“To every age its art and to art its freedom” reads the gilt lettering over the threshold of Vienna’s Secession museum, the spiritual home of the revolutionary Jugendstil movement, during which Vienna sprang to life as iconoclasts Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud brought their taboo-shattering agendas into the city’s famed galleries and coffee houses. Two world wars, the collapse of the empire and living at the hem of the Iron Curtain had reduced Vienna’s standing as a cosmopolitan centre. The city of museums became a museum itself as the famously introspective Viennese were rendered singularly obsessed with former glory. A visit to Vienna became a waltz into another time, Klimt’s gold speckled bodies became pretty postcards, famous cafes were franchised and the hills were alive, not with Mozart but, ironically, the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein – two Jews from New York. However, the expansion of the European Union has been kind to the city, and Vienna has once again found itself literally centre stage of a vibrant and energetic Central Europe.
This year at the Secession museum, bondage equipment, pornographic paintings and latex costumes took the place of etchings and sculptures. It was an installation by one of Vienna’s young artists, who was ‘curating’ an exhibition by day and a sex club by night. In staging the show, the museum was drawing a direct bloodline from the Jugendstil, the provocative work of which shed light on the darker side of polite Viennese society. Spanking and art; so very Vienna.Ten years ago, the idea of the Secession staging such an exhibition would have been unthinkable.
The most visible expression of this commitment to artistic revitalisation is the impressive MuseumsQuartier, with its array of modern and classic galleries, adjacent to the Hofburg Palace. The minimal grey basalt facade of the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst) contrasts sharply with the palace’s baroque statues of mermen and is indicative of the kind of renaissance taking place. Beside the fountain in the quadrangle of the MQ is the meeting place for Vienna’s angst-ridden teens, appropriately close to the Leopold Museum, which houses the tormented portraiture of Egon Schiele.
Forming a triumvirate of Viennese culture with its art and music scenes is the city’s cafe culture, rightly famous around the world but often misunderstood by the outsider. A habitué of Viennese coffee houses once perfectly described them as “the place where people want to be alone but need company to do so”. The great misnomer about these historic institutions is that they are sociable. The grand cafes of Vienna are, in fact, largely solitary places for quiet reflection, often filled with small marble tables accompanied by one of the city’s most enduring gifts to the design world,Thonet’s Bentwood chairs.
At the door of Cafe Central, Café Sperl and Cafe Landtmann stands a curiously Viennese invention, a kind of round clothing rack layered with newspapers from around the globe that stand as a reminder that this was once the capital of an empire.Vienna invented the literary cafe and sitting in one of its splendid locales is one of the city’s greatest pleasures. But be warned; the nomenclature of Viennese coffee shames even the Starbucks list and is guaranteed to bamboozle the visitor. The surest bet is the ‘melange’, a kind of cappuccino. The adventurous might select something named after an obscure duchess (typically with a triple-barrelled name) and await the arrival a coffee somewhere under an alp of whipped cream and apricot liqueur.
A curious mix of artists and intellectuals makes Café Prückel and its mid-century fittings a lounge room away from home. It is the perfect place to partake in the city’s breakfast ritual, which includes a soft boiled egg in a glass, toast and, if fortune runs with you, marillen marmelat, a marmalade of tiny apricots from the nearby Wienerwald (ViennaWoods).
While the coffee houses may not be the social hives one would expect, there is one notable exception. The Demel cafe is one of the world’s greats and a Viennese institution. Known internationally for its confections and, somewhat contentiously, for being the home of the sachertorte (a rich chocolate cake), it has retained an air of exclusivity despite its fame.
© Vogue Living, August 2010, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora
In a prime position on Vienna’s Kohlmarkt, the Demel has survived and flourished where other Viennese institutions with Imperial charges were pushed out. Old and young Viennese don their best dirndl, lederhosen or Helmut Lang to be seen there. A modern, yet unobtrusive floor-to-ceiling glass wall now dissects the Demel so it is possible to see the young master pastry chefs artfully employing centuries of expertise to folding perfect apfelstrudels and pouring the chocolate layer that defines the famous sachertorte.
In 1985, the reputation of Austria as one of the great wine producing countries was all but destroyed when it was revealed that many had been adulterating their product. The ‘anti-freeze’ scandal scarred the industry so deeply that it was forced to completely reinvent itself. It has done so with considerable success, and now Austrian white wines are held in high esteem internationally. Few know, however, that Vienna is a major wine region itself and that the vineyards are within the city’s walls. Vienna’s summer equivalent of winter’s snug coffee houses are heurigen, small pop-up ‘wine houses’ opened to serve that year’s wine. Ramshackle farmhouses, dormant in winter, are lush, vine-covered venues for nights of revelry come summer. Unfortunately, like Mozart festivals and The Sound of Music paraphernalia, the heurigen’s rare quality had been exploited as a quaint Austrian tradition, so the bus-loads followed and the quality of the wine plummeted so dramatically that some have the potential to strip the enamel from teeth. With insider knowledge, it is now easier to find the young Turkish winemakers gathering grapes from around the city and blending them into Vienna’s traditional ‘field’ wine, gemischter satz.
Jutta Ambrositsch is one such vintner who is reviving this ancient technique. She harvests the small vineyards with as many as 20 varieties of grapes on the same day to produce her wine; a stark contrast to modern winemaking, and a method causing a stir among aficionados – those who had long dismissed Viennese wine as an odd curiosity.
At dusk, throughout summer, she opens the courtyard of an overgrown former nunnery and serves simple Austrian fare such as blood sausage with horseradish and rye bread to pair with her exciting, summery wines. When the Secessionists splintered away from the conventional norms of society and embarked on reinventing Vienna, they rejected tradition in favour of an extraordinary wealth of intellectual and artistic pursuits. Their risk paid off, creating the friction between Baroque and Nouveau, conservative and radical, that had become the hallmark of old Vienna. After decades of introspection, that same energy is back, and this time its champions look forward, but are also respectful of the city’s history. There’s a sense that everything old is new again.