Thursday, 4 August 2011

Vienna 2: From Heldenplatz to Judenplatz

Anton Dominik Fernkorn, Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen, 1860-65. Heldenplatz, Vienna
So, where was I? O yes, after exiting the Museum Quarter yesterday I went on a bit of a detour over Heldenplatz, through the Imperial residence and ended up in Judenplatz to see the Rachel Whiteread memorial- and ended up seeing a really gripping, unexpected exhibition into the bargain.

Heldenplatz was intended as the ceremonial parade ground of Austria-Hungary, but it was never finished. The big, open square is dominated by the Hofburg palace and two striking equestrian statues, featuring military heroes of the Imperial army. Above, standing in the middle of open ground, is a depiction of Archduke Charles, who defeated the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1809, and was immediately elevated to the Habsburg pantheon as a result. Ultimately, though, Heldenplatz is remembered in Austria as the site where Adolf Hitler announced the Anschluss- the union of Germany and Austria- in March 1938. the status of Austria, as willing participants in Hitler's insanity for the following seven years, or as the first "innocent victim" of Nazi occupation, has produced claim and counter claim amongst historians ever since, and is still a rather uncomfortable issue for many citizens here.

Rachel Whiteread, Holocaust Memorial, 1995-2000, Judenplatz

A mere 5-10 minute walk away stands the memorial to the awful consequences of that period in history. 65 000 Austrian Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust, and Whiteread's site-specific sculpture is an uncomfortable break in the Habsburg ornamentation of the square. The sculpture features many casts of shelves of books, built up, at once referencing the Nazi cultural policy of destroying "un-German" books, and the Jewish scriptures and artefacts that were also destroyed, or stolen and sold abroad, in this period. The sculpture is intended to resemble a military fortification, and is a stark tribute to all that Vienna lost in those seven years; the far distant sites of loss, in Germany, Poland, and Belarus, are listed on the base around the main body of the sculpture. Some older residents have claimed that Vienna still echoes with the ghosts of its destroyed pre-war Jewish community, and hasn't really been the same city since. Although much smaller in scale, this memorial has a similar effect on the viewer as its counterpart in Berlin.

Painting by Alois Frankl, Art Forum, Judenplatz.
Quite by chance, I stumbled across a remarkable exhibition on the same square, entitled, Art Against Oblivion by an expressionist painter called Adolf Frankl. Frankl was a Slovakian Jew who was arrested by the Hlinka Guard and deported to Auschwitz in November 1944. Frankl survived several months there, finally being liberated by the Red Army in 1945, but this exhibition is his working through of the terrible sights, sounds and experiences he underwent in the camp. The work was all completed after his return to making art in the later 1940s, and marked a period of nearly fifteen years where he worked through his appalling, inescapable memories in a lividly coloured, Hieronymous Bosch-accented expressionism.

From the claustrophobic scene of his rounding up in Bratislava (above) through to some pictures of unimaginable torture and degradation of his fellow inmates, this is a very difficult exhibition to view- but compelling. Photographs of Frankl in the thirties, just after his marriage, show him as a handsome and debonair young man; an official portrait taken in the later forties shows him a little restored, but with sunken eyes, ringed by dark circles- a look that he apparently kept for the rest of his life. Images actually based on the death camps are, unsurprisingly, few in comparison with the written accounts of survivors, so this is an important show which deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Adolf Frankl, Faces that Still Haunt Me, c. 1960. Frankl is the face in the third row from the bottom, fourth from the left.
After all that it was more walking- I've got a reasonable handle on how central Vienna fits together now; the urge in an unfamiliar city is always to take the underground, but I've managed to resist that, more or less, and as a result have managed to see a bit more. Following the Frankl show I made my way, via Schottengasse (Scottish Way) up to Schwedenplatz- once the centre of Vienna club life, apparently, in the 1990s, but now a bit of a ghost town by comparison; and, took in the artificial beach by the Danube canal, where a number of bizarre Antigua-style open air pubs have sprung up; apparently this area comes to life late at night.

I also noticed that, in keeping with both Geneva and Zürich, Vienna is a city of small dogs. Every third person seems to come with an extra fabric limb, at the end of which is a quivering pom-pom of moist-eyed yap. I suspect most of the global population of Chihuahua, Pekinese, Pomeranians and Maltese terriers live in an arc between the Franco-Swiss border and here - the kinds of critters that just aren't taken seriously back home.

I'm footsore, having made it round both the Belvedere Palace and the Kunsthalle today. I'm not writing about it until tomorrow, though; I'm off to find some dinner, and a pint.


  1. fascinating to read your blog, having just read 'the hare with the amber eyes' which brought art/artists/history and antisemitism together in a very personal bio. thanks john