The Great European Adventure

Art Museum-hopping in Vienna

Vienna was not on my original itinerary for The Great European Adventure, but when I told people that I was visiting Prague and Budapest, a number of friends replied, “and you’re not going to Vienna?!” Prague, Vienna, and Budapest seem to be the quintessential trio of central European travel destinations, and who am I to argue with quintessential trios?

Well, I’m so glad I added Vienna to my trip because I love art museums, and Vienna is full of them! When I visited, I went to 4 art museums in 3 days.

1. The Belvedere Palaces:

Most importantly, I wanted to see that masterful Austrian painter whose works appeared so far ahead of their time: Gustav Klimt. The Belvedere Palaces are connected by a series of stunning gardens, and the Upper Belvedere is home to the largest collection of Klimt’s work in the world, notable highlights include: The Kiss and Judith. Before you go telling me you don’t like Klimt, let me share with you a quote about this painter.

“Klimt is essentially an art for the few: many cannot appreciate its subtle qualities, but how great is the enjoyment it gives to those who understand it!”  — A.S. Levetus, 1908

In other words, Klimt made art for hipsters.

Other highlights from the Belvedere include the modern art wing’s portrait gallery, which showcases an impressive collection of portraits and self-portraits in a variety of styles. It was fascinating to see how the artists imagined themselves, but you’ll have to go there and see for yourself because the Belvedere doesn’t allow photography. So, instead, here’s a photo I took outside:

In the Belvedere gardens with an interesting-looking statue
In the Belvedere gardens with a good-looking statue; that’s my “hot damn!” face

2. The Albertina Museum:

The Albertina’s permanent exhibition is called Monet to Picasso, and I don’t know how a title like that couldn’t entice you into visiting. It’s a collection of modernist painting that spans 130 years from Impressionism to German Expressionism to the post-war period. The rest of the Albertina is home to temporary exhibitions, which usually showcase contemporary or 20th century art.

One of the temporary exhibits while I was there was The Body As Protest, a collection of works focused on the depiction of the human body in unidealized ways. At the center of the collection were a series of photographs by John Coplan — close-ups of his aging body that served to fragment our understanding of the body as a whole. Again, I don’t have any photos from inside the museum, so…

Outside the Albertina, Vienna looks stunning
Outside the Albertina, Vienna looks stunning

3. The Leopold Museum:

I couchsurfed in Vienna, and my host invited me to join her in visiting the Leopold Museum. The Leopold Museum is home to a few Klimt pieces of its own, as well as an impressive collection of Egon Schiele, whose work I had never seen before. His angular portraits are harsh and sometimes verge on discomforting, but I found his landscapes detailed and charming.

House with Shingled Roof (Old House II) by Egon Schiele
House with Shingle Roof (Old House II) by Egon Schiele

But Schiele and Klimt are not the reason we visited the Leopold Museum.

We visited for the Naked Men.

By which I mean, the Leopold Museum had recently opened an exhibit called “nackte männer. von 1800 bis heute,” in English, “nude men. from 1800 to the present day.” Around the city, advertisements for the exhibition featured a photograph of three footballers (soccer players) wearing only cleats and knee socks. It was a great collection that explored changing ideals of masculinity and the varied portrayals of nude men, plus it had the shock factor of an art exhibit that was literally full of penises. Maybe there’s something interesting to be said here about role reversals and the objectification of men. Maybe you should just look at the piece de resistance — an interactive sculpture lounging outside the museum:

My couchsurfing host and I with Ilse Haider's walk-in sculpture, Mr. Big (1965)
My couchsurfing host and I with Ilse Haider’s walk-in sculpture, Mr. Big (1965)

4. The Kunsthistorisches Museum:

My final stop before departing Vienna was the Kunsthistorisches Museum, home to Classical art, Renaissance art, murals painted by a not-yet-famous Klimt, a coin collection. It’s your typical, incredible art history museum.

Walls of paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Walls of paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum

That being said, I honestly prefer contemporary and modern art, so, as cool as it was to see works of art I studied in my high school humanities class (looking at you Hunters in the Snow (1565) by Pieter Bruegel), my favorite exhibit at the Kunsthistorisches Museum was The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas, a collection of pieces curated by Ed Ruscha. Ruscha brought together seemingly disparate pieces from the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum). A set of ladybugs pinned and labeled stood beside a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder with only Ruscha’s commentary tying them together. It was fascinating, and it was the first of a series in which internationally-acclaimed artists are invited to essentially play in the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s collection and curate their own unique exhibit.

Ladybirds at the Kunsthistorisches Museum
“Ladybirds” at the Kunsthistorisches Museum

The takeaway is that while none of the temporary exhibits I enjoyed in Vienna are still there, the permanent exhibitions at these four museums are well worth seeing for yourself, and the curators at each of these establishments are clearly very talented. I’m sure that whatever the Albertina is showcasing in place of The Body As Protest is phenomenal, and I’m sure the Kunsthistorisches Museum has invited another fascinating artist to curate for them. I’m not sure, however, that the Leopold Museum can top naked men. from 1800 to the present day

But hey, you win some, you lose some.

Have you ever been museum-hopping? What’s your favorite art museum? Do you prefer Classical and Renaissance art or Modern and Contemporary? Am I being too narrow-minded and you actually like your Dutch Masters with a side of Surrealism? Let me know in the comments!

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


Leave a Reply