Austria's location at the crossroads of the Germanic, Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe worlds contributed to a rich and varied artistic heritage.
The country is best known for the splendor of its baroque and rococo palaces and churches. It also contains a wealth of internationally renowned Gothic and modern architecture.
Early Ecclesiastical Art -- Most art in the early medieval period was church art. From the Carolingian period, the only survivors are a handful of illuminated manuscripts, now in Vienna's National Library. The most famous is the Cutbercht Evangeliar from around 800, a richly illuminated copy of the four gospels.
The Romanesque period reached its peak between 1000 and 1190. Notable from this time is the Admont Great Bible, crafted around 1140, one of the prized treasures of Vienna's National Library. In 1181, the famous goldsmith Nicolas de Verdun produced one of the finest enamel works in Europe for the pulpit at Klosterneuburg Abbey. Verdun's 51 small panels, crafted from enamel and gold, depict scenes from the religious tracts of the Augustinians. After a fire in the 1300s, the panels were repositioned onto an altarpiece, known as the Verdun Altar at Klosterneuburg, where they can be seen today.
The Gothic Age -- The Gothic age in Austria is better remembered for its architecture than its painting and sculpture. Early Gothic sculpture was influenced by the Zachbruchiger Stil (zigzag style), identified by vivid angular outlines of forms against contrasting backgrounds. The era's greatest surviving sculptures date from around 1320 and include the Enthroned Madonna of Klosterneuburg and the Servant's Madonna, showcased in Vienna's St. Stephan's Cathedral.
By the late 1300s, Austrian sculpture was strongly influenced by Bohemia. The human form became elongated, exaggerated, and idealized, often set in graceful but unnatural S curves. Wood became increasingly popular as an artistic medium and was often painted in vivid colors. A superb example of Gothic sculpture is the Servant's Madonna in St. Stephan's Cathedral. Carved around 1320, it depicts Mary enthroned and holding a standing Christ child.
From the Renaissance to the 18th Century -- During most of the Renaissance, Vienna was too preoccupied with fending off invasions, sieges, and plagues to produce the kind of painting and sculpture that flowered in other parts of Europe. As a result, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Vienna struggled to keep up with such cities as Salzburg, Munich, and Innsbruck.
Most painting and sculpture during the baroque period was for the enhancement of the grandiose churches and spectacular palaces that sprang up across Vienna. Artists were imported from Italy; one, Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), produced the masterpiece The Apotheosis of Hercules, which appears on the ceilings of Vienna's Liechtenstein Palace. Baroque painting emphasized symmetry and unity, and trompe l'oeil was used to give extra dimension to a building's sculptural and architectural motifs.
The first noteworthy Austrian-born baroque painter was Johann Rottmayr (1654-1730), the preferred decorator of the two most influential architects of the age, von Hildebrandt and Fischer von Erlach. Rottmayr's works adorn some of the ceilings of Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace and Peterskirche. Countless other artists contributed to the Viennese baroque style. Notable are the frescoes of Daniel Gran (1694-1754), who decorated the Hofbibliothek. He also has an altarpiece in the Karlskirche.
Vienna, as it emerged from a base of muddy fields into a majestic fantasy of baroque architecture, was captured on the canvas in the landscapes of Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80), nephew and pupil of the famous Venetian painter Canaletto. Brought to Vienna at the request of Maria Theresa, Bellotto managed to bathe the city in a flat but clear light of arresting detail and pinpoint accuracy. His paintings today are valued as social and historical as well as artistic documents.
Dutch-born, Swedish-trained Martin van Meytens (1695-1770), court painter to Maria Theresa, captured the lavish balls and assemblies of Vienna's aristocracy. His canvases, though awkwardly composed and overburdened with detail, are the best visual record of the Austrian court's balls and receptions. In 1730, van Meytens was appointed director of Vienna's Fine Arts Academy.
Sculptors also made their contribution to the baroque style. Georg Raphael Donner (1693-1741) is best known for the remarkable life-size bronzes of the Fountain of Providence in the Neuer Markt. Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732) is responsible for the equestrian statues of Prince Eugene of Savoy in the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace. The famous double sarcophagus in the Kapuzinerkirche, designed for Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis Stephen, is the masterpiece of Balthasar Moll (1717-85).
Equally influential was Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1737-83), the German-trained resident of Vienna, who became famous for his portrait busts. His legacy leaves accurate and evocative representations of Maria Theresa, her son Joseph II, and other luminaries.
The Revolt from "Official Art" -- In rebellion against "official art," a school of Romantic Realist painters emerged, drawing on biblical themes and Austrian folklore. Scenes from popular operas were painted lovingly on the walls of the Vienna State Opera. The 17th-century Dutch masters influenced landscape painting.
Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865), a self-proclaimed enemy of "academic art" and an advocate of realism, created one of the best pictorial descriptions of Viennese Biedermeier society in his Wiener Zimmer (1837). More than 120 of his paintings are on display at the Upper Belvedere museum.
Another realist was Carl Moll (1861-1945), whose graceful and evocative portrayals of everyday scenes are prized today. Joseph Engelhart (1864-1941) was known for his voluptuous renderings of Belle Epoque coquettes flirting with Viennese gentlemen.
The Secessionist Movement -- Young painters, decorators, and architects from Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts founded the Secessionist Movement (Sezessionstil) in 1897. The name captures their retreat (secession) from the Künstlerhaus (Vienna Artists' Association), which they considered pompous, sanctimonious, artificial, mediocre, and mired in the historicism favored by Emperor Franz Joseph. Their artistic statement was similar to that of the Art Nouveau movement in Paris and the Jugendstil movement in Munich.
The Secessionist headquarters, on the Friedrichstrasse, at the corner of the Opernring, was inaugurated in 1898 as an exhibition space for avant-garde artists. Foremost among the group was Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), whose work developed rapidly into a highly personal and radically innovative form of decorative painting based on the sinuous curved line of Art Nouveau. His masterpieces include a mammoth frieze, 33m (110 ft.) long, encrusted with gemstones, and dedicated to Beethoven. Executed in 1902, it's one of the artistic focal points of the Secessionist Pavilion. Other pivotal works include Portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer (1907), an abstract depiction of a prominent Jewish Viennese socialite. Its gilded geometric form is reminiscent of ancient Byzantine art.
The Modern Age -- Klimt's talented disciple was Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Tormented, overly sensitive, and virtually unknown during his brief lifetime, he is now considered a modernist master whose work can stand alongside that of van Gogh and Modigliani. His works seem to dissolve the boundaries between humankind and the natural world, granting a kind of anthropomorphic humanity to landscape painting. One of his most disturbing paintings is the tormented The Family (1917), originally conceived as decoration for a mausoleum.
Modern sculpture in Vienna is inseparable from the international art trends that dominated the 20th century. Fritz Wotruba (1907-75) introduced a neo-cubist style of sculpture. Many of his sculptural theories were manifested in his Wotruba Church (Church of the Most Holy Trinity), erected toward the end of his life in Vienna's outlying 23rd District. Adorned with his sculptures and representative of his architectural theories in general, the building is an important sightseeing and spiritual attraction.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was one of Vienna's most important contemporary painters. Kokoschka expressed the frenzied psychological confusion of the years before and after World War II. His portraits of such personalities as the artist Carl Moll are bathed in psychological realism and violent emotion.
Gothic -- Although Vienna holds no remains of early medieval buildings, a number of Gothic buildings rest on older foundations. During the 1300s, ecclesiastical architecture was based on the Hallenkirche (hall church), a model that originated in Germany. These buildings featured interiors that resembled enormous hallways, with nave and aisles of the same height. The earliest example of this style was the choir added in 1295 to an older Romanesque building, the abbey church of Heiligenkreuz, 15 miles west of Vienna.
The most famous building in the Hallenkirche style was the first incarnation of St. Stephan's Cathedral. Later modifications greatly altered the details of its original construction, and today only the foundations, the main portal, and the modestly proportioned western towers remain. Much more dramatic is the cathedral's needle-shaped central spire, completed in 1433, which still soars high above Vienna's skyline. St. Stephan's triple naves, each the same height, are a distinctive feature of Austrian Gothic. Other examples of this construction can be seen in the Minorite Church and the Church of St. Augustine.
During the late 1400s, Gothic architecture retreated from the soaring proportions of the Hallenkirche style, and focus turned to more modest buildings with richly decorated interiors. Stone masons added tracery (geometric patterns) and full-rounded or low-relief sculpture to ceilings and walls. Gothic churches continued to be built in Austria until the mid-1500s.
From Gothic to Baroque -- One of the unusual aspects of Vienna is its lack of Renaissance buildings. The Turks besieged Vienna periodically from 1529 until the 1680s, forcing planners to use most of their resources to strengthen the city's fortifications.
Although Vienna itself has no Renaissance examples, Italian influences were evident for more than a century before baroque gained a true foothold. Late in the 16th century, many Italian builders settled in the regions of Tyrol, Carinthia, and Styria. In these less-threatened regions of Austria, Italian influence produced a number of country churches and civic buildings in the Renaissance style, with open porticoes, balconies, and loggias.
The Flowering of the Baroque -- The 47-year rule of Leopold I (1658-1705) witnessed the beginning of the golden age of Austrian baroque architecture. Italian-born Dominico Martinelli (1650-1718) designed the Liechtenstein Palace, built between 1694 and 1706 and inspired by the Renaissance-era Palazzo Farnese in Rome.
Austria soon began to produce its own architects. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723) trained with both Bernini and Borromini in Rome. His style was restrained but monumental, drawing richly from the great buildings of antiquity. Fischer von Erlach knew how to transform the Italianate baroque of the south into a style that suited the Viennese. His most notable work is the Karlskirche, built in 1713. He also created the original design for Maria Theresa's Schönbrunn Palace. He had planned a sort of super-Versailles, but the project turned out to be too costly. Only the entrance facade remains of Fischer von Erlach's design. The Hofbibliothek (National Library), on Josephsplatz, and the Hofstalungen are other notable buildings he designed.
Fischer von Erlach was succeeded by another great name in the history of architecture: Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745). Von Hildebrandt's design for Prince Eugene's Belvedere Palace -- a series of interlocking cubes with sloping mansard-style roofs -- is the culmination of the architectural theories initiated by Fischer von Erlach. Other von Hildebrandt designs in Vienna include the Schwarzenberg Palace (now a hotel) and St. Peter's Church.
The rococo style developed as a more ornate, somewhat fussier progression of the baroque. Gilt stucco, brightly colored frescoes, and interiors that drip with embellishments are its hallmarks. Excellent examples include the Abbey of Dürnstein (1731-35) and Melk Abbey, both in Lower Austria. One of the most powerful proponents of rococo was Maria Theresa, who used its motifs so extensively within Schönbrunn Palace during its 1744 renovation that the school of Austrian rococo is sometimes referred to as "late-baroque Theresian style."
In response to the excesses of rococo, architects eventually turned to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration. The result was a restrained neoclassicism that transformed the skyline of Vienna and lasted well into the 19th century. The dignified austerity of Vienna's Technical University is a good example.
Eclecticism & Vienna's Ring -- As Austria's wealthy bourgeoisie began to impose their tastes on public architecture, 19th-century building grew more solid and monumental. The neoclassical style remained the preferred choice for government buildings, as evidenced by Vienna's Mint and the Palace of the Provincial Government.
The 19th century's most impressive Viennese architectural achievement was the construction of the Ringstrasse (1857-91). The medieval walls were demolished, and the Ring was lined with showcase buildings. This was Emperor Franz Joseph's personal project and his greatest achievement. Architects from all over Europe answered the emperor's call, eager to seize the unprecedented opportunity to design a whole city district. Between 1850 and the official opening ceremony in 1879, the Ring's architecture became increasingly eclectic: French neo-Gothic (the Votivkirche), Flemish neo-Gothic (the Rathaus), Greek Revival (Parliament), French Renaissance (Staatsoper), and Tuscan Renaissance (Museum of Applied Arts). While the volume of traffic circling Old Vienna diminishes some of the Ring's charm, a circumnavigation of the Ring provides a panorama of eclectic yet harmonious building styles.
Secessionist & Political Architecture -- By the late 19th century, younger architects were in rebellion against the pomp and formality of older architectural styles. In 1896, young Otto Wagner (1841-1918) published a tract called Moderne Architektur, which argued for a return to more natural and functional architectural forms. The result was the establishment of Art Nouveau (Jugendstil, or, as it applies specifically to Vienna, Sezessionstil). The Vienna Secession architects reaped the benefits of the technological advances and the new building materials that became available after the Industrial Revolution. Wagner, designer of Vienna's Kirche am Steinhof and the city's Postsparkasse (Post Office Savings Bank), became a founding member of the movement.
Joseph Hoffman (1870-1955) and Adolf Loos (1870-1933) promoted the use of glass, newly developed steel alloys, and aluminum. In the process, they discarded nearly all ornamentation, a rejection that contemporary Vienna found profoundly distasteful and almost shocking. Loos was particularly critical of the buildings adorning the Ringstrasse. His most controversial design is the Michaelerplatz Building. Sometimes referred to as "the Loos House," it was erected on Michaelerplatz in 1908. The streamlined structure was bitterly criticized for its total lack of ornamentation and its similarities to the "gridwork of a sewer." According to gossip, the emperor found it so offensive that he ordered his drivers to avoid the Hofburg entrance on Michaelerplatz altogether.
Architectural philosophies were also affected during the "Red Vienna" period by the socialist reformers' desire to alleviate public housing shortages, a grinding social problem of the years between world wars. The Social Democratic Party began erecting "palaces for the people." The most obvious example is the Karl-Marx-Hof (Heiligenstadterstrasse 82-92, A-1190), which includes 1,600 apartments and stretches for more than half a mile.
To the Present Day -- After World War II, much of Vienna's resources went toward restoring older historic buildings to their prewar grandeur. New buildings were streamlined and functional; much of Vienna today features the same kind of neutral modernism you're likely to find in postwar Berlin or Frankfurt.
Postmodern masters, however, have broken the mold of the 1950s and 1960s. They include the iconoclastic mogul Hans Hollein, designer of the silvery, curved-sided Haas Haus (1990) adjacent to St. Stephan's Cathedral. The self-consciously avant-garde Friedensreich Hundertwasser is a multicolored, ecologically inspired apartment building at the corner of Löwengasse and Kegelgasse that appears to be randomly stacked.
Lately, Hermann Czech has been stirring architectural excitement, not so much by building new structures as developing daring interiors for boutiques and bistros; examples are the Kleines Café (Franziskanerplatz 3) and Restaurant Salzamt (Ruprechtsplatz 1).
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