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.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it's been an amazing trip so far. You'll definitely be missed at Duncan of Jordanstone but it's good to know that I can still soak up that amazing wealth of information and wit that was always contained in your lectures here on your blog.