I’d like to say this is my internal monologue but, not quite.
There’s something missing about the Belvedere. The road around the lake in front was covered in trash when we arrived. The gardens on the incline looking towards the lower palace are mostly decorative gravel. The block to the right of the palace is a housing tenement that butts directly on to the estate with a blank, windowless concrete sidewall. The rooms have been renovated and most are in pink marble and granite with gilding, but there’s no furniture and the building has been, in theory, repurposed as an art gallery. There is no information about the history of the palace or the monarchy, except general dates relating to when the rooms were built and their style.
The palace was confiscated from the Hapsburgs in 1919 and while it’s clearly being maintained, and the royal dynasty isn’t repudiated or criticised as part of the curation, it sits awkwardly as some kind of state building. They have a law banning the nobility from using the honorific ‘von’. It’s just not clear that they know what they are doing with it. They haven’t embraced and celebrated the aesthetic of aristocracy and empire, like the French do at Versailles, even though they killed all of that aristocracy and minted a brand new one and then brought back the old ones and then eventually resuscitated the legacy of republicanism. They don’t celebrate it the way the British do, with absurd state pensions and illiberal parliamentary positions and the BBC wardrobe department and yearly memberships to the National Trust. I wouldn’t say the Austrians are more confused than the French or British; they’re probably less confused. I think the main thing that comes across is that they are far less enthusiastic.
In practice the Belvedere is a kind of tourism catch-all. You notice it particularly in the art collection. They show some of the biggest Klimt and Schiele works, thereby separating them from the rest of their body of work which is in the Leopold museum (each basically has a whole floor there). The door to the left of the Kiss is to a small room which had nothing in it except a cardboard cutout reproduction of the Kiss for people to use as a ‘selfie station’.
The rest of the art varies from middling historical works that were in the palace at some point (such as above ostrich) to weird, terrible things like this:
There is a hat on the baby shaped finial on the frame at the top; that man at the bottom right is carved and painted wood, and the landscape looks like it was painted by some kind of hack or art forger. The lower Belvedere is just as bad even though it’s recently renovated with a modern extension. There is a perfunctory grouping of works from each broad time period, spaced around the shape of the palace to fill things in.
They did have impressive strudel in the cafe though:
After the Palace we had tickets booked to see the Spanish riding school in the evening. It was not something I am likely to see anywhere else. It did look very difficult: kind of like making horses do push ups, or jazzercise. It was also confusing. Like making horses do push ups, or jazzercise.
Most importantly, it snowed. It snowed for at least three minutes, as we stood underneath Christmas lights and then rain once the snow had gradually gotten so wet it had nothing to do with snow any more.
Not sure if you can actually see snow in there, but I was very excited.
The Kunst Haus Wien building was converted from the Thonet furniture factory. It’s not architecturally pure at all; the front is just a facade, the ceramic columns are decorative and the floor is artificially shaped into mounds in a way that doesn’t even resemble nature but which does makes you feel like you are walking on the deck of a small boat.
I like Hundertwasser, though I think I’m yet to convince anyone to share my enthusiasm. His ideas were not as important as he thought they were. But his prints and his buildings make me happy when I look at them. I do wish that I had the right to reshape my own window; that all the buildings in the city had grass rooves, and that there were hanging plants on all the walls.
Incidentally Hundertwasser died on the QEII, which is both very whimsical and quite appropriate for a monarchist.
After the museum we went to the butterfly house at the palace. The blue sky made the glass roof and the heat seem completely appropriate.
You could understand the sad shells of the butterflies that had all seemed to have gathered on the window sills, trying to get out, into a fake summer sky.
It was beautiful in a way but mostly strange; like a subway station, or a vegetable garden, or some combination of the two. The orchids were fake and tied on to sticks at chest height.
Vienna is the world’s largest wind tunnel. In the sixteenth century it was always about to be lost to the Turks, so there was a large green belt kept around the outside of the city walls. The suburbs grew up on the other side of it, always keeping a kilometre or so free just in case the Ottomans came back. So while Haussmann was bulldozing Paris, building palaces on the heads of the poor, the Austrians already had an enormous, empty lot of prime real estate that they just divided up and built into the ringstrasse. It has many straight lines and boulevards, is extremely convenient and well serviced by trams, and is also terribly, deathly cold on a windy day.
The Secessionist building was open. The golden laurels were covered up, but it looked appropriate; as if they were afraid the building would get cold, so they built it a turtleneck of scaffolds. I like that it is still a contemporary exhibition space. There was an Olga Chernycheva exhibit in the upper and lower galleries. In the downstairs room it was a video of a tour of Checkhov’s house, some complex link between video art as portraiture and Checkhov’s observational literature. Some of the works were beautiful. One was a film of snow covered train platforms, with the people on them framed as if in a white walled gallery. Another was a video of the artist’s parents shaping pastry on a baking tin, opening a letter from Putin to army veterans.
In the morning we went to the Albertina. There was a Raphael exhibition on, which was packed full. Most of it was preparatory sketches. The modern art collection was a private bequest. I liked that. I like anyone who buys this daft Miro:
I assume that strange amoeba is a person, or something. But what masterly use of teal.
Also this Feininger. He looks as if he is about to fall off. I like Germanic art best when it is childlike.
Our apartment was split level, with a church across the street that tolled wildly at 8:00am. We had a kitchen, and my father made vegetable soup.
Train day: filler content.
These horses were watching the crucifixion in the Belvedere palace. They weren’t taking it very seriously. That’s understandable, because animals don’t have souls. It’s very sad for the wise and knowing looking donkeys and cows and sheep of the Nativity that they don’t have souls.* How awful, to watch the birth of the Messiah while knowing that you cease to exist at death. Why not be a satanist at that point. Take up with the goats.
Mediaeval artists really struggled to paint the faces of sheep.
The 26th of September is St Stephen’s day, who wasn’t boiled but actually stoned. He was Christianity’s first martyr, martyrdom clearly being perfected by the point you can sit happily in a giant pot and become a stew, gladly accepting a leek and a bouquet garni from an angel. But in the olden days you just had rabbis chucking rocks at you.
The consequence though is that much of Prague is closed. In the morning we went to the Mucha museum. I appreciate Mucha but I wouldn’t say I like him. I just have a special fondness for him because I once unwittingly helped Giovanna put three of his full scale lithographs through the Lawsons weekly art sale.
In the afternoon we went to the Decorative Arts museum, which was very well curated. The Czech republic was very cosmopolitan in the pre-40’s, and there was a main exhibit of 80 objects that were all beautiful.
My phone had died, naturally, but it was the best and most succinct gallery we saw there. I took a very good photo of the staircase.
I always imagined European winters to be very dramatic. I thought the river would freeze over, and markets would sell roasted chestnuts and ice skates for hire. I thought we would need to strap tennis rackets to our feet. But Christmas was quite sunny. It was only just cold enough to see your breath in the air.
I called my mum in the morning, and we talked about board games and cassowary transportation. Then we ate cake at an Art Nouveau cafe in the city concert hall.
I really loved Art Nouveau when I was younger. I liked how complete it was – you can’t half do Art Nouveau. It can be elegant. But now I find it too obvious that it’s only for the rich; everything hand made, everything lavish. The best parts of it; the graphic elements, the colours, are usually overwhelmed by superficial allegories and figuration. Even in Prague where whole streets are in the same style it’s not enough. You’d need to do a whole town, and it would look like a theme park. But it was a very perfect place to eat cake.
After we went to the National gallery, which was split between two palaces in the castle district. I was caught up by this sculpture with a (live) spider on its nose:
Transubstantiated into wood, stuck there, unable to blow it away or to scratch or to move. He looked so pained.
National collections seem to get caught up representing national artists, which is good sometimes but to an outsider the difference between Bohemian mediaeval sculpture and the international style is wholly academic.
At lunch I ate fried cheese and made the strange face I make when I know I am being photographed. I hadn’t shaved for about two weeks, which almost worked, but it’s not complete and doesn’t grow in the right places – I had an image in my head of Charles I and a rakish pointy beard, but in the evening I decided to shave partly because I looked up what Charles I actually looked like and thought better of it. Maybe Francis Drake would have been a better choice.
We had booked a dinner at the Intercontinental, with a view over the river. At the table behind us an American man who looked like Steve Mnuchin (but wasn’t) sanctimoniously tasted the wine. I dislike tasting wine in restaurants; the purpose was to tell if it was corked or turned, but now the bottles don’t have corks. It’s strange seeing a social custom be disembodied from the practicality that underlied it, and become etiquette. I always nod very enthusiastically. A lady played covers of pop songs on the harp. You could almost tell what they were, but it was just out of reach.
The main course was breaded carp, which is a Czech speciality. There were bins of live carp throughout the city at the Christmas markets during the day, for local Czechians to buy fresh and bake at home. It is strange eating a goldfish. They have a lot of bones.
After a day of fried cheese, pheasant mousse, pheasant soup, and breaded carp, I cancelled the lunch I had booked at the Zizkov tower for boxing day. I was sad to miss it, but we had no appetite left for rich food, and my sister had said before I could mention it that she wouldn’t be coming.
Prague has cafés. Real ones, not only the press button and microwave coffee sort which – admittedly can be avoided but that still occasionally lurk behind the trappings of international trendiness to lure unsuspecting travellers in and burn their Americanos. Yes I found this one in a New York Times article and yes all the cakes had macha in them.
Czech cafes do very nice fresh lemonade which would make lots of sense in Sydney. The above is not an Americano. I do not know what an Americano actually is.
Yesterday we walked around the city, and saw the Christmas market in the square and had Trdelnik.
Prague is full of people. But you can’t resent it for it, not only because that would be too hypocritical but also because it makes sense. There is nothing not good about it. Even the tourist parts are in beautiful buildings, art nouveau next to mediaeval, next to baroque and rococo. You could probably do without the baroque, sure, but it’s still certainly better than a 1980’s tourist shop built of concrete and cheap fittings would be.
Most importantly, today we went to the Museum of Alchemy. The Museum of Alchemy is UNESCO World Heritage listed. That is to say, the city of Prague is UNESCO World Heritage listed and the Museum of Alchemy is in the city of Prague. The small bottles on the outside are elixirs. They are mixed by confused monks and cost 60 euros, with 70 different herbs but no opium any more so they probably don’t do so much.
There was a suprisingly legitimate series of rooms under the building in which Rudolph II had sponsored a group of Jewish mystics to try and create the philosopher’s stone. The guide claimed that one of the tunnels led from the laboratory to the castle, which would have been a kilometre under the river. That I am not sure of. But there were turnip shaped glasses on tables, shiny and rainbow with age and moisture, and there was a bookcase that turned and swung backwards to lead you down the staircase going in. There was a frescoed motto:
‘Aurum nostrum est non aurum vulgi’
Our gold is not ordinary gold
Which if you think about it is a bit like bottled water: the better gold is the more completely exchangeable and intrinsically unexceptional it must be. Anyway apparently it was also meant to imply that knowledge was their gold, which is nice and also true in that they didn’t have any actual gold because alchemy doesn’t work. (Or not true, because consequently they didn’t have any knowledge either). But at least they had their opium.