Sunday, November 29, 2009
Jennifer figured out this evening that she’s been to the cinema in six different countries. She saw a film in San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico, while I was in Turkey, and I didn’t go to any theaters in Istanbul or Ankara or Izmir, so she’s one up on me. But her sixth and my fifth was 500 Days of Summer at the Haydn Kino English Cinema here in Vienna. It was cleverly written and cleverly directed—I told Jennifer it flirted with the line into too clever, but I thought it maintained its integrity well. And it was an excellent cap to a surprisingly full day.
We started with a filling and extensive buffet breakfast (at which they offer free champagne, though we skipped that indulgence this morning), then walked across the street to the MuseumsQuartier. We weren’t sure what we planned to see, though we knew we were interested in the Leopold Museum with its impressive collection of Klimt; the Leopold is also currently showing a loaner exhibit of Munch, which was an added and unexpected thrill. We both also discovered some new interests in art: Jennifer fell in love with the Secessionist painter and Klimt protégé Egon Scheile, including his quirky self-portraits and his moody, meandering autumn trees, while I found myself utterly sucked into the unnerving world of Alfred Kubin, whose nightmarish, fantastical drawings and sketches are like the inner ravings of some brilliant but tormented child. (We each bought a book of their work.) Seeing the Klimt, too, was an education, because while we both were familiar with his more inventive and more popular works (“The Kiss” is among our favorites, though it’s housed at the Belvedere in another part of the city), we discovered he was a brilliant technical painter in any form, and we saw some impressive landscapes and portraits, including a dark, emotional portrait of a blind man that actually moved me to tears. Another prize of the day was the Munch; the collection is thin, Munch being hard to come by, but we did see an extremely rare lithograph of “The Scream” as well as both the lithograph and the painted versions of “The Vampire,” a favorite of mine for almost twenty years now. To see it in person was perhaps the highlight of the visit, though I am still reeling over the discovery of Kubin—his artwork is fascinating enough, but he was also a writer; his novel The Other Side was a major influence on Kafka!
After a light lunch in the pretty Café Milo outside the Architekturzentrum (The Architectural Center), we crossed the Ringstrasse to the Maria-Theresien-Platz. We spent a few minutes browsing the Christmas market there and gazing in awe at the huge Maria Theresia statue-complex (it is one monument, but it contains so many full-sized sculptures of ministers, musicians, and mounted equestrians, that it can really only be described as a conglomeration, with the regal Maria Theresia enthroned high above all her statuary-subjects). But our true purpose was to cross the platz there on our way to the Kunsthistoriches Museum, one of the world’s largest and finest classical art collections. So it is billed in all our guidebooks, and they don’t oversell it—the building itself is a work of art, and the collection is so vast and so exhaustive that we barely managed a third of it in our hours-long visit.
On the ground floor we browsed a small but impressive Egyptian collection, including an array of splendid sarcophagi, and upstairs we drifted past the coin cabinets (for which I’d had high hopes, being an amateur numismatist myself, but most of the “coins” were more accurately commemorative medallions and cast portraits, though the handful of true coins I saw were extremely cool). On the main stairway we saw two terrific Klimt frescoes commissioned for the museum when it was built, as well as a massive marble statue of Theseus slaying a centaur. And in the main painting gallery, we saw an amazing array of Brueghels and Rembrants, some fantastic Van Eycks and a handful of truly awesome Rubens paintings, and some fascinating Velazquez portraits of Habsburg family members, including a series of one young princess painted at various ages, showing her maturity, and a hilariously unflattering portrait of a Habsburg Spanish cousin. But the genuine highlight of the museum—and, for Jennifer especially, of the whole day—was the one Vermeer in the collection. Vermeer has long been a favorite of ours, and he holds a special place in Jennifer’s heart particularly, so she was looking forward to seeing his “Allegory on the Art of Painting,” but when we entered its room, we found a painter set up with his easel and palette, practicing technique by copying the Vermeer! It became a living allegory, and I was quick to set up and snap several photographs. We now have photos of a painter painting a copy of a painting of a painter painting; the original is a whimsical and ironic study of the art of painting, the student-painter we saw became a literal study in the art of painting, and my photograph juxtaposed the two to further irony—it was all any of us could do (for by now a small crowd had gathered to watch) to keep from laughing out loud. And the painter, consummate artist that he was, painted on the while as though he were alone in the room with Vermeer himself, learning from the master.
By the time we left (after a terrific coffee and sachertorte in the museum’s café), it was 4:40 and already deep into evening—the sun sets distressingly early here and continues to catch us off guard. We headed back to the hotel to unwind, and then out to our movie. We arrived at the theater a full forty-five minutes early, so we amused ourselves by wandering the shopping district in which the theater lies, including a pleasant jaunt down an interior lane of connected courtyards full of shops, cafes, pubs, and even a psychiatrist (the sign read “Psychoanalytische Praxis”). The streets were packed with pedestrians wrapping up their Sunday, and we enjoyed the life of a modern city, feeling very much at ease here. After the movie, though, we discovered something strange: The streets were almost entirely empty. The sidewalks were all but vacant and only a handful of cars drifted down the streets. I worried that the movie had gone on far longer than I’d thought and we’d wandered outside after midnight, but when I checked the time it was only 10:30. It was another reminder of how unique this city feels to us—we expected a large European city with bustling activity and rich arts and shopping districts, and so far we are supremely satisfied, but Vienna maintains its conservative roots and behaves very much like a small town, shutting down especially early on Sunday night. It’s an unexpected difference, but I think I’m liking it because in many ways it offers the best of everything I’d want in a city—huge civic resources for social and artistic services and a wide variety of shopping and culinary options, but without the crush and frenzy of a metropolis.
Of course, it is still Sunday (or was—it’s now after midnight here), so I’m looking forward to seeing what a weekday brings to our Vienna experience….