Yes, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking — enough already with the bad alliteration! But you know, sometimes I just can’t help myself — it’s like a little demon is sitting on my shoulder, urging me on! So how could I possibly resist? I will be the first to admit that, sometimes, I really, really need to (resist, that is), but if we were good all the time, well — we’d be pretty dull, wouldn’t we? And, besides, I couldn’t think of anything else to call this post!
My last few posts have included, but not been centered on, books, which is odd, because I read all the time (well, most of the time. When I was a kid, I did read all the time). Reading a book, however, is not quite the same as writing about a book; for one thing, it’s a lot more fun (although I do enjoy discussing what I’ve read). The problem, however, is that so much of my reading these days is required, which definitely changes how I approach a book. For instance, I absolutely adore Middlemarch, which I regard as the second greatest novel in English (the first being, with apologies to any ichthyophobes, Moby Dick! What’s a blog for, if not to voice your opinions?) but knowing that I have to read a hundred odd pages by next Wednesday does detract a bit from the pleasure of the experience! Also, I’m reading so much non-fiction these days for my research paper — Renaissance this, Baroque that; visions of whatever in the art of so and so — very interesting stuff, to be sure, but so serious! Do art historians never laugh? All this required reading was giving me the megrims, as Georgette Hyer might have said (another of my favorite writers, BTW, as much a genius in her own way as George Eliot. If you haven’t read Heyer yet, stop immediately, right now, run out and buy one of her books) so I decided to take a much needed break from Victorian England and Renaissance Italy and head for deliciously decadent Vienna — the city of Gustav Klimt! Alma Mahler, Bride of the Wind (and of about five other guys)! Sigmund Freud! Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolph and Maria Vetsera! Egon Schiele!
In other words, I went for a brief but very pleasurable visit to the Neue Galerie, one of the most wonderful museums in the city of New York City. The Neue Galerie isn’t a comprehensive museum like the Metropolitan or Washington’s National Gallery; it’s focused, rather, on German and Austrian art from the early 20th century and is the brainchild of Ronald Lauder, son of Estee and heir to her great cosmetic fortune (it makes me very happy to think that all my eye shadow purchases may have inadvertently contributed just a teeny bit to the enormous amount of lolly it took to purchase this artwork!). Have any of you visited the Neue Galerie? If so, please share your experience; I’m such a fan of this place that it’s impossible for me to give an unbiased judgment, so I’d welcome someone else’s reflections. Although I’d gladly visit any time (the truly great cafe with its authentic Viennese pastries is in itself quite a draw), the specific lure this time around was the Galerie’s exhibition on “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckman.” Before going there, however, the museum itself deserves some visuals, as the building itself is a work of art.
The exterior retains its original appearance of an Upper East Side brownstone dating from 1914, transformed with great skill to house a stunning collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), which worked in a sort of Austrian version of art nouveau:
I will try to limit myself to only a few images of the interior. It’s difficult, for as you can see the space is gorgeous:
No matter what specific exhibition draws me to the museum, I always pay homage to the museum’s show stopper, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer:
Aside from its undoubted greatness as a work of art, the painting’s history makes it even more special. Because the Bloch-Bauer family were Jewish, their fabulous art collection (including this painting) was stolen by Nazis in the 1930s. Did you notice Adele’s necklace? It, too, was stolen and eventually “presented” to the Nazi general Herman Goering as a gift for his wife. After the war, the Austrian government refused to return the Bloch-Bauers’ paintings to Adele’s surviving heirs (many of her relatives and friends perished in the camps). The ensuing legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark ruling in the area of reparations for stolen art works (spoiler alert: the family won). Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read all about it in this very good book or …..
…what’s even more fun, watch this possibly not great but very entertaining movie (worth it, just to see Helen Mirren in top form!):
For those of an historical bent, Frederick Morton provides a thorough and very readable account of a fascinating time and place, ominously ending his history of late 19th century Vienna with the birth of Frau Klara Hitler’s son, little Adolf.
But — I digress! Back to the museum and its very, very good bookstore (after all, this is a bookish blog!):
Despite my best intentions, I don’t read a lot of literature in translation and many German and eastern European writers are not familiar to me. As a result, when I browse here I usually find wonderful things that I didn’t previously know about; on a previous visit, for example, I discovered the great Joseph Roth and his Radezky March (keep this wonderful novel in mind if you need a European classic in any future reading challenges!):
This time around, my haul consisted of two shorter works, both by Stefan Zweig and published by the Pushkin Press (Zweig by the way was only one of the many writers and artists who frequented Adele Bloch-Bauer’s literary salons):
And you might ask, if you haven’t forgotten it by now, what about the exhibition itself? Although I seldom read autobiographies, I’m very interested in self-portraits, which I consider a type of visual equivalent. I love to see how an artist chooses to represent herself (and by this time there are at least one or two “herselves”) and the elements she uses to construct the identity presented to the viewer. This particular exhibition was both fascinating and troubling; many of these artists were Jewish, they all lived in troubled times; you know what’s coming and the art frequently makes you suspect that they did so as well. I particularly liked the following paintings:
To end on a positive note, I turn to one of my very favorite subjects — food! The Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky is modeled on the Viennese cafes that were a center of the city’s intellectual life. Beautiful period furnishings and great food — no better way to end a visit!