For Vienna, 1918 was a horrific year. The end of World War I brought stark political changes, social upheaval, and economic hardship. Like other parts of the world, it struggled with the Spanish influenza epidemic. Fate did not discriminate when it broke hearts but it did seem particularly cruel to the Austrian capital when it refused to spare its cultural breath. Its art world — the creative force that kept the city vital and dynamic even as its historic empire crumbled — was decimated.
Gustav Klimt died following a stroke, leaving many works unfinished. His contemporary and friend Koloman Moser — credited as the world’s first graphic designer — followed him, a victim of throat cancer. Architect Otto Wagner, responsible for much of Vienna’s aesthetics, did not make it through the spring, passing away at age 77. And, most tragically, Klimt’s protege, Egon Schiele, succumbed to the flu at just 28 years of age, having produced a remarkable 245 paintings and 2,000 drawings in a mercurial flurry of brushstrokes and intrepidness.
In 2018, times are certain to be better. For the city and the stature of its pioneering artists.
Vienna has risen remarkably from its lowest point in 1945, when the city was carved into quadrants, each one occupied by a foreign authority: Russia, the United States, France, and Great Britain. Rations were the source of food, crime — sometimes perpetrated by the occupying forces — was pervasive, and the city’s black market was so notorious it became the focus of Graham Greene’s famous novel and screenplay, “The Third Man”.
Yet, the Viennese clung to their culture of sophisticated art and music to help them through the turmoil. An account in John Dos Passos’s book, “Tour of Duty” cites one eyewitness report about the state of the city that centuries ago was home to Mozart and Beethoven: “Though many of the auditoriums are ruined, all the theaters are open. Concert programs offer more good music in a week than you could hear in a month in New York.”
Seventy years later, Vienna is a joyful, easy-going place that has turned its misfortune into an opportunity, building a metropolis that is recognized as a global leader in livability and modern urban planning. You would have a difficult time naming another city anywhere that balances high culture with relaxing welcomeness and whimsy. On my previous visit in 2012, I strolled along the Danube Canal and felt it was one of the few places in Vienna missing atmosphere and attractiveness. This time, Vienna added what it lacked — a beach. Bars have emerged along the canals and they are laden with sand, beach chairs, and a summery warmth and congeniality.
Meanwhile, the palaces are still there, those astonishing monuments testament to the Hapsburg empire’s wealth and ability to procure incredible art. On the centennial of its devastation, Vienna will be celebrating the talent it grew and lost, spotlighting Viennese Modernism throughout 2018. “Beauty and the Abyss” is the theme for the planned exhibits featuring Klimt, Schiele, Moser, and Wagner. It is about the art movement from 1890-1918 as well as the other revolutionary creations that took place in Vienna near the turn of the 20th century, including Sigmund Freud’s research on psychoanalysis and the symphonies of composer Gustav Mahler.
Klimt, though, will be the main attraction. And deservedly. You know “The Kiss.” Everyone knows “The Kiss.” It is perhaps the only painting in the world that could rival “The Mona Lisa” in terms of value and adoration. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait, which has earned notoriety for the mystery and conspiracies surrounding it as well as its artistic merits, “The Kiss” has won its acclaim because it does so well what many believe art is supposed to do: Look beautiful, make you think, and touch your soul.
In 2018, Art Is the Draw to Vienna
Many art historians believe it is a depiction of Klimt in the arms of his lover, Emilie Flöge. The painting adorns handbags, scarves, books of romantic poetry, and even socks. “The Kiss” was completed in 1908, a mid-career work that was emblematic of Klimt’s use of gold and Byzantine style. It sparked a rejuvenation for his career that continued to his death. In Vienna, seemingly every notable museum or gallery has a piece of Klimt’s work in its collection.
The Belvedere Palace Museum possesses “The Kiss” and 23 other oil paintings by Klimt, making it holder of the largest collection of the artist’s work in the world. Nearby, the Secession, founded in 1897 by artists such as Klimt and Moser, remains an active home for the city’s art collective and the place where you can view the original “Beethoven Frieze”, a massive Klimt mural. It is based on an interpretation of the composer’s “Ninth Symphony” by another giant of classical music and a member of the Viennese cultural elite, Richard Wagner. The Kunsthistoriches, the city’s primary fine-arts museum housed in a former Hapsburg palace, has a Klimt mural skirting its ceiling as well as an incredible art collection featuring Renaissance and Neoclassical masterpieces. The small Leopold Museum is where much of the Viennese Modernism movement will take shape for visitors.
It’s at the Leopold where Klimt’s collaborations with his peers will emerge for visitors and where his impact on Schiele’s career will impress. When 17-year-old Schiele approached Klimt — then in his 40s — for advice, the well-established master did not scoff. He reportedly told Schiele he had “much too much” talent and years later would praise his pupil for being the better of the two at “drawing.”
Unlike in Klimt’s work, darkness and tension pervades Schiele’s art. It is more provocative and less beautiful than Klimt’s gilded creations but Schiele is notable for pushing boundaries, including showing common male nudity, and distorting faces and bodies. At the Leopold, you can see the largest collection of his work, including an intriguing and large portrait of himself and Klimt.
You’ll also find plenty of Moser’s work at the Leopold as well and see a recreation of Klimt’s studio, which was in a small apartment in the center of Vienna. After touring the city’s museums and discovering more about the Secessionist movement that was the foundation for Viennese Modernism, it is difficult not to wonder what might have happened if even one of Klimt, Moser, or Schiele had lived longer. Many aspects of Viennese life changed rapidly from 1918 onward, and the art world had difficulty filling the vacuum after such a horrific series of losses.
“Art had admittedly suffered a major setback with the deaths of Klimt, Schiele, and Koloman Moser in 1918. That flourishing of fine arts forever associated with the fin-de-siècle Secessionists was over, partly because innate Viennese conservatism was not prepared to go the extra mile and embrace non-figurative art in the 1920s,” writes Edward Timms in his book “Interwar Vienna: Culture Between Tradition and Modernity”.
Now, 100 years later, the city is preparing to look back to consider what it lost and what it gained from its leading artists of a defining era. Many in other parts of the world will be pleased if they joined Vienna in its time of reflection and revelry. No city in the western world can turn the abysmal into everlasting beauty such as this one.
MORE ABOUT VISITING VIENNA
Getting Around: Vienna has a very safe and efficient public transit system that connects you to its major attractions and its neighborhoods through trams and underground subway cars. A single-fare ticket costs 2.30 euro (about $2.65 USD) on the tram or at the underground station (save 0.10 euro when you purchase tickets online). For visitors, a Vienna City Card is a good choice because it allows one adult and one child unlimited transportation for between 24-72 hours (13.90-24.90 euro, or $16.60-$29.80 USD), plus it gives you discounts on food and attractions, including the museums.
Where to Stay: Luxury: Hotel Imperial (Kärntner Ring 16, 1015 Vienna) is a five-star property known for the long list of heads of state and celebrities who have stayed within its walls. Its top two floors have recently been renovated and also retain the opulent old-world touches for which Vienna is famed. A one-night stay will cost about 360 euro ($430 USD) and will vary depending on the season. Mid-range: Hotel Grand Ferdinand (Schubertring 10-12, 1010 Vienna), one block from the Imperial, has modern touches and a wonderful rooftop with a restaurant, pool, and terrace. Nightly room rates start at around 135 euro ($162 USD).
Where to Dine: Steiereck (Am Heumarkt 2A, 1030 Vienna) is the culinary star of the city and in 2017 ranks 10th among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It will wow your senses. The restaurant is in a lovely location within Stadtpark, a central green space in the city. For more casual fare, including Wiener schnitzel, which was invented in Vienna, try Huth (Schellinggasse 5, 1010 Vienna) and Lugeck (Lugeck 4, 1010 Vienna). Zum Schwarzen Kameel (Bognergasse 5, A-1010 Vienna) in the old city has been operating since 1618 and is a must-visit for its fun and fancy finger sandwiches. Vienna is one of the few major cities in the world to produce wine within its borders. Visit a huerige (wine tavern) for a true Viennese experience. Mayer am Pfarrplatz (Pfarrplatz 2, 1190 Vienna) on the edge of the city is famous for being one of Beethoven’s favorite establishments. It serves quality white wine and good and inexpensive food in a pleasant setting.