Once in a Lifetime: Visiting Bruegel in Vienna — Page 2
Story by Michael Shapiro, photos by author and Phyllis Shapiro

Steeple of St. Stephen's ViennaNext was The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, another wimmelbild contrasting the ease of the wealthy elite with the travails of the hard-toiling poor. Because we'd entered through the exit, we'd missed the slideshow occupying 16-foot-high walls in the entry hall showing how Bruegel sometimes changed his paintings. Recent x-ray images of The Battle Between Carnival and Lent revealed a corpse being pulled in a wagon. The corpse is not in the finished painting; at some point Bruegel decided to paint over it. This may provide insight into Bruegel's creative process, or perhaps he was pressured to remove what some at the time may have considered a too-gruesome detail.

With the tours over, we again had the paintings almost to ourselves. The champagne reception had begun but we chose to stay with Bruegel. I lost track of time. When I checked my watch it read 8:37pm, seven minutes after closure for the exhibition hall. Surprisingly, we didn't see any guards. I had visions of Night at the Museum: Perhaps the celebrants in Bruegel's Peasant Wedding would offer us a pitcher of beer. I would have been quite happy spending the night among this art, but when I pushed on a set of heavy 12-foot high wooden doors, they yielded. In the cafe, the champagne reception was concluding, but a server poured us each a glass of prosecco. The promised gift was a small box of chocolates with an image of one of Bruegel's paintings on top. Naturally I chose a box featuring Children's Games. Inside, two of the chocolates had Bruegel's name emblazoned in ancient Flemish script.

Fittingly, a blizzard greeted us when we exited the museum, creating a snowy scene Bruegel probably would have enjoyed painting. Seeing Bruegel's art was just part of our itinerary. While waiting for the hop-on bus our first morning outside Vienna's opera house, Phyllis and I were approached by a man in costume. He asked us if we would like to buy tickets for the opera that night, The Barber of Seville, just 35 euros each for box seats. It sounded too good to be true, but for 35 euros we took a chance. The tickets were valid, but they were in the third row of the box with only a partial view of the stage. In the end we didn't care: the orchestra and singers were extraordinary, the sets dramatic. Phyllis said she would've paid almost as much for a tour of the resplendent opera house; the opera was a bonus.

Klimt and Schiele in Vienna

Schiele ViennaThe next day, we hopped back on the bus to the Belvedere museum to see the work of two of Vienna's most notable artists, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Painted in 1907-08, Klimt's The Kiss, a gold-leaf-decorated vision of an embracing couple who become one, shimmers in a way no reproduction can capture. Klimt was a co-founder in 1897 of Vienna's Secession movement, a coterie of artists who rejected traditionalism and sought to make their work more expressive and emotional.

Schiele was born in 1890, a generation after Klimt, and was strongly influenced by Klimt in his late teens before developing a unique style in his twenties. Both were deeply committed to authentic art, a theme embraced by Bruegel more than three centuries earlier. And remarkably, Schiele and Bruegel had another parallel: at the Belvedere's Schiele exhibition is a portrait of Schiele's wife called Bildnes der Frau des Kunstlers which had a patchwork pattern on her skirt, somewhat reminiscent of Klimt's work. That was painted over with pearly tints, but you can still see vestiges of colorful patches through the white paint.

The theory was that the patches made Schiele's wife look too peasant-like in collector's eyes, so to sell the painting or to get it in a museum Schiele needed to class it up. I was surprised he would do this in 1918 when he appeared more confident and sure of himself. Tragically, Schiele died later that year, three days after his wife, in the Spanish flu epidemic. He was just 28 years old. (As 2018 was the centennial of his death, there were major Schiele exhibitions at Vienna's Belvedere and Leopold museums that extended into early 2019.)

Beyond the Museums in an Austrian Winter

Next Phyllis and I visited Vienna's soaring St. Stephen's gothic cathedral. I paid 5 euro to climb a spiral stone staircase up its south tower for a view of the city at sunset, which happened about 4:20pm. We dined at the nearby Gasthaus Poschl, a cozy casual restaurant with excellent Wiener schnitzel (literally a "Vienna shaving" or "cut"). The savory veal cutlet was the perfect blend of crispy outside and tender inside; the lemon brought out the flavor. The half liter beer of the day was the ideal complement.

Steeple of St. Stephen's ViennaAfter two days spent mostly inside museums, we wanted to get out and explore the city so Phyllis and I walked down the rain-streaked Operngasse to the Naschmarkt, a warren of food stalls, produce vendors, shops and restaurants. As we approached the market we saw a building that looked like a church but with Moorish curves. Phyllis saw the word "kunst," German for art, so we crossed Friedrichstrasse to take a look. It was the Secessionist Building, erected in 1897-98 to exhibit the work of Secessionist artists including Klimt. It houses Klimt's Beethoven Frieze, a set of eight painted panels, 7 feet high and an average of about 15 feet across, that tell the story of humans' search for happiness and fulfillment. The frieze culminates with the discovery of music. In the gift shop, Phyllis admired a replica Josef Hoffmann brooch, and though she protested that it was too expensive, I bought it for her as thanks for the trip.

At the Naschmarkt we saw vendors selling sauerkraut from large wooden barrels, olives stuffed with little parmesan bricks, and umbrellas decorated with Klimt's art. At an adjacent flea market, I bought my wife a lapis lazuli necklace from an Afghani man. Then Phyllis and I came across an old photo album for sale. Its black-and-white images of a distinguished, non-smiling, well-heeled family, dating to the late 1800s, were meticulously mounted. With names such as Marie Kreil geb Zelenka and Anna Pompe geb Pollak, I wondered Steeple of St. Stephen's Viennaif they were Jewish. This would be what my grandmother's Viennese family looked like.

I had a fleeting thought: Wouldn't it be fun to buy the album and try to find the descendants of this family? Then it dawned on us that maybe there were no descendants. "That album could have been left on a coffee table as they ran for their lives," Phyllis said. In the immaculate and friendly Vienna of the 21st century, it's easy to forget Austria's willing collaboration with Nazi Germany.

We left the album on the vendor's table and walked past handsome five-story apartment buildings with gold accents to a cafe the Zelenka and Pollak families could have frequented, Cafe Sperl, which opened in 1880. We sat at a small round marble table under crystal chandeliers as a pianist serenaded us. I ordered apple strudel, delicious, and a mocha. My mother's frankfurters weren't to her taste so she asked for a box. We gave her lunch to a bedraggled woman a block away we'd seen begging in a doorway and she gratefully accepted the food.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed an art-house cinema showing The Third Man, a noir film based on a Graham Greene novel shot in Vienna just after World War II. Starring Orson Welles, the 1949 black-and-white film was the original English version so we got tickets and sat in the balcony. It was staggering to see Vienna in ruins, with battered buildings and cratered streets. In the chase sequences, characters tumble down piles of rubble. Though mostly in English, several scenes were in German and shown without subtitles. Though I've never studied German, I got the gist of the dialogue.

old Vienna photo album

There was just one last quintessential Vienna thing I wanted to do: go to the Sacher Hotel and have one of its legendary tortes. We walked up the pedestrian boulevard, the Karntner Strasse, and saw the cafe line out the door. At the shop next door, we bought a pair of Sacher tortes in a handsome wooden box to take home with our Bruegel chocolates, reminders that our whirlwind, four-night visit to Vienna was more than a dream.

Michael Shapiro is author of A Sense of Place and the forthcoming The Creative Spark, a collection of interviews with musicians, artists, writers, and chefs (Fall 2019). His features, essays, and profiles appear in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, The Sun, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times.

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