Vienna

I’ve just returned from a few days in Vienna. My husband was busy at a data conference most of the time, so I was left to amuse myself. Where can a lone lady find both amusement and lovely chilly marble to keep one cool in 30C heat? Museums!

Along with beautiful baroque buildings, horses and carts, and cake, Vienna has an excess of museums – museums of undertaking, Esperanto, The Third Man… I didn’t make it to any of those, because I was too busy filling my brain-pan at the Museum of Globes, the Natural History Museum, the Leopold Museum of modern art. In the Kunsthistorisches Museum of fine arts, I spotted this cheeky bitch ripping off the Breughel:

Call Security!

At the Neue Berg, we saw some very impressive armour, including suits for kids:

And this chatty pair of warriors:

And this show-off:

To counterbalance its surfeit of art and culture, Vienna has the grossest museums I’ve ever been to. We made the mistake of visiting the Josephinium straight after breakfast. It houses a collection of surgical waxworks, showing off the human body at various stages of peelage – like Bodyworlds, but for the education of 18th-century surgical students, rather than to garner attention for Gunter von Hagens. They also exhibit historic surgical implements, and if anything is likely to kill any false nostalgia for an era prior to living memory, it’s a pair of bent 2-foot scissors with little jaws on the ends. Hooray for anaesthesia!

You would think this would be enough grimness for one holiday. We proved you right, because on the following day we went to the Museum of Pathology. There are two things to be thankful for: 1. we went before breakfast; 2. they don’t allow photography. Because of the latter, you’ll have to use your imagination to picture the pickled foetal conjoined twins, the numerous waxworks of scabied vulvas, the indeterminate lumps of diseased organs in jars. I wish we had used our imagination and not our eyes. Though frankly I could live quite happily without imagining any of it either.

Eventually, I found the place where Vienna’s dual interests of high art and body horror meet: the Kunsthalle contemporary art gallery, where there was an exhibition of surrealism. “What’s so gross-out about surrealism?” you cry. “Salvador Dalí – it’s just perfectly harmless bad jokes.” True. I never realised when I was a teenager who loved the surrealists, but good grief, the jokes are bad!

Anyway, on the floor above the disappointing Dalí, there was an exhibition devoted to the Czech artist and film-maker Jan Švankmajer. Ten years ago, early in our courtship, my husband and I went to a late-night screening of his version of Alice in Wonderland. Having been told only that we were seeing an animated Alice in Wonderland, I was expecting something fantastical and pretty, not expecting 90 minutes of dancing meat and skeletons laying eggs.

Those, and vomiting, seem to be some of Švankmajer’s favourite subjects; yet over the course of the Viennese exhibition, I found myself not only forgiving him for my disgruntling date in 2001, but even warming to his rather revolting aesthetic. I still can’t work up any enthusiasm for skeletons laying eggs, but couldn’t help but find him endearing. A documentary was playing, following him and his wife Eva, herself an artist and ceramicist, as they prepared for a retrospective exhibition of their work. She was trying to arrange a dozen vases, half of which had penises, the other half vagina-shaped holes, so that each penis-vase was penetrating a vagina-vase, but she couldn’t get the configuration right. Jan came over to help her, picking up vases and moving them around. “Don’t touch that, you’ll break it!” she shrieked, an ordinary domestic reprimand in a scene full of pottery penises.

Here’s some nice Švankmajer for you:

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