Vienna’s Museums & More

December 29, 2015.  Trying to see all the incredible museums that Vienna has to offer in just five days would be like enduring finals week in college.  You’d have to chug countless gallons of coffee and NoDoz in order to banish sleep and cram everything in … and then you’d forget it all in less than a month.  That’s why Matthew and I decided to opt for a more sensible learning lifestyle by selecting just a few choice museums — some of the less-frequented ones — to visit during our short stay.  

Meant to mimic London's V&A Museum, it even sort of resembles it on the outside.
Modeled on London’s V&A Museum, the MAK even resembles it on the outside.

The Museum of Applied Arts (Museum für Angewandte Kunst)
Matthew and I are big fans of furniture design and decorative arts in general, so we made a beeline for the MAK on our first full day in Vienna.  As the city’s answer to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the MAK houses a fabulous collection of pieces from Vienna’s artistic Golden Age.   But the museum doesn’t display objects in the stereotypical “cabinet of curiosities” style, where odd items get jumbled together in a case purely because they share a historical era.  Instead, the  MAK curates themes thoughtfully and with considerable artistic flair, creating vignettes that help support the design storyline.

Hard to believe that chairs can be sexy, but Thonet's curvy bentwood beauties put on a quite a burlesque show behind their backlit screens.
Hard to believe that chairs can be sexy, but Thonet’s curvy bentwood beauties put on quite a burlesque show behind their backlit screens.

For example, a group of Art Nouveau bentwood chairs sits peep-show style behind backlit screens that allow the sinuous silhouettes to speak for themselves. Persian rugs stretched on tensile wires defy gravity, becoming “flying carpets” that wrap around the room like a silkworm’s cocoon.  Statues of Asian deities nestle in nooks that are chiseled right into the building’s brick walls, just as they might be back home. Entire rooms from palaces and private homes have been moved into the museum to provide context for objects from a particular period.  Even if you’re not into interior decor, I think the MAK is well worth an hour or two, just to get a feel for how people once lived.

A parterred garden joins the two palaces. Eugene lived in the lower one seen here, and entertained from the upper one.
A parterred garden joins the two Belvedere Palaces. Prince Eugene lived in the lower one seen here and entertained from the upper one. Belvedere means “beautiful view” — and the upper palace does afford spectacular vistas over the city.

The Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere)
One of the things I admire most about Vienna’s museums is that the buildings themselves are as beautiful as their contents.  The Belvedere is no exception, designed as two interconnected palaces for Prince Eugene of Savoy — the guy who drove the Ottomans out of Vienna and got rich in the process.  While Matthew and I had planned to visit the Belvedere for its collection of works by Klimt and Schiele, we were bowled over by the palaces themselves.  Every room was more breathtaking than the last, and as a result, we had to drag ourselves off to the exhibition that we’d originally come to see before the museum closed.

I "borrowed" this image from the museum's website to make point. Notice the leering man trying to look contemplative. One entire room was devoted to images of women masturbating and many images showed hollowed-eye naked prostitutes. I understand the curator was trying to emphasize women's roles at the time, but at some point, it just perpetuates the exploitation.
I “borrowed” this image from the museum’s website to make a point. Notice the leering man trying to look contemplative. One entire room was devoted to images of women masturbating and many works showed hollowed-eye prostitutes engaged in business. I understand that the curator was trying to emphasize women’s changing roles at the time and their right to pursue self gratification (although I hardly think this was a 20th-century discovery). But at some point, the exhibition’s excessive emphasis on pornography just perpetuated the exploitation and objectification of women.

Entitled Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, and the Women, the exhibition explored the status and sexuality of women in the early 20th century as seen through the eyes of these artists.   While their style was indeed groundbreaking for its time, many of their depictions of women were quite disturbing.  Sometimes it felt like a show about sex trafficking.  Quotations and audio stations featuring backstories of the artists’ models (usually their wives and lovers) painfully illuminated women’s struggles for independence and the right to vote.  Frankly, I found the show depressing.  Not much has changed in 100 years.  Sexual exploitation and domestic abuse is still rampant.  And sadly, many young girls today still hold to the belief that marriage to a wealthy man is the only path to security and purpose in life.  And on that light note, on to another museum….

Stalls selling hot wine and goodies site in front of the entrance to the immense Hofburg Palace complex.
Stalls selling hot wine and goodies sit in front of the entrance to the immense Hofburg Palace complex.

The Hofburg Treasury (Weitliche und Geistliche Schatzkamme)
The Hofburg Palace — home to the Hapsburg dynasty for centuries — is immense, housing the Treasury, the Imperial Apartments, the Spanish Riding School, the Austrian president’s headquarters, governmental offices, the New Palace Museum, and at least four other museums.  (Whew!)  Needless to say, with such limited time, we decided to concentrate on the Treasury, which contains the best royal regalia in Europe.

The Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor probably dates to the reign of Otto I (c. 960). The 12 stones on the front panel symbolized the 12 apostles.
The Crown of Charlemagne, also called the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, probably dates to the reign of Otto I (c. 960). The 12 stones on the front panel symbolized the 12 apostles. I’ve read about this crown for so long, it was a real thrill to see it in person.

After viewing all 21 rooms  — although I may have skimped on the last few because a “museum coma” threatened (how many gem-encrusted reliquaries can you endure, after all?) — I can now confirm that it’s true.  The Tower of London’s goodies ain’t got nothin’ on the insane amount of jewels stashed in the Hapsburg’s vaults.  But the best parts of touring the Treasury were the random bits of personal flotsam, such as Napoleon’s son’s cradle, some christening gowns of Hapsburg babies, an agate bowl once believed to have been the “Holy Grail,” and Charlemagne’s saber and coronation regalia.  Check out the pantry of precious royal possessions below.

Now that you’ve enjoyed the Treasury’s feast for the eyes, stayed tuned for my next post about Vienna’s delicious dishes for the belly ….

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