Saturday, 29 April 2017

Egon Schiele: Albertina

The first museum I came across on my initial city walk in Vienna was the Albertina. I hadn't planned on visiting, but after seeing the great advertising display on the stairs, I decided I had to pop in. I was well rewarded with perhaps the strongest show of the year for me thus far - an exhibition of Egon Schiele's drawings and graphic work. I had seen Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude at the Royal Academy in 2015 (here), but this show was much more comprehensive.

Egon Schiele is a large retrospective featuring 160 of the artists gouaches and drawings which currently occupies the whole of the first floor of the Albertina complex. The drawings are fantastically raw and expressionistic. The premise of the show was to illustrate just how out of sync Schiele's work was with fin de siècle Viennese society of the time. Schiele was one of the first artists to attempt to portray the intense psychological state of his sitters as well as their physical characteristics. Vienna during the same period coincidentally, was also home to Sigmund Freud, founder of the concept of psychoanalysis whose ideas were still being developed during this period.

Many of the pictures in this show are portraits or figure studies in which the subjects are confrontational; staring defiantly out of the picture plane at the viewer. Many of the subjects seem alien-like because of the way in which Schiele has emaciated them, elongating the limbs and having them strike harsh angular poses. The drawings really challenge the accepted norms of beauty, and although some of the drawings are very sensual, they are at the same time extremely sensitively rendered. Others are quite explicit and capture very intimate moments, which would ultimately be instrumental in Schiele's downfall. Certain drawings and the company of young girls at his studio scandalised turn of the century Austria, and lead to Schiele spending a short time in prison for exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children.

Egon Schiele (1890- 1918), was born in Tulln an de Donau near Vienna, and his natural draughtsmanship was noticed and encouraged at an early age. After some formal training in Vienna, Schiele sought out Gustav Klimt whose work he greatly admired, and a strong relationship developed in which Klimt became a mentor who introduced Schiele to life models, important patrons, and the work of other avant garde artists such as Munch and Van Gogh. Schiele then moved away from the more decorative Jugendstil stylings of Klimt, and began to develop his own visual language in which figures became more angular, and distorted, with a more sombre colour palette. Klimt and Schiele would to remain close friends though until Klimt's death in 1918.

Schiele's drawing technique is quite wonderful. Superb draughtsmanship is augmented by loose, textural brushwork. This is then worked into whilst wet with a pointed tool - perhaps the end of his paintbrush - to give a negative as well as positive line. There are also little bursts of colour to draw the viewers eye to areas such as the mouths, nipples and genitals.

The distortion of the body in a couple of the drawings, and the the way in which the clothes are draped resemble some modern fashion illustrations. You can see why Schiele's work is so influential on the work of fashion and textile students. The drawings of the undergrads of the Fashion course at Ravensbourne College were very similar in style when I used to take my students there for life drawing sessions.

The textile print on these shoes is wonderfully decorative, and were worn by Schiele's wife Edith, (portrait above in stripey dress).

Schiele's graphic poster for the 49th Secession is included in the exhibition, as are a number of small photographs of him posing with his familiar stylised hand gestures. It was thought that he adopted these gestures from portraits of Christ that he had seen in books on Byzantine art. In these images the Christ figures appear with index and middle fingers spread apart forming a V. By adopting this pose it is speculated that Schiele is likening himself to Christ, but as a saviour of art.

The exhibition ends on a sad note with this grim death mask of Schiele after having succumbed to the Spanish flu epidemic that ravaged europe in 1918. This really is a remarkable, comprehensive exhibition that charts Schiele's virtuoso draughtsmanship and development from childhood drawings to fully fledged taboo-breaking artist. The exhibition more than adequately demonstrates how at odds Schiele's work was with Viennese society of the period. Although most people interested in Schiele's art will be familiar with many of the drawings, it was a great opportunity to see them in the city and culture where many of them were created. It was also really good to see the drawings in the context of work by Schiele's contemporaries like Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser. Fantastic as the drawings in this exhibition were though, I would go on to discover even more magnificent examples of Schiele's work in Vienna. 

Egon Schiele
until 18th June
Albertinaplatz 1
1010 Vienna


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Viennese Whirl

I had really enjoyed Simon Sebag-Montefiore's hugely entertaining and informative three part series - Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream, last December on BBC4, which was all about the intrigues and exploits of the powerful, wealthy Habsburg empire, and the repeated invasions and reinventions of the wonderful city of Vienna. And having worked with so much gold leaf of late, I've also had something of a crush on the work of Viennese resident Gustav Klimt.

And so it was I found myself in the fair capital of Austria on an artistic pilgrimage.

Like Rome, Vienna - or the Innere Stadt (Inner City) at least - is an ideal, easily walkable city. Even the furthest tourist sites just on the outskirts are an easy half hour to forty five minute walk. The only time I used public transport was to get to and from the airport, but on a future visit would like to take the tram tour of the Ringstrasse which skirts the Innere Stadt.

The U-Bahn, (underground system) threw me out at Stephansplatz, the very heart of the city, and location of Stephansdom, the imposing and wonderfully decorative gothic St Stephen's Cathedral. That tiled roof is so pretty and the main thing that I remember from my last visit to Vienna. It is a tribute to the city (and perhaps Divine intervention?) that this building has stood watch over Vienna and borne witness to the city's fires, Turkish, German and Russian invasions, and the plague, and still survives to tell the tales.

Stephansdom and the surrounding square were undergoing renovations at the time of my visit, so the building and surrounding area weren't looking their best. Below is a painting of the cathedral in 1832 by Rudolf van Alt, which I saw whilst visiting the Belvedere palace.

I took so many pictures of the magnificent interiors of the churches in Rome on my visit there earlier this year, but due to lack of space didn't post many. The interiors of the churches in Vienna are equally extravangant and ostentatious in their decoration, and easily rival anything found in Rome. My personal favourite was Peterskirche, nearest to my hotel, and a haven of peace and tranquility from the luxury shops and rampant commerce that surrounds it.

Just near here is the curious Pestsäule (Plague Column) below, a monument to Vienna's deliverance from the plague that devastated the city in 1679.

Passed these two on the way to the Hofburg Palace. Wrong nationality and city surely!

The Hofburg palace is a grand and imposing complex of buildings which includes a butterfly house. I had breakfast in the deserted square here each morning, and enjoyed watching the odd Viennese worker pass through on their morning commute as I made my plans for that day. The Hofburg was home to Austria's rulers from the 13th century and now houses a variety of museums which exhibit the accumulated wealth of the Habsburgs.

Controversially, directly opposite the Hofburg Palace is the Looshaus (below), a building by architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933). Loos is famous for being an influential architect, whose book Ornament and Crime advocated smooth and clear surfaces in architecture in contrast to the lavish ornamentation then in vogue, and very much in evidence on most neo-classical Viennese architecture of the period. This includes the very decorative Hofburg Palace facing down the much plainer Looshaus!  Emporer Franz Josef intensely disliked Loos's strictly functional modernist gem when it was completed in 1911, so much so that he ordered all the curtains of the Hofburg palace windows facing the Looshaus to be pulled, and used a different entry/exit to the palace to avoid seeing the highly offensive Looshaus. Critics described the Looshaus as 'a house without eyebrows', as a reference to the lack of window detail, and all work on the Looshaus had to stop until Loos agreed to add the window boxes seen on the facade today.

Today the Looshaus is a bank which has exhibitions about the controversially 'naked' nature of the building on the upper floors.

Also of interest architecturally, are these Adolf Loos' loos on Graben near Peterskirche and next to the Pestsäule. Loos designed the public toilets in the Jugendstil (art nouveau) style, and in keeping with that style employed lots of curvy, whiplash lines on the wrought ironwork and doors. It's wonderful that they have been so well preserved and are still in use today.

A very stylish place to spend a penny!

One unexpected delight of being based where I was, was going after breakfast to watch these beauties being led out for training. They are the Lipizzaner horses of the world famous Spanish Riding School (Spanische Reitschule), based just at the side of the Hofburg palace. The white Lippizaner stallion breed can be traced back to 1520 when Ferdinand I imported the horses from Spain for the imperial palace. The horses are trained to perform complex steps and dances, and take their name from Lipica in Slovenia where the stud was established. It was a pleasure to be able to get this close to them.

The presence of horses is felt all over the city with these romantic carriage rides.

But the real horsey legacy of Vienna is found in the Museum Quarter, an interesting collision of Baroque and avant-garde architecture in what was once the imperial stables designed by Fischer von Erlach in 1725. The complex includes five spaces dedicated to art, including the Leopold Museum, and MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art), the dark basalt stone edifice below, and fabulous lime green seats for lounging. The complex attracts a young trendy crowd, and is imaginatively decorated, and rightly pays homage to to its equine legacy.

 But enough of the (ahem), long faces, and horsing around.

 Carl Moll - Naschmarkt 1894

Food, as in any nation, is a big part of Austrian culture. Vienna has a long tradition of coffee houses. At present, with the popularity of all things Scandi we have had the Danish concept of hygge pushed on us in the UK. It was good to experience the Austrian equivalent - Gemütlichkeit (cosiness and languid indulgence) - first hand. As a word it doesn't quite trip off the tongue as smoothly as hygge, so won't catch on in a similar way despite it being the same concept. 

On my first evening I ate at the Naschmarkt (food market, above), just outside the Innere Stadt, it is really good value for tasty food and a good tipple. The Naschmarkt consists of a lovely strip of restaurants and bars, as well as more typical, mundane market stalls selling household goods etc. There are also odd little religious spaces where traders can go to worship between making sales.

One of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was indulging myself in the long Viennese tradition of coffee houses, and so it was I got my Gemütlichkeit on. First stop was at a branch of Aida which was like a cross between a 1950s American diner and a traditional Viennese coffee house. I tried and loved the traditional apfelstrudel but sadly didn't get to try the famous Sachertorte. After this it was a cake and coffee free for all, and I got my Gemütlichkeit fix wherever, and whenever I could.

I was eager to sample the national dish and on my last day I finally ordered the Weiner Schnitzel and really enjoyed it.

During my city walkabouts I encountered the Stadt Park and these large, interesting statues by artist Franz West. There were four of these strange sentinel heads standing guard over a bridge to the canal of the river Danube.  

This is a piece of mine from a few years ago based on Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz which is in a private collection in Dubai.

In the Stadt Park itself was this tree with the most amazingly textured bark. It was like an elephant's skin. There was also the famous gilded statue of the waltz king himself  - Mr Johann Strauss.

More gilding can be found across town outside the Parliament building on the partially gilded imposing statue of Pallas Athena keeping watch over the city.

I found Vienna to be exactly as I remembered it and more. It is the most beautiful city, and no surprise that the Innere Stadt (old city) is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It really does pay to look up as you wander the streets as you will be rewarded with the sight of some amazing decorative architectural details. The Viennese are really friendly, welcoming and helpful, and I was really surprised at how clean and litter-free streets were. This visit was an amazing artistic and architectural pilgrimage - more of which I will share in future posts - and the superb coffee and cake were an added bonus. There were a few things I didn't get to see on this trip, but now I have rediscovered Vienna I definately want to return again. Very soon.

 Goodnight Vienna.