Another in a series of posts inspired by my recent visit to Vienna. There’ll be more as it has great potential for blog posts….
I had been warned that I would need at least four hours to do justice to the largest art museum in Vienna- the Kunsthistorisches Museum. So with this advice ringing in my ears, I sloped off earlier from the conference, stepped out into Wahringer Straße, hopped a streetcar and settled down for a journey into art history. As the tram gathered momentum I mused on what I knew about the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Opened in 1891, at the same time as the Naturhistorisches Museum, by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. The two Ringstraße museums were commissioned by Franz Joseph because the Habsburgs' astounding art collection needed a home, and it also needed to be made accessible to the general public.
Disembarking at the end of Wahringer Straße and getting on the underground to the Ringstraße in the Museums Quarter, it amuses me to play with an idea about collections being based on transport systems. You could probably map the collections of the London NG, say, onto the underground of that city; various schools and centuries could be colour coded in the same way. But in the case of the Kunsthistorisches you’d need more “track” as you’re dealing with world art; a collection that starts with Egyptian culture, achieves momentum with Greek and Roman antiquities, then picks up speed when travelling through the renaissance and baroque before arriving further up the line at later periods and modern art. Sadly, I was to find many of these “lines” were closed for refurbishment; no chance of seeing much classical art on this visit, though it was a whistle-stop- four hours is the blink of an eye deal.
Getting off the train in the Museum Quarter and heading over to Marie Theresien Platz, nothing prepares you for the grandiloquence of the buildings. Standing equidistant from Naturhistorisches Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum, it’s difficult to tell the difference architecturally; stylistically, both museums mirror each other; their facades are both built out of red sandstone, a style I’m tempted to call imperial sandstone. You don’t get this sort of effect anywhere else; it’s as if the emperor wanted to reinforce the cultural power of the museums by having them mutually reinforcing each other. Unfortunately, the imperial effect is rather marred by the sight of scaffolding hugging the Kunsthistorisches Museum and large banners proclaiming the name of a well-known Viennese art dealer. The latter I take in my stride, as I head up the steps of the museum towards the entrance; but will I ever get used to the former? It seems that whenever I visit an international museum, scaffolds and cranes gleefully spring up all around it as if to assert the modernity of the museum.
Inside the Kunsthistorisches Museum, there are no such worries; modernity falls away as you head up a baroque marble staircase pausing only to shed yourself of coat and bags halfway up the ascent. Climbing further past lots of art students making copies of the classical statues populating the stairwell and first floor, you now have the pick of several entrances to the major galleries. Facing a set of doors like an initiate with the prospect of gaining entrance to secret knowledge, I resigned myself to not knowing the correct path. So I trust my instincts and bear left, into a medium sized gallery full of northern mannerists like Spranger, but on passing into the next room I knew that I had chosen wisely. A key had been turned; a door to the secrets of the museum had been opened. Here is this gallery you can feast on the greatest collection of Pieter Brueghel in the world.
Unsurprisingly, a throng gathers around the artist’s Hunters in the Snow, which for my money is one of the greatest pictures in the museum. And it proves- as if a seasoned art historian like me needed disabusing of this notion- that reproductions just don’t capture the special quality of pictures like these. When you look at digital copies of this picture, you miss the artist’s skill: you don’t see how slushy the snow is in the foreground of the picture; you lose the crispness of the ice on the trees; you don’t see the frozen quality of the lakes; you don’t understand the artist’s clever use of space in which those birds really look like they’re aviating through the winter skies.
Bearing right I find myself in one of the corridors that run outside the main galleries. Another good decision as this passage contains lots of bays with examples of Northern renaissance art from the celebrated to the obscure. In fact, this was a working visit as I took the opportunity to examine lots of Northern renaissance art “in the flesh” for my course on that subject. One of the paintings I’ll be showing is here: Hugh van der Goes Fall. I’ll show a slide of this to illustrate a talk on the gothic nude, what Kenneth Clark called the “alternative convention.” But when I show this, I’ll be careful to point out to my students that (a) the work is much smaller than it looks on a projection screen; (b) it is the left-hand panel of a diptych- a two compartment altarpiece- and it is paired with a Lamentation. On on-line galleries and in books, the Adam and Eve panel is usually separated from its companion.
Walking down this corridor I find myself retracing my steps to Breughel’s gallery, so I decide to try my luck with another door. This proves to be open sesame to a treasure of Italian renaissance art. Threading my way through this passage I soon encounter many bays containing art by famous Venetian artists like Giorgione, Lotto and Bellini- plus more that I can’t remember. This is quite a pleasing diversion like walking through a track in the woods with flashes of sun coming through the trees; but then the track opens up into a large clearing- a room containing paintings by Raphael. Then it is as if the sun shines down completely: Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow, which is too famous and documented to warrant any observations from me. There’s some interesting growths around it though: a Holy Family which clearly isn’t by Raphael, though it’s attributed to him; a St Margaret which I also have doubts about. There is another version in the Louvre thought to be a copy by Giulio Romano, but unlike this one the saint doesn’t hold a cross. Best to leave the attribution problems for another time.
Following the corridor all round I eventually come across what could be another contender for the greatest painting in the museum: Vermeer’s Art of Painting. Two visitors are photographing it so I leave them to it and take a diversion to the Rembrandts. Some nice pictures here. About 7 paintings including three self-portraits; not as many as the NG in London, but respectable. Besides if you put the best of the Rembrandts next to the Vermeer masterpiece, that’s pretty impressive. The photographers have gone, so I sit on a bench and contemplate the Vermeer. Again, I notice things that escaped me when looking at the hundreds of reproductions of it.
Back to the main stairwell, then another portal which leads into a feast of the European baroque. We’re talking Rubens and Caravaggio here, the very best of the seventeenth-century. Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary is stunning; huge, hieratic, like a symbol of the Counter-reformation on the wall. But it can’t compete with two rooms of Rubens’s massive altarpieces which would decimate a room of visitors if they fell off the wall. His paintings for the Jesuits simply overwhelm so much that you really can’t be objective- you have to go with the flow and be swept along by these majestic paintings that threaten to drag you under with their power. Escape into a room of Titians and Tintoretto’s that are more manageable. Now I’m in the room with the Tintoretto Portrait of an Old Man which was the inspiration of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. Have another “you must see it for yourself” moment. Though I had my doubts, it is an impressive portrait though I never knew about it until I read the book.
There’s another passage running around these galleries that attracts my attention. It turns out to house works by paintings by the likes of Poussin, Fetti and Rosa, perhaps a curatorial decision to underline how idiosyncratic these artists were compared to the mainstream of the Italian baroque. Rosa’s Departure of Astraea of the 1640s which though well-painted demonstrates an inability to fuse genre, landscape and allegory. By contrast, Poussin found his metier quickly and went from strength to strength. The artist’s Capture of Jerusalem by Titus of 1638 is a wonderful dramatic picture; we follow Titus’s gaze upwards as the temple goes up in flames. I first saw this picture in an exhibition in London in 1995, and then a few years later I found myself studying the drawings associated with the work as a doctoral student.
They show Poussin’s knowledge of the Roman army via French antiquarians like Du Choul. In the 1995 show I looked at the Poussin full-on, but it’s better to look at the picture from an oblique angle so you can follow Titus’s mesmerized gaze as everything erupts in a Poussin apocalypse. Good to see this again. I’m afraid something went wrong with my camera inside the museum, so only a blurry shot of the Poussin not worth reproducing- drat!
The four hours are coming to an end; museum personnel are giving the impression that the gallery is about to close; tiredness is seeping through my bones as I’ve been walking for ages. Sitting down on one of the leather sofas I reflect on the holdings in this world famous museum. It’s one of the most comprehensive collections of Western European art in the world. The renaissance and baroque schools are ridiculously strong, though there’s no Michelangelo or Leonardo, just artists who copied their style. The museum is probably stronger on Venetian and northern Italian art compared to the central Italians: very good on Correggio, Lotto, Giorgione. Raphael is weak compared to the London NG which has the greatest collection of early works by this artist, and as I said Michelangelo and Leonardo are just echoed in the various Ledas and Salomes in the side galleries. Both northern and southern European paintings are finely balanced, e.g. a roomful of Brueghel close to a room of Titian, though some of the latter may be workshop variants. The museum can boast a wonderful collection of international baroque art: Rubens, Caravaggio, Reni, and Vouet. The Dutch school is represented well, but outside of Rembrandt and Vermeer, there doesn’t seem to be any other names. Close to the Dutch rooms are a few Spanish pictures, including portraits by Velasquez of Philip IV, unsurprising given the Hapsburg connection. The classical French school isn’t very well represented: Poussin has only one picture and there are a few by imitators of the great man like Rosa; there don’t seem to be any works by Claude. Vouet’s classical pictures aren’t here, more his Caravaggio-esque style when he was in Rome, which strengthens the international baroque emphasis. The German school is adequately served, a couple of late Durer's, like his portrait of the Emperor Maximillian, which reminds me of the current exhibition in the Albertina. There are some eighteenth-century pictures, largely portraits if memory serves. I didn’t detect much evidence of rococo art. Not much of the English school- don’t recall any Turners or Constables- what did you expect? I glimpsed a bit of modern art, though if you want that you really need to visit museums in the city that deal with Viennese modernity.
So, I’m exhausted but completely fulfilled after being exposed to such a roller-coaster, train ride of art. This is what museums are all about:. They fill you full of culture and then spew you out into everyday life, where the sights and experiences of the museum can be conjured up in your mind, and sustain you until it’s time to replenish them with another real visit. But my time is up for now. The guards throw open the huge doors and I’m descending down the museum steps into a fine Viennese night. Emerging from the large square onto the street , which opens up to the darkness and the clouds, I head off in search of my hotel .I breathe the air of this great cultural city with immense satisfaction, and then I disappear into its many streets and spaces….