The Third Man

Arriving at Vienna Hauptbahnhof on a train which has traveled through the snow covered Alps from Innsbruck, is to arrive. One immediately acquires a sense of the city, the late nineteenth century buildings with their baroque ornamentation, the bits of new build, the glimpses of the Wohnung Gemiende – the community housing – of the 1920s and early 1930s. It is a city which has poured forth a stream of ideas and people; of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Arthur Schnitzler, Otto Bauer, Otto Wagner, Emmy ….,

Julius Braunthal and many more (I am writing without access to my library so forgive the male dominance and other omissions). One would need to be here for years to properly study even a tenth of what has happened here, what situations, what has been created.

Any part of the city is rewarding to walk around. Where does one wish to start? With the Red Vienna house building (which is still lived in). No smoke and mirror terminology of ‘affordable’ was used (affordable by who and in relation to what?). The motif was low cost and good quality. One may wish to argue about the architectural innovation or otherwise, but this housing was well built and continues to provide low cost and good quality. I debated whether to bring Eve Blau’s book, The Architecture of Red Vienna but at the last minute decided I could not visit the city without it. It just about fitted in the suitcase.

Then there is the Imperial Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I confess to knowing very little about this, but from what I have seen so far, the buildings are impressive. But does it not raise a question as to how and why such stuff was being built at the end of the nineteenth century, at the same time as technical changes led to the development of mass production?

There is also the history of the House of Hapsburg. Those pesky Hapsburgs have followed me around Europe and are present where ever I go. Luxemburg, Antwerp, Bruxelles, Madrid. Yes, you will meet one or more members of this family. The Kunstkammer has a wonderful display of the sort of luxury objects they once favoured.

The Kunstkammer itself is situated within the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wein. I have been before, a few years ago. But I was more stupid then. I walked around in an hour or two and made silly notes to myself. Since then I have been reading.

And reading. And reading yet some more. So this time the visit to the galleries has been much more rewarding. I understand a little of the Revolt of the Low Countries which led to the independence of the United Provinces and then the Dutch Golden Age.

The ‘Art of Painting’ of Vermeer can now be appreciated in some form of context, as can the seven Rembrandt paintings. And I wish I had bought Leo Joseph Koerner’s book on Bosch and Bruegel with me, but reading that has given some insight into Bruegel. It was good moment to be face to face with Brueghel’s painting…… after reading Koerner’s analysis of the painting. There have been surprises too. I did not realise that Jan Steen’s painting ‘ In Luxury, Look Out’, was here. I laughed out loud and enjoyed quietly listening to the young English couple discuss it, ‘look at the dog eating the pie’, and ‘look at that kid with the pipe’. They were clearly enjoying the painting and their remarks were funny and entertaining. I felt a certain anonymity, a stranger in a strange land because they must have assumed I was Austrian.

And then it came to pass that I discovered the Italian Renaissance.

I have sat for hours in front of Garofalo’s The Resurrection of Christ, and Perugino’s The Madonna with the Four Saints, Carracci’s Venus and Adonis and Rafael’s The Madonna in the Meadow. Hours. I have visited the galleries every day since I have been here, half living in them. Some of the staff are now almost on first name terms, but I get the impression that one are two are more suspicious. Is this person staking out a heist? It is immersive, a great way to experience. It is possible to buy a card for 44 euros which means one can go as often as one wishes throughout the year. This is a brilliant scheme and I wish galleries which charge would all offer such a service. It means that one can go and just look at one or two paintings each day, just stroll around, go and see a favourite painting over and over again, or go and see something to experience it, even if not sure (apart from Rubens who I dislike).

But if one is going to visit one of the world’s great art galleries, can it compete with the importance of what might be on the phone? I lost count, and interest, in the number of people I have seen doing this. Sat in front of Bruegel or Cranach or Altdorfer and staring at a tiny screen of garish pixels. Their life is not real. Empty, but not real.The other strange behaviour is to walk up to a painting, glance at it – perhaps a second or two – then take a photograph and walk off. The museum has an excellent website and it is possible to download the paintings. Much better quality and easier. And surely the thing to do when one has the opportunity to stand in front of the works of Hans Memling or any of the other painters, is to study the technique, the colours (they never reproduce the same in print), the size of the painting, the brush strokes (look at the way Rembrandt applies the brush). But no. I-must-consume-I-must-consume-I-must-consume……

PS – ‘The Third Man’ – why did I not bring the film! I need a bigger suitcase to fit in a larger traveling library and a traveling film collection.