Austria: Vienna’s Art Museum(s), Done Right

I love art, but I don’t get to museums as often as I’d like. I’m never sure what to do there. I love the quiet, but I’m unaccustomed to it. If it’s crowded and not quiet, I feel somehow cheated. If I bypass a painting too quickly, I feel like a Philistine who just offended the artist, and all art.

Teresa and Joseph about to get all arted up

Teresa and Joseph about to get all arted up

Yes, I need to relax. True, most art museums are designed for repeated visits. If you can knock  it down in a day, how good can it be? How extensive a collection can it have? To be a museum and not merely a gallery, an art place must at least try to overwhelm your senses.

Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches (Art History) Museum succeeds on all counts. And there’s an added bonus: this is a comfortable, reasonably quiet place to absorb what your senses give you. You will not feel rushed. You will want to come back.

A lot of the exhibits are no-photo zones, but trust me, there’s a lot going on here. We began in a special exhibit on the history of coins. Here and elsewhere, the €4 each we spent on the handheld audio players were well worth it. Punch in the little number by the particular artifact, hold the device to your ear, and listen in the language of your choice. The audio guide covers more than 600 items in the museum.

A significant Egyptian section taught me a lot I didn’t know about religion and daily life in that sector of antiquity. There’s a mummified crocodile, human-shaped mummies that contained remains of sacred ibis birds, and numerous sarcophagi placed in a way that allows you to examine them closely. And this is the only Egyptian exhibit I have ever seen that presented a kind of “family tree” of Egyptian deities.

The restaurant in the museum rotunda is pricey, but a good place to stop for coffee and strudel in the real Viennese coffeehouse tradition. So fortified, we continued to the paintings, room after room of Italian masters arranged mostly by artist. Here was the key revelation of this museum’s advantages of so many others: the banquettes. That’s the word my wife used, anyway, for the large, comfortable upholstered benches arranged in each room so that viewers can sit, relax, and really look at a painting in all its glorious detail. I recalled so many hard floors and cold benches in less imaginative museums, and imagined how I would have enjoyed them more had they been like this.

I know I keep harping on quiet, but visual art just seems to me like it should be an anti-noisy thing. When we saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence, I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help thinking how much nicer it would be if the place weren’t as crowded as the Port Authority Bus Terminal. From now on, I’ll choose my museum visiting times more carefully. But at the Kunsthistoriches, I doubt it will ever be a problem.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr

Emperor Franz Josef I intended the Kunsthistoriches Museum to be as beautiful as the art it houses. This is the octagonal dome over the rotunda.

Emperor Franz Josef I intended the Kunsthistoriches Museum to be as beautiful as the art it houses. This is the octagonal dome over the rotunda.

The museum café, in the rotunda

The museum café, in the rotunda

Ah, to be able to sit and look at a painting....

Ah, to be able to sit and see a painting….

My advice: don't be a centaur when Theseus is around. This sculpture is on the landing of the grand staircase.

My advice: don’t be a centaur when Theseus is around. This sculpture is on the landing of the grand staircase.

 

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