The Austrian capital is one of Europe’s great cultural cities
Few city names in the world are as evocative as Vienna. The birthplace of dynamic artistic and intellectual movements, the city of Haydn, Klimt, Freud, Strauss and Beethoven (born in Bonn, but called Vienna home for 30-odd years) was for a century or more the centre of European cultural life. Art-lovers are spoiled for choice in Vienna, which is home to several of the the world’s largest collections – of Venetian paintings, graphic arts and paintings by Bruegel, Schiele and Klimt – among them some of the most instantly recognisable works in the history of art.
Vienna’s main buildings are the legacy of an ambitious programme by the great Viennese architect Otto Wagner, which entailed demolishing the medieval city wall, replacing it with the Paris boulevard-like Ringstrasse (Ring Road) and lining it with grand buildings. These include the State Opera, Art History Museum, Museum of Natural History and Imperial Palace as well as the City Park, Imperial Garden, Heroes’ Square and People’s Park. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “Lord of the Ring Roads” encircles the inner city on three sides with a canal created by diverting the Danube completing the enclosure. A tram ride around the Ringstrasse is like an attraction in an Imperial theme park.
A great place to start is the Museumsquartier (Museum Quarter, or ‘MQ‘), one of the top ten largest cultural complexes in the world. Its gleaming, yellow, Baroque facade is the longest in Vienna and its enclosed piazza is a favourite gathering spot. On the site of the former Imperial stables (look for the finely carved horses‘ heads above the entrances), the MQ is home to 60 cultural institutions, including three of the city’s top galleries.
The most visited gallery in the MQ is the Leopold Museum, a giant, light-filled cube of white shell limestone housing hundreds of works of Austrian modern art assembled by the collector Professor Rudolf Leopold (1925-2010). The main focus is the Austrian Expressionist painter and graphic artist Egon Schiele, with over 40 paintings and some 200 works on paper. There is also an extensive selection of works by the founder of the Vienna Secession movement Gustav Klimt (see The Vienna Secession) and fellow Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka.
The Leopold also shows Viennese Art Nouveau and handcrafts and furniture from the Vienna Workshops, a community of architects, artists and designers which evolved from the Secession. (Tip: Don’t miss the cityscape view from the fourth floor panorama window.)
At the other end of the MQ, the Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art, or ‘Mumok‘ – ‘Kunst’ is German for art) occupies an austere, grey cuboid clad in basalt stone. The collection of 20th and 21st century works comprises Pop Art (Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns), Fluxus (Yoko Ono), Photorealism and Nouveau Realisme (a European counterpart to Pop Art) and includes paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, graphics, photos, videos, films and furniture. Viennese Actionism, Austria’s most important contribution to the avant-garde movement, is extensively represented and there are a few leading works of Classical Modernism by the likes of Picasso, Klee and Mondrian.
Somewhat tucked away in a corner of the MQ in the former winter riding hall, the Kunsthalle focuses on local and international contemporary and modern art with a series of themed exhibitions. Elsewhere in the city an annex, the Kunsthalle Wien Karlsplatz, is a glass pavilion which presents art as if in a display window.
A short walk over to Maria-Theresien-Platz brings you to the opulent Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum), built to house the extensive collections assembled over centuries by emperors and archdukes and representing 5,000 years of art and culture. A young Gustav Klimt worked on the paintings on the main staircase.
The Picture Gallery (actually a series of monumental rooms) includes the world’s largest collections of Venetian paintings and works by Bruegel, while numerous 15th to 18th century European painters include (deep breath) Caravaggio, Raphael, Holbein, Velazquez, Vermeer, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Cranach, van Dyck, Veronese and Canaletto. The museum also has an Egyptian and Near Eastern collection, Greek and Roman antiquities and its famous ‘Kunstkammer‘ (cabinet of curiosities). Directly opposite is the museum‘s architectural mirror image, the Museum of Natural History.
Conspicuous for its modern, jutting canopy, the Albertina Museum houses the largest graphical collection in the world, comprising over a million prints and 60,000 drawings. Many of the famous images on display, such as Dürer‘s The Hare and Hands Folded in Prayer and Klimt‘s studies of women, are likely to be copies, since the originals are shown only every few years in order to preserve them. Works by Rubens, Schiele, Cezanne, Klimt, Kokoschka, Picasso and Rauschenberg are displayed in rotating exhibitions, while on permanent display is Monet to Picasso: The Batliner Collection, comprising over a hundred works tracing the most important art movements of the last 130 years.
Over in the Künstlerhaus (Artists’ House) on Karlsplatz, Albertina Modern has a collection of over 60,000 works by 5,000 artists, making it one of the world’s largest museums of modern and contemporary art. Among the countless highlights are works by (deep breath) Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, Giacometti, Bacon, Picasso, Rothko, Kandinsky, Nolde, Chagall, Beckmann, Malevich, Kirchner, Miro and many more. There is also an extensive photographic collection.
One of the newer additions to Vienna‘s art museums (the Art Deco building was repurposed in 1989), the Bank Austria Kunstforum stages temporary exhibitions. With no collection of its own, it partners with private collectors and international museums such as the Guggenheim New York, Russian Museum St Petersburg, Royal Academy London and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam to present blockbuster exhibitions by the some of the top names in 19th and 20th century art, from Turner, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Miro to Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Warhol and Lichtenstein.
Vienna’s most visited art museum is the Belvedere, a Baroque palace complex which comprises the Upper Belvedere and Lower Belvedere, linked by extensive gardens. In the Upper Belvedere the Austrian Gallery holds the nation’s 19th and 20th century collection, at the heart of which is the world’s largest assembly of works by Gustav Klimt, including his legendary gilded paintings The Kiss and Judith I and his sumptuous Poppy Field. Austrian Expressionism is also represented by Schiele and Kokoschka, and these are joined by masterworks from other key movements (French Impressionism, German Expressionism, Symbolism), showing how they influenced Austrian art. The museum in the Lower Belvedere can frankly overwhelm the senses with its busts, vases, mirrors, paintings and gold panelling.
A short walk from the Belvedere is the 21er Haus (House of the 21st Century). The low, glass-encased building was constructed as the Austria pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where the architect Karl Schwanzer won the Grand Prix d’Architecture for its innovative design. Dismantled and moved to Vienna, it was rebuilt and opened in 1962 as the city’s first museum dedicated to 20th and 21st century Austrian art. Remodelled and renamed for the new millennium, it shows Austrian art from 1945 to the present in themed exhibitions as well as the estate of the sculptor Fritz Wotruba. The surrounding sculpture garden is a pleasant place to relax.
The world of design, architecture and art and craft can be explored at the Museum Angewandtner Kunst (Museum of Applied Art, known locally as ‘MAK’) in its magnificent 1860s building on the Ringstrasse. It shows glass, china, silver, carpets and textiles from the Middle Ages to the present day, including Vienna 1900, a permanent collection of Viennese arts and crafts. Furniture includes brightly coloured Biedermeier sofas and Bentwood chairs by Thonet, which are still used in some of Vienna‘s legendary coffee houses.
Art Nouveau highlights include Klimt design drawings, Otto Wagner furniture and The Seven Princesses (1906), a beautiful frieze by Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, wife of the Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There are also examples of Baroque, Rococo and Classicism and Asia, a permanent collection of Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer work and woodcuts.
The Vienna Secession
As in other European countries, at the turn of the 20th century Austrian artists rebelled against the prevailing conservatism, and in 1902 a breakaway group which became known as ‘the Secession’ inaugurated a new type of exhibition based on their concept of ‘Gesamtwerk‘ (complete work), incorporating painting, sculpture, architecture and music. Gustav Klimt became its first President.
The Secession had its own building, which with its white walls, detailed outer panels and dome of gilded leaves has become a beloved Vienna landmark. Inside, the centrepiece is Klimt’s monumental Beethoven Frieze based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Depicting man’s search for happiness, it was originally intended as a temporary installation and is now considered among the main works of the Viennese Art Nouveau.
The artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) utilised bright colours and organic forms in his works. He has left his mark on Vienna’s most original public housing complex, the Hundertwasser Haus, where his other interest – architecture – resulted in a building with a remarkable, multi-coloured facade not unlike an artist‘s palette and overgrown here and there with lush, green plants.
No cultural visit to Vienna is complete without enjoying some of its music. The world-famous Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House) has an extensive season running from September to June. Half-price tickets are available on the day of performance, and standing-room places at bargain prices go on sale one hour before curtain. If you are not lucky enough to get a ticket, live concerts are shown free on a giant screen outside. The ‘pit orchestra’ is the Vienna Philharmonic no less, while past directors have included Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karajan. There are also daytime tours, when it’s difficult to understand why the building’s design was so vilified that one of the co-architects suffered a fatal heart attack, while the other committed suicide. Neither one attended the inaugural performance, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in 1869. A nice touch: Seat-back screens with English subtitles.
In a city long on ‘serious’ culture a visit to the Haus der Musik (House of Music) is a pleasant diversion. This hands-on, multimedia exploration of sound allows the visitor to ‘conduct’ the Vienna Philharmonic on film (and get heckled by the musicians if you mess up), create a CD of sounds using the ‘Evolution Machine’ or hear what the world sounds like to a baby in the womb. There’s also a 35-minute film of the Viennese New Year’s concert, possibly the most famous concert in the world and viewed every year by a worldwide TV audience of over a billion.
You can also visit various locations and landmarks associated musical giants such as Beethoven (who headed to the city, then the musical capital of Europe, from Bonn at the age of 17 in search of fame and fortune and spent the rest of his life there), waltz-meister Johann Strauss (whose golden statue in the City Park is particularly impressive), Haydn, Schubert and Mahler.