Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Trip to Vienna

Avery and I went to Vienna to see our friends Richard and Hilal, who actually live this time of year in Istanbul but were teaching in some Alpine village for a week or so. I didn't quite know what to expect. You say "Vienna" I say "Freud." We did trek over there to Freud's old apartment with the other pilgrims, and it was nice to see his cane and interesting to realize he lived and worked in two halves of an apartment that was probably 1500 square feet total, maybe a little more. There was a time when you didn't need size to matter. In our big houses do we drift sideways into something we never see?

Big: Vienna is not. It is small and yet monumental. It has the Hapsburg's palace, the big neo-gothic city hall, giant beautiful St Stephens, loads of pearly baroque. I'm working on how to start making these stories have pictures and will post some later.

Vienna is the little imperial city. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from one side of the ring to the other, so that's maybe 1/3 the diameter of Paris proper, which is itself a perfect miniature compared to shapeless giant London or big and sprawling Berlin. It is a great pedestrian city. It is on the list of tour companies in most countries, and there was as high a percentage of Asian tourists there as in Paris. It has major palaces on narrow streets that no Hausmann ever cleared to create the aristocratic vistas of Paris. There's all sorts of neoclassical beauty and double eagles and unfallen heroes of battle watching everyone from the parapets. And yet its scale is, well, very middle class.

Everyone we met was friendly. Everyone spoke ungrudging English. Everyone was under 30 years old. By that I mean that everyone in the hospitality trades is young, and mostly tall, thin, and gorgeous. They are like Vienna - great to look at, but what exactly are you seeing?

It was balmy until the last day, and some streets had cafes from one side to the other. Everyone was outside. You could get gelato on every corner and Austrian chocolate cake in the middle of every block. On our last night we ate at an Italian restaurant set up outside in the courtyard of an old private "hotel" in the French sense. Vienna is where Germanic culture meets the Mediterranean. It felt closer to Greece and to Byzantium, and the churches had the white and the gold to prove it.

It's true that Vienna was the center of Europe's most multicultural Empire. It covered neighboring Hungary, right down the Danube but a language and culture entirely apart. It covered lots of the Balkans, and at various times Spain, Burgundy, the Netherlands and Flanders. It liked to think it was born in marriage rather than war. It also had mottos like A.E.I.O.U, thought to be Latin for "It is Austria's destiny to command the universe." Vienna puts the imperial dream right across the street from its social reality. In 1919, an empire of 52 million was reduced to a country of 6 million.

The art was amazing. We went to the Expressivism show, and wound up in the Leopold museum later that same day to see the Egon Shiele's. Along the way I discovered Anton Kolig, he of the "Notscher Circle" named after a tiny town in a mountain valley that used to color to complete reconfigure the male nude - desperate but somehow unbreakable. In the basement there was a huge exhibition of Kolo Moser, whom I knew as a kind of ok mythological painter of the Art Nouveau period. Then I discovered he was the William Morris of Austria, only more so - an amazing master of industrial design, founder of the Wiener Werkstatte, viritual inventor of Art Nouveau fusions of art, imagination, practical design, and dream worlds. I love that stuff, and going through the exhibit an hour before we had to catch our plane finally located Austria in history for me - as a fountain of worlds elsewhere.

It reminded me of the motto of the Brucke movement I'd copied down in the Argentina a few hours earlier. "We intend to obtain freedom of action and of life against the well-established older forces. Who ever renders directly and authentically what impels him to create is one of us." The Bridge - to somewhere else, built exactly with that creative force, willing emancipation from the dying order. I'd seen the great Klimt mural at the Secession institute the day before - humanity frail and suffering, humanity defended by the well-armed one, but humanity finally winning only through its desire for happiness.

All these artists worked in the capital city of an oppressive and dying empire. I wondered whether terrible politics actually helps art in some perverse way, which would certainly improve my mood about our own period of terrible politics in an oppressive and dying empire. They too must have felt that at some point everything the rulers say is wrong and foul, and have turned their backs, or really fought in a different way. In each of the paintings, in Klimt, in Shiele, in Moser, one can find in spite of everything a transformed world.

Richard and I talked about politics as we always do, and about the impossibility of the Democrats proposing a candidate that would change anything. Look at Jesse Jackson and other civil rights greats calling a summit a few months ago for one reason only - to meet with media executives to get a racist talk jock fired. They disappeared as quickly as they arrived on 6th avenue to take the elevators upstairs. Do you now have to be completely outside of the system to have any chance of affecting it at all? Assuming you don't get laughed at for thinking there is an outside.

Flying in on the first day, I saw the carefully divided agricultural land along the Danube running right along to the western edge of Vienna. I felt badly for the U.S., having to sprawl over everything and waste it to extract whatever value it can. It really doesn't have to be like that. These artists built another world that stays with the millions of people that visit Vienna's museums year after year, and they did it right down the street from the Hapsburgs as they played masters of the universe.

If you need a good hotel, let me know.

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