It is my first week in Vienna, exactly 10 years ago in late January 2011.
My head spins with dreams of discovery. I have never seen Prague, Budapest, Ljubljana or Zagreb, though I have tasted Bratislava, where I’ll head for a semester-long Fulbright gig next week. The medieval alleys around Fleischmarkt and behind Stefansdom, where I have scored a friendly and impeccable Austrian hotel here in the center of the center of central Europe — Vienna’s Innere Stadt— are oddly quiet.
After das grosse Gulasch at Kaffee Alt Wien, more than I could finish, I wander the Graben.
This was once the Roman moat, which strikes off from Kartnerstrasse, the old road to the province of Carinthia to the southeast. I shall wander Carinthia someday too, I promise myself, learning whatever border tongue they speak where Austrian Kärnten and Slovenian Koroška now meet, perhaps like the new Italo-Slavic dialect that has formed since World War II in now-Slovenian and Croatian Istria.
Four drunk Austrians cluster around the Plague Tower. Precipitously they attempt a southeastward move, toward Carinthia, but coordination proves difficult. One stumbles; bravely, risking his own balance, a comrade steadies him, then teases him affectionately. I bet I could convince them all to follow the road to Carinthia this very night, but I am stumbling a little, too.
The next morning, I visit Habsburg military genius Prince Eugene’s Ubëres Belvedere palace, now part of the Belevedere Museum.
Here are the pioneers of the “Founders Period” (1860-1900) and the subsequent modernists who shook art’s foundations. I love how Anton Romako’s portraits of Empress Elizabeth and an Italian fisherman’s son, both wearing the same grim mouth, hang side by side. She is elaborately pearled, with an adoring mastiff — presumably, every living thing adored Empress Sisi — and he grips a basket of fish, wild-haired and wearing a coat resembling seaweed.
Gustav Klimt steals the show here, with 24 paintings including his iconic Kiss. Still, his contemporaries’ work sometimes seems more durable, like Oskar Laske’s 1923 “Das Narrenschift” (“Ship of Madmen”), with Golgotha at the center of a dimensionally distorted boat, surrounded by many more Golgothas, or Oskar Kokoschka’s softly surreal 1912 “The Visitation”. I feel like these paintings saw something coming, whereas Klimt sees more what has been, though surely in a radically new light. Equally, Egon Schiele’s strange, obsessive self-portraits have a way of stealing any show (and there is always some show with Schiele, it seems), but I find Max Oppenheimer’s portrait of Schiele more revealing, more startling, more prophetic of how people would become than any of the doomed young Schiele’s self-portraits. But perhaps I misread Schiele: his 1915 “Death and the Maiden”, wherein she hugs him, and his bony hand strokes her head, is oddly comforting.
An exhibit on Max Oppenheimer, timed with Gustav Mahler’s 150th birthday, focused on his painting “The Philharmonic”, which he started in 1926 and finished in 1952. Oppenheimer was always leaving Vienna, his home town: first at 18 to study in Prague and three years later to co-found “the Eight”, the first Czech avant-garde artists’ group (not to be confused with “the Eight” of Hungary who made a similar, contemporaneous revolution); then after returning to Vienna in 1908 and falling under Kokoschka’s influence before moving again in 1915, because his work was too scandalous, to Switzerland; then in 1924 to Berlin and sometimes Vienna but finally fleeing the Nazis, who confiscated his work. He finished “The Philharmonic” in his New York apartment two years before he died, after the war. It is an explosive painting, reddish-brown rushing to yellow, left to right, capturing the symphony’s cadential moment, letting you see music the way LSD proponents once promised you could.
That evening I attended Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow at the Volksoper, the decidedly un-revolutionary operetta from the same year young Oppenheimer was radically assaulting “art” in Prague.
My guidebook said acoustics are flat and sightlines sometimes bad after its restoration, but my balcony seat in this cozy old Alsergrund district theater was fine so long as I leaned forward. Senior citizens comprised three-quarters of the audience, not the sort you might see at a nostalgic American performance but in couples and little gangs running on their own steam, or else with attentive middle-aged daughters and sons not checking their cellphones.
Next morning, Tuesday, more old-timers presented themselves for perusal at the Dorotheum, the auction house where cash-strapped Viennese have long made “a visit to Aunt Dorothy.”
Carefully dressed gents and dames born around World War II, presumably sellers, mixed with ostentatiously dressed, young Russian trophy wives, presumably buyers. As for me, I passed up four thousand Euro pearl necklaces and antique silver bracelets for one of the Dorotheum’s new sidelines, a 25 Euro plastic armband watch, collectible in eight bright colors, for my American girl back home.
Following these elderly Viennese, I grew sad. Some of their parents cheered Hitler standing on the balcony that March day of the Anschluss, two days after the Nazis’ “plebiscite” ratifying the coup they had already staged to ensure Austria’s annexation into the Third Reich. And of all places, here they were now, in the auction house that had specialized in selling confiscated Jewish valuables. Already I was getting a taste of the guilt in which these lands are steeped.
Well, the only cure for Vienna’s past is the 60s and 70s, when artists and writers held Austria’s conscience to the fire. So, I attended a show at Kunsthalle Wien in the MuseumsQuartier called “Power Up.”
It concerned vindication of that oldest historic crime, that of men against women. Nine of the era’s radical female pop artists were featured. The most troubling was Niki de Saint Phalle, whose film Daddy is not suitable for kids, by patriarchal standards, anyway.
“It was your eyes I hated most, Daddy — your eye that looked at everything and saw nothing.”
And that is just the beginning of how she attempts to purge her childhood sexual abuse. There were Kiki Kogelnik, an Austrian who moved to New York in 1961, and Dorothy Iannone, an American who moved to Europe in 1967; Jann Haworth, whose bio said she co-designed the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with her husband Peter Blake, who got all the credit; Sister Corita, who taught at Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart College and whom a cardinal once called “a guerilla with a paint brush,” and Rosalyn Drexler, in 2011 still alive at age 84 and even now at 94.
By midweek, I realized I was getting a crash education in how Vienna, the seat of Europe’s most rigid autocracy for 350 years, suddenly then gave violent birth to almost all the changes of the modern Western world. The violence was literal sometimes, as with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to start World War I in 1914 or the armed confrontations between Red Viennese and Fascists in the 1920s and early 1930s that presaged World War II. Often, though, it was a convulsive revolution of the mind and spirit, as with Klimt and Schiele at the century’s opening or the radical feminists whose work I had just viewed from its mid-point. What deep changes in mind and spirit had made it all possible?
A show at MUMOK, another MuseumsQuartier venue, tried to answer that very question by connecting the artistic revolutions of 1890-1935 to the scientific ones.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the mathematician-physicist Henri Poincaré, the Austrian physicist-cognitive psychologist Ernst Mach, the cognitive psychologist-philosopher William James, the philosopher of science Henri Bergson, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer — these, said the exhibit, were “the earliest to cast doubt on the reality and objectivity of all our representations of the natural world.” Samples of their manifestos illustrated how they influenced artists like Picasso (like his 1907 sculpture of his model Fernande Olivier), Marcel Duchamp, the Czech abstract pioneer František Kupka, and Le Corbusier (like his avant-garde journal L’Esprit Nouveau).
This was such fascinating and important material, but hardly anyone else was here at both big, expensive museums. In MUMOK’s ground floor I found myself alone with a special show called “Direct Art,” about the Vienna Activists of the 1960s, “who took work with bodies, objects, and substances” — feces, blood, and guts, mostly — “to extreme new levels.” I did not plumb all those levels, though, because it was dinner time.
Read Vienna a decade ago: part II here.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW