This exciting museum, across the Ring from the Hofburg Palace, showcases the grandeur and opulence of the Hapsburgs' collected artwork in a grand building (built as a museum in 1888). There are European masterpieces galore, all well-hung on one glorious floor, plus a fine display of Egyptian, classical, and applied arts.
Self-Guided Tour: Thanks to Gene Openshaw for writing the following tour.
The Kunsthistorwhateveritis Museum — let's just say "Koonst" — houses some of the most beautiful, sexy, and fun-loving art from two centuries (c. 1450–1650). The collection reflects the joie de vivre of Austria's luxury-loving Hapsburg rulers. At their peak of power in the 1500s, the Hapsburgs ruled Austria, Germany, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain — and you'll see a wide variety of art from all these places and beyond.
Of the museum's many exhibits, we'll tour only the Painting Gallery (Gemäldegalerie) on the first floor. Climb the main staircase, featuring Antonio Canova's statue of Theseus Clubbing the Centaur. Italian Art is in the right half of the building (as you face Theseus), and Northern Art to the left. Notice that the museum labels the largest rooms with Roman numerals (Saal I, II, III), and the smaller rooms around the perimeter with Arabic (Rooms 1, 2, 3).
- Enter Saal I and walk right into the High Renaissance.
Venetian Renaissance (1500–1600) — Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto: Around the year 1500, Italy had a Renaissance, or "rebirth," of interest in the art and learning of ancient Greece and Rome. In painting, that meant that ordinary humans and Greek gods joined saints and angels as popular subjects.
Saal I spans the long career of Titian the Venetian (that rhymes) — who seemed particularly intimate with the pre-Christian gods and their antics. In Mars, Venus, and Amor, a busy cupid oversees the goddess of love making her case that war is not the answer. Mars — his weapons blissfully discarded — sees her point. Danae with Nursemaid (also usually in Saal I, but may be out for renovation in 2008) features more pre-Christian mythology. Zeus, the king of the gods, was always zooming to earth in the form of some creature or other to fool around with mortal women. Here, he descends as a shower of gold to consort with the willing Danae. You can almost see the human form of Zeus within the cloud. Danae is helpless with rapture, opening her legs to receive him, while her servant tries to catch the heavenly spurt with a towel. Danae's rich, luminous flesh on the left of the canvas is set off by the dark servant at right and the threatening sky above. The white sheets beneath her make her glow even more. This is more than a classic nude — it's a Renaissance Miss August. How could ultra-conservative Catholic emperors have tolerated such a downright pagan and erotic painting? Apparently, without a problem.
In Ecce Homo (just to the right), Titian tackles a Christian theme. A crowd mills about, when suddenly there's a commotion. They nudge each other and start to point. Follow their gaze diagonally up the stairs to a battered figure entering way up in the corner. "Ecce Homo!" says Pilate. "Behold the man." And he presents Jesus to the mob. For us, as for the unsympathetic crowd, the humiliated Son of God is not the center of the scene, but almost an afterthought.
In the next large galleries (Saal II and Saal III), the colorful works by Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto reflect the wealth of Venice, the funnel where luxury goods from the exotic East flowed into northern Europe. In Veronese's Adoration of the Magi (Anbetung der Könige), these-Three-Kings-from-Orient-are dressed not in biblical costume, but in the imported silks of Venetian businessmen. Tintoretto's many portraits give us a peek at the movers and shakers of the Venetian Empire.
- Find the following paintings in Rooms 1–4, the smaller rooms that adjoin Saals I, II, and III.
Italian Renaissance and Mannerism: St. Sebastian (Der Hl. Sebastian), by Mantegna, is shot through with arrows. Sebastian was an early Christian martyr, but he stands like a Renaissance statue — on a pedestal, his weight on one foot, displaying his Greek-god anatomy. Mantegna places the three-dimensional "statue" in a three-dimensional setting, using floor tiles and roads that recede into the distance to create the illusion of depth.
In Correggio's Jupiter and Io, the king of the gods appears in a cloud — see his foggy face and hands? — to get a date with a beautiful nymph named Io. ("Io, Io, it's off to earth I go.") Correggio tips Renaissance "balance" — the enraptured Io may be perched vertically in the center of the canvas right now, but she won't be for long.
Find the little round painting nearby. In his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Selbstbildnis im Konvexspiegel), 21-year-old Parmigianino (like the cheese) gazes into a convex mirror and perfectly reproduces the curved reflection on a convex piece of wood. Amazing.
The 22-year-old Raphael (roff-eye-EL) captured the spirit of the High Renaissance, combining symmetry, grace, beauty and emotion. His Madonna of the Meadow (Die Madonna im Gruben) is a mountain of motherly love — Mary's head is the summit and her flowing robe is the base — enfolding baby Jesus and John the Baptist. The geometric perfection, serene landscape, and Mary's adorable face make this a masterpiece of sheer grace...but then you get smacked by an ironic fist: The cross the little tykes play with foreshadows their gruesome deaths.
- Find Caravaggio in Saal V.
Caravaggio: Caravaggio (karra-VAH-jee-oh) shocked the art world with brutally honest reality. Compared with Raphael's super-sweet Madonna of the Meadow, Caravaggio's Madonna of the Rosary (Die Rosenkranzmadonna) looks perfectly ordinary, and the saints kneeling around her have dirty feet.
In David with the Head of Goliath (David mit dem Haupt des Goliath) — in the corner near the window — Caravaggio turns a third-degree-interrogation light on a familiar Bible story. David shoves the dripping head of the slain giant right in our noses. The painting, bled of color, is virtually a black-and-white crime-scene photo — slightly overexposed. Out of the deep darkness shine only a few crucial details. This David is not a heroic Renaissance Man like Michelangelo's famous statue, but a homeless teen that Caravaggio paid to portray God's servant. And the severed head of Goliath is none other than Caravaggio himself, an in-your-face self-portrait.
- Find Room 10, in the corner of the museum.
Velázquez: When the Hapsburgs ruled both Austria and Spain, cousins kept in touch through portraits of themselves and their kids. Diego Velázquez (vel-LOSS-kes) was the greatest of Spain's "photo-journalist" painters: heavily influenced by Caravaggio's realism, capturing his subjects without passing judgment, flattering, or glorifying them.
Watch little Margarita Hapsburg grow up in three different Portraits of Margarita Theresa (Die Infantin Margarita Teresa), from age two to age nine. Margarita was destined from birth to marry her Austrian cousin, the future Emperor Leopold I. Pictures like these, sent from Spain every few years, let her pen-pal/fiancé get to know her. Also see a portrait of Margarita's little brother, Philip Prosper, looking like a tiny priest. The kids' oh-so-serious faces, regal poses, and royal trappings are contradicted by their cuteness. No wonder Velázquez was so popular.
- Complete the Italian Art wing by passing through several rooms of Baroque art, featuring large, colorful canvases showcasing over-the-top emotions and the surefire mark of Baroque art — pudgy, winged babies. If you don't have time to get out to Schönbrunn Palace on this visit, you can get a good look at it here — find Canaletto's Schloss Schönbrunn, which also shows the Viennese skyline in the distance. When you reach the stairwell, head kitty-corner across it to the east wing, opposite the Titian Room. Make your way to Room 14 to see some...
Early Northern Art: The Northern "Renaissance," brought on by the economic boom of Dutch and Flemish trading, was more secular and Protestant than Catholic-funded Italian art. We'll see fewer Madonnas, saints, and Greek gods and more peasants, landscapes, and food. Paintings are smaller and darker, full of down-to-earth objects. Northern artists sweated the details, encouraging the patient viewer to appreciate the beauty in everyday things.
In the three sections of Room 14 are three early northern painters. Rogier van der Weyden's Triptych: The Crucifixion (Kreuzigungsaltar) strips the Crucifixion down to the essential characters, set in a sparse landscape. The agony is understated, seen in just a few solemn faces and dramatically creased robes. Just to the left, in the painstakingly detailed Portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, Jan van Eyck refuses to airbrush out the jowls and wrinkles, showcasing the quiet dignity of an ordinary man. And in the freestanding case, Hieronymous Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross (Kreuztragung Christi) is crammed with puny humans, not supermen.
- Room X contains the largest collection of Bruegels in captivity. Linger. If you like it, linger longer.
Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525–1569) — Norman Rockwell of the 16th Century: The undisputed master of the slice-of-life village scene was Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (His name is pronounced "BROY-gull," and is sometimes spelled Brueghel. Don't confuse Pieter Bruegel the Elder with his sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel, who added luster and an "h" to the family name.) Despite his many rural paintings, Bruegel was actually an urban metrosexual who liked to wear peasants' clothing to observe country folk at play (a trans-fest-ite?). He celebrated their simple life, but he also skewered their weaknesses — not to single them out as hicks, but as universal examples of human folly.
The Peasant Wedding (Bauernhochzeit), Bruegel's most famous work, is less about the wedding than the food. It's a farmers' feeding frenzy as the barnful of wedding guests scramble to get their share of free eats. Two men bring in the next course, a tray of fresh pudding. The bagpiper pauses to check it out. A guy grabs bowls and passes them down the table, taking our attention with them. Everyone's going at it, including a kid in an oversized red cap who licks the bowl with his fingers. In the middle of it all, look who's been completely forgotten — the demure bride sitting in front of the blue-green cloth. (One thing: The guy carrying the front end of the food tray — is he stepping forward with his right leg, or with his left, or with...all three?)
Speaking of two left feet, Bruegel's Peasant Dance (Bauerntanz) shows peasants happily clogging to the tune of a lone bagpiper who wails away while his pit crew keeps him lubed with wine. The three Bruegel landscape paintings are part of an original series of six "calendar" paintings, depicting the seasons of the year. The Gloomy Day (Der düstere Tag) opens the cycle, as winter turns to spring...slowly. The snow has melted, flooding the distant river, the trees are still leafless, and the villagers stir, cutting wood and mending fences. We skip ahead to autumn (The Return of the Herd) — still sunny, but winter's storms are fast approaching. We see the scene from above, emphasizing the landscape as much as the people. Finally, in Hunters in Snow (Jäger im Schnee) it's the dead of winter, and three dog-tired hunters with their tired dogs trudge along with only a single fox to show for their efforts. As they crest the hill, the grove of bare trees opens up to a breathtaking view — they're almost home, where they can join their mates playing hockey. Birds soar like the hunters' rising spirits — emerging from winter's work and looking ahead to a new year.
- Linger among the Breugels, then exit into the adjoining Room 16.
Albrecht Dürer: As the son of a goldsmith and having traveled to Italy, Dürer (DEW-rer) combined meticulous Northern detail with Renaissance symmetry. So his Landauer Altarpiece of the Trinity (Allerheiligenbild) may initially look like a complex pig-pile of saints and angels, but it's perfectly geometrical. The crucified Christ forms a triangle in the center, framed by triangular clouds and flanked by three-sided crowds of people — appropriate for a painting about the Trinity. Dürer practically invented the self-portrait as an art form, and he included himself, the lone earthling in this heavenly vision (bottom right), with a plaque announcing that he, Albrecht Dürer, painted this in 1511.
- Locate these paintings scattered through Rooms 17–21.
More Northern Art: Contrast Dürer's powerful Renaissance Christ with Lucas Cranach's all-too-human Crucifixion (Die Kreuznigung) — twisted, bleeding, scarred and vomiting blood, as the storm clouds roll in.
Albrecht Altdorfer's garish Resurrection (Die Auferstehung Christi — see photo on right) looks like a poster for a bad horror film: "Easter Sunday III. He's back from the dead...and he's ticked!" A burning Christ ignites the dark cave, tingeing the dazed guards.
Hans Holbein painted Jane Seymour, wife number III of the VI wives of Henry VIII. The former lady in waiting — timid and modest — poses stiffly, trying very hard to look the part of Henry's queen. Next.
In Flowers in a Wooden Vessel (Der Grosse Blumenstrauss), Jan Brueghel, the son of the famous Bruegel, puts meticulously painted flowers from different seasons together in one artfully arranged vase.
- Leaving the simplicity of Northern Art — small canvases, small themes, attention to detail — re-enter the big-canvased, bright-colored world of Baroque in Saal XIII.
Peter Paul Rubens: Stand in front of Rubens' Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) and admire the darling of Catholic-dominated Flanders (Belgium) in his prime: famous, wealthy, well-traveled, the friend of kings and princes, an artist, diplomat, man about town, and — obviously — confident. Rubens' work runs the gamut, from realistic portraits to lounging nudes, Greek myths to altarpieces, from pious devotion to violent sex. But, can we be sure it's Baroque? Ah yes, I'm sure you'll find a pudgy winged baby somewhere.
The 53-year-old Rubens married Hélène Fourment, this dimpled girl of 16. She pulls the fur around her ample flesh, simultaneously covering herself and exalting her charms. Rubens called both this painting and his young bride "The Little Fur" (Das Pelzchen). Hmm. Hélène's sweet cellulite was surely an inspiration to Rubens — many of his female figures have Helene's gentle face and dimpled proportions.
In the large Ildefonso Altarpiece, a glorious Mary appears (with her entourage of p.w.b.'s) to reward the grateful Spanish saint with a chasuble (priest's smock).
- Saal XIV features more big Rubens canvases.
How could Rubens paint all these enormous canvases — this one alone is 130 square feet — in one lifetime? He didn't. He kept a workshop of assistants busy painting backgrounds and minor figures, working from Rubens' small sketches (often displayed alongside). Then the master stepped in to add the finishing touches.
- From there, find Room 22.
Jan Vermeer: In his small canvases, the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer quiets the world down to where we can hear our own heartbeat, letting us appreciate the beauty in common things.
The curtain opens and we see The Art of Painting (Die Malkunst), a behind-the-scenes look at Vermeer at work. He's painting a model dressed in blue, starting with her laurel-leaf headdress. The studio is its own little dollhouse world framed by a chair in the foreground and the wall in back. Then Vermeer fills this space with the few gems he wants us to focus on — the chandelier, the map, the painter's costume. Everything is lit by a crystal-clear light, letting us see these everyday items with fresh eyes.
The painting is also called The Allegory of Painting. The model has the laurel leaves, trumpet, and book that symbolize fame. The artist — his back to the public — earnestly tries to capture fleeting fame with a small sheet of canvas.
- Finish your tour in the corner room..
Rembrandt van Rijn: Rembrandt got wealthy painting portraits of Holland's upwardly-mobile businessmen, but his greatest subject was himself. In the Large Self-Portrait (Grosses Selbstbildnis) we see the hands-on-hips, defiant, open-stance determination of a man who will do what he wants, and if they don't like it, tough.
In typical Rembrandt style, most of the canvas is a dark, smudgy brown, with only the side of his face glowing from the darkness. (Remember Caravaggio? Rembrandt did.) Unfortunately, the year this was painted, Rembrandt's fortunes changed. Looking at the Small Self-Portrait (Kleines Selbst¬bildnis) from 1657, consider Rembrandt's last years. His wife died, his children died young, and commissions for paintings dried up as his style veered from the common path. He had to auction off paintings to pay his debts, and died a poor man. Rembrandt's numerous self-portraits painted from youth until old age show a man always changing — from wide-eyed youth to successful portraitist to this disillusioned, but still defiant, old man.
The Rest of the Kunst: We've seen only the "Kunst" (art) half of the Kunst-"Historisches" (history) Museum. The collections on the ground floor are among Europe's best, filled with ancient treasures and medieval curios. Highlights include a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III, and the Gemma Augustea, a Roman cameo kept by Julius Caesar on his private desk. Happily, one of the glittering jewels in the museum's crown is now back, after being stolen several years ago. The Salt Cellar, a divine golden salt bowl by Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, will be the centerpiece of a new "Kunstkammer" — a section dedicated to Hapsburg medieval and Renaissance jeweled wonders.