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In the Presence of the Past

Vienna's Complicated History Is Never Too Far Out of Reach

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008; Page P01

Just across Prinz Eugen-Strasse from the green copper domes and baroque overachievement of Vienna's Belvedere Palace sits a terrifically tacky little Greek restaurant (vinyl checkered tablecloths, plastic bunches of grapes hanging from the walls). It's a good place to go drinking with your mother, methinks (the waiter flirts with her), at least until the conversation enters perilous territory, by which I mean Whatever-Happened-to-the-Good-Old-Days territory. Once that happens, all anyone has to do is mention those sailor hats worn by the Vienna Boys' Choir and the floodgates will open.

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"I mean, when you kids were little -- you've seen the pictures," says Mom, motioning for a third glass of wine as the red D tram squeaks by on the street. "The way I dressed you kids up. The little bow ties, the Easter dresses. You were just precious. I mean, what has happened to all of that?"

You'd like to tell her just how well you remember that choking bow tie, how 40 years later you can still feel its lacerations under your chin. But hey, you're on vacation (in Vienna, for God's sake!), and you didn't just fly 4,000 miles only to waste precious time sorting through complicated feelings about the past.

Ha -- the joke's on you, buddy. This city is about nothing but sorting through complicated feelings about the past. If it's a traveler's amnesia you're after, hit Vegas, not Vienna.

* * *

Needless to say, all the Viennas of the past demand your nostalgia -- the bewigged Vienna of Mozart, Strauss's three-quarter-time Vienna, even the bleak "Third Man" Vienna of the postwar era -- but it's 1908 Vienna that's the hardest to shake. You become acutely aware, almost from the moment of arrival, that for one brief moment everything important in the world was happening there, 1908 Vienna glowing all the more brightly against a backdrop of the dark decades to come. It's the Vienna of the Hapsburg twilight, of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner.

It's also the Vienna of 19-year-old Adolf Hitler, then an art student, just another kid from the provinces with a dream but no talent, a penchant for bohemianism but too broke even for that. There are park benches in town that Hitler once slept on, street corners where the future conqueror of Austria once begged for coins, homeless shelters in which he took refuge. Meanwhile, another artist in another part of the city, the utterly successful Klimt, was unveiling what would become his masterpiece, "The Kiss." The Klimt gallery crowds were small in those days, but today they're huge, almost "Mona Lisa"-esque in the Belvedere museum where the painting now hangs.

"The Kiss" depicts, as you'll remember from your art history, a pair of lovers locked in an ethereal embrace, their garments adorned with arresting gold leaf. (Klimt's father was a goldsmith.) Surrounding the couple are flowers and geometric shapes and then darkness and oblivion. And surrounding the painting this day is abundant evidence of Austrian bohemia circa 2008: mussy-haired, bespectacled young couples holding hands, their funky glasses clinking when "The Kiss" works its magic. It's a painting that simply must be seen in person.

The artists of Klimt's era "had a big vision and worked not only for themselves but for Austrian art," says Alfred Weidinger, the genial chief curator at the Belvedere, the 18th-century palatial home of Prince Eugene of Savoy and later the last home of Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination lighted the powder keg of World War I.

"There is no one artist today who would risk his own money to help very young artists," Weidinger continues, referring to the landmark "Kunstschau 1908" exhibition to which Klimt lent his celebrity and fortune, in the process giving an immeasurable leg up to artists such as Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.

Weidinger shows us through the present exhibition, which in honor of the 100th anniversary of "Kunstschau 1908" attempts to re-create it in detail, right down to mimicking the square footage of the original galleries. Everything is largely as it was, except for "The Kiss" itself, Weidinger points out. "The painting wasn't even finished when it was first shown. You can see where he added some flowers later." There's visual evidence, too, Weidinger points out, of Klimt's subsequently painting a new set of legs on the woman, the original ones having been judged out of proportion.

"So, so beautiful," Mom says, her voice nearly breaking.


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