The Viennese whirl

Just back after a ten day spin around Europe, taking in the beautiful cities of Vienna, Prague and Berlin. Vienna was the first stop, and our visit coincided with some astonishingly good weather. As always, way too much to squish into a few days, so we had to be pretty selective about what to see and do.

We homed in on some of the fantastic art galleries, starting with the Secession Building, known locally as ‘the golden cabbage’ for obvious reasons. The stark white building wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea back in 1898 when it first opened. Some thought it looked like ‘a public convenience’. Now it appears that Vienna has warmed to the building, which houses some of the best examples of the Art Nouveau style, including Klimt’s 1902 34-metre painted fresco – a tribute to Beethoven. This was the bit we saw, as the other rooms were being re-jigged for a new exhibition.

The frieze was originally intended to be a temporary decoration for an exhibition by 21 artists of the Secession movement. It was going to be removed when the exhibition finished. However, a collector bought it, and the artwork and its supporting structure were cut into sections and removed from the building. The work was then bought by a Viennese industrialist in 1915. He was expropriated by the Nazis, and the frieze remained in Austria. It wasn’t until 1973 that the work was lawfully purchased by the Austrian state and restoration work began. It’s now housed in its own room in the Secession building, and you can climb up to a platform to get a close view of the large-scale painting.

This was the Klimt style which is reproduced on a zillion postcards, scarves, mugs, tote bags and journals in every tourist shop in Vienna.

However, it was a very different Klimt that I saw in the Leopold Museum in the vast museum quarter the following day. (The enormous complex is housed in a fabulous building originally designed as the home to the emporer’s horses!) For some reason, I followed the Klimt collection in reverse order. The familiar golden, stylised art nouveau work was instantly recognisable. As I worked my way back in time to his early work, I was astonished to see various portraits in an almost photo-realistic style, and interior mural work he carried out with his artist brother, Ernst. And the journey to the later work suddenly made sense. It seems that so many artists have to play by all the existing rules in order to break them all later.

 

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