Category Archives: Art

Schloss Ambras: Curiouser and Curiouser

On a couple of occasions in my long and diverse teaching career, I’ve been asked to teach a course on museum studies. A prominent feature of that course — and it’s a really fun course to teach, by the way — is a series of lectures on cabinets of curiosities. These are essentially the early modern precursor to the museum, ad hoc collections of all manner of materials strange, unusual, marvelous, and beautiful. The cabinet of curiosities is a concept with enormous range — with origins in Italian studioli (little studies) and royal treasuries, it takes a particularly elaborate form in the collections of the Austrian Habsburgs, who bought, stole, commissioned, or were given every imaginable kind of object.

I’ve written about some of the fruits of this collecting before—indeed, the newly reopened Kunstkammer in the KHM in Vienna has the very best objects from the Habsburg cabinet of curiosities (at its height called a Wunderkammer); these objects were, in the late 19th century, split off from the paintings and sculptures, and from the naturalia, that became the basis of the rest of the KHM and of the neighboring NHM (about which I’ve also written). But if you want to see the collections of rare and precious objects presented as they would have appeared in the 16th century—that is, at the height of European craftsmanship—you need to head to Innsbruck, and to Schloss Ambras. Here, the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II, ruler of Tyrol, can be seen still in their original setting, some of them in their original display chambers. It’s a rare and extraordinary window into Renaissance collecting—and also just some really cool shit.

The castle/palace complex is 16th century, with gardens set against a spectacular Alpine backdrop that you unfortunately can’t see while looking at the palace, rather from it (who gets the good view? The inhabitants, that’s who):

Schloss Ambras

 Schloss Ambras, Grounds

 Inside, the first room you come to is a large hall of armor—some of it rather interesting. The armor has an incredible intricacy; this was, after all, the 16th century, and Habsburg gear. It was more likely to be used for parades than for riding into actual battle. Also, these people were seriously tiny.

Armor Ambras

There were also some pretty weird choices—like these helmets given the shape of Moors’ faces, to be worn by archdukes and their like.

Schloss Ambras, Inexplicable Objects

“What were they thinking?” you ask. Good question. In further rooms you can see the cabinet of curiosities as it was originally displayed in the 16th century. This is a rare, indeed unique, opportunity, because most objects that were originally part of these collections are scattered, with their original settings destroyed, and only inventories give a sense of how they might have been assembled. At Schloss Ambras, you can see that the collection is organized according to a set of taxonomic principles that make little sense to modern minds. That is, by material, regardless of any other consideration (for example, art vs. nature).

Schloss Ambras, Curiosities

Among the highly curious objects in the collection, a sort of carved coral diorama of the Crucifixion:


A carved wood dancing death:

Dancing Death

And, in a corner that it shares with a tree trunk that has grown around a set of deer’s antlers, you will find a taxidermied forerunner to the early work of Damien Hirst:


Shark Ambras

Wait…let’s get a better look at those antlers, shall we?

Antlers Ambras

The collection does not distinguish, as I said, between works of art and nature, and so it includes a series of paintings of the extraordinary hirsute family of Pedro Gonzalez, a Spanish man who was part of the court of Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands:

The Family of Pedro Gonzalez

No doubt such hirsutism caused the family distress. But surely it was better than a sharp stick in your eye. Not sure? Consider the trials and tribulations of one Gregor Baci, unsuccessful jouster:

Ambras Injury

Gregor’s portrait is just one of the dozens upon dozens in Ambras’ extensive and quite quality portrait collection; you can also see many of the original rooms (including an incredible bathroom with a deep pool meant to be kept warm with heated stones). In contemplating what picture to give you in closing, I choose this incredible example, which I think captures the curiosity’s concept of limitlessness. Why live in a world with a concept of the impossible, when you could instead live with this guy:

My God, that is a hat and a half. The whole idea of riding a horse in that thing is incredible. Why is the horse not running from it in terror? Perhaps he is. Perhaps that is what this painting is really of.
My God, that is a hat and a half. The whole idea of riding a horse in that thing is incredible. Why is the horse not running from it in terror? Perhaps he is. Perhaps that is what this painting is really of.
Posted in Adventures, Around Austria, Art, Culture, Regan Writing | 1 Comment

Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens, Rembrandt—A Review

Until June 30th the Albertina has a show of prints and drawings, “Bosch Bruegel Rubens Rembrandt.” I’ve been to see it a couple of times and found it overall mixed, with a couple of high points. First, I’ll give you a quick overview of what to expect; and then I’d like to show you a couple of things in the show that are very much worth seeing.

The exhibition has as little to hold it together as its title suggests; Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt were all fascinating (though quite distinct) painters who executed less-famous though superb graphic works; their careers span a timeframe of about 175 years. Bruegel was profoundly influenced by the work of Bosch, at that moment a popular artist; Rembrandt drew from a couple of Rubens’ works, and may have had a more extensive interest in the artist who was the most famous of their shared moment. But Bosch and Rubens or Bruegel and Rembrandt have little enough to do with each other. Presumably to give a sense of connection, a couple of additional categorical divisions are thrown into the mix—Haarlem mannerists, for instance, as well as landscape. It’s exactly as arbitrary as it sounds.

Structure is imposed by the layout of the gallery itself, with the Bosches (including the famous Tree-Man drawing) and Bruegels (the prints of the Seven Deadly Sins) off in the split-level side room (frequent Albertina visitors will know the space well). The remainder of the works sprawl through the remaining gallery space broken into loose subcategories, sort of. The effect is of a kind of intellectual disorder punctuated briefly by extraordinary experiences. I suggest we just take a look at the latter.

For example, among the Bruegels, and far more interesting than the engravings of the Seven Deadly Sins, one finds his pen and brush drawing of Big Fish Eat Little Fish:

Big Fish Eat the Little Fish

The father in the boat gestures toward the fishy mayhem and says, according to the inscription present in print versions, “Look, son, I have long known that the big fish eat the small.” The truth of this maxim is being demonstrated in every direction — not only by the whale in the background, disgorging fish from mouth and gut, but within the boat itself, where another man cuts open a large catch to reveal a small one.

Like most of Bruegel’s works that are often posited to present a “moral message,” the meaning of the work is profoundly unclear. That we are supposed to learn something important is indicated by the gesture of the man in the boat to the boy; the boy, like the viewer, is in the role of “student.” But what is the lesson taught by this marine mass slaughter? Presumably we humans are the biggest fish of all—this would be the logic of the Great Chain of Being, after all—and at first glance this would appear to be the case both within the boat, in the actions of the fisherman, and in the world more broadly, where a pair of men—who, though not the largest figures in the composition, are wielding the largest knives—are stabbing and gutting the massive whale.

But wait. Look up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…a flying fish?

Little Fish Eat the Big Fish Eating the Little Fish

The lesson, such as it is, seems to be that everyone thinks he’s the big fish—until he isn’t. Indeed, there is only one true Big Fish, and we are not he. For he is God. And he is coming after us (using nature as his tool?), in the same way we are slashing our way through his creatures. The play is on the idea of Christ as a fisherman/a fisher of men, and on the idea that man is too quick to think of himself as in the position of the fisherman, rather than as part of the catch. That the world can turn on you in a moment—that the big fish can, in fact, become the small—is amusingly indicated by the oysters and mussels clapping hold of the occasional fish, and by the creature off to the right that has sprung a pair of human legs and is walking off with a smaller fish in its mouth.

How do you feel now, little fish?

Need some cheering up? How about a nice, jolly Bosch drawing of…something:

Bosch Gone Wild

Of course, not for nothing was Bosch a source for Bruegel, since this print, like most of Bosch’s paintings, seems to be about the idea that the result of our human inability to take control of our bodies (as a metaphor for the dominance of spirit over matter, itself a polite way of saying stop sinning, you fool!) means that we will eventually become instruments ourselves—rather dramatically rendered by the figure having a bird driven into his rectum by a lute-wielding man. Go ahead, laugh and play, live it up in your joyful, pleasurable body; chase a few birds. But then prepare to be cracked like a wishbone, played like a lute, or, as in the case of the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado, strung on a harp. Because God is not your friend, and he didn’t make this world for you to have fun in. In fact, he made it to trap you.

That was fun and all, but the real highlight of the exhibition for me were the two side-by-side impressions of Rembrandt’s drypoint of The Three Crosses in States III and IV. For those new to printmaking, a state refers to all of the impressions drawn from a plate without any alterations to the surface of the plate itself. If the artist recuts the plate, whether for artistic reasons or because it has worn down, and then pulls more impressions, this constitutes a new state of the print. The Three Crosses exists in four states, and clearly between the third and fourth states something radical has happened. Here is state III:


Obviously, it’s a play on light. Christ on the central cross rises into a Close Encounters-styled cone of light that dissolves the figures at the base of the cross even as it defines him as a collection of sharp lines, pushed toward the viewer. The trappings of his material life—the nobles on their horses, the observers behind the cross, Virgin and Marys and other followers, all are treated to an equalizing force of radiance that, in erasing line (print’s only formal tool), eradicates form. The figure of the “good thief” who has accepted Christ (unusually on Christ’s left, though of course on the plate and in preparatory drawings he would have been in the mirror image position, on Christ’s right) has given himself over to the light. His physical collapse paradoxically rises upward, arcing over the top of his cross. The “bad thief” who denies Christ, in contrast, slides inexorably downward, weighed down by ink and line. The lit area lightly touches the edges of the crowd, and at its edges the figures take on definition as they come nearer to the world of the viewer.

In contrast, take a look at what has happened in State IV of The Three Crosses:

Three Crosses, State IVThe world has gone dark. Christ still rises in the center of the composition, he is still clearly modelled, but his isolation is complete. Dense, heavily cut lines—a near wash of black, a heavy sleet of ink—has swamped the good thief on the right; the holy family likewise, with the exception of the lone figure desperately clutching the base of the cross. The rider who was leaving the composition on the left in State III has turned and is riding inward, an ominous hint of cruelties to come. The groom who had been holding his horse’s head is now behind him, and is now grabbing the head of a panicked, rearing, riderless horse, converted from a previously tame figure of a mounted rider. The new figure is a kind of specter of fear, dimly glimpsed. The work on the plate here is remarkable—take a look at the heavy lines that make up that horse, and think about how Rembrandt has gouged at the plate:

Three Crosses, State IV, detail of horse

The mood here is obviously grim, and ominous. The consolations of light offered by State III have been completely reversed to produce a dark world of specters:

Three Crosses, State IV, detailThe viewer’s role here is not to interpret, as in the third state, but to experience. State IV is not just a different image—it posits a different role for artist and viewer. The work we do in front of the image is fundamentally different than that demanded by Bosch and Bruegel—it is not allegorical.

I’d just say that, in the face of such a radically different kind of representation, there might have been a more meaningful way of understanding the relationship between these artists than via the category “Landscape.”

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The Highs and Lows of the Wagner Villas I and II

Wagner Villa I, The Street View
Wagner Villa I, as it appears from the street.

In the 14th district of Vienna (Penzing to its friends) one finds two villas, side-by-side, constructed by the great Jugendstil architect Otto Wagner to be his personal residences. I visited them last weekend, and to be honest, I’ve gone a little blog silent while I struggled with how to talk about what you’ll see if you make your way up there. Because what you think of the Wagner Villas (Villas I and II as they’re known) will really depend on your relationship to Wagner himself.

In that regard, I will go ahead and say that I’m a big fan of Otto Wagner. He was a remarkable figure. An architecture professor at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he bucked tradition and the likely goodwill of his colleagues in 1897 when he became one of the founding members of the Secession, the exhibition arm of Jugendstil, or Viennese Art Nouveau. He was at the time also in the midst of a massive urban planning effort aimed at restructuring Vienna’s transit and water systems from their medieval conditions into the infrastructure of a modern city. We can and will talk about these designs another time — but in short, if you ever ride the U4 or U6 U-Bahn lines; ride the tram around the Ringstrasse; walk along the Danube Canal; cross the Gürtel; or in a variety of other ways make use of Vienna’s public structures, you are interacting with Wagner’s designs. More than anyone else of his milieu (far moreso than, to my mind, his friend and fellow-Secessionist Gustav Klimt, for instance) his late career fully embraced a forward-looking modernity predicated on an essentialized application of classical principles; his Postsparkasse along the Ringstrasse is an exquisite manifesto of modernist regularity and restraint. He was intellectual and self-editing, his style an embodiment of the notions of utility, functionality, and balance.

Unfortunately, that’s not what you’re likely to see if you visit the villas.

The pergolas to the sides are not visible here thanks to the acute angle.
The pergolas to the sides are not visible here thanks to the acute angle.

Villa I is the first and larger of the two structures, built beginning in 1886, before the Secession was founded. It reflects Wagner’s classical, academic training even as it signals the kind of linearity and modular thinking that are features of his later work. The villa is essentially a Palladian structure, consisting of a square building with a central loggia above a double staircase.  The two pergolas to the sides were filled in to become additional interior spaces not long after the initial construction; they extend the building into a long rectangle.

Still, the central block dominates. Note its modular regularity: the four ionic columns (so balanced! So neutral!) paired by four pilasters behind and two niches to the sides, the cornice broken into yet smaller rectangles, even as a decorative play unites these elements.

View up into the ceiling of the front loggia. Columns, coffers, egg-and-dart, and assorted other classical elements.
View up into the ceiling of the front loggia. Columns, coffers, egg-and-dart, and assorted other classical elements.
This is not something Otto Wagner would have endorsed.
This is not something Otto Wagner would have endorsed.

It’s difficult to establish from historical photographs whether the color is original, but those historical photos do reveal a key difference in the facade from its original appearance.

Here is the Villa as seen in 1888 (note the open pergolas to the sides). And to the left is that facade seen close-up today.

You’ll notice that the rather awful sculpture of a nude woman is not present in historical images. That’s because it wasn’t there. It also used to be painted black, and isn’t any longer, thank goodness, but its off-putting presence will put a viewer immediately in mind of a basic truth of Wagner Villa I. Namely: It’s not Wagner’s Villa anymore.

Fuchs' bust stands on the facade, solemnly greeting visitors.
Fuchs’ bust stands on the facade, solemnly greeting visitors.

Wagner Villa I is owned by Ernst Fuchs, an Austrian artist who practices a style called Fantastic Realism (click here to see a sample). To the right is his portrait bust, which he placed on the facade in the center niche of the staircase. He purchased the villa several decades ago and paid for its restoration—it was evidently in quite bad shape. In the process he turned the villa into his personal museum, in addition to making substantial alterations to the interior (and, as we’ve seen, the exterior). On the one hand, he keeps the villa open to the public, unlike the neighboring, privately-owned Wagner Villa II. On the other hand, he charges 11 euros to enter, and has his own idea of what a visitor is there to see. If your interest is in the collected works of Fuchs himself, this is probably money well-spent (he’s had a long career, and it’s a sizable collection). If your interest is in Otto Wagner, or Viennese modernism, you’re going to have a rough time.

Take, for example, the sun room/living room on the far side of the villa. It was originally an open pergola, filled in in 1895 and then finished with stained glass windows (by Adolf Böhm) and a tile floor. Here’s how it looks:

Wagner Villa, Living Room

I shouldn’t need to point out the clash between the art and furniture (both by Fuchs) and Wagner’s aesthetic. My personal approach was to try to tune out the more, um, recent additions, and try to visualize the villa’s origins. You can see here a typically 1890s love of floral ornament in the windows; indeed, this room, more than the facade, reflects a Secessionist style. The graphic linearity of some of the details—the ornamental smoke climbing to allude to columns and harmonizing with the repetitive play of bending and straight lines that modularize the ceiling, as well as the snake design in the floor (line becomes life)—are elegantly Wagnerian. I love the way he restricts his formal vocabulary and then digs structure and meaning out of it:

Wagner Villa I, Glass


Wagner Villa I, Smoke


Wagner Villa I, Snake
Note the way the snakes’ tongues curl into a nest of lines that suggest the twining lines of smoke on the walls. I think you’re invited to ask whether the organic matter (snake) exudes the lines that then form all of the stuff of life — the smoke, the architecture itself — or whether the lines of the tongues are the stuff of the building (those same forms from wall and ceiling) consolidating to form the living snakes. Either way, Wagner has I think a profound sense that organic life is essentially linear — as is architecture. This comes as close as anything I’ve seen to clarifying the relationship between his generally modular, linear architecture and the organic ornament he uses especially through his earlier career.

In the main salon, one has a similarly clashing experience, where Fuchs’ massive painting and equally massive couch/bed dominate the otherwise cool, rectilinear space:

Wagner Villa I, Living Room


The decor is pretty awful, really. The fact is, Wagner’s style is about an elegant play between utility and ornament. He does not, like Adolf Loos, for instance, reject the notion of ornament; but it plays out within a sense of the use and overall coherence of the space.

Fuchs seems to be governed by an entirely different idea — there’s a kind of gratuitous opulence and excess to the aesthetic of both the art and the furniture added to the villa. And if that’s your style, that’s fine, but it’s hard to make a case that it gels very well with Wagner’s ideas.

Of course, Wagner’s is essentially a classical vocabulary, as the grotesque (in the classical sense) ceiling decorations in the main salon make clear:

Wagner Villa I, Main Room


Detail of the ceiling from the main room.
Detail of the ceiling from the main room.

In places, Fuchs’ alterations are hard to excuse. The hideous figure from the front staircase makes a reappearance as a self-designed wallpaper in the dining room. Again, you might like this sort of thing (though you shouldn’t), but there’s no real case to be made that this self-exploration of a narcissistic libido is a good fit with Wagner’s cooly restrained, geometric aesthetic:

What's that on the wallpaper, anyway?
What’s that on the wallpaper, anyway?
Oh. It's that.
Oh. It’s that.

Let’s leave aside what’s been done to the upper floor, where a rather beautiful original mosaic is surrounded by a sloppily-executed sponge-painting of the walls in livid shades. Overall, the experience of the villa was unsavory and in fact kind of creepy (Fuchs keeps a toothbrush under the Wagner-designed mosaic sink upstairs, a detail that merges unpleasantly with the louche, self-designed daybed and the endless images of fetishistically distorted nudes).

The second villa, Wagner Villa II, is directly next door. Wagner sold Villa I and shortly thereafter in 1912 designed Villa II to be a new residence for himself and his wife. He sold it again in 1918. Villa II is a much more assertive statement of Wagner’s modernism — a spare block of a building, its only projection a coffered cornice, its facade a steady rhythm of unarticulated windows.

Wagner Villa II

This flat score—one can almost hear it as music—is uninterrupted all the way across until the door, where the basic linear forms of the rest of the facade concentrate to signal movement through. Rather than a centrally-placed door of a Palladian villa, Wagner emphasises the linear regularity of the facade, the relentlessness of its geometric progress. In its plainness, in its sense of the facade as a weightless sheet, in its use of ornament only to clarify structure (note the way the entire facade is framed by a reduced bead-and-reel device), in its modern materials (a foundation of steel and concrete, aluminum rivets of the same sort used at the Postsparkasse), Villa II signals a radical step forward from Villa I. It is no longer Secession, nor Jugendstil.

The doorway tightly concentrates all of the forms and the linear energy that are otherwise diffused across the surface of the facade. It thus distinguishes the doorway through a visual language that says, "Enter. Move."
The doorway tightly concentrates all of the forms and the linear energy that are otherwise diffused across the surface of the facade. It has a visual language that says, “Enter. Move.” Note the riveted plating on the lower part of the doors — exactly the forms used at the Postsparkasse. Above, a Moser mosaic of Perseus and the head of Medusa reminds us that Wagner’s intent here, as in Villa I, is essentially classical.

Should you go to the Wagner villas? Sure, if you’re in the neighborhood. Just be clear with yourself about what you want to get from the experience, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. And if you only have time for one intensive Wagner excursion, I would much more strongly recommend the Kirche am Steinhof.

But I’ll tell you all about that another time.


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The Kunstkammer Easily Exceeds Expectation

The Kunstkammer in the KHM (the Kunsthistorisches Museum) has been closed for as long as I’ve been coming to Vienna, and longer. It reopened this weekend to great fanfare, and I spent the first sunny Saturday in months (for which I get bonus points) as one of the earliest visitors. It is simply and absolutely spectacular.

The works in the Kunstkammer are difficult to characterize in general, and especially within a museum setting; they’re a legacy of medieval notions of collecting, extended by the Habsburgs into the 17th century, that did not follow modern forms of classification. Despite the name (Kunstkammer means literally “art room”, though it refers to a concept more than a space), the collection intermingles painting and sculpture with works that float between categories — highly altered natural objects, aesthetic inventions, and refined creations out of precious materials executed at the limit of the craftsman’s skill. For example, these intricately carved ivory vessels:


Such objects—and there is no single term for them—were an enormous part of Habsburg collecting, but in modern museums they are separated off from the works of painting and sculpture defined as “high art” by academies; at very roughly the same time, they ceased to fit the “art vs. nature” taxonomy that, as a result of changing notions of science, came to define museums and their collections. But it is for precisely this reason that the works of the Kunstkammer are so extraordinary—they are either unlike anything else, or the very best examples of their highly unusual kind.

For the last decade, the works in this part of the erstwhile Habsburg collections were hidden away, or distributed somewhat haphazardly through the other galleries. It was this redistribution, combined with the ongoing reconstruction, that provided the opportunity for a thief, in 2003, to make off with the collection’s most famous occupant:  the Salt-cellar, or Saliera, executed by Benvenuto Cellini in the 1540s.


The Saliera is a highly elaborate piece of royal tableware; originally made for the king of France, a minimal 1/8th or so of its surface is occupied by a little bowl for holding salt, which at the time was a precious commodity. The remainder is a mythological extravagance representing the mingling of Ceres and Neptune to make salt, as well as figures of the four winds and the times of day. It’s a riot, and I have been in love with it since I was a freshman in college. I’ve taught the Saliera dozens of times, waxed on about its brilliance, and was traumatized by its theft—but oddly enough, thanks to the timing of its disappearance and the closure of the Kunstkammer, I’d never actually seen it.

Until yesterday.

It did not disappoint. The Saliera is vastly more astonishing in person than in reproductions—the sheer intricacy of the thing was beyond anything even I had expected. Not to mention that there are a host of animals swimming across its surface that don’t show up clearly in photos. I found myself saying things like, “Holy moly!” and “Unbelievable!”, no doubt to the deep joy of my fellow visitors.

Cellini's Saliera, At Last

Neptune in Repose

Overall, my experience of the Kunstkammer generally mirrored that of the Saliera: It’s simply great. If one theme holds together the wild diversity of objects housed there, it is that they were largely created to signal artistic and imperial dominance over all of art and nature, and possession of the kind of wealth and power that can command the best of each—not to mention the ability to hire the kind of labor capable of reshaping them. Far from diverging the fruits of divine and human endeavor, the Kunstkammer craftsmen deliberately crossed the wires of creation, yielding objects like this ostrich egg/coral/silver/gold extravaganza:

Ostrich Egg Extravaganza

Whatever material you would like to see brought to its absolute limits of intricate artistic refinement—bronze, marble, precious stones, wood, ivory, metal, paint—it’s all there. Among my favorites — the room (room) of ivories contains this phoenix—a true testament to the artist’s ability to transform one living material into another living form and, not coincidentally, a somewhat oblique reference to the Habsburg eagle:

Phoenix, Rising

I’d like to write more about some of the specific themes of the Kunstkammer later — the game sets, for instance, and the automatons, as well as the medallions and small portraits (not to mention the small bronzes….gorgeous). But for the moment let me just say — get thee to the Kunstkammer, GO. And right now is the perfect moment. The sun is shining, and all of Vienna is outside, pretending like it’s spring. The tourists have not yet arrived. The galleries on Saturday afternoon were practically empty.


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California to Vienna, ASAP


Greetings from California — but shortly from Vienna.  Otto Wagner, I will see you soon!  For those keeping track, I will be arriving in Vienna on December 26th (leaving California late on Christmas Day), ready to jump straight into the world’s most beautiful city.  I will post regular updates on the food, the art, the language, the culture, the history, the shopping, and all of the wonderful oddness and beauty that is Vienna.  I invite you to watch this space, and to join me on the banks of the blue Danube.

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