Europe holds some seriously amazing art. Lavishly displayed in churches, museums, and galleries, the art is arguably the most pertinent reason to be in Europe. Upon arriving in Vienna we decided this was place to check out something solid, something officially “art” worthy. This manifested in a museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (say that ten times fast), located along the inner-circle of the city, a historically key section of Vienna.
Conveniently located at the “Museaum Quartier” metro stop—Vienna is a very tourist friendly city—the Kunsthistorisches Museaum, literally the “Museum of Art History”, was picked out of a slew of amazing art sights. We wanted the excitement of witnessing a famous painting, akin to seeing a movie star; the rush of adrenaline that comes when you see that specific piece that changed the course of human art. Or something like that. We also wanted to see some renowned local (read Eastern European) work.
We were happy upon entering the monolithic building (which has a twin standing directly across the square) to find that it was reasonably price—12€ per person. We splurged an extra 4€ on an English audio-guide for information on the art in the KHM (abbreviated for the sake of my fingers), and for info on the building itself. The man who sold us the guide had a love affair with art and the KHM, or maybe he just had one too many espressos that morning, because he gave us a seriously in-depth description of the museum. He provided a detailed map of the rooms we would encounter and scribbled notes, only legible to him, on where to find the famous Titian, Bruegls, Rubens, Rembrandt, Carvaggio, Klimpt, etc etc. Oh! Also the entire floor of Egyptian, Near Eastern, and classical Roman art. Mummies, sculptures, stone panels, tombs, and various (2,500 pieces) other artifacts to explore.
We dove right in and soon found that actually walking around the museum was quite the treat. The building, which was commissioned by the Emperor of Austira-Hungary in 1872 and constructed specifically to hold the Hapsburg collection of art, is absolutely stunning. Marble columns, sparsely populated halls; each room contains intricately inlaid art that mimics the real, historical pieces on display.
We began—as instructed—in the classical antiquities, which were overwhelming in their number, staggering in their age, and utterly beautiful. Statues, coins, pendants galore! The sheer amount of treasures would have taken hours to pore over, time we did not have. We covered the first floor in under two hours. For my archaeological heart the Egyptian section was like a big box of candy. Mummies covered the walls, ancient hieroglyphics were illuminated on stone slabs, and artifacts dated to 2055 B.C. Yes, B.C.
In reflection it was around this time, as we moved from the first floor the second, that I realized the KHM is highly underestimated. There are two floors of artwork with at least 15 rooms on each floor. I could go on about the Velazquez paintings, those commissioned by Philip IV of Spain, of the royal children, which were remarkably moving in their raw human qualities and classic form. I could write an entire article on the dark series of Rembrandt self-portraits, held in the furthest corner of the highest floor, depicting his later years. Rooms and rooms of Italian Masters, Dutch Masters, Spanish Masters. All amazing. But instead I’ll talk a little more about my new favorite eastern-European (Flemish) artist, Pieter Bruegel.
Bruegel is known for a variety of styles—all of his work stands out as unique in color and form but he is slightly different, just on the border of abstract. His landscapes are what really stood out—huge canvasses with various scenes ranging from the seasons to village life. Bruegel’s work is lively and fun but contains dark overtones, the context of which was provided by our audio-guide. The most famous painting in his work is Hunters in the Snow, which depicts hunters and their dogs heading down a hill with a view over a town while ice and snow cover the landscape and houses. It encompassed a whole world, made up by Bruegel (read, no still-life), and was an early depiction of winter in Western art.
Hunters in the Snow was beautiful, as were the other painting that depicted the seasons, but my favorite was The Tower of Babel. Much like the Biblical story, it depicts a huge tower in the process of being built—the king in the foreground dictating that production must continue and a town with its people in the background, tiny in comparison to the tower that leans overhead. Bruegel, to show the folly of man, painted the tower at a precarious angle so that the whole building looks off, as if it leans and will soon fall. Ominous indeed.
The take-away from Bruegel: a powerful ability to include multiple scenes across an entire landscape while representing nature in its all-powerful form. Truly epic. Inspiring, too.
The last piece of happiness that we stumbled upon was an impermanent raised staircase that allowed museum-goers to come face to face with Gustav Klimt’s frescos. These adorn the upper walls (very hard to see without staircase!) and are just one example of the artistry put into the building. His work adds to the building as a whole and the fact that we got to see it so close, when we otherwise would not have, was a real treat.
The Kunsthistorisches Museaum was incredible. A real jewel among the many museums and exhibits in Vienna. Go for the building, the classical art, the location within the city, and the overall pleasure of knowing you have seen some amazing art. They have espresso, too. Go for that if nothing else.