Category Archives: Culture

A Sunday Afternoon in the Augarten

The Augarten is Vienna’s oldest Baroque park, opened in 1775 by Emperor Joseph II on the grounds of an earlier Habsburg hunting ground and later mansion. Now it is the setting for a porcelain factory and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, as well as various other institutions. It’s a true Baroque garden, with carefully laid geometric flower beds, tree-lined avenues, and an anti-aircraft tower.

Ok, so that last isn’t so Baroque. Most people love the Augarten for its idyllic vegetation and flat lawns, but I love it because of its typically Viennese split personality. Because set in the midst of its shady lanes and bright flowers are two Nazi-built Flaktürme, or Flak towers. The more massive of the two is the G-tower, which rises ominously over the park:

The Augarten is place of peculiarly Viennese juxtapositions — a beautifully regular Baroque garden provides the setting for a massive Nazi anti-aircraft tower (a second tower, used as a bunker, is further north in the park). On a sunny day in June, the idyllic atmosphere smooths these contrasts, making the Augarten the ideal place for a jog, walk, or sit.
The Augarten is place of peculiarly Viennese juxtapositions — a beautifully regular Baroque garden provides the setting for a massive Nazi anti-aircraft tower (a second tower, used as a bunker, is further north in the park). On a sunny day in June, the idyllic atmosphere smooths these contrasts, making the Augarten the ideal place for a jog, walk, or sit.

A second and smaller tower, the L-tower, is further north.

Here is the L-tower, which I believe was a radio tower while the other was for anti-aircraft guns.
Here is the L-tower, which I believe was also a control tower.

The L-tower was a bunker, but the G-tower was a platform for massive anti-aircraft guns; it’s now the backdrop to some serious June sunbathing and football-playing:

There's something grand and decadent and also so Viennese about the juxtaposition of the Flakturm with all the sunbathing, ball-playing, lounging, and general hedonism of the Augarten on a Sunday.
There’s something grand and decadent and also so Viennese about the juxtaposition of the Flakturm with all the sunbathing, ball-playing, lounging, and general hedonism of the Augarten on a Sunday.
There's something beautiful and fascinating about the Flakturm.
The Russians attempted to demolish the tower, but it’s too massive to bring down. Damaged and supported by cables, it endures.

What I love about the Augarten is the juxtaposition of the Flakturm and the violence in our midst with the elegant lanes of trees, perfect for a civilized stroll:

Go ahead, stroll. The trees invite you.
Go ahead, stroll. The trees invite you.

The other great thing about the Augarten is the bakery situated on its southwest side:

When you come out the western end of the Augarten, you will detect the extraordinary odor of fine baked goods coming from the Bäckerei Prindl. Do not resist. They are open 7 days/week because they know you need them.
When you come out the western end of the Augarten, you will detect the extraordinary odor of fine baked goods coming from the Bäckerei Prindl. Do not resist. They are open 7 days/week because they know you need them.

I’ll write about Flaktürme another time — there are others in Vienna, and they’re extraordinary. Some have been repurposed in surprising ways.

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A Tale of Two Sauces

When I come to Vienna, there are two things I always bring with me: a pound of brown sugar, and a bottle of sriracha sauce. The brown sugar is because they have none here, and if you try to bake without it you wind up with some pretty strange results. It is possible to make your own, of course, by mixing white sugar and molasses. But they don’t have molasses here, either. To get molasses you need to go to an international grocery, and by the time you’ve made that effort, you don’t feel like baking anymore. So I pack a pound of sugar in my suitcase and figure that’s a free pound I have for gifts on the return trip to the US.

The sriracha is a somewhat more complicated matter. They actually do have sriracha here, lots of it, in all the Asian grocery stores and some non-Asian ones as well. Go out for fast food noodles and they’re likely to have a bottle of it on the counter. It is, however, subtly different from the familiar kind you get in America. Here, take a look:

Do not be fooled. Just because they are both winged birds with short tempers does NOT mean that they taste the same.
Do not be fooled. Just because they are both large birds with short tempers does NOT mean that they taste the same.

The bottle on the left is American sriracha, hand-imported from California by me. The bottle on the right is Viennese sriracha, of the sort you get everywhere here. The American has a rooster; the Viennese has a goose. The American is more orange in color; the Viennese a rustier red. The Viennese is a little thicker and less squirtable (squirtability being essential for those of us who spritz the stuff all over our pizza). And the American also tastes roughly 100,000x better than the Viennese.

I’m not sure what it is. There’s kind of raw spice flavor to the goose sauce that I don’t care for; it tastes like a slightly different pepper variety; it’s also not got that perfect sriracha balance of sweet with hot; and it doesn’t have as much vinegary goodness. Whatever the mix that’s used for the rooster sauce, it accepts no imitators. But unfortunately, the rooster is seriously hard to find here.

My solution to this has been to bring a gigantic bottle with me every time I come from the US. (Note the scale of the rooster bottle in comparison to the already large-size goose bottle.) I’ve also conducted a search of most of the Asian stores in Vienna, in the Naschmarkt and wherever else I encounter one (there’s one in the second district, for instance, that I’ve searched several times). I finally came across one, lone, jumbo-sized rooster bottle nested amidst a sea of geese at this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt:

I tracked down a bottle of rooster sauce in this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt. It was the last bottle they had in stock. I bought it even though I still have some at home. I am that worried about getting my hands on this stuff here.
I tracked down a bottle of rooster sauce in this store, on the Rechte Wienzeile by the Naschmarkt. It was the last bottle they had in stock. I bought it even though I still have some at home. I am that worried about getting my hands on this stuff here.

If you’re visiting Vienna, remember, it’s BYOS(auce). And, rooster, not goose.

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The Natural History Museum: Where Imperial Hunting Trophy Meets Scientific Specimen

Vienna’s Natural History Museum is an extraordinary place. If you like your natural history museums super old-school, with taxidermied animals that the emperor and his buddies shot back in the 19th century; if you enjoy a specimen case that blends handwritten labels from early in the last century with formaldehyde-embalmed animals that are probably even older; if you are looking to identify giant rook that attacked your head while you were out jogging the other day and thus want to search through an exceptionally rich collection of dead birds; if you consider the empress’ dog, taxidermied, to be an element of natural history; if you like to see your modern touches (an animatronic dinosaur, for instance) against the backdrop of 19th century nude sculptures—well then, friend, the Vienna NHM is the place for you.

There were so many amazing sights in this museum (it’s the one straight across from its more famous twin, the art museum or Kunsthistorisches Museen) that I can’t embed them in the post. Check out this gallery though, and click on the images to make them full-size and learn about all that is strange and wonderful at the NHM.

 

 

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Cultural Differences, Television Edition

Europeans have a higher tolerance for government intrusiveness than do Americans. I don’t think anything in that statement will surprise my American friends, nor yet my European ones. But there’s saying that, and then there’s the ways it plays out. This brings us to the example of the ORF—that is, Austrian public broadcasting. Specifically, the TV and radio.

Americans, familiar with PBS’ sad-sack pledge drives, weepy pleas to “get up off your good intentions and get to the phone,” and tote bags that look like they came with the dinginess pre-applied, will find the behavior of the ORF unrecognizable. Basically, if you have a television or radio in Austria—even if you literally never turn it to ORF (which is impossible, because ORF has multiple channels, including regional ones for each state in the country, plus a sports network)—you are obligated to pay up. It’s not that cheap: somewhere around 30 euros per month. And you pay that even if you are also paying for cable.

Ok, you say, that’s fine, my American tax dollars go to pay for PBS even though I hate Garrison Keillor (as you should). And that’s true, they do—but the IRS collects those dollars and gives them to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Here, the ORF come to your house and demand to inspect the interior, and if they find a television or theoretically even just a radio there, they can slap you with a fine (which can be up to around 2,000 euros) and then make you pay monthly for all eternity. In principle, they can even fine you if you just have a computer, since you can watch or listen to the ORF online, though the TV is the biggest target. All this for the dubious privilege of watching Dancing Stars (yes, it’s the same show, and no, the stars are not any more famous).

Let me reiterate—inspectors roam the city, insisting on entering people’s private homes and looking at their media devices. And not only that! If the ORF has reason to believe you are malingering on your dues-paying duties, I am told by a semi-reliable source that they can return to your house with the police, and force you to let them search the place for televisions!! I have even heard a rumor from a highly reliable source (that being my spouse, who is German, not Austrian) that the ORF has special television-detecting vans in which they drive around the city, searching with their TV-dedicated radar vision for apartments that have televisions but are not paying the monthly fee.

I know. 

A couple of thoughts on this. First of all, what the fuck, Austria? The whole benefit of the European method of taxation is that it’s supposed to be more efficient than ours—everybody pays a giant load of taxes in return for a whole bunch of services. Why, of all things, is the ORF the one form of payment done piecemeal? They should just do what we still (barely) do in the US, and tax everyone on the grounds that the shared airwaves are a limited public resource. Also, how inefficient is it to go house to house and ring doorbells, especially since every single person in this country by now knows better than to answer the door during the day? (The foreigner is of course the last to learn. Sigh.)

Lastly, can you imagine anything like this in the US? Just how many PBS inspectors would have to get shot in the face on people’s front porches (or in the back, running down their front steps) before we would call it off? Even I—a law-abiding citizen of quiet habits—would under no circumstances let the police in my house in the absence of a valid search warrant and the advice of a lawyer. (Do bear in mind, however, that the Austrian police are much less violent and terrifying than their American counterparts. Even so.) And not just me; even dedicated right-wingers would start believing in the virtues of the search warrant.

Seriously, Austria. Throw off the chains of ORF oppression. You should not have to hide your televisions!!

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On the U-Bahn the Other Day

Not long ago, I had cause to mention the concept of Tracht, that is, traditional Austrian clothing. I was sorry, though, that my photographic example on that occasion was so static, because the real pleasure of Tracht is seeing it on the hoof, so to speak. That’s why I was thrilled the other day when I came out of the gym and went into the U1 station at Kagran, and found this guy waiting for the train:

This man and I exist in the same universe. In fact, we are going to ride the same train.
This man and I exist in the same universe. In fact, we are going to ride the same train.
It's not every man who can pull off this head-to-toe ensemble, but this guy's got it.
It’s not every man who can pull off this head-to-toe ensemble—Lederhosen, Tyrolean hat, two different plaids!—but this guy’s got it. And he’s going to take it all the way into the city center.

Yep. And that’s how it was that day.

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Of Flea Markets, Dirndls, and Crime-Solving Dogs

With spring comes the return of the Flohmarkt, or flea market, a famous feature of the Viennese landscape. To be honest, it’s possible they were here all year, but the weather was so bloody awful that who would have known? So, a couple of weekends ago I hit the Flohmarkt Trifecta:  three flea markets in 2 days. Curious what there is to buy—and what single purchase I finally selected from among the tens of thousands of objects on offer? You will never guess.

Flea market at Freyung in Vienna
What the hell is this stuff, and why does it haunt my dreams?

The first flea market (which was also the smallest) gave me an unfortunate false sense of what to expect from the others. This consisted of a few stands in the neighborhood of the Freyung (last seen on this blog here). It was there that I saw a table of totally scary paraphernalia from both World Wars as well as associated other military campaigns, liberally mixed with crucifixes, dolls, and other items familiar from horror films.

This photo is incapable of conveying the terror instilled by this display — but I couldn’t take better pictures because the totally scary guy manning the stand was looking at me and probably putting a curse on me.

 

So naturally after that I was curious about what to expect from the semi-annual Neubaugasse Flohmarkt, held in the 7th district. This is a gigantic flea market running up both sides of a long street and consisting of dozens of stands and a bewildering collection of objects. Allow me to set the scene:

Neubaugasse flea market in Vienna's 7th district
Thank God it wasn’t raining.
Turtle shell from Neubaugasse flea market in Vienna
This noble sea creature did not die in vain. Not at all.

 

At Neubaugasse you could find an incredible range of objects, from a turtle etched with images of the first American presidents and a giant bald eagle, to a pair of airplane seats, to cameras of every possible variety.

Airplane seats from Neubaugasse flea market in Vienna
Because there’s nothing you long for more in your own home than the experience of flying coach.

 

 

 

 

Overwhelmed by this display, we headed downhill and into the 6th district, and thus into the rear portion of the Naschmarkt. The Naschmarkt is best known as Vienna’s largest outdoor food market, but it also has a flea market at its far end. This flea market is only on Saturdays, but takes place year round.

 

Flea market at the Naschmarkt in Vienna
At the Naschmarkt, if you want stuff rather than food, head out back.

 

 

 

I can now unreservedly say that this is where you want to go if you are in search of Tracht.

 

That’s right. Tracht.

 

Tracht at Naschmarkt flea market
Why do I write Tracht with a captial-T? Because in German one capitalizes nouns, and Tracht is a Thing.

 

What is Tracht, you ask? Tracht is traditional regional clothing—your dirndls, your lederhosen, your little green felt cavalry jackets with brass buttons that probably have a name but I don’t know what it is. Also, Tyrolean hats (not pictured here).

 

 

 

By now you are wondering what purchase I made—what single object I selected from this glory to bring into my home and represent my identity. Was it a dirndl? Was it a dead animal? Well, it was at Neubaugasse that a certain book among the thousands upon thousands displayed there caught my eye:

Kommissar Rex book in Vienna
Here I am and there is Rex, right under my hand, as though I am petting his adorable head.

It’s a commemorative picture book from the first season of Kommissar Rex, a television program about a crime-fighting German Shepherd. It is my favorite TV show, it is teaching me German, and it was a flea market, damn it! A flea market is a temple to misguided purchases.

I make no apologies.

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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:

IMG_5801

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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How Vienna Does Labor Day (And We Should Too!)

In the U.S., May 1st is the first day of May—and that’s all it is. In fact, if you polled Americans, I would bet that a very small minority would have any idea what May 1st means in the rest of the world. Labor Day in the U.S. is safely quarantined in September, where it can in no way join with labor movements elsewhere to create any kind of actual advocacy, and is associated primarily with barbecues (family over solidarity) and end-of-season-sales (everybody in service industries works on Labor Day).

Vienna, however, is a socialist city in a country with a long history of socialism (as well as fascism, of course, which only makes the resonance of socialism stronger) on a continent with an endemic tradition of socialist activism. If you think anyone expects to go shopping here on May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day, otherwise known as the true Labor Day, you can think again. Everything is closed, everything is red for the day, and the public presence of the SPÖ, otherwise known as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, otherwise known as the Austrian Social Democratic Party, is ascendant.

Invited by friends who are party members and functionaries, I successfully infiltrated the annual massive May Day parade and waved a flag, carried a balloon, and shared a cheese-filled sausage, all in the name of international labor rights. Below is my photojournal.

The first thing to know is that Vienna is structured by its districts — 23 of them. On May Day, all of the districts gather and march, loosely organized under sectional banners, toward the Ringstrasse, which circles the city center and along which one finds the major structures of government. Eventually the parade passes by the Parliament (not to mention the former Habsburg court and even the Opera) on its way to its final destination, the Rathaus, or town hall, where the Mayor and other government functionaries await on a viewing stand.

Here, our particular troop is under way as representatives of the 5th district, called Margareten (full disclosure: none of us actually lives in the 5th, but one of our party is a High Ranking Official in the SPÖ for the 5th, so in the name of Solidarity, we were all Margaretens for a day).

My people: Section 19 from the 5th district, Margareten. Bunt statt Braun = Color not Brown (brown being the color of fascism, i.e. brownshirts).
My people: Section 19 from the 5th district, Margareten. Bunt statt Braun = Color not Brown (brown being the color of fascism, i.e. brownshirts).

Our route led through the crowded streets of the 5th, eventually passing by the Naschmarkt, or giant food market.

Allow me to present my comrades, who include professional employees of the SPÖ, as well as folks who have been out all night partying (I name no names).

 

Red is a jolly color for happy workers.
Red is a jolly color for happy workers.

 

In general, as we headed toward the Wienzeile (nice scenic route we had), there was a celebratory air, fueled in part by the first “pause,” a stop at a little bar that, in solidarity, fortified the marchers with a spread of free bread, meats, sweets, and, of course, the worker’s elixir, vodka.

 

Speaking of solidarity, along the way one sees its signs (literally):

From the windows spectators watch, occasionally with banners.
From the windows spectators watch, occasionally with banners.

Eventually, we arrive at the Ring, and hang a left at the historic Opera.

Freedom. Equality. Justice. Solidarity.
Freedom. Equality. Justice. Solidarity.

As we march along, we pass other districts waiting to make the turn onto the Ring:

At the Ring, the different districts wait at the end of the feeder streets they marched in on, waiting their turn to join the massive procession making its way toward the Rathaus. Here, "No More Privatization!" Drumming passes the time.
At the Ring, the different districts stop at the end of the feeder streets they marched in on, waiting their turn to join the massive procession making its way toward the Rathaus. Here, “No More Privatization!” Exuberant drumming passes the time.

Each group has its own drummers and musicians, and cultivates a distinct identity:

The banner says they fight for Vienna, and for justice. Behind it, Capoeira dudes go like crazy.
The banner says they work for Vienna, and fight for justice. Behind it, Capoeira dudes go like crazy.

I got a huge kick out of this unconventional juxtaposition:

Traditional brass band with dirndl-wearing women marches happily along in front of the "Adoption Rights for Homosexuals!" banner. Love it.
Traditional uniformed brass band with dirndl-wearing women marches happily along in front of the “Adoption Rights for Homosexuals!” banner. Love it.

As we go, we pass many of Vienna’s public landmarks, including the Parliament:

In front, Wien's red W, with an invitation for the Nazis to get out of Parliament. In the background, Parliament.
In front, Wien’s red W, with an invitation for the Nazis to get out of Parliament. In the background, Parliament.

Eventually — so very eventually — we arrive at the Rathaus simultaneous with the districts coming in the opposite direction (the Ring is a circle, after all). We alternate turning into the Rathausplatz, where a giant crowd cheers from behind barricades, and the mayor awaits on a viewing stand:

Eventually we arrived at the Rathaus (the town hall), where a giant crowd stood cheering. "We fight for a just Austria!"
The crowd in front of the Rathaus (the town hall). The sign reads, “We fight for a just Austria!”

The view from behind our banner:

A marcher's view of the Rathausplatz.
A marcher’s view of the Rathausplatz.

I have to say, I love this picture. Thanks to whoever handed me a flag just in time:

No one could have suspected that this jolly SPÖ flag-waver is in fact a capitalist American under cover. Disguise courtesy of my 10-euro "designer" sunglasses.
No one could have suspected that this jolly SPÖ flag-waver is in fact a capitalist American under cover. Disguise courtesy of my 10-euro “designer” sunglasses.

After passing through the Rathausplatz we were disgorged back onto the Ring, where we had the opportunity to view a few of the districts still waiting to make their way in. Like these guys:

Alsergrund is the 9th district, here arriving at the Rathaus.
Alsergrund is the 9th district, here arriving at the Rathaus with a truly quality banner.

Or my favorites, these guys:

These two horses stood very quietly in line—directly in front of the Guys on Bikes. They waited their turn, and then very pleasantly walked up and made the turn into the mad crowd at the Rathaus, with the motorcycle contingent revving and honking right behind them, and the crowd going nuts. Amazing.
These two horses stood very quietly in line—directly in front of a swarm of motorcyclists (pictured next). They waited their turn, and then smoothly walked up and made the turn into the mad crowd at the Rathaus, with the motorcycle contingent revving and honking right behind them, and the crowd going nuts. Amazing. I would have taken either one of them home in a heartbeat.

Directly behind them, this contingent:

They belong to no district. They are free men, riding their bikes for a free society, freely revving their engines and tooting their horns.
They belong to no district. They are free men, riding their bikes for a free society, freely revving their engines and tooting their horns. In freedom.

Yikes. And it wouldn’t be Vienna if wine did not make a significant appearance:

This is the Heurigen Express, the faux train that takes tourists up to the wineries in the hills above town, and brings their drunk asses back down again. If they only knew that it is a front for the radical socialist politics of the 19th district!
This is the Heurigen Express, the faux train that takes tourists up to the wineries in the hills above town, and rolls their drunk asses back down again. If they only knew that it is a front for the radical socialist politics of (I think) the 19th district!

After you leave the Rathausplatz, directly across the Ring is the “Red Market,” that is, a pop-up outdoor cafe for drinking giant quantities of beer and wine — and liberally populated by firefighters, who are a prominent presence at May Day festivities:

Because firefighters have for over a century been a bastion of leftist politics and workers' rights, they are very publicly represented at all May Day festivities. Later, in the Prater, a large contingent showed off several firetrucks and firefighting equipment to enthralled children. Start 'em young, guys!
Because firefighters have for over a century been a bastion of leftist, anti-fascist politics and workers’ rights, they are very publicly represented at all May Day festivities. Later, in the Prater, a large contingent showed off several firetrucks and firefighting equipment to enthralled children. Start ‘em young, guys!

Later in the day, the festivities move over to the Prater, Vienna’s giant public park, where there is music, food, more drinks, and balloons for the kids:

After the parade, all of Vienna goes to the Prater, where there is live music, food, plenty of beer....
After the parade, all of Vienna goes to the Prater, where there is live music, food, plenty of beer….

 

...and BALLOONS! Because nothing inculcates a new generation into radical politics like a bright red helium balloon.
…and BALLOONS! Because nothing inculcates a new generation into radical politics like a bright red helium balloon.

May Day. It’s my kind of holiday.

Posted in Adventures, Culture, Regan Writing | 3 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Art, Culture, Regan Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Eggs: The First Flower of Spring

If Easter is not your thing—you don’t love a window display full of bunnies, you don’t want decorated eggs all over your house, you don’t enjoy a delicious chocolate rabbit—then Vienna may not be your place, since for the last several weeks pretty much every shop window has had a certain look:

So. Much. Chocolate.
So. Much. Chocolate.

But you don’t have to be an Easter person to love Vienna’s Easter markets, full as they are of delicious treats (all manner of breads, sweets, and hot, alcohol-laden beverages) and bright colors. Here, for instance, is a rather standard example, the market at Am Hof in the first district:

Fewer eggs, more Punsch.
Fewer eggs, more Punsch.

The jolliest of these markets, though, are the ones with Easter egg displays, like the one at Freyung (also my favorite Christmas market) in the first:

Every egg in Vienna seems to wind up here.
Every egg in Vienna seems to wind up here.

The major feature here is a decorated egg display of epic proportions. All of the eggs are emptied of their contents, decorated with an often extraordinary degree of detail and variety of materials, and for sale. I never buy any of the eggs, but I do love to go look. It’s hard to exaggerate just what a grey winter it’s been around here, and the Easter markets, with their colorful eggs, are the first sign that color might ever return to the world:

Eggity Eggs Eggs Eggs
Eggity Eggs Eggs Eggs
Rough color-coordination helps manage the eggy chaos.
Rough color-coordination helps manage the eggy chaos.

I have been told that the best eggs are not found at the Easter markets, but are sold at the Tschechisches Zentrum (the Czech Center) in the Herrengasse. I heard this too late to confirm it, however, so I’ll have to update on that next year. I’ve seen the eggs, though, and they’re gorgeous (wax-covered and painted). Even so, the Freyung is nothing to sneeze at. Who has a heart so hard that it would not be moved by endless variations on a pink egg:

Welcome to the pink section.
Welcome to the pink section.

Please note: there are no such signs of color—nor yet life—in the natural landscape, where it’s actually snowing right now.

Snowing.

 

Posted in Culture | 2 Comments