Thursday, 4 August 2011

Vienna: Leopold Museum

Josef Maria Olbrich, Vienna Secession building, 1897
What a city Vienna is. Having spent two days tramping around taking photos of pretty much everything, and marinading in the atmosphere of this old imperial capital, I can safely say that it has far exceeded my expectations.

Vienna must be the best preserved memorial to a state that no longer exists. It's nearly 100 years since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, yet, wandering around the Heldenplatz and the old Imperial residence, its existence seems as recent as that of the Soviet Union, or Yugoslavia. There's a faint tang of horse piss around the city centre, much as there would have been a century ago; little Pinzgauer horses ferry cartloads of snapping tourists about the preserved relics, with the same look of pliant boredom on their faces as can be seen on a Blackpool donkey. Most postcard stands have postcards of the Emperor Franz Josef and his wife; maps of the old Imperial territories with their long-forgotten coats of arms; and, sepia photos of Alt Wien.

A guy dressed entirely as Mozart and painted gold for good measure, was whistling his way through the composer's entire oeuvre yesterday, earning a few Euros; he was chirruping his way through the Häffner as I passed him by. Another gold painted figure, this time some sort of late eighteenth century gentleman I think, was uttering bizarre deep bass noises, and generating widespread indifference, on the Kartner Platz. A lieder singer and opera tenor, Schubert versus Puccini, operated just out of one another's earshot on the same street (any closer, and Vienna's answer to 8 Mile would have been an absolute aural shuttlecrash).

Stephanskirche at dusk

The atmosphere here is very laid back. It's a cliche to say that nobody is in a hurry in Vienna, but the deep sense of history here, and the thorough immersion in European culture, doesn't seem to affect the locals one bit. There is no nostalgia for the past; just a sense of "well this all happened here once, I suppose you can't quite believe it, neither can we, but ...*shrug*". Vienna's easy charm matches Berlin in terms of ambience, without the arrogance / rudeness / stressed tail-chasing that normally characterises other capitals.

Yesterday, I spent nearly four hours in the Leopold Museum. Many of the Vienna museums are grouped together in the ambitious Museums Quarter, which is one of the largest cultural concentrations anywhere in the world. At least four major art museums, with further spaces for design, architecture and film, what looks to be one of the best art book shops I've come across anywhere, and a huge open air space dotted with brightly coloured furniture for some sunbathing (it was 27 degrees yesterday here), sprawl across 60,000 square meters in the city centre. I had initially gone yesterday expecting to do the Leopold and the Kunsthalle, but in the end the sheer depth and richness of the Leopold collection detained me much longer than anticipated.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Lowered Eyes, 1912. Leopold Museum, Vienna

First things first, the Leopold has the world's biggest collection of Egon Schiele paintings. Even with the ground floor under partial renovation, there were still two good-sized rooms filled with some remarkable examples of his work from all stages of his too-short career; the lowering, defiant stare in the self-portrait above, plus a landscape filled with ravens, stick in the mind. There were two further major exhibitions from the permanent collection upstairs; one floor, by far the busiest, told the familiar story of the Vienna Secession and the Wiener Werkstatte. It actually was wonderful to see many of these paintings with fresh eyes. I've seen Klimt's "The Kiss" and Schiele's female nudes on so many student poster sales, on so many stippled magnolia walls, manipulated towards advertising so many club nights/parties, that it became hard not to be cynical.

This, of course, all derived from an explosion in interest in the Vienna secession in the English speaking world from the late seventies onwards, stimulated in part by the writings of Carl E. Schorske and Peter Vergo, and, as the eighties developed, the spreading of interest in Jugendstil/Art Nouveau parallels elsewhere on the continent. Those who remember the inescapable ubiquity of Rennie Mackintosh style in late 1980s Glasgow will know what I mean.

However, being up close and being able to spend a long time in front of these images really breaks the old weary familiarity apart. Schiele's style veers erratically from sensuality and hedonism to flayed, raw, painful introspection. It seems very spare and pared down, compared to the decorative eroticism of Klimt. Upstairs, there is a rare sight; two lost Klimt canvases (the scandalous friezes for Vienna university that provoked a period of exile after 1903), at full dimensions, are displayed in black and white. Of course, the originals were amongst the last casualties of the Waffen-SS in May 1945, being burned at the Austrian castle where they had been held for safekeeping. The ghostly presence of the images, fully sized, is an unusual and poignant feature.

The Leopold is also key to answering the oft-asked question, "What happened to the Vienna art scene after 1918?" The death of four major figures- Klimt, Schiele, Moser and the architect Wagner in the same year would have been severe in a country at piece; couple that with the defeat of Austria-Hungary and its rapid dissolution, and you have an unprecedented cataclysm. This is dealt with in one large room on the top floor, bringing home the impact of these losses very effectively. Two large scale canvases, by Albin Egger-Lienz, hanging on adjacent walls- Danse Macabre and Finale underline his deep sense of futility and loss.

Albin Egger-Lienz, Danse Macabre, 1915

Albin Egger-Lienz, Finale, 1918

After the war, Austrian artists experimented with various kinds of post-Cubism, abstraction, and a hone grown version of Neue Sachlichkeit. Unlike the politically charged grotesque of the German version, Austrian new objectivity veered towards an intensity of vision and an interest in what has become known as "magic realism". I had not come across many of the painters in this section of the show- names such as Greta Friest, Rudolf Wacker, Alfred Wickenburg, and the like. there was more than enough good painting here to dispel the myth in the Anglophone art world, that nothing much happened in Austrian art in between the deaths of Klimt and Schiele, and the Viennese Actionists in the 1960s.

Hanns (Jean) Kralik, Aus meinem Fester 1930

 I'll write more later, it's time for the Kunsthalle and I don't want this post to develop into one of thesis length.

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