Monday, November 19, 2012

Two imaginary Viennese museums

Today I will describe and enjoy two imaginary museums that I found in Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980).

The actual Viennese Museum of Fine Arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, is the most beautiful big art museum I have ever seen (and the collection is not so bad either).  The photo of the interior featured at Wikipedia is merely the coffee shop.  Vienna has other nice buildings, too, I have heard.  I was not there for very long.  This post is about what the Viennese, circa 1900,  could have had.

Camillo Sitte became more influential as a theorist of city planning than as an architect.  He was a backward-looking Wagnerian, a devotee of the total work of art that was not only beautiful of itself but also created a national myth that would lead to “the revitalization of the German people in this hyper-cerebral, utilitarian age” (70).  Wagnerism, the ideology of Wagner, is a puzzle, a subject for future research.

Sitte’s museum would be “a great tower, a national monument to German culture” (104), located not in the city but on “a barren beach” – of a lake, I guess, right?  The tower would be filled not with the treasures of the imperial Hapsburgs but with the results of a seven-volume encyclopedia of art forms Sitte was compiling.  The museum would be called “The Dutchman’s Tower,” likely named after Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman perhaps conflated with the crazy scene in Goethe’s Faust Part II where Faust builds a tower in Holland.  All scenes in Faust II are crazy.

So: bad idea, yes, the Wagnerian Goethean tower on a beach?  No?  How about this next one.

Otto Wagner (an unrelated non-Wagnerian Wagner)was a theorist but also a practical architect, the designer of a number of significant buildings in central Vienna.  He became a supporter of the Viennese avant garde, including Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Viennese Secession, as I might have guessed from his idea for a museum.

He wanted a single unfinished gallery divided into twenty units.  Every five years, a commission of artists, or perhaps a single artist, would fill a unit with “am integrated exhibition of the best art and architecture produced in a given half-decade” (105).  Then – this is the great part, the bad idea that lifts into greatness – that section is never changed.

The building would become a series of time capsules.  No curation, no revision.  Wagner wrote that this system would show “’a clear picture of the state of artistic production over the coming century.’”  I am imagining two visits to the museum, one in 1905, with one room full of Klimts and other wonderful things – I will give the initial period credit – and the other 95 percent of the empty hall, brightly lit, stretching into the future.  And then I imagine visiting the hall today, marveling at the kitsch.  What might be in the “1936-1940” room?  How often would a room be the visual equivalent of the World’s Best Novels, 1899 edition?

Do not get me wrong, if some madman had built one or both of these museums, they would be high on my list of places to visit the next time I am in Vienna, at least on the days when I had worn out the Kunsthistorisches Museum and checked off the Secession building and Hundertwasserhaus and – I guess they would not be that high on my list, but they would be on it.

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