Viennese Spring: A Design Torte

Date of Visit: March 2009

1. Viennese Secessionist Building
Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna

2. MAKAustrian Museum for Applied Art / Contemporary Art
1, Stubenring 5

3. The Belvedere Museum
Prinz-Eugen-Straße 27, 1030 Vienna

4. Vienna State Opera
Opernring 2, Vienna A-1010

5. Sigmund Freud Museum
Berggasse 19, 1090 Vienna
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Tante Liesl, a cousin demonstrates Austrian snacking, Gothic Snuff, and a walk around Golling

After strudel, schnapps and (for some) snuff, Tante Liesl sometimes reminisces about her youth growing up on the grounds of Villa Lehenhof in Scheibbs, near Vienna. Her father was the estate manager for her great aunt Martha and husband Viktor Thonet (one of the famous Thonet brothers of the furniture company). Martha is fondly remembered for occasionally treating her nieces to a lovely meal in the Villa or a trip to Vienna. That life came to an end in 1945 when the nieces and their mother fled the invading Russians “on the last train out” with a live goose and few possessions. The family eventually settled in the alpine village of Golling-Abtenau, near Salzburg. One sister moved to Kitzbuhel and the other to the United States.

Vienna is situated only about 3 ½ hours east of Golling yet we must have visited 20 times before we finally got around to making the trip to the Imperial city. Traveling east, the mountains flatten and the famous woods take over the landscape. In contrast to the charming quaintness of Salzburg, Vienna, once capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, retains the formalities of the Habsburg Dynasty. Despite a long and turbulent history and hardships after WW2, the contemporary Viennese still enjoy the elegant culture of opera and coffee houses much the same as their predecessors.

The Secessionist building entrance, side elevation and wearing a mustache.

Day 1 The Secessionist Building and The Sacher Café

Vienna was a center of early 20th century intellectual movements, psychology and radical art manifestos, all of which are now documented in excellent museums. The first on our list was the Vienna Secessionist Exhibition Hall for Contemporary Art, built by the government for the upstart artists who broke from the traditional academy. It sits almost directly across the street from the older art school yet no two places could have been more different philosophically or physically. The academy, a Renaissance revival, is outshone by its neighbor— a brilliantly white and gold edifice. Completed in 1898 the boxy structure is topped with an ornate golden dome and decorated on the exterior walls with symbolic images undulating in art nouveau style.

The exterior announces the intentions of the tenants.  Over the front door are masks of the three Gorgons, symbolizing sculpture, architecture and plastik (textiles, furniture, metalwork, crafts, etc.). One of the Secessionists’ beefs with the academy was over the inclusion of designed objects as artwork — the academy narrowly focused on painting and sculpture. The Secessionist credo, “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“For every time its art. For art its Freedom”) announces that this place is not for historical retreads.

Secessionist Architect Joseph Maria Olbrich was harshly critiqued for the building design—”a bastard between a temple and warehouse, Temple for Bullfrogs, A Temple of the Anarchic Art Movement, a  mausoleum, a Pharaoh’s Tomb, a crematorium,  and a cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace.” Despite the criticisms, a limited 10-year lease and serious bombing damage during WW2 the building has survived. Today contemporary artists show their work in the large, naturally lit galleries on the main floor. Artists are encouraged to use the building as canvas and during our visit the façade sported a large black mustache.

Aside from the building itself we were interested in viewing the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt. Originally painted for temporary installation in 1902, it also has survived some rough treatment —being cut into seven pieces, stored in a furniture warehouse, sold to a private collector,  taken into “state custody”, resale and restoration to finally rest in a basement gallery. Here you can really immerse yourself in viewing the work. A bench is provided for sitting as is written material which helps in decoding the abundant symbolism.

Beethoven Frieze and detail

The museum has a nice book and gift shop but no food and we were getting hungry.

UPDATE October 2012: The Beethoven Frieze room now has a large structure in the center which affords you a platform from which you can view the art at eye level. We think this is permanent, although it might just be part of the current Vienna Klimt celebration.

There are nearby restaurants but we decided to take cousin Crystal’s advice to go to the Café Sacher for a nice slice of Sacher-Torte and a glass of Prosecco. The afternoon crowd was a mixture of Viennese locals and foreign tourists. After eating we viewed the cake bakery in action…definitely a treat in itself. We remembered an old gift, an “eine kleine torte guard,'” proffered years before by fellow designers as a joke before we left for our annual trip to Austria.  Even if handy at that moment it would not have deterred us from the chocolate treat.

Baker icing the tortes, inside the Cafe Sacher, Eine Kleine Torte Guard (Patent Pending)

Day 2

MAK Museum, Austrian Museum for Applied Art / Contemporary Art
The Vienna State Opera

Vienna is divided into 23 districts, the historic central district one is encircled by the Ringstrasse Road and trolley lines. It was fun taking the trolley to the MAK and the 3-day pass insured we’d be able to hop on and off endlessly during our visit. (The massive MAK also sponsors the Academy of Applied Arts, alma mater of graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister). We can usually knock off a museum in a few hours but the wealth of design artifacts held us captivated for an entire day. First we viewed the exhibitions of Gothic, Renaissance, Empire and Biedermeier periods. Then we lingered in the extensive Wiener Werkstatte Archive of furniture, metal, glass and ceramics. Work by Hoffmann, Dagobert Peche, Kolomon Moser and other Werkstatte members is in abundance. For most of our visit we were the only presence in the large exhibition hall—it was easy to linger and read the well-written explanations.

The Jugendstil, Art Deco room contains Gustv Klimt’s designs for the Stocklet Frieze and a good number of pieces by Rennie Macintosh and Margaret McDonald. In 1902 McDonald painted  a frieze for Fritz Waerndorfer, the wealthy textile merchant who joined Hoffmann and Moser in founding the Werstatte. It was the first time we’d seen the built up gesso she used under the undulating lines of her paintings in person. Scholars are quick to say that McDonald was influenced by Klimt but if you look at her early work you might think the reverse.

The chair exhibition at the MAK, a view of the MAK exterior from inside the trolley

Our favorite installation was the exhibition of chair interpretations spanning a period of 100 years by the likes of Hoffmann, Wagner, Adolf Loos (and Tante’s Liesl’s great uncle’s family), the Thonets. The unique display included a corridor of chairs shown in silhouette—able to be viewed  in full dimension on the reverse side. It was wonderfully theatrical yet logical design.

More theatrical effects were enjoyed later that evening at the Viennese State Opera that, despite bring non-tourist season and a weeknight. was played to a sold out house. From our balcony seat we could drink in the stage and the entire audience.

Vienna State Opera from the balcony

Day 3

The Belvedere Museum,
Freud Museum

We bundled up against the cold damp and cloudy early spring day. The trolley ride was a bit further to The Belvedere Museum but it is definitely worth the distance.  The museum is spilt between two magnificent buildings, the upper, and lower palaces. The upper holds the work of Gustav Klimt, including his painting The Kiss, which can also be seen everywhere in Vienna slathered over all things commercial.  Whoever says the arts don’t contribute to the economy is sadly mistaken! Additionally the  paintings of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and other leaders in the Viennese modern movement are on display.

The Belvedere Museum, The Power of Ornament Poster, Klimt Knick-nack

We strolled down to the Lower Belvedere to two special exhibits of interest, one devoted to Alphonse Mucha and the other, The Power of Ornament. The Mucha show encompassed his oeuvre as a commercial and decorative artist, complete with painting, drawings pastels and photographs. His posters are even more impressive in person than in reproductions. We had not previously seen Mucha’s occult interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer in his book, Le Pater. While we appreciated Mucha’s amazing technique and understood his reverent intention, the work eminated rather haunting undertones. You can see the entire Le Pater online.

Mucha Poster Detail, Page from Le Pater

The second show, The Power of Ornament, was beautifully curated by Sabine Vogel.  An introduction reminds us of the writing of Adolf Loos, his beliefs that decoration held back civilization and entrapped objects in a style that would be outmoded as public taste evolved. Loos’s arguments are countered by  those of Siegfried Kracauer who felt that decoration was an important expression of societal structure. Although not originally part of our agenda, the show was refreshing and thought provoking. There is a video of the curator and work from the show on an archived web site.

The final stop of the day was the Sigmund Freud Museum. It was nice to take a break from design. It was amazing to walk through the small and modest rooms in which Freud developed his landmark theories of the workings of the unconscious mind. The biographical displays explaining Freud’s early neurological work and later experimentation with cocaine as a therapeutic drug were fascinating. Freud and his family inhabited this address until 1938 when he fled the Nazis. The door sign, the waiting room and his walking stick were all left behind but the famous couch went to England. Nevertheless a few years earlier, Abbott Miller had designed an exhibition for the Musuem, The Couch: Thinking in Repose. “The couch exhibition is an attempt, beyond veneration or stereotypical Freud critique, to focus on something that seems like a minor detail. It was Freud, after all, who recommended directing attention toward trivialities as a methodological principle.” No longer on view you can read an account of the exhibit.

Freud waiting room, sans serif with a drop shadow, a sexual reference?

We received a phone calling notifying us that the rest of our party had come home from skiing in the Alps (because of a lack of snow) and noticed we were missing.  Sadly the time had come to return to Golling and then the US. Hopefully there would be a future opportunity to return to Vienna and see the rest of her treasures.  We boarded the train (sans goose) and watched for the mountains to come back into view.

Design Traveler on the path home, Skiiers return to their indoor activities.

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