On my final day in Vienna I had some serious choices to make, had I been able to travel back in time and reorganize my trip I would have added a day to Vienna and taken a day away from Munich. (Not that Munich isn’t a great city, it just isn’t Vienna.) The number one item on my Vienna list was seeing Gustave Klimt‘s painting “The Kiss.” Just a few months before I arrived in Vienna the city was celebrating the 150th birthday of Klimt (why we celebrate dead people’s birthdays is beyond me, but I never complain when it means I get a day off of work.) The Belvedere had drawn together as many of Klimt’s paintings to celebrate his birthday as possible, but now that it was July the paintings had been returned to their owners and I would have to do with seeing a smaller collection of his paintings than I wanted, but when life takes away paintings to see, you have to make lemonade or something like that.
Klimt’s paintings are not only beautiful, they are also some of the most controversial works created in the 20th century. What makes the paintings controversial today isn’t what made them controversial in the early 1900s when they were created and the controversy is something that I am certain Austria would like to make disappear. It is estimated that the Nazis looted 20% of the art work in Europe and many of Klimt’s paintings were taken directly from the Jewish families who owned the paintings. (If you are interested in learning more about the Nazi’s attempt to steal all of Europe’s art watch The Rape of Europa it is a fantastic documentary about Hitler’s art obsession.) Many of these looted paintings ended up museums after the war and there were no efforts made to return the paintings to their rightful owners. It is shameful. A legal battle has been going on for well over 20 years for many of Klimt’s paintings and in 2011 a chunk of the paintings were returned to the families who originally owned them. Most of the returned paintings have now been auctioned off and have disappeared into somebody’s mansion (this makes me even less happy, but I suppose if I could earn a few hundred million dollars by selling something I would.)
The two paintings still owned by the Belvedere that I really wanted to see were The Kiss and Judith, so I headed off to the Belvedere thinking I would spend an hour or two looking at the Klimt paintings and then run downtown to see a few of the cathedrals in the city center, and then finish my final night in Vienna watching a chunk of Wagner’s Ring opera.
The Belvedere was once the summer residence for an Austrian general (Prince Eugene of Savoy). It must have been good to be a general in Austria because the two buildings and gardens forming the Belvedere are massive and beautiful.
I had read that the upper Belvedere had the good paintings and that the lower portion of the Belvedere wasn’t worth seeing so I intended on just buying tickets to see the upper building. My plans changed once I started to talk to the man at the information desk. I told him that I was only interested in seeing the Klimt paintings and he told me that Judith was now down at the lower Belvedere. At first this seemed like a little bit of a scam to get tourists like me to buy tickets to both exhibits but after visiting both buildings I am happy that they strong-armed me into seeing both because the special exhibit Dekadenz was really interesting. (Of course neither exhibit allowed photography so you will have to take my word for it.)
The Klimt paintings (although limited in number) in the Upper Belvedere showed an amazing spectrum of work. Klimt’s early work surprised me the most. One of the paintings I was certain was a portrait by John Singer-Sargent when I saw it across the room was actually a portrait by Klimt. This has become my new measure of greatness when it comes to an artist, how much have they not only mastered one form, but how have they changed over time. Most of the great artists have not only pushed the form into new areas, but have also followed the flock at times showing their great skill as an artist. Picasso is the easiest example to use since his work spanned such a long period and he was never satisfied with cranking out the same old thing like other artists who found their groove and then just stayed there. Picasso’s early work could be mistaken for any of the great Spanish portrait artists but eventually he was minimizing everything in his paintings and rarely did a painting with much detail at all, so when someone sees a late Picasso and says, “I could do that,” I want to ask them if they really understand what he was doing, but being an art snob is only my part-time job.
The Kiss was as amazing as I hoped. Seeing a painting as familiar as The Kiss in real life is always a bit weird. Initially there
is the expected surprise at the size of the painting, maybe it is just me but I never seem to anticipate the size of the painting accurately. Either I think the painting will be larger than it is, or I think it will be smaller. I could relate my surprise at the size of paintings like the Mona Lisa, but let’s not get too off track. The Kiss was larger than I had anticipated, I would guess it was five feet by five feet. The room that contained the painting was completely black with a spotlight on The Kiss and one other painting at the other side of the room. The second painting was largely being ignored by the people in the room so I went over and kept it company for a few moments. It turned out the second painting was part of the Beethoven Frieze called: Praise to Joy, the God-descended (This kiss for the whole world). It was even larger than The Kiss and did not appear to be painted on canvas. There were deep grooves carved into the painting that could only be noticed by standing up close. Again, you will have to take my word for it since there was no photography allowed.
The next 15 minutes or so I did my best to take in The Kiss. I won’t bore you with my description of the painting because almost everyone knows what it looks like and there are probably people who know something about art who can do a better job of sounding knowledgeable.
The rest of the Upper Belvedere’s collection had some interesting paintings, but I had things to do and moved through pretty quickly. A few of Egon Schiele‘s paintings caught my attention long enough to slow my walk down, but for the most part I was out of the building and walking through the gardens like a race-walker on their day off.
The Lower Belvedere’s exhibit Dekadenz was next. I really thought I would just zoom up to the Judith painting and then zip on out of the building and head off to look for food, but it ended up that the paintings and arrangement of the exhibit made me slow down and actually learn something. Dekadenz showed the connections and influence of Romanticism on the symbolism of the Fin de siecle. (Translation: The Romantic paintings of Gods and Goddesses reclining on clouds influenced the symbolic paintings that arrived around the turn of the century.) This connection was probably obvious to most people, but I had not noticed it before. The mystical world of the Romantics was just being retranslated for a new generation using the newer form of symbolism.
The Judith painting brings together many of Austria’s uncomfortable historical realities. The subject matter is biblical: Judith seduces the Assyrian general Holofernes in order to save her city. She gets old Holofernes drunk enough that he passes out and then gives him a close shave that removes his head from the rest of his body. In Klimt’s painting, the Judith character looks pleased with her work. Holofernes’s head is not the star of the show and Klimt seems to be indicating that sexy women are trouble for Assyrian generals (and maybe any guy who drinks too much.) The female model for Klimt was an Austrian Jew named Adele Bloch-Bauer who starred in a few of Klimt’s other paintings and died from meningitis in 1925. Her will indicated that she wished for her paintings to be donated to the Austrian state gallery upon her husband’s death. Enter WWII and the Nazis. Bloch-Bauer’s widowed husband fled to Switzerland to escape the Nazis leaving the paintings behind. The Nazis stole the paintings, changed the name of the paintings in order to remove the connections to the Jewish model and any Jewish history, and put them on display at the Belvedere. When Mr. Bloch-Bauer died in 1945 he willed the paintings to his nephew and nieces. Of course Austria liked the will that donated the paintings to Austria, and the family liked the will that passed the paintings on to the family. Eventually, 2006, the paintings were handed over to the nieces and nephew who sold them. Almost all of the paintings were purchased by anonymous buyers and have disappeared from public display so seeing any of the Klimt paintings where Bloch-Bauer was the model has become even more difficult. I would like to say that the paintings ended up with the right group, but I can’t. I doubt Mrs. Bloch-Bauer wished for the paintings to disappear into someone’s private collection, but I am certain that if she had survived the Nazi occupation and seen how Austria colluded with Germany she would not have donated her paintings to the nation who abandoned their Jewish citizens. History is never as clean as my old textbooks told me in 5th grade.
As I left the Belvedere I wondered what everyday Austrian’s felt about their history. In the United States we like to ignore our uncomfortable historical misdeeds and I get the feeling that Austria likes to do the same thing. I remember going to the battlefield of Little Big Horn in Montana where George Custer and his troops were killed by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. There were these little white headstones scattered around the battlefield where the white guys were killed, but there were no headstones for the Native Americans that were killed in the battle. Finally, in 2003 , the National Parks added a memorial for the Indians who died trying to protect their way of life. The battle took place in 1876 and it took us 125+ years to add a memorial to the people who were the real victims of the American Indian genocide, so I guess I should cut Austria some slack.
- TSOJ: A Vienna Bike Tour with The Terminator (joneekhoff.wordpress.com)