Saturday, 8 September 2012

In the Footsteps of Vienna's Greats

Arriving in Vienna from Salzburg provided quite a contrast. While Salzburg was small and elegant, Vienna provided grandeur on a large scale. Fortunately we were staying in an apartment that was very close to the city centre so we could easily walk around to take it all in and we would certainly do plenty of that over the next few days! There seemed to be no limit to the ornately decorated palaces and public buildings throughout the city, not to mention the countless statues celebrating its many famous citizens. Vienna is a city that would have easily have rivaled Paris in the era of the ‘Belle-Epoch’ and while it doesn’t quite have a definitive landmark attraction such as the Eiffel Tower or Arche de Triomphe, it has an almost overwhelming array of fine buildings that enable it to rightfully lay claim to being of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

With the Baroque styled buildings supplying the backdrop, the stars of Vienna were the many famous people that lived here in the glory days the city. Like Paris it attracted a veritable who’s who of the arts and progressive thinking during he 19th and 20th century. Freud, Nietzsche and Einstein all chose to reside here, developing powerful ideas that would shape the twentieth century. It was also a centre of the new wave of modernist design with the buildings of Wagner and Hoffman shaping new directions in architecture. Musically, the sound track of the city was then and continues to be Mozart and Strauss, who are both honored with major statues in the city gardens. In fact it is difficult to walk anywhere in the city without bumping into a character wearing period costume and a Mozart style wig accosting you to buy a ticket to one of the nightly musical performances of their works. However, it was pleasing to note that currently Vienna’s most celebrated son is not a writer, designer or musician, but an artist… Gustav Klimt! Posters, souvenirs and images of Klimt seemed to be everywhere, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of his birthday. Jules and I visited a fabulous exhibition at the Leopold Museum that provided a wonderful insight into his life and times through not only his paintings, but also letters, documents and photographs. We followed it up with another exhibition at the Upper Belvedere Palace with its wonderful display of Klimt’s most iconic works, including his most highly commercialized piece ‘The Kiss’, which appears on everything from plates to tea towels. Another major Viennese artist, who now achieves far more recognition these days than he did during his short but eventful life, is Egon Schiele. Schiele’s boldly grotesque and often sexually provocative images were particularly popular with students during my art school days in the 70’s, so it was terrific to see many of his best works close up at the Leopold and Albertina Museums.

Spending much of our time in Vienna visiting its seemingly endless collection of galleries, we particularly took a liking to the ‘Artist Quarter’, with it’s unique combination of galleries (of varying scale and specialisation), combined with outdoor areas filled with cafes and restaurants. On a warm summer evening it is a terrific meeting place with its colourful sculptural lounges providing a place to sit back and relax or to listen to music or the occasional guest speaker. A short walk down the road is the iconic ‘Secessionist’ building, which was designed by Joseph Olbrich in the early 1900’s as a exhibition space for Viennese artists who had rejected the restraints of the traditional art academies. This building had so often been the focal point for many of my art history discussions over the years and it was high on my list of places to see. As anticipated we found the exterior very impressive, however the interior was a little less so, as it had lost most of its original features after rebuilding following extensive bombing during World War II. We also found the addition of a bright yellow platform in the basement gallery to view Klimts ‘Beethoven Frieze’ as simply an unnecessary intrusion. Non the less, Jules was more than compensated by the nearby historic market (The Naschmarkt) which offered an huge range of produce, while for me, there was the added bonus of a regular flea market that is held each each Saturday. During our travels Jules has made an ongoing study of produce markets and rated this one quite highly with its extensive range of culinary delicacies.

It had become increasingly apparent that good food was a high priority for the Viennese and we certainly enjoyed some excellent meals during our visit. One of our favorite spots was at the site of the annual Vienna Town Hall Festival, which screens operas in the summer evening and most other times serves an extensive range of culinary dishes at a bargain prices. Despite being totally outdoors we were most impressed that everything was served on china plates or in glasses, making it a far more eloquent experience than most other festivals of this type. Another indulgence that we particularly enjoyed was visiting Vienna’s long established coffee shops to sample some of their most famous cakes…Apple Strudel, Chocolate Sacher Torte and my personal favorite, the Cream Schnitte. These were once the regular indulgences of the great writers, artists, musicians, designers and intellects of Vienna, who would often take a break from the serious business of changing the world to enjoy the simple pleasure of coffee and cake. Much like this grand city, its good to see that certain things have never really changed!

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