Art in Vienna: Celebrating 100 Years of Viennese Modernism

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The Secession Building’s dome consists of 3,000 gold-plated iron leaves that have been freshly regilded. (Photo credit: WienTourismus-Christian Stemper)
The Secession Building’s dome consists of 3,000 gold-plated iron leaves that have been freshly regilded. Photo credit: WienTourismus-Christian Stemper

Visitors to Vienna are frequently stunned by the city’s architectural and artistic grandeur. They shouldn’t be. What today is the capital of a relatively small country was once the center of power for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire and the third most populous.

Its rulers, the powerful Habsburg dynasty, over the centuries shaped Vienna as a magnificent expression of their influence and prestige. The famous “Ring,” the system of wide boulevards where the medieval city’s walls once stood, even today is lined with glittering, elegant structures, including just one of the Hapsburg’s palace complexes and others housing government and cultural institutions.

Arts in Vienna

In addition to Vienna’s political importance, it’s also been a hotbed of creative ferment. As the city where Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Strauss lived and worked, Vienna’s musical heritage is especially strong, but so were its influences in the visual arts, literature, architecture, and even fashion. Intellectuals like Sigmund Freud also made Vienna their home, making it a center where ideas that reshaped the world emanated from.

That all came crashing down in 1918. With the end of the first World War, Austria-Hungary found itself at the mercy of the victorious Allies and was broken up into several smaller nations, none as politically powerful as the empire preceding them.

Vienna’s cultural influence also began to wane that year since, by the sheerest of coincidences, 1918 was the year marking the deaths of four of the city’s artistic icons — the painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, architect and city planner Otto Wagner, and graphic designer and decorative artist Koloman Moser.

This year, a century after this defining moment in its history, Vienna is choosing to celebrate its artistic achievements with a year-long, city-wide remembrance of the work of these four cultural titans. Using “Beauty and the Abyss” as its catchphrase and theme, the city is encouraging tourism to places where the work of these artistic giants can best be seen, well as throwing a number of special events and exhibits highlighting their work. Here are some “best bets” where you can do just that.

The Upper Belvedere, a stunning Baroque masterpiece, houses the largest collection of Gustav Klimt in the world. (Photo credit: WienTourismus-Christian Stemper)
The Upper Belvedere, a stunning Baroque masterpiece, houses the largest collection of Gustav Klimt in the world. Photo credit: WienTourismus-Christian Stemper

The Belvedere Palace Museum

The Belvedere Palace is one of Vienna’s principal jewels, a Baroque masterpiece — actually two of them — an Upper Palace at the summit of a small hill, with the Lower Palace below, connected by a sloping formal garden with manicured shrubbery, fountains, and dozens of statues.

Built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy in the early 18th century, the Belvedere was once outside the city proper but nowadays is in the center of Vienna’s thriving cultural scene. In fact, the Belvedere plays a major part in that scene because it’s now a museum showcasing Austrian art from medieval times to the present.

“The Kiss” is the most popular of Gustav Klimt’s 24 paintings housed in the Upper Belvedere Palace. Photo credit: Rich Warren
“The Kiss” is the most popular of Gustav Klimt’s 24 paintings housed in the Upper Belvedere Palace. Photo credit: Rich Warren

One of the major draws of the Belvedere for art lovers is that it has the largest collection in the world of Gustav Klimt’s paintings — 24 of them. Many are examples of Klimt’s “Jugendstil” style of painting, the Viennese form of Art Nouveau.

Perhaps the most popular is “The Kiss,” showing a couple embracing in a meadow of flowers — It’s believed to be a portrait of Klimt himself with his lover, Emilie Flöge.

Nearly six feet square, “The Kiss” is a highlight of Klimt’s “Golden Period” where the artist developed a technique of combining gold leaf, oils, and bronze paint. Its mosaic effect is believed to have been inspired by Byzantine motifs Klimt saw in Italy. Also, in this gallery you’ll find your eyes drawn to Klimt’s Biblically themed “Judith,” a portrait of a lavishly dressed, voluptuous woman incongruously holding the head of Holofernes.

Klimt’s Biblically themed “Judith” hangs in the same gallery as “The Kiss.” Photo credit: Rich Warren
Klimt’s Biblically themed “Judith” hangs in the same gallery as “The Kiss.” Photo credit: Rich Warren

In fact, most of the Belvedere’s collection of Klimt paintings can be found in this same gallery where “The Kiss” and “Judith” are located. You’ll be lucky to find yourself alone or with just a few people surrounding you, since the immense popularity of Klimt’s work is one of the major draws to the museum.

The gallery is frequently thronged with people, sometimes including entire tour groups. Consider arriving in the morning when the Belvedere first opens.

The Klimt paintings, and in fact the entirety of the Belvedere’s permanent collection, are in the Upper Palace, where the ornate rooms have huge windows offering magnificent views of the city. In other galleries, you’ll find Impressionist paintings, Classical masterpieces like a giant portrait of Napoleon on horseback, and a few works by Egon Schiele, who, like Klimt, died in 1918.

The Lower Palace, with interiors as sumptuous as its counterpart, is the site for temporary exhibits such as the current “Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe,” where the works of 80 artists demonstrate that the vitality of the cultural community continued after 1918.

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