So last Saturday lunchtime I was sitting on a park bench in the centre of Vienna, admiring a neo-classical fountain adorned with a Triton making advances to a startled water nymph. The plashing of water and the chirping of the birds provided a natural foil to the drone of urban traffic audible in the distance. Soothed by all this, I reflected on my earlier visit to the Albertina, one of Vienna’s famous museums.
The word “Albertina” has never conjured up Prince Albert to me, whose residence it used to be, but drawings- sheets and sheets by the score, of the greatest of artists. It is one of the most important print rooms in the world, housing about 60,000 drawings and a million prints. I’ve visited a few international print rooms in my time, but not this one. Sadly, this was a whistle stop tour, so I had no time to schedule a visit to this connoisseur’s heaven. If I ever win the lottery and go and live in Vienna, this is where you'll find me.
When I visited there was a wonderful exhibition of Maximillian I and the Age of Durer. This was going on in the basement, so I took the downward escalator into a set of dimly lighted rooms housing the exhibition. The surroundings reminded me a bit of the London National Gallery’s lower exhibition space- about the same size. Some marvellous portraits of Maximillian, first ruler of Austria, here. And some famous prints by Dürer such as his “Knight” his allegorical woman, various others. I must confess that the walls of military pageants by other artists wearied me, but my enthusiasm was re-ignited on seeing Dürer’s unbelievable Triumphal Arch of the Emperor, a coloured woodcut with the most elaborate iconographic scheme you could ever see.
Both humanist and court painter, Dürer was able to negotiate between these areas excelling at both. Yet the Dürer I really love is the observer of nature and society. This side of the artist is minimally represented here with some beautiful watercolours; his rational, yet reflective view of Innsbruck. Certainly this exhibition was an unexpected bonus.
As to the layout and decoration of the Albertina, if you’re looking for comparisons, the Courtauld Institute comes to mind. Like that museum you ascend to higher levels and encounter drawings, paintings and prints in ornate settings containing rococo furnishings. After the Dürer//Maximillian show it’s back up the fast steel escalator and then a more stately passage up a flight of marble stairs presided over by neo-classical statues of muses, and other cultural deities. You step into an elegant room, and immediately to your right you see beautiful trois crayons drawings by Rubens’s of his first wife Isabella Brandt and their children. Exquisite, though some bizarre curatorial decisions here; if you swing to your left you see a wall of drawings by the Austrian modernist, Egon Schiele, some of which are frankly pornographic. N'est pas devant les enfants, not in front of the children please!
There are rooms enfilade, and they are adorned with mirrors, like a room for ballet or preening. Some nice watercolours here, and some engravings. I made no written notes so my memory may be fallible here. I do recall Joseph Anton Koch’s sombre Oedipus and Antigone Leaving Thebes. Studying this drawing, I realised why I call Koch the “Austrian Poussin.” He was very familiar with the great man’s landscape compositions. The town in the back of this drawing, Thebes presumably, might be re-named “Poussinville.” Though Koch’s physical origins may have been in the Tyrolean mountains, his artistic locus can be found in NP’s classical landscapes of the late 1640s and early 1650s. Still, a fine draughtsman- and what better model was there for this kind of picture? You can see the townscape if you magnify using the Albertina’s database here.
Moving along, you enter a small room that has drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo on its walls. About 6 by Raphael, and 3 by Michelangelo, mainly studies of nudes and Madonnas. It was a bit difficult to study some of the Raphael drawings as a large rococo sofa stood in front of them. Couldn’t really kneel on it could I? No real attribution problems detectable here, though I did wonder about the drawing of the Madonna’s forearm and hands in a black chalk study; they don’t seem up to Raphael’s standards. Again, you can study it more closely on the museum’s on-line database here.
What I was really looking forward to seeing turned out to be something of a non-event, although had I not overheard a guide I would have remained in blissful ignorance. I’m referring to Dürer’s celebrated watercolour of the hare and his study of a tuft of grass. My excitement at seeing Dürer’s hare was quietened by overhearing a guide saying that it wasn’t the original. I checked with another guard- and they said the same. Presumably for security reasons the original stays in the print room. Not sure what I feel about that. As it’s the most famous work in the museum, perhaps a case can be made for keeping it under lock and key, but on the other hand intense popularity should ensure its accessibility to the public. Oh, in the shop on the way out I spotted huge models of the hare, painted in gaudy colours like pink, green and yellow! Dürer’s masterpiece turned into kitsch? Now these should stay hidden.
A large amount of space on the upper floor was given over to an exhibition of modern art from the Albertina’s permanent collection. Billed as “Monet to Picasso” it runs right up to 1960s modernists like Francis Bacon. The opening phase of the exhibition has a lot of neo-impressionism; artists like Signac whose Venice: Pink Cloud reinvents Turner and Monet for the pointillist and fauvist generation. I don’t want to be judgemental but most of the German Expressionism and Austrian modernism that followed the French moderns left me cold; too much disfiguration in the service of some abstract ideal like the eternal feminine. Though I did like the little gallery of Paul Klee’s paintings including his self-portrait. It was a relief to return to more figurative modernists like Modigliani, and course Picasso who despite having a fling with abstraction returned to a more classical style in later years. I was also pleased to see one of Philip Guston’s “Klansmen” paintings. A serious intention, but a comic spirit here. Who can forget these Klansmen, riding round in little cars, brandishing cigars, painted smoke curling up from their mouths into the hot night air of some southern metropolis. Exhausted, I came to my final painting: Francis Bacon’s Seated Man of 1960. Typical Bacon of this period: a smartly dressed figure with an air of the bureaucrat about it, seated uncomfortably, within a cage, a box, or for some kind of armature of the painting. Of course the story of modern art continues beyond this point- but for now let’s close the book.
So, what did I make of it all.? Well, for your 11 Euros (about £8) you don’t get a bad deal, though I’m a staunch supporter of free admission. Still, you get two great exhibitions for your money plus a selection from the permanent collection. Even with free admission to museums these days you’re looking at £13 upwards for the exhibitions in the same museums- especially metropolitan shows in the UK. It would have been nice to have seen more drawings, but it must be a nightmare deciding what to display given the limited space available. Some stuff obviously stays on view, like the hare- or its copy. The museum is interesting in that despite its old master emphasis, it has a lot of modern art and photographs- there was also a exhibition of photos when I visited. A comprehensive collection with the accent on graphic works. But if you want to see old master paintings in Vienna, then you need to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum- more on that in another post.