Every European city with its great art galleries has, at the very least, one must see-painting. Who could leave Paris without seeing the Mona Lisa for example or London without visiting the National Gallery’s Leonardo Cartoon?
Vienna, too, has its unmissable work. It’s not in the main gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum but a little way outside the Ring and a letter D tram takes one there.
We didn’t take this tram as it might have landed us in Lapland!
Unlike so many of the world’s most famous paintings this one can be clearly seen in peace and quiet without crowds of people round it trying to have a peep. The gallery where this painting’s located is in a fairy-tale palace surrounded by magic gardens with magnificent views over the ex-imperial capital.
The Belvedere was built in the first half of the eighteenth century under the direction of Prince Eugene of Savoy who was the commander in chief of the Hapsburg army at the battle of Zenta in 1697 when the Ottomans were defeated at the gates of Vienna and where large swathes of Europe avoided being converted to Mohammedanism. The architect of this magnificent palace was not the ubiquitous Von Erlach but Johann Lukas Von Hildebrandt, another architect who had studied in Italy.
The Belvedere’s entrance hall has great atlas-like figures which cover the fact that they had to be placed there to support the upper floor which was subsiding while the palace was still being built. It’s an elegant solution to a difficult problem.
The elaborate frescoes and canvases which decorate the state rooms and the chapel were painted by Italian painters Solimena, Carloni and Fanti.
The Belvedere’s setting is enchanting with its gently gardens giving broad prospects towards the city of Vienna. The gardens were a bit colourless at this time of year. However, we must return in the spring and admire the parterres and waterfalls at greater length. Like the privy garden at Hampton Court, the gardens are being restored to their original elaborate baroque splendour.
At the time of our visit this December the palace grounds were enlivened by one of Vienna’s traditional Christmas markets.
But what special painting did I come to see? I am, of course, referring to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”, a painting which has been given cult status so that it even appears on shopping bags, T-shirts and tea-cloths. Ah, the price of fame!
Klimt (1862 –1918) started off as a decorative painter much in demand for beautifying the interior of the new buildings that were being erected on that most wonderful of European boulevards, the Ringstrasse, which took the place of the demolished city walls and enabled Vienna to finally expand beyond its narrow confines. Increasingly exotic influences began to permeate Klimt’s works which originally were in the mainstream academic tradition. In particular, Klimt’s visit to Ravenna, where he came in contact with its fabulous byzantine mosaics, stimulated his artistic vision into something more ethereal.
The Belvedere has one large room dedicated to some of Klimt’s most wonderful paintings including the iconic “Kiss”.
There are, of course, many other extraordinary paintings at the Belvedere but I thought “better to see one painting slowly than many quickly..”
In this painting one can see most clearly the way this symbolist painter fuses figurative and decorative elements. It’s as if underneath all that luscious gold leaf there lies another, more literal painting. There is a great feeling of japonerie in the figures’ composition and a strangely paradoxical three-dimensional flatness.
Of course, I’d seen the painting in its countless reproductions but when one perceives the real thing before one’s eyes it’s as if experiencing this iconic painting for the first time. The physical effect of the canvas is overwhelming: I felt my knees melting and my whole being transported into a Stendhal-effect-like universe.
There’s absolutely no doubt. A world of virtual reality will never ever be able to replace reality itself and we must not mistakenly be taken over by that virtuality. These stunning paintings have to be seen in the flesh, or at least in their oil and canvas.
PS Incidentally, the highest price paid for any painting was in 2006 when Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold at auction for $135 million. I wish I had that money to spend!