Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Return to Vienna (3)


We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, a vast, mind-numbing palace of art, conceived in a lavish style of overblown magnificence I can only call Imperial Viennese. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. But inside it's comfortable and un-cathedral-like, and above all warm after the glacial wind outside, and it's all on a reasonably human scale, as though the architects insisted that man should be the measure of all things.

A massive central hall is open to the domed ceiling three storeys above, painted with an extraordinary trompe l'oeil called The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, where Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael and others and their models and so on are seen from below as though in a sort of heaven. (And very cleverly painted so that decency is preserved and, crick your neck as you may, you can't see up their togas or tunics.) This hall is flanked by white marble stairs wide enough for at least six crinolines abreast: ultramarine and white marble columns support the arches on which the upper floors rest. The spandrels (the triangular-ish spaces between the vertical columns and the tops of the arches) have been decorated by Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst and a third Viennese artist called Franz Matsch to illustrate the history of art. Ancient Egyptian art, as accounted for below, appears to have appealed particularly to Gustav Klimt.



There are about three British paintings among the hundreds of Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and Spanish masters. It doesn't matter. We've learnt the hard way that the more paintings you try to take in, in huge collections like this one, the less they begin to mean. We reach saturation point very early, so we've come with a specific intention: we only want to see the Brueghels and the Vermeers.

It turns out that there's only one Vermeer, The Artist's Studio. It's much bigger than we expected it to be. There doesn't appear to be any restriction at all on taking photographs, so here it is:


As the for Brueghels, they too are huge, much bigger than expected. All the famous images are here, Winter Sports, Hunters in the Snow, Children's Games, The Tower of Babel. And the Peasant Wedding, the one where there's an unexplained extra leg underneath the tray (actually a door taken off its hinges) from which they're serving what looks like porridge. Is this Brueghel's joke? I buy a T-shirt for my son Andrew with the Tower of Babel printed on it. It seems very suitable for one whose business is largely localisation, the trade term for commercial translation.

All Vermeered and be-Breugheled up, we go for lunch in the restaurant. I have goulash followed by palatschinken, sweet pancakes with apricot jam. (It is Shrove Tuesday, after all.) On the next table are three Japanese. They have no German and very little English. They are clearly tempted by the obscenely mouth-watering display of confectionery, Mozart bombe, gebackener Topfentorte, Klimt Torte. The waiter asks them what they would like. My localisation experts advise me that in Japanese all words end either with a vowel or with the letter N. Assuming that English must be the same, our neighbours point and say 'Cakie'.


Cakie? the waiter asks, uncertain that he's heard right. They nod enthusiastically. Wouldn't you?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Return to Vienna (2)


You mustn't hold it against me, this excessively romantic cast of mind. I couldn't rid myself of it, even if I wanted to. I know, you're all so pragmatic and down-to-earth, so sensible and clear-visioned, you've got your feet so firmly fixed on the ground that the following story may mean nothing to you. In fact, if I were you I should stop reading right now and do something sensible, like make a Yorkshire pudding, clean out the hamsters, pay the electricity bill and get your calceolarias in. Right? You've been warned...

* * *

My first thought after leaving school at 18 was to get myself to Vienna to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven. His music had irradiated me, thrilled me, sent shivers down my adolescent spine, excited me to a world-view of limitless, Olympian joy. He had to be thanked. So I and a particularly complaisant friend set off hitch-hiking to Vienna. (A truncated version of this saga appears in the very earliest Lydian Airs posts, back in 2008. My friend, whose real name was Martin, is called George in that account, I don't know why. And as for 'Adèle', her real name was Gudrun.)

According to my information at the time Beethoven (d.1827) and Schubert (d.1828) lay side by side in a little park in the 18th district of Vienna. We found them easily, two elongated mounds with lichen-grown, obelisk-like headstones. On Schubert's headstone there was his name and a lyre. On Beethoven's there was his name and the figure of a butterfly carved into the stone. My information (a biography of Beethoven by Marion Scott) interpreted this butterfly as a symbol of freedom. I bowed the grateful knee. And touched my forelock respectfully to Schubert, whose music I loved too, but not with the same ardour that I felt for the Master. Duty done, we came home.

Then some years later I read, to my horror, that in 1874 the Vienna city council had opened a new municipal cemetery two or three miles out of town, the Zentral Friedhof, where the great and good, present and past, as well as the humble of Vienna would henceforth be buried. To this end they dug up Beethoven and Schubert from their little private graveyard and transferred what remained of their remains to new resting places with their fellow musicians. The quiet graves beside which I had paid homage had been empty. Schubert's lyre hardly respected the truth, and Beethoven's butterfly had flown.

So last week in Vienna, in fact on my birthday, and with J. as complaisant as my friend Martin had been, I put the record straight. I bought two red roses from a flower stall in the city centre, we took a taxi to the Zentral Friedhof, found the true graves and I laid a rose on each.

We came back to the city centre by one of the characteristic Viennese red and white trams. There were no means that we could find for buying tickets, so I'm afraid we bilked the fare. But next day we bought a book of 10 public transport tickets, valid equally for any journey by tram, bus or underground. We didn't use them all, so I suppose our consciences are clear.

And I feel I've discharged my obligations, even if it took me half a century to do so.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Return to Vienna (1)


I hadn't been back to Vienna for 51 years. With the utmost generosity J. took me there for a long weekend to mark my birthday. What happened will probably occupy blog posts for weeks. For now, the events of those crowded and climactic few days were encompassed - well, more or less - on the Do Not Disturb card the hotel invited us to display outside our door each morning. (If we weren't ready for the chambermaids, that is: for the record, there was an alternative card which read Please Clean My Room.)

DO NOT DISTURB -

I am reading a mystery novel
I am collecting my thoughts
I am contemplating my future
I am remembering things past
I am so happy to be in my room
I am trying to concentrate
I am enjoying a pastry
I am being inspired by a book
I am listening to music
I am planning my evening out
I am watching a great film
I am thinking about a career change
I am reflecting on my decisions
I am sitting in the lotus position
I am tasting a glass of wine
I am enjoying coffee
I am stimulating my curiosity
I am writing a love letter
I am dreaming of a bright tomorrow