass
The student trip that I had planned, featuring a week between Bratislava and Vienna, would have been a belter- it's a shame that I didn't have time to do it. I had hoped that a group of us could stay here and commute on the boat to the Austrian capital: to stay in Vienna would probably have been too much for even the most generous of student overdrafts. That said, there is more than enough to see and think about in Bratislava, to make one forget that Vienna is only thirty miles or so across the border. I shall certainly be back here, and hope to see more of the rest of the country, another time.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Czech Republic: Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava

Dum Umeni/ House of Contemporary Art, Brno

So in the past week I've been in Moravia and Silesia in the Czech Republic, staying with old friends. My base has been Brno, the capital of Moravia and the second largest city in the country. Brno is like many larger towns here; a city centre where the Hapsburg architectural influence is still very strong, which quickly gives way to inter war housing on the outskirts of the city centre, then a random jumble of Communist-era sprawl, in various states of use and disuse.

At the bottom of the hill where my friends stay, there is a gargantuan four story factory, which has lain empty for as long as anyone can remember; the windows are panned in and there seems a fair amount of smokestack industry detritus lying about inside. However, this would make a truly phenomenal exhibition and artists studio space. It's hard to find out who owns it or what its status is; it would probably also take about 1.5 million euros to bring it up to a reasonable level of functionality again. Sadly, my uninformed suspicion is that the old place is being allowed to fall down, so that one day it can be dynamited and replaced by a more modern block of flats.

Pavla Scerankova installation at Raum : Selbst

Moving quickly away from idle daydreaming with non-existant huge sums of money, I've seen some art here. The most impressive showing was in Brno at the Gallery of Contemporary Art ( Dum Umeni). Here, a young Berlin curator called Fredereike Hauffe has pulled together nine youngish artists from Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in a show entitled Raum: Selbst (Space : Self). The themes include how a room operates, innovative use of space, and the relationship between an individual and their personal surroundings. There were a number of particularly exciting results, most notably from the quirky imagination of Pavla Scerankova, from Kosice in Slovakia. Scerankova, amngst other things, produced an extraordinary piece featuring an old mass-produced Comminust era desk, half a dozen fishing rods, and a weighted down sheet; producing a perfect sense of balance and harmony from these distinctly unpromising ingredients. The fishing rods were as taught and elegant as the strings in a Naum Gabo.

Berlin-based Markus Weiss also stood out with his paintings of curtains. He paints in microscopic detail and exploits the natural linear folds of the fabric, producing a real sense of dislocation in the otherwise pristine white cube space. Weiss' was perhaps the most subtle intervention in a show crackling with energy and enthusiasm; a real pleasure, this. The Raum: Selbst project is meant to be ongoing and to tour a number of different venues, so it will be worth keeping an eye on.

I'd been to the Moravian Gallery in Husova Street on a previous visit. It is a major collection of art and historical objects spread over five buildings; elsewhere, they have a very good Rubens, as well as a large collection of Czech art from earlier centuries. I confined myself to the modern gallery, however. On the ground floor, there is a very large installation show by the well travelled Milena Dopitova. Dopitova is a well known artist in the Czech Republic and teaches at the art school in Plzen, as well as maintaining a significant international practice, both in Europe and the US. However, this show fell well short of the mark for me. It extended over ten rooms, when three would seem to have been adequate; the pieces were over-resolved, and given trite titles that caused more than the occasional internal groan. Dopitova modestly set herself the task of conveying the full spectrum of human emotions in their totality, and whilst some pieces such as I Think I'll Stay A While Longer, featuring draped furniture, were quite interesting, the majority seemed to bear little relation to the subject announced in the title, in the same way that a Big Mac bears little relation to actual nourishment.

Emil Filla, Still Life with Fruit, Bottle and Cup of Oil
Upstairs in this gallery, there is a very significant collection of Czech modernism. The contribution of Czechoslovaks, as they once were, to international modernism is very well established, and there are some really interesting examples of Czech Cubism in this display. Antonin Procharsky's Prometheus was a stand out; sadly photography was not allowed and it's not on Google Image Search, so you'll have to take my word for it. There were also very representative showings of the likes of Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubista and Brno artists who contributed a fair amount to the development of Czech modernist painting in the inter-war years; this locally based showing is perhaps the most resonant.

Olomouc Cathedral
Towards the back end of last week, together with my co-host Greig, we went on a mini-tour of the eastern part of Moravia. On Thursday we took in Olomouc (pronounced Ol-oh-mootz), a significant university town. Most folk in Scotland have heard of Olomouc through their football team, Sigma, who in recent years have handed out embarrassing pumpings to both Kilmarnock and Aberdeen in European competitions (they won 5-1 at Pittodrie in 2008-9 during the calamitous reign of Mark "Muttley" McGhee); our hotel was next to Sigma's smart new-ish stadium, a kind of mini-MacDiarmid Park.

A Communist took a dump in the Habsburg graveyard. Random brutalist "Billa" shopping centres are a common sight.
 The town centre is a Habsburg jewel, with ludicrously ornate fountains, plague columns featuring multiple saints, and Baroque apartments coloured pink, sky blue and mint green. The impressive three-spired cathedral dominates the skyline here, though it is far from the only architecturally significant church. It looks like Olomouc will be a lively town during term-time, but it was very quiet when we were there; think of the Perth Road in Dundee at the end of July and you have an idea of what it was like. There was a large-ish contemporary gallery which seemed to be closed for electrical repairs, despite advertising a major retrospective of the Polish sculptor and installation artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. It would be interesting to come back here during term time; however, despite being a sizeable place, the town didn't feel much busier than a place the size of Forfar or Montrose.

Olomouc Street
Friday was Ostrava day.  Ostrava, or OSTRAVA!!! as the town marketing now has it, is a steel making city and the most significant in Czech Silesia. There are many close cultural links with Polish Silesia here, and it's not uncommon to hear Polish spoken on Ostrava's streets. Over the river, a giant hulking steelworks sits like a rusting elderly rhinoceros; formerly state owned, it now has been added to the seemingly never-ending Lakshmi Mittal steel empire. Popping up there late on Friday afternoon, it didn't seem that much was actually happening on most of the gigantic site. Surreally, a brick church pointed its spire up amongst the steel entrails of the colossal enterprise.

Mid-Steelworks Kirk

Around the vicinity of the works there were some remarkable paintings on sheets of steel by Marek Sibinsky. Sibinsky is a painter and graphic designer, and there are a series of his monumental paintings here, made in 2008, attached to a fence, commemorating the history and scenery of steel making here. The sheet panels are roughly 2 x 1 metres in dimension, and the imagery is rough and hard; greys, blacks, blast furnace oranges, with the workers appearing as Josef Herman-like cyphers.

Paintings on steel by Marek Sibirsky

...and the pile that inspired them
Mittal's pile of slow-time rusting pig iron is no longer Ostrava's main claim to fame, however. That is now, firmly, the legendary Stodolni, a long, narrow street in the city centre known as "the street that never sleeps"; a little corner of Benidorm in the centre of Europe. The place features clubs and euro-discos cheek by jowl, and the whole of Ostrava seems to decamp there on Friday, its busiest night. After a thorough appraisal of its many and varied hostelries, and a bit of mid-90s techno, Greig and I limped back to our hotel with both engines on fire, and a dead tailgunner.

It's been a quiet couple of days before I move on from here. The Czech Republic is changing exponentially every time I come here. When I first visited in 2007, old Skodas, Trabants and Wartburgs were still a common sight; now they have all but disappeared, to be replaced by gleaming new Octavias. Companies like PWC and KPMG have moved into Ostrava, a proposition that would have seemed frankly insane four years ago. There is a slowly developing affluent change here, and a sense of general easy well-being; nothing ostentatious as in Swtizerland or Austria, but it's there nonetheless.

With an art school, a good cultural life, pals, and a varied list of things to do, Brno is looking like a quite likely destination for me once this big trip has come to an end. I'd had it in the back of my mind for a while, but it seems all a bit more likely after this enjoyable week. Vienna, Bratislava, Prague are a mere two hours away if one gets bored; Leipzig and Dresden only a little bit further away. We'll see.

Tomorrow I bid farewell- for now- to the Czech Republic, and head for a couple of days in Bratislava. After that, I'm having a day in Klagenfurt, in Austria, to see the Contemporary Art museum there, and also the home of Robert Musil, one of my personal literary favourites. And who knows, maybe Trieste for the weekend? After that, next week will see the beginning of the long descent into Macedonia, the end of the holiday phase of this trip, and the beginning of my work here.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Vienna 3: Belvedere Palace, Hans Makart, the Reisenrad

Hans Makart, in Renaissance costume, on his horse, for the Imperial procession in April 1879

So, my last day in Vienna today, and it has been pissing down for most of it, so, having trudged around extensively in the last couple of days, I've been have a quiet day of it. Sundays still seem to be Sundays in Mitteleuropa. Zürich was almost entirely closed last weekend, and it seems to be the same here. It's quite a nice change from the UK, where the largely imaginary needs of consumers to have an available portfolio of retail opportunities at 0230 hrs on a Monday morning, just in case they've run out of toothpaste, bleach, or socks, are wearingly ubiquitous.

The Belvedere Palace

On Thursday I ended up going to the Belvedere Palace. Formerly the home of Prince Eugen of Savoy, an eighteenth century aristocrat, military commander and politician, it really is quite ludicrously opulent and grandiose. These days, the gigantic complex, featuring Upper and Lower Palaces, vast ornamental garden, stable and orangery, is an art gallery; the upper complex treads over the same story told at the Leopold Museum in the Museum Quarter, and features the biggest collection of Gustav Klimt anywhere in the world. Famous pieces include The Kiss and Judith & Holofernes, which face one another in the same room, in a mesmerising display. The Upper Palace also contains work from medieval times, and Austrian painting and sculpture from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

However, it was the exhibition in the Lower Belvedere that really stuck with me. All around the city there are posters for two exhibitions of Hans Makart; The Painter of the Senses in the Lower Belvedere, and The Artist Rules the City at the Kunstlerhaus just off Karlsplatz. Certainly, Makart, is receiving the kind of exposure in Vienna currently that he hasn't had since his early death in 1884. Imagine a motorway pile-up involving Augustus John's personality. Lord Leighton's subject matter and John Singer Sargent's appeal as a society portraitist, and you're somewhere close to Makart. He enjoyed the personal favour of Emperor Franz Josef, who built him a house and studio in a city park, and who gave him academic appointments and commissions. Makart had a considerable following amongst minor aristocracy, the theatre and the moneyed petty bourgeois. His wide appeal didn't always find him favour amongst fellow painters; Anselm Feuerbach, the history painter, groused in 1873 that "This diaherretic production in his Asiatic junk shop displeases me, and will go out of fashion".

Hans Makart, Abundantia: The Gifts of the Earth 1870
Perhaps it was Makart's disinterest in historical exactitude that displeased the chilly and austere Feuerbach. Makart was little interested in detail, more in the overall impression; he paid particular attention to costume, dramatic staging and architecture. His paintings were regularly monumental in scale and ambition, even if that ambition wasn't always quite realised. The huge canvas Venice Greets Caterina Cornaro of 1872 is like a Busby Berkeley set frozen in time, but the sheer richness of the detail and the dense clusters of figures prevent it from being appreciated as a whole.

Makart has nothing like the profile in the English speaking art world as he does in Austria and Germany. In the UK, he is little known, other than as a teacher of Klimt, and the late works on display in the Kunstlerhaus show a series of paintings based on Wagners Ring Cycle which show flashes of what was to become known as the Secession style more than a decade after Makart's death.

However, his greatest ever triumph was not a single painting but a vast, ornate series, related to a commission to produce a paegant to celebrate the Silver Wedding anniversary of the Imperial couple in 1879. Typically modestly, Makart chose a Renaissance theme, working closely with local theatres and trades guilds; the eventual procession involved 14,000 people, paintings, sculptures, costumes, even live camels. Watched in Vienna by nearly 300,000 people, it was a gigantic spectacle simply unprecedented for the time. Makart led the charge himself, posing in full sub-Henry VIII style costume aboard a white charger.

Such was the enormity of his impact on the era that "Makart style" related not only to painting but also to the heavily cluttered, heavily draped, mock-Renaissance furnished interiors of the time. Sadly, a mere five years after the great success of this display, Makart was dead, a result of the combination of syphilis, hard living and neglect of his health. As is always the case, the "Makart style" was horrifically out of fashion within fifteen years of his demise, with his legacy further complicated by the personal approval of Hitler (Hitler variously bought/nicked Makarts from the later 1930s and there is a rather ghastly photo of the dictator presenting Hermann Goering with a Makart for his birthday, in 1939). As a result, Makart's work stayed largely undiscussed until the later 1970s, when peope began to look again seriously at his painting and the era which produced it.

Aleksandr Vinogradov & Vladimir Dubossarsky, Cosmonaut 1, 2006
Elsewhere, I managed to get around a couple of contemporary shows; a rather over-curated and slight group show about the relationship between Art & the Space Race at the Kunsthalle; some decent work, none more so than Jane and Louise Wilson's Dreamland video of 2001, but overall the work is forced into several rather unnecessary, artificial and seemingly arbitrary categories by the exhibition organisers. A much better show was to be found in the basement of the Kunstlerhaus, which carefully examined the relationship between art production and institutions, featuring the work of nearly 100 contemporary artists from every corner of the globe.

Art & Institution, Kunstlerhaus
I also managed to fit in a trip on the famous Reisenrad- Ferris Wheel- in the Praterstern amusement park. This has been a feature of the Viennese skyline since 1897, built by the same English engineer that built similar wheels in London & Blackpool. It's also best known for its role in The Third Man (1949) and more recently in contemporary fiction, such as Simon Mawer's The Glass Room (2009), set between Brno and Vienna. It is an amazing sight, dominating an otherwise noisy amusement park filled with the usual waltzer rides and general tat. It takes about fifteen minutes to wheeze its way around one revolution, and the views from the very top are incredibly clear.

Reisenrad from the ground

Vienna Looking East from the Reisenrad
So, tomorrow I leave this city having really enjoyed it, but knowing that I've barely scratched the surface other than in terms of museums/galleries. Most of the contemporary galleries are on holiday in August; also, the MUMOK contemporary museum is undergoing renovation and won;t be open again until the end of September. So, I'll be spending a few more days here on the way back home, trying to catch up with the things I've not yet managed to see, and hopefully meeting one or two art historians in relation to my book.

Anyway, it's off to Brno and then the Czech countryside for a few days this week, ten next week beginning to drift towards Slovenia, via a couple of as-yet-to-be-finalised places. I still have a couple of weeks of holiday left yet before I have to start really focusing on my research stuff out here.