Friday, April 11, 2008

Vienna, 7.7.03: Schiele, Imperial Facades, and Hundertwasser House

Don’t feel like writing much. Don’t feel like much, period. In addition to the low spirits, I’m simply fatigued. We awoke—too early—to the sound of drills and clashing boards falling, as construction men do work right outside our window.

Also, as Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator of the book I’m reading now, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, says about her father, “He has always talked as if he had brought America home in his pocket” (p. 116). This vis-à-vis his generalizing about all of America on the basis of two lecture tours there….

I do the same, and have been in Vienna only two days. Which is why I call my impressions, impressions. They’re nothing more.

Another impression: even lower middle-class and working-class older women in Vienna have artfully arranged hair, the big-hair look. Suits the thin faces many of them seem to have. Also, to me, speaks of the bit of 19th-century Romanticism still alive in the city’s self-image.

Or, it suddenly occurs to me, are we imitating the Queen and Queen Mum? Wechsberg’s “ein Smocking” in Vienna, My Vienna?

I’m museumed out. The Kunsthistorische Museum was overwhelming and a bit dusty, metaphorically speaking. The black marble, close rooms, and dark colors of the walls make one feel as if one is swimming at the bottom of the sea of history, with its full weight bearing down.

Of course, it’s unbelievable to see the Rubens, Brueghels, Dürers, and so on in full life. But room after room full on a muggy summer day became a recipe for an afternoon nap from which I woke logy-headed.

Then onto the Leopold, which was such a refreshing contrast. I’m very interested in the sociopolitical milieu of the Secessionists, a group I knew too little about, especially Anton Kolig (or was he a kind of stepchild?). His overt homoeroticism and male nudes stand out in a time and place that still used the female nude as fodder, despite glimmerings of a Bloomsburyesque sexual polymorphousness.

Especially in the life of Egon Schiele. That picture of the hermits, hung beside a bust portrait of him with the same face as one of the hermits, has to be a comment on his homosexuality. He did marry, if I understood correctly, but what a tormented life—being charged with a crime against nature, thrown out of a village for painting a nude in his garden, etc.: an Austrian Oscar Wilde. I want to know more.

The Hundertwasser place and exhibit: what to say? Fascinating, very attractive. Yet I was left wondering about his life. Is he yet another of those gay men of his generation who lived an ostensibly heterosexual life? Who was that Dominican who left the priesthood and spent his life as a poet in California, married to a woman? In retrospect, he said if he had it all to do over again, he’d live an openly gay life.

I ask all these questions in light of the story of Egon Schiele and Anton Kolig. Something generational seems to have forced gay men into such macho acting out. It’s all unattractive, too.

Hundertwasser also reminded me of Prof. X in graduate school—and the preceding remarks aren’t beside the point with that comparison. It takes a strong ego and lots of chutzpah to invent a world and promote oneself into a virtual industry. Prof. X has managed to do that in his field, and Hundertwasser did as an artist.

All that aside, his ideas are fascinating, engaging, the house a wonder, and I love his art, even if it at times borders on that mass-produced, mass-appealing kind of art that Klimt also ended up creating, whether he intended to do or not.

The morning and time there were restful. Now tired again. Sitting in a café in a gasse—Weihergasse? And if so, where’s the pond?—between our hotel and the cathedral, Immer Voll, recommended by our hotel lady. A nap’s in order, since we’re to go to a play this evening at the English Theater. Vienna does tire its guests. I’ve begun to think it’s impossible to understand Austria and its imperial history without being here—a very obvious statement, but I mean that in a sense less obvious, one hard to explain.

Part of what I mean is that Vienna doesn’t seem to yield its secrets easily, not as easily as Prague does, despite all those hidden courtyards and garrets. You have to work very hard to see and appreciate Vienna. It’s not user-friendly. It’s designed by aristocrats for aristocrats, with walls, hofs, secret gasses, and secret entrances.

Façades count for everything, grand vistas, and they all have some imperial reference. As in other “imperial” centers, the real life of the cultured and privileged goes on inside, behind shutters and walls—or so it appears.

Yet there’s a huge class of workers, always has been, living their own life in tenements that seem squalid, judging by what we saw today around the Hundertwasser museum. For those folks, by contrast, life seems to have been lived outside, in the coffeehouse or pub, anywhere but in the tenement with its central spigot for the whole building.

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