Although Vienna is famous for ornate palaces, Mozart and pastries, it was the Viennese fin de siecle that captivated me. When Freud was charting the psyche, composers like Mahler were astonishing audiences with their music and art was moving into modernity led by sensual painters like Gustav Klimt, that’s the Vienna I sought.
We all know that Klimt (1862-1918) has long been revered for posters of his masterpiece, The Kiss, that usually ends up taped to dorm-room walls. But I had always wanted to see the original, and so I headed to the Austrian Gallery housed in the Belvedere, a baroque palace built in the early l700’s.
I knew that women had been Klimt’s preoccupation and main subject, in art and in life. He is said to have slept with most of his models, from the wives whose affluent husbands paid for his portraits to the women who posed for his frankly erotic drawings.
And so, after walking past Klimt’s landscapes, delicate impressionistic paintings of birch and apple trees, and an accomplished early portrait done an academic style, I found myself standing before The Kiss — it was more opulent, more erotic, more inscrutable and bigger than I had ever imagined.
I immediately wondered whether the woman Klimt had painted was actually consenting to the man’s embrace? Although they are swathed in the same luxuriant gold cape, the decorations – black rectangles for him, gold circles for her — appeared to indicate that they could never be as one. Plus, I noticed that the woman seems to gaze out in ambivalence. After some time, I finally managed to move on but will never forget standing in front of Klimt’s masterpiece, The Kiss.
In Vienna, visual splendor is impossible to avoid. The walkable city core is chock full of royal residences and grand public buildings reminders that Vienna was, for centuries, the seat of the enormously wealthy Hapsburg Empire.
An extensive urban renewal that began in the l860’s is resposnsible for the construction of block after block of apartment buildings that are rented out by the city at reasonable prices to several hundred thousand lucky inhabitants. Klimt began his career as an architectural decorator and helped adorn many of these buildings. He never married and spent most of his life living in one of the buildings with his mother and sisters.
Walking around the trendy district called Spittleberg, I realized how these elegant, well-kept buildings have adapted to the present with their ground floor boutiques and restaurants. In a long, narrow restaurant called Schon Schoen I had a ten-euro lunch of artfully prepared cucumber soup and vegetarian cassoulet. The communal table attracts mainly local merchants and artists, and I seemed to be the only tourist. In an adjacent, shared space was a dress designer, sitting at her sewing machine beside a rack full of samples. I recalled Klimt’s lifelong friend, the successful dress designer, Emilie Floge, whose boutique he helped design. In turn, she created the somewhat bizarre caftans he wore.
Vienna constantly surprised me. Sometimes it was an edgy store like the Art Supermarket, perfect for the novice collector. Other times it was the grand cafes like Café Sperl that look the same as they did a century ago with high ceilings, plush upholstery, brass fittings and newspapers hanging on rods.
When it comes to coffee, Vienna is renowned for its high standards and wide array of choices. At Sperl I ordered a mélange and wondered how I could ever return to my usual morning brew. For dessert I chose monschitte, a poppyseed cake. The cluster of dark seeds resting on a dense pastry seemed to me the dessert version of caviar.
I then strolled over to one of the most interesting museums in Vienna, The Museum of Applied Arts, called the MAK. Modeled after the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the main attraction is the furniture, glassware and other objects made by the Wiener Werkstatte, an association of craftsmen known for their Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs.
The Wiener Werkstatte was part of the Secession, a movement led by Klimt, which aimed to leave behind the entrenched styles of the past. The Secession movement had it’s own building, which served as an architectural manifesto that aimed for a simple and elegant sanctuary for art lovers. Topped by a cabbage-shaped gold dome, it’s an assemblage of cubes; only the gold lettering suggests Viennese Art Nouveau. Inside, it’s as stark white as any modern gallery.
Pride of place is given to a Klimt frieze, called Beethoven. It was supposed to express the composer’s “Ode to Joy” with nude female allegorical figures. For the exhibit’s opening, guests were led into the building and Mahler played an abbreviated version of the Beethoven piece. How I wish I could have been there, in Klimt’s Vienna…
Austrian Gallery housed in the Belvedere
The Museum of Applied Arts