Tag Archives: Vienna

The Waltz King

Strauss statue in Stadtpark, Vienna

There are thousands of books on raising children these days, not one of which would recommend the approach Johann Strauss I took with his son Johann Strauss II.

Dad was a well-known Austrian composer and conductor in the first half of the 19th century.  He wanted Junior to become a banker, but the kid wanted to follow in his father’s musical footsteps.  One day Johann Senior walked in on Johann Junior secretly practicing the violin, and serious punishment ensued.  The father is quoted in several sources as saying that he was going to “beat the music out of the boy.”

The kid wasn’t easily discouraged, however, and his interest in having a musical career was abetted by his mother, Maria Anna Strauss.  She may have been motivated in part by spite; her relationship with her husband was strained because he had a mistress. 

Junior was 9 years old when his father got involved with Emilie Trampusch, who eventually had 6 children with the elder Strauss.  That was grounds for divorce back then; when Maria Anna served papers on him, Strauss Senior shrugged and moved in with his illicit family.  With him out of the house, Maria Anna did her best to further Strauss Junior’s career in orchestral music.

By the mid-1840s, father and son were musical rivals; both led orchestras that were extremely popular, and both composed tunes that were widely admired.  It would have been a great story if Dad finally came around and said, “Son, I was wrong — you’re great.”

That doesn’t seem to have happened, though.  During the Revolution of 1848, Strauss Senior remained loyal to the monarchy,  but Strauss Junior sided with the revolutionaries.  It just didn’t work out between those two, and when Dad died of Scarlet Fever in 1849, I’m guessing that Johann II must have been conflicted about attending the funeral.

After all, when Johann II’s wife died in 1878, he didn’t attend her funeral, and he liked her.  He mourned her death for several… well, several weeks, when he married someone else. 

By now you’re probably getting the impression that I’m just ripping the Strausses, so let me tell you something positive about them —  or at least about Junior, because he was the superior talent.

Neither Strauss actually invented the Viennese waltz; it had been around as a folk dance.  But by composing elegant melodies and writing more sophisticated arrangements, Johann Junior elevated the waltz from the beer halls to the concert halls — and palaces, too.  The Waltz King, as he was called, toured Europe and America, spreading the popularity of that musical form.

By the time he died in 1899, Johann Strauss II had written over 150 waltzes, as well as several operettas, some polkas, marches, and other compositions that were later used as soundtracks for cartoons.  His most famous work, the Blue Danube Waltz, is one of the most recognizable melodies ever written, and is sort of the unofficial national anthem of Austria.  He is so revered there that a statue of Strauss occupies a place of honor in Vienna’s main park (see photo).

The Waltz King’s career illustrates that there is almost no limit to what a man can accomplish when he has a parent who strenuously objects to his dream.

Spend an Hour in Room X

Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is one of the world’s finest art museums, even though it isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum or the Prado.  That may be partly due to the difficulty of saying the word Kunsthistorisches in the same breath with anything.  The name is pronounced KOONST-hist-OR-eh-shess; in German that means Museum of Art History, but is often rendered in English as Museum of Fine Arts.

It is the repository of treasures collected by the Habsburgs, and we’re not talking Ed and Ginny Habsburg from your bowling league.  This was the Habsburg dynasty, which for several centuries ruled over big chunks of Europe until the conclusion of World War I.  Before the map got forcibly rearranged, though, the Habsburg emperors went around saying “I want that,” and they got a lot of wonderful stuff.  Emperor Franz Joseph I had the Kunsthistorisches built to store all the goodies; it was completed in 1891.

When talking about this museum, it’s difficult not to repeatedly use the adjective “grand”.  You enter a grand lobby, ascend a grand staircase to an entire floor of grand paintings, beginning with Room I, which is all works by Titian.  Nearby are three rooms filled with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.  You get the idea — the Kunsthistorisches is loaded with grand things.

It’s not possible to list all the masterpieces here, but I want to mention a few of my favorites:

•  An oil  by Johannes Vermeer you’d instantly recognize; it is known by different titles, but most often is called The Art of Painting.  You can’t look at it without saying (or at least thinking) “wow”.

•  One of the three paintings Mantegna did of St. Sebastian shot full of arrows.  This is the version used to illustrate my blog post of 1/8/09, titled “Saint Sebastian:  That Had To Hurt”.

•  Madonna of the Meadow, by Raphael.  The artist managed to make Jesus and John the Baptist look like real toddlers in spite of their halos.

•  Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.  There is an entire room (Room X) devoted to this 16th-century master; indeed, the Kunsthistorisches has somewhere between a third and a half of all known works by Bruegel.  Take your time here; marvel at the details in his paintings.

•  Cellini’s Saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches in 2003, but the gold salt cellar was recovered in 2006.  This piece is the highlight of the sculpture department, which, as far as I’m concerned, is not the museum’s strength.

The Kunsthistorisches is proud of its Egyptian Collection, and the Habsburgs also looted an assortment of Greek and Roman antiquities that are now on display here, but paintings — especially from the 16th and 17th century — are why this museum is so highly regarded.

I can also recommend the haus torte in the museum café, but I’m not sure it’s world-class.  Well, no, now that I think about it… in its way, the Kunsthistorisches cake actually might be as good as the delicious ham-and-cheese sandwich at the Louvre.

Psst. Hey, Buddy — Wanna Buy a Rembrandt?

Cellini's salt cellar (c. 1540)  Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Cellini's salt cellar (c. 1540) Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Scaffolding had been erected on the exterior of the Kunsthistorisches, Vienna’s famed art museum, to facilitate sandblasting of the facade.  The scaffolding also provided a convenient way for an art thief to enter a second-story window at 4 a.m. on May 11, 2003.  His break-in triggered a motion-sensing device, alerting a museum guard to get out of his chair and shut off the alarm without investigating further.  The thief, who perhaps coincidentally was a security-alarm salesman, smashed a glass case and removed its contents:  a gold and ebony sculpture valued at approximately $50 million.  Crafted in the 1540s by Benvenuto Cellini and known as the Saliera (salt cellar), it’s the last surviving work in gold by that artist — over the centuries, the others had been melted down.

It was feared that might be the fate of this sculpture as well, but Robert Mang seemed to know that the object was worth far more than its salvage value.  He kept it for a couple of years under his bed; eventually he buried it in a lead box in a forest outside Vienna.  Mang then sent a ransom note to the museum’s insurance company, demanding 10 million euros.  A cat-and-mouse game ensued; Herr Mang used cell phones to send text messages to set up a clandestine meeting.  He was eventually caught because an electronics store security camera recorded him buying a cell phone that was used by the thief to send text messages.  The Cellini salt cellar was recovered, relatively unharmed, on January 21, 2006.

In this instance the motive for the theft was financial gain, but that hasn’t always been the case with stolen art.  In August, 1911, the Mona Lisa — yeah, the world’s most famous painting — was taken off a wall in the Louvre.  The thief had gotten in on a Monday, when the museum was closed to the public.  He seems to have blended in with cleaning crews and other staff, then snatched the painting, leaving its frame in a staircase.  As you might imagine, a frenzy of police investigation ensued, and among those questioned about Mona’s disappearance was a young Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso.

He had nothing to do with it; the thief turned out to be a former Louvre employee of Italian descent.  In 1913, Vicenzo Peruggia made contact with an art dealer in Florence, admitting that he had stolen La Gioconda (as Mona is sometimes known) in order to restore to Italy what had been stolen from it by Napoleon.  The art dealer met with the thief, who produced the painting from a trunk in his hotel room.  The art dealer was a bit of a con man himself, apparently.  He (and the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who was with him) convinced the thief that they would need to compare the painting to other known works by Leonardo to verify its authenticity.  Peruggia let them walk out the door with the Mona Lisa, and he was apprehended by police soon thereafter.  The Louvre got its star attraction back on December 30, 1913.

The motive behind the biggest art theft in history remains unclear because the case remains unsolved.  In the early hours after St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, two guys in police uniforms pounded on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  They told the museum guard that there had been reports of a disturbance on the grounds and that they needed to investigate.  Within minutes that hapless guard and his colleague were both in handcuffs and gagged.  The thieves spent over an hour gathering loot, which included a masterpiece by Vermeer and three works by Rembrandt.  One of the latter, “Storm On The Sea of Galilee”, is his only known seascape.  Other art works were taken as well; the value of the total haul is at least $300 million.  

There have been occasional leads in the case, but as of this date they have all proven to be dead ends.  So if you happen to be invited to the mansion of an underworld titan and notice an original Rembrandt seascape over the mantel, you might want to slip out and call the FBI.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering a $5 million reward to get its artwork back.  Just think — for that kind of money, you could make a down payment on your own Rembrandt!

“Honestly, Ogg, Is That All You Think About?”

The Venus of Willendorf -- Naturhistorisches, Vienna

The Venus of Willendorf -- Naturhistorisches, Vienna

For a very long time, men have been fascinated by the female body.  (I’ll give you a moment to get over the shock of that revelation.)  I can’t cite scientific studies that have proven that beyond doubt; all I can offer is anecdotal evidence.  Go into any art museum — with the exception of the Vatican Pinacoteca — and you’ll see quite a few paintings and sculptures of women who left the house in such a hurry that they forgot to put on clothes.

Many of those under-dressed women are identified as Venus:  there’s Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, a.k.a. Venus on the Half-Shell (1482), “The Venus of Urbino” by Titian (1538), “The Rokeby Venus” by Velázquez (c. 1647), “Venus de Milo”, carved by an unknown artist a century or so B.C.E.  There are lots more.

By far the oldest Venus is a sculpture usually called “The Venus of Willendorf”, even though she was created many millennia before the mythological deity came to fame as the Goddess of Love.  The Venus of Willendorf is really, really old.

Now, there are people who can tell you the difference between the Paleolithic Era and the Pleistocene Epoch.  They can tell you what period of time those terms describe, give or take ten minutes.  Luckily for you, I am not one of those people.  “Prehistoric” is close enough for me, although when I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about, I might throw in a fancy term like “Stone Age”.

So we’re just going to have to accept the word of experts that the Venus of Willendorf came into existence  20,000 – 25,000 B.C.E.  Let me interject that I’ve seen her up close and in person, and she doesn’t look a day over 15,000.  She was discovered in 1908 near the Austrian village of Willendorf, and currently resides in Vienna at the Naturhistorisches (Natural History) Museum.

The Venus of Willendorf is 4¼” high, roughly the size and shape of a hand grenade.  She is on display in her own glass case on an upper floor of the museum.  As you look at her, you can’t help wondering (at least, I couldn’t):  What did the artist have in mind?  Was this just an idle pursuit, something to do with his time while waiting for the invention of Checkers?  Was it intended to be a little representation of a goddess; an idol?  Or — more likely — was it supposed to be a fertility symbol, possibly used in some sort of ritual?

A reason art experts believe the Venus of Willendorf was associated with procreation has to do with her shape, which is, shall we say, robust.  When you think about it, the people of 20,000 years ago were on a precursor of the Atkins Diet:  very few carbs, lots of Mammoth-kebobs and weeds.  What that suggests is that it doesn’t seem likely there would be a lot of “plus-size” gals among roving bands of hunter/gatherers, so the artist wasn’t depicting someone he saw every day.  He wasn’t trying to do an anatomically accurate likeness of a model named Ginger or Sophie. 

Rather, whoever carved the Venus of Willendorf was doing a sort of abstract work, emphasizing the external parts of a female body involved with fertility:  The large belly and breasts are an exaggerated representation of pregnancy.

That’s what seems reasonable to me, anyway.  And I have to confess, I’m glad to have had my brief encounter with the Venus of Willendorf.  Personally, I find older women enchanting.