Somewhat by accident, I stumbled upon a news story about a Pieter Bruegel exhibition in Vienna. I’d known his work with A Level English Literature — Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” features several and I’d been to see some of these in Brussels last year. I’d caught a few more at the Coultard, the three grisailles, and I’d seen his Adoration of the Magi in Bath, along with works by his sons and grandsons and so on. I think I saw The Massacre of the Innocents at the Queen’s Gallery. So seeing as many more in one place seemed like a good idea, although the available long weekends that don’t clash with Christmas were like finding hen’s teeth.
So, January in Vienna.
Doing some digging I found there were more galleries in Vienna and a couple of Hieronymous Bosches, which I may not have seen (indeed, there were rumours of a Bosch exhibition a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t track down details on the website). Enough to fill three days, four with an evening flight. And, of course, Schiele, with the Albertina having supplied many images to the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition.
So, book ticket, flights and hotel and a couple of galleries.
I ran into an issue at Heathrow, my least favourite London airport — the Vienna transit website has on odd layout, where your expiry date seems to need to be set a month early to work. And having bought an airport train return, my 72-hour rover was declined. Onto the bank on the phone, who asked me about all my direct debit amounts. Can you remember all yours? The gate was announced, I was still on the phone… walk and talk, walk and talk, getting to the departure gate almost too late — being that guy…
By the time I got to Vienna, it was fixed, and by rucksack was about the first off the flight… but I’d just missed the train. Ah well. And then an unanticipated problem at the other end — Vienna subway stations have exits at each end of the platform, and it wasn’t always clear which exit I needed, and the concourse maps don’t quite match up. Still, fifty-fifty choice — wrong almost every time. Westbahnhof is meant to be 300m from the hotel, and I’m not convinced I ever found a route through or around the station shopping arcade that short. Still, to the hotel for the dot of 7pm, moreorless on schedule, but tired (I’d had two hours’ sleep) and cold (thawing snow). A bar meal and a couple of half litres in the bar.
Sunday, stuffed with a hotel breakfast, I took the Ubahn to Volkstheater and picked the wrong exit… getting to the Kunsthistorisches Museum as they opened. I had half an hour to browse the Netherlands galleries before diving into Bruegel. Of which, more another time. And then into French, Italian and Spanish art — a couple of Carravagio, a cute Moroni — and Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf’s curation of the Kunsthistorisches pottery and glass and silverware, Habsburg bling and kitsch. I would have had time to do another museum — the Leopold and momek are nearby — but I was full and hungry. I found water and some snacks and a beer in a Spar, and headed by Ubahn to that Ferris wheel, the one with the zither soundtrack. By chance I got back to the station as a tram arrived which was heading back to the hotel.
Monday, stuffed with a hotel breakfast, I took the tram to the Belvedere — two Habsburg palaces transformed to their equivalent of the National Gallery, clearly also a dumping ground for all the filthy modern post-1800 stuff once in the Kunsthistorisches. Here’s the Pro Tip: the most famous painting here is Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss — get there for opening and do it first. It’s signposted. A crowd will develop. Selfies will be taken. Instead, I’d gone for the 1900 stuff — and I can’t help but note how many of the artists were Jewish, how many died in the First World War or escaped or didn’t escape the Anschluss and its bloody aftermath. Then I worked back in time through the collection, ready for a coffee. Then a ten minute walk from the Upper Belvedere takes you to the Lower —
Hold up. Judging from the site maps, I’d thought the orientation of the complex was the other way round. I’d also assumed the gardens would be greener. My mental map of Vienna never quite came into focus. Usually I’d do more walking, but between Ubahn and twisty turny trams I never quite fitted the city together.
— and there you’d find all the Schieles in their collection, for a centenary exhibition. What bliss it was to be in the twentieth century — although he’s an odd cove with a tragic end. I had my eye on the Salm Brau for a couple of half litres and a late lunch, but I had time (given Belvedere 21 wouldn’t reopen until Wednesday, indeed, spoiler, I wouldn’t get there) to do another gallery.
I probably should have done the Leopold as that’s the one I eventually remembered was closed on Tuesdays, but instead I trammed to the Albertine, which has lots of Schiele (all of which are probably in London). And I marvelled over the Batliner Collection, under appreciated Helen Levitt’s photos and acquired a new favourite Georgian artist, Niko Pirosmani — oh, probably the only Georgian artist I’ve now heard of. And lots of postwar stuff, mostly Austrian, and a bizarre show by Edwin Wurm. Beer and food was necessary.
Tuesday, stuffed with a hotel breakfast, I took the Ubahn and tram to the Kunsthaus — the gallery designed by the barking visionary Friedensreich Hundertwasser. I wanted to like his stuff, I really did — he’s sort of an eco-warrior Gaudi. He wanted to encourage treeplanting, natural urine purification, helped the Dalai Lama escape Tibet, Unfortunately, although I’d loved the spiral painting on display at the Upper Belvedere and the rest left me cold, which is odd because I assumed I would like this. He has a hatred of the straight line and the plane, so there are uneven floors and a distorted staircase, and trees grow in the building. Meanwhile there was a photographic exhibition “Still Life” which I was similarly indifferent too, although there was a Hockney. I wandered through the side streets to the Hunderstwasser Village, a former tyre factory converted to an indoor market, next to the Hunderstwasser House, apartments designed by him.
After a certain amount of window shopping, I made it to mumok, a modern art gallery in a stone-clad building designed by Ortner & Ortner across about six floors. In the basement were a range of paintings, installations and sculptures, including Picasso, Klee, Warhol and Lassnig, mostly interesting stuff, which is more than can be said, alas, for the Ernst Caramelle retrospective, mostly abstract works with a recurring motif of a face formed from a white square, two smaller squares and a straight line. More fun was “Painting with Method”, two floors of neoadvantgarde abstracts from artists such as Albers, Kelly and Frankenthaler; bright colours, shapes, stripes, a definite palette cleanser after so much pre-1800 art. By then a bottle shop was calling for payment for my cat sitter and a long walk to a burger and several half litres at the Brickmakers Pub & Kitchen.
Wednesday, stuffed with a hotel breakfast, I took the Ubahn to the Leopold Museum, for a huge number of Schieles — striking landscapes, his portraits of himself and his models, all fascinating. I notice that all the drawings on display were facsimiles rather than originals — I guess they worry about fading in the light. Another floor gave me a history of Austrian landscape painting — and names I’ll likely forget — and a third has generous selections of Klimt, Koloman Moser and, best of all, Richard Gerstl, who had an affair with Arnold Schoenberg’s wife and killed himself in 1908. Apparently his paintings were stored in a warehouse until the 1930s, shown briefly and somehow avoided destruction at the hands of the Nazis. There are very striking portraits and self-portraits, and I bought a book on him so I can learn more.
At this point I made a tactical error — I’d not seen the Danube yet so took the tram there. Ish.
It’s a river.
I took the tram back rather than switching to the Ubahn and this took me so long I missed the smart airport train. Terminal 3 is a long walk, and fortunately I went straight to departures, pausing to buy of bottle of water which I then had to down as security is as you board the plane. Rather than several X-ray machines for all planes, this has a machine per flight and is obviously slow. I barely sat down for three minutes until we were boarded.
So I liked Vienna, but coffee is expensive; beer is cloudy and craft beer prices. I missed the Monet exhibition which closed on the Sunday (and would have been heaving) and the Bosch at the Fine Arts. I missed the Secession and there were two floors closed at the Leopold. Then there’s the Vienna Museum. Next time.
And so back to Heathrow and slow work through immigration — the passport that worked perfectly on Saturday failed this time. There was a long queue; not as long as the non-EU queue. Portents of things to come — and this was the last time I’ll use the passport as it expires in June. My next trip abroad will be post-Brexit. Deep. Joy.