Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beware: High Brow Arty Stuff

Warning: What follows is a serious geek-out over the history of art and a little opera thrown in. If art isn't your cup of tea, then turn back. Before you turn back, though, I also would like to ask you why you drink tea but don't like art. I feel like the two are locked together in vaguely affected matrimony until the Rapture. But that's just me.

I'm glad you decided to stick around. You might need a cup of tea to get through this...

The next morning, armed with audioguides and little comprehension of its vast size, the Borths family entered the Kunsthistorisches Museum (literally “art-history museum”) in Vienna. The Naturhistorisches Museum across the way was closed for the day, meaning I didn’t get to see the 25,000 year old Venus of Willendorf. I guess that’s what a return trip is for. We did get to analyze the exterior of the building though:

The exterior of the Natural History Museum has statues of people representing each of the continents. Here is the perfect specimen of the 19th century "Noble Savage." America (Note: this figure represents both North and South America. For a long time both landmasses were thought of us one continent. This jived well for the Renaissance idea of balance. There were four elements, four directions, four winds, four limbs, four gospels, and four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Australia and Antarctica butted in later, after the whole balance idea was given up and South America gained a separate identity from the North.) looks of to the side defiantly, but still at the mercy of the elements as indicated by his furrowed brow of worry. Australia hunkers down, giving protection to the child. She’s sitting in the dirt, but she’s not looking to anyone but the viewer. It looks like she wouldn’t listen to them anyway.

Europe on the other hand reaches her arms wide, ready to take in the wayward continents with the torch of knowledge and the gift of art and music (even if the continents don't really want to learn the lyre). Oh, the age of Imperialism.

The Naturhistisches Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum were constructed at the same time and opened in 1891, each as a place to house the Hapsburg Royal Family’s various collections. Obviously the art collection is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is actually one of the few major art museums in Europe built explicitly to display art. The interior is covered in ornate marble columns, gilt ceilings and busts of royals and nobles.

The grand staircase of the museum. It’s the first thing that greets you as you stride through the door. Normally museums have a bustling, echoing main atrium. Here you must ascend the stairs to the art where the echoes don’t travel. You physically travel to a more elevated plane on pink marble.
Above your head is a massive fresco showing just that. The stairs continue into the image and you enter behind the guy down center who is in awe of all the enlightened figures around him including the heroes of the Renaissance. Above their heads and in their midst float sacred Inspiration and the muses. It all bubbles over through the Pantheon-like dome.

At the top of the staircase is an incredible statue of Theseus winding up to brain a centaur, as imagined by Antonio Canova. Thesus is reasonable, civilized man conquering the baser animal instincts that threaten to tear civilization to shreds - or at least stampede civilization into oblivion. What I was struck by is the incredible ability of the artist to make some of the densest stone on earth look squishy.

The centaur's back folded, agonized flesh and his fingers actually grip Theseus's forearm, leaving a depression. The hero's knee is digging into his foe, knocking the wind from his secondary human diaphragm (at some point I need to pontificate on the possible anatomy of mythological creatures. What exactly do centaurs put in the horse-half's thoracic cavity if they have lungs and a diaphragm in their human half? I guess it could be arranged the other way, too. Thoughts?). Gorgeous.

This is the "Salt Celler" a table ornament made by the 16th century goldsmith Cellini. The sculpture shows Earth (Ceres) and the Sea (Neptune) in harmony, surrounded by the symbols of each realm. When their powers combine, you get salt (originally from the sea, mined from the earth). The piece is a masterpiece, but is especially interesting because it was stolen in 2003. The museum offered € 70,000 for its recovery, which doesn't quite seem generous enough. I guess that means museums are poorly funded everywhere, even in Europe. In 2006 it was recovered after being buried a lead box in the woods in northern Austria. Real, high profile art theft.

The museum also houses a massive Bruegel collection. This one is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and it's called "The Hunters in the Snow." Bruegel the Elder liked to paint peasants doing peasant-y things, like hunting, ice skating and getting married. He doesn't like to glorify their lifestyle. Many artists were a bit disconnected from the struggles of the working-class and created idealized "pastoral" scenes. Not Bruegel. The hunters look exhausted. The day looks frigid and even the dogs look like they've had it. But there is joy. The view is lovely and there's plenty of room left to Curl on the ice. The whole thing just has such incredible framing, and nary a face can be seen. Bruegel.

Another Brughel. "The Tower of Babel." This visual metaphor crops up every time we need to be reminded that we aren't as cool as we think we are. The king and architect oversee the project that is clearly doomed to failure as it continues to lean to the left. No one really notices though. The scale of the tower is incredible and the artist made sure to provide plenty of ant-like humans scurrying around its surface.

Before we moved on, we needed a break. We had been through about a quarter, or maybe just an eighth, of the museum and had a long way to go (like...the Italians and the Baroque). There was one cafe in the museum, situated on the second floor. You had to wander through it to get to the next series of galleries. We had let our breakfast carry us past noon, but it was time to take a break. Unfortunately it was a very busy day, so peak serving time never really went away. We hovered for a few minutes, hoping to catch a table, but were beaten every time. My mom and brother volunteered to wait by the restaurant to swipe a table while dad, Carolyn and I went on into the next room.

As I contemplated a cityscape of Vienna in 1700, my brother triumphantly grabbed me. He had figured out the system and asked a couple that were getting ready to pay if we could have the table next. He had staked a claim and had the support of the original occupants in defending his new territory.

We sighed with relief as we eased into the chairs. Marble can be tough to walk on for three hours. I did my hurried, traditional translation of half the menu items ("ummm...potatoes with, uh, some kind of sauce. Beef soup and...I'm going to guess that's some kind of vegetable or mushroom...) as our frazzled waitress swept up. She promptly told us half the menu was sold out. We ordered coffee and made our food selections based on this new information (I think we went for sandwiches). Dad got the soup. Minutes ticked by, art time was lost. Our waitress returned. They were out of sandwiches. We ordered salad. She returned, they were out of salads. We ordered soup and it took half an hour. She finally returned to our table with calories. We bolted it down.

As we paid, a man in a wheelchair was rolled near the Josh's seat and the woman pushing him waited for us to get up. As we left another man swung in and tried to take the table, even as the wheelchair was being docked. We didn't wait to see the result of the territory dispute. We had art to see...

Meta-art: a photographer taking a picture of an artist painting a picture of an artist painting a picture. It's like the hall of mirrors. The original piece is "The Allegory of Painting (The Painter in His Studio et al.)" by Johannes Vermeer. The lighting in the painting is delicately rich, falling on the curtain, map and subject in glowing highlights. The viewer seems to peer from the corner of the room, past a chair blocking your progress. Such detail. It's a bummer we couldn't examine it all that closely. We were worried of being in the secondary artist's way.

"David with the Head of Goliath" by Caravaggio . The artist was known for his intensely realistic religious scenes. He didn't like to use a lot of angels or obvious Christian iconography. He just used light to emphasize his point, in this case, the grisly triumph of a shepherd boy. Caravaggio liked to show his subjects with dirty feet and hands. His models weren't idealized. If you knew the guy standing in for David, you would recognize him on the canvas.

Caravaggio also has the distinction of being a murderer and a bit of jerk who was always looking for a duel. But he sure could paint. Goliath's head is actually a self-portrait, perhaps as an act of penance for his exile. Or maybe he just couldn't find someone that wanted to see the bloody stump of their neck on canvas. We may never know.

These are so cool. "Summer" is at the top and "The Sea" is at the bottom as painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo . He painted them in the late 1500s. Apparently he also did traditional commissions for churches and such, but these "portraits" made him stand out in the Renaissance, and they still make him stand out today as the spiritual father of Surrealism. If you zoom in on the fruit and fish, that's all you see. They don't seem to be arranged in any strange way until you back up and the face distracts from the details. It's a still life that happens to be a face. Might I also add that everything from the shark to the literal ear-of-corn are painted with the accuracy of an Audubon guidebook.

Science side note: They (They = psychologists I saw in a documentary once) actually used these 16th century paintings to show that one part of the brain is used for recognizing faces and a separate part is used for recognizing everything else and these two reception centers reside on different sides of the brain. A person with a severed corpus callosum, the neural highway that facilitates communication between the left and right side of the brain, saw one of these pictures with his right eye, and all he saw was a face. Then he was shown the image using only his left eye and he thought it was a different picture, this time a still life with a bunch of fish, fruit or whatever. They used multiple subjects and acheived similar results. I should note additionally that the separation between each side of the brain was an accident and not performed for the experiment. The study lent credence to the idea that we are specially adapted to respond to faces. Science section over.

The museum also had a massive antiquity collection that we really didn't get to see. This Late Roman vase called "The Gryphon's Hunt" was unearthed in Austria (I think). It was buried as the advancing Barbarian hordes rushed into the Empire and the Roman citizens were forced to leave their possessions in the ground, in the hopes of looping back for them. Not many people were able to come back to dig everything up. That's what archaeologists are for (Note: I am a paleontologist, not an archaeologist. I look for dead animals, they look for things made by people. I feel it is one of my professional duties to take every opportunity to remind people of these definitions.).

It was dark by the time we left the museum behind and it was time to get a more substantial meal before our next encounter with high art: the return to the State Opera. Rick Steves recommended a trendy seafood restaurant nestled in the Hapsburg palace's botanical garden. While we were a bit leery of his recommendations after our tram-to-nowhere experience the day before, we took his advice again, and enjoyed exquisite grilled fish and vegetables. As a family we were in the minority. Most of the clientele seemed to be hip, young Viennese couples and friends, all enjoying good wine and a kind of elevated Cuban vibe (though the fireplace projection on the wall undermined the Caribbean atmosphere a bit). After the meal it was time to get in line for the opera.

This time we arrived at the theater before the performance began. This meant my new-found ticket haggling skills were unnecessary. We just needed to stand in line with hundreds of our closest friends to get our standing room tickets. Josh may be grinning in the above picture, but he was mentally calculating the population of the line ahead of us, trying to figure out if we were too late to get in and if we could hope for a central position. He didn't relax until we had the cardboard in our hands and our feet by a rail. Instead of getting standing room in the middle, we had to content ourselves with being high and to the side, but at least we were in to see Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." By clicking on that link, you will find the synopsis, but as Josh has repeatedly told me - despite my protests - opera is not about plot. It's about music. So, if you want to listen to the music - the important part - here's a video that offers a nice compilation of the selections from the piece:

The performance was fantastic, as one would expect at the State Opera in Vienna. Figaro, the barber of the title, is the orchestrator of a plot to help a nobleman get to his jealously guarded paramour. The singer performing Figaro made me feel like his best friend, slyly playing with everyone, letting me in on the joke of it all. The set was gorgeous...talk to Josh about details of the vocal performance.

After the show, the older generation went home, leaving Josh, Carolyn and I to strike out into Vienna on our own. We were leaving the next day for Salzburg and wanted to see a Viennese bar before we headed out of town. Moving away from the theater, we swept our eyes up and down the streets of the darkened shopping district. Nothing. We walked past St. Stephen's. Nothing. There must have been a bar district, but where would they tuck it? We didn't want to stay up all night, so we stopped by a notice board and looked at the restaurants advertised. There was one called...hmmm. I remember they brewed their own stuff. It might be "Schnitzelwirt Schmidt" or maybe just "Schwechater." Tough call. Regardless, it was pretty dead at 10 PM the day before New Years Eve. The place seemed aimed at tourists with fully illustrated menues and traditional Austrian decorations including waitresses in dirdls.

We ordered a round of pretzles and a round of beer. My dark Alt-ish bier was really smooth and the squat little hunny-pot of a glass was especially fun. Carolyn and Josh tried Zwickel, which is unfiltered lager (Carolyn did the research on that one) and also very good. Good reviews all around, though that's a useless recommendation until I remember the name of the place. It's near St. Stephen's. Follow the tourists down into the cellar. Have fun.

It was time to give a final toast to Vienna and get back to the hotel so we could depart the next morning for Salzburg, city of Mozart and the Von Trapp Family Singers...

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

You should note that the Arcimboldo paintings are as realistic as an Audubon guide...except in terms of scale. The seal and the seahorse are the same size.