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?

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