by Patricia Lightfoot
Vienna was more imposing and imperial than Prague and Budapest, with its broad streets and monumental architecture. It was also the most prosperous and restored of the three cities. The ending of foreign occupation in 1955, as opposed to 1989, clearly made a great difference.
The visual arts
That Wien hat kultur, as the sign in the Museumsquartier says, is undeniable. In the Leopold Museum, there is a magnificent collection of paintings and furniture by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Joseph Hoffman and other “secessionist” artists who objected to the conservatism of the art establishment in Vienna in the late 1890s. The collection also includes Japanese prints with a gold lacquer look that had belonged to Klimt, which clearly inspired some of his works. Apart from their unmistakable talent, what I found so striking about some of these artists was how badly they treated the women in their lives. Klimt had numerous children with women other than the one who was his life companion, Emilie Louise Floege, who ran a successful fashion business. Schiele’s long-time female companion, “Wally,” stood by him when he was imprisoned for painting children in the nude in his garden and acted as his agent, negotiating with galleries on his behalf to sell his paintings so he had an income, but he left her to marry someone more respectable. Apparently, this caused him great distress. The collection includes a striking painting of Wally from happier times in their relationship. A reminder of Vienna’s complicated history is provided by a notice beside the Portrait of Wally, which recounts how the Leopold Museum was obliged to pay $19 million in 2010 to the heirs of the true owner of the painting, Lea Bondi Jaray, who had been forced to hand over the painting before fleeing from Austria in 1939.
The Secession building (image above) was constructed to give the secessionists a place to exhibit their and other contemporary artists’ works, the latter including the French Impressionists. The building, which was was damaged during the Second World War and restored during the 1970s, is a delight with its combination of clean lines and decorative elements, such as the dome made of 3,000 gilt laurel leaves. The main floor featured some really distressingly unappealing current art, whereas the basement features a fresco painted by Klimt in 1902 for an exhibition paying homage to Beethoven, who of course had been a resident of Vienna. The content of the fresco is inspired by the “Ode to Joy” and features lots of classic sinuous Klimt women, a both furry and snake-like monster and a passionate kiss. It is strange, beautiful and truly compelling.
The Upper Belvedere is another visual-arts treasure house featuring numerous works by Klimt. One particularly striking painting is a conventional portrait of a woman in evening dress, reminding the viewer that like Warhol and Picasso, for all his extending the limits of contemporary art, Klimt really could paint. Klimt’s The Kiss is the central painting in a room that contains a number of great paintings by him, but The Kiss is treated as the Mona Lisa of the group. There is a life-size reproduction of The Kiss is on a stand in the adjoining room, where visitors are encouraged to take selfies, which they do.
In contrast to the secessionist-style works and the contemporary art by Ai Weiwei and Marion Abramovic that was on display, there is a gallery of imperial paintings that illustrate the lives of the last Austrian royal family. The maturing of Emperor Franz Joseph can be seen from teenager in uniform to elderly man with a handlebar moustache. There is a very striking painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of Franz Josef’s Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” with “Sissi” stars made of diamonds and pearls in her long, dark hair. Once a great beauty, as she aged, she no longer sat for portraits or allowed herself to be photographed.
Any trip to Vienna by people who lived in the UK during the 80s has to involve an agreement not to hum “Vienna” by Ultravox while there, however great the temptation. We turned our backs on “new wave,” and sought out the classical music for which the city is renowned. Alas, the opera house was closed for the summer, but wigged and waistcoated men repeatedly accosted tourists like ourselves, hoping to sell tickets to concerts, featuring highlights of Mozart and Strauss, but sadly not Schubert, in historic locations, including the palace where Mozart and his sister Nannerl performed as extraordinarily gifted children. We eventually caved, bought tickets for a concert at the Musikverein and had a wonderful time with hundreds of our best Chinese-tourist friends, whose gusto at the proceedings was a joy in itself. Yes, the music was unchallenging tourist fare and the musicians wore period costumes and wigs, but the performance was excellent, unpretentious and a lot of fun in a building constructed in 1869 for the democratic purpose of providing concerts for the public, who would never have been invited to attend the exclusive musical soirees in aristocrats’ palaces.
Walking and cycling
A particular pleasure in Vienna was walking beside imperial palaces, past Art Nouveau buildings, such as the Majolika Haus (image above), and more contemporary buildings such as the lively Hundertwasser Haus, and ducking down connecting almost-secret passages between buildings and major streets. Central Vienna also has an impressive cycling infrastructure, which we investigated, having rented bikes from Pedal Power. We headed out on more of a cycle road than a cycle path along the Danube Island and then along one of the river banks up to a dam. We lunched at a friendly hostelry in a garden shaded by linden trees in Austrian cottage country, but unfortunately failed to locate the heurige or “local-wine tavern” to which we had been directed.
As was the case in Prague, food tended to be meaty and plentiful. We enjoyed wiener schnitzel and a dish of wonderful boiled potatoes, mushrooms and eggs at the 140-year-old Cafe Landtmann. It was hard, however, to imagine a world in which we would have the capacity to eat two courses in a Viennese restaurant. Even the children’s portion of noodles in the excellent Fromme Helene restaurant looked daunting. We did find that very good ice cream and excellent Austrian white wine were happily ubiquitous.
Photo credit: Phil Lightfoot