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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Altneu (Old-New)

Updated: May 25, 2023

The theme of this post was inspired by our students, whose final project was to create a collage connecting their experiences abroad in Vienna and Prague to the musical culture at the course's core.

In certain cities around the world, it's impossible to miss the juxtapositions of old and new. Prague and Vienna are two clear examples, with medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture "side by side by side" with modern examples from the late-19th c. to the early 21st c.

Artists like Käthe Kollwitz juxtapose these polarities. The bronze Pieta in the background below depicts a mother holding the corpse of her son, a victim of indiscriminating world-war. It shares its titular subject with Michelangelo's Renaissance marbles, showing Mary holding her dead son, Jesus. Kollwitz's "Mother Tower" (Mutterthurm) is a powerful illustration of human indomitability via the universal imagery of protective mothers.

Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945): Mutterthurm (front) and Pietá

A group of concerned mothers appears in much different guise 350 years earlier in Pieter Bruegel, the Elder's "Children at Play." The canvas represents an unprecedented encyclopedia of people and play. Over 230 children play nearly 90 games in this scene. Reading the painting is a game of itself...

Bruegel (Sr): Children at Play, detail with Mothers

Another Altneu artistic juxtaposition is found in the Leopold Museum's galleries charting fin-de-siècle (turn-of-the-century) artistic currents. Johannes Brahms (op 117, n. 2 autograph, below) died the day the Secession movement was launched in 1897. Out with the old / In with the new...

Autograph score of Brahms' op. 117, n. 2

Leopold Museum "wall of fame" with Secession Museum model (foreground)

The Secession Museum model is in the foreground of a 3-dozen-plus "wall of fame" featuring contemporary artists and intellectuals. For European culture & art-loving nerds like myself, this is one version of heaven, highlighting one of the most creative generations in Western history. Full Stop.

The "Great Room" of the Musikverein, a classical musical temple

19th c. architecture reflects our theme: the Romanesque Musikverein is home of the Vienna Philharmonic, whose burnished sound is gold as the interior of its house. It sits next to the Albertina Modern museum. Below is Prague's famous "Dancing Building," conjoined to the city's Vienna-inspired architecture (they were twin seats of the Holy Roman Empire). "Old" medieval Gothic is revived in "new" 18th c. Baroque; the ancient world is mirrored in the neo-classical Romanesque...

Prague Spring Night, with Dancing Building, May 2023

The Musikverein's neo-classical facade is inscribed with its title below the tympanum, The Association of Friends of Music."

Altneu is never more foregrounded than in the museum world, where new artist re-voice old themes, like Anselm Kiefer's Post-Expressionist-"Primitivist" canvases on ancient themes, like the Golden Fleece. The visceral impasto textures of the title object are clear in the detail, second below.

Anselm Kiefer: The Golden Fleece (Leopold Museum, Vienna)

Kiefer: Golden Fleece (impasto detail)

Below is the interior of the Staatsoper, imposing symbol of Vienna's cultural weight class. Bombed by the Allies in WWII (it was mistaken for one of the primary train stations), the opulent building was newly restored. Below the image of the rococo interior of the State Opera is a set design for a little-known Baroque opera on Dionysus and Herakles.

Pre-curtain at the Vienna Staatsoper, Spring 2023

From the Lobkowicz Palace museum music galleries

The genre of Landscape painting is foundational to the medium. Richard Gerstl brief and tumultuous life is easily compared to his dramatically compressed landscapes. The influence of Van Gogh and post-impressionism inform his signature version of vibrantly textured expressionist paintings.

Richard Gerstl (1883-1908), Landscape

Richard Gerstl landscape, detail of impasto technique

Below is series of old-new portraits from two of Vienna's "Museum Quarter" landmarks, the "old masters" treasure vault, Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM, or Historical Art Musuem). The "new" is across the street in the Austrian expressionist-themed Leopold Museum.

Tintoretto's "Old Man with the White Beard" looks at us from the KHM in galleries which are currently housing a Georg Baselitz retrospective. Featuring his trademark inverted figures amidst a meta-artist world, Self Portrait from "Yellow series III" is one of several playful nods to Picasso.

Tintoretto: Old Man with a White Beard, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Georg Baselitz, "Self-portrait (from Yellow Period 3)"

Below is one of several Vermeer portraits embodying the ekphrastic* work (*a greek word used for the evergreen practice practice of creating "art about art.") Egon Schiele's self-referential Selbstbildnis claims its own dynamic space within a crowded genre. Before his and his entire family's early death from the Spanish Flu in 1918, Schiele portrayed the human face, limbs and body in graphically expressive, unnerving, and viscerally alive portraits. His landscapes display only bodies of water and architectural constructions. The elements and habitations are entirely unpopulated by human bodies...

Vermeer: The Art of Painting

Egon Schiele (1890-2018), Self-portrait, with face turned out

Now regarded as one of the finest artists of his generation, Schiele lived in relative poverty. The detail from one of his Vltava River Landscapes (outside Prague) show the seam where he improvised a solution by sewing parts of two canvases together.

Detail from Schiele's cityscape with the split seam, showing where the impoverished artist sewed two canvases together

Pargmigianino's remarkable miniature "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is so randomly placed in the KHM, it took two museum guards to help me find it! John Ashbery introduces the artist in one of his collection's eponymous title poem: "...the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises."

Parmigianino: Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c.1524)

Oskar Kokoschka's "Self-portrait with hand at face" is manually foregrounded, the hand an active participant in performing its subject's apparently ängstlich state. What is being advertised or protected here? In the adjoining gallery, an altogether different portrait is on display: a life-size fetish doll based on his ex-lover, Alma Mahler Werfel...

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980): Self-portrait with hand touching face

Old and New uses of the color red follow below: Arcimboldo's 16th c. esoteric imagination is literally ablaze in his composite head, Fire. Salvatore Rosa's newly rediscovered and refurbished epic 18th c. "Large Calvary Battle is a brazenly realistic depiction of war's indiscriminate violence. This action picture's pace is non-stop. See a soldier caught in painting's act, writing the artist's signature in blood.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c.1526-1593): Fire (oil on canvas)

Salvatore Rosa, "The Large Cavalry Battle" (detail with artist signature in blood)

Baselitz is forthcoming on his long-term collaboration with his wife and creative partner, Elke. They appear nude together in all manner of post-expressionist canvases. Below, the abstract impasto texture recalls coagulated blood, and the vermillion portrait explodes with human sexuality...

Beorg Baselitz, Vermilion painting, impasto detail

Old and New meet in all genres of musical architecture: from the medieval moorish style of Prague's newly renovated Jerusalem Synagogue, with its refurbished 18th c. organ, to the opulent, palatial corridors inside the Wiener Staatsoper.

Prague's newly renovated Jerusalem Synagogue, with its 18th c. organ

Just another pre-show/intermission bar at the Staatsoper

Below is the elegant rococo interior of the Estates Theatre, Prague. The drawing second below is from the period following Mozart's Prague premiere of Don Giovanni. We saw an entertaining and compelling new production of the opera in the refurbished theatre where it began its 235-yr. life...

Inside Prague's Estates Theatre, where Don Giovanni premiered in 1787

The Estates Theatre (Prague, early 19th c.)

The Imperial neo-classical 19th c. interior of the Vienna State Opera is regularly contrasted with colorful updated productions, like the Mahler staging below. Von der Liebe Tod was a newly fashioned collage of two Mahler concert works. Translated either as "Of the Death of Love" or literally, "Of the Love Death" it was a fascinating pairing of the early Mahler cantata, Das Klagende Lied with the haunting song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder. Their shared theme concerns the death of young children. Mythic, poetic, and biographical grief are in textual and musical counterpoint. The cleaving violence of lost innocence, the tragedy of "life cut short," is a voice of pain wrung across Mahler's entire life and work...

An image from the final scene of Calixto Bieito's production of a Mahler collage, here called "Von der Liebe Tod"

Mahler portrait in Mahler Saal, Wiener Staatsoper (Mahler Room, Vienna State Opera)

... and what life and work is collectively present in these culture capitals! Old and new coexist, reinterpret one another and offer us mirrors to better behold the multitudes within each of us.

PS: Dear class: If I'm not too late to submit some extra credit, here are a few more pairings, followed by a draft of an original poem inspired by our Spring Term abroad course.

  1. Beethoven Haus and Museum, Heiligenstadt: in a meta exhibition, we can experience a re-creation of a hearing device like one Beethoven experimented with. His innovation in tech fields - hearing devices, time-keeping devices like the metronome, and the development of the modern piano - was unprecedented for a musician.

  2. The Academy of Fine Art: the classic artistic "Academy" Museum (see Mike Leigh's film, "Mr Turner" you can start with the clip from the academy scene). The Secession museum - whose name comes from their sharp break with the Academy - was built conspicuously next door, stealing focus from the older and more traditional institution.

  3. Tintoretto's "Man with the White Beard" (above) and Thomas Bernhard's classic satirical polemic, Old Masters. In addition to being the novel's cover art, the remarkable Tintoretto portrait in its KHM gallery serves as meeting point for the protagonist and his double. Be sure to read the rant against Austrian art school teachers who "stamp out any interest in art their students naturally had..."

  4. Bernhard's contemporary, Ingeborg Bachmann was a feminist critic of 20th c. Austrian society. An exhibit at the Literary Museum in the Grillparzer House features Bachmann's work and a life cut short by tragedy (she died from burns suffered from a fire caused by a cigarette). She was from Klagenfurt, an idyllic alpine town on the Wörthersee. Schiele is another artist form the lake-side town. Mahler built a small composing hut in the woods between his home and the lake. He composed several important works over the summers spent there. The Literary Museum's namesake, Franz Grillparzer (1791 - 1872), a contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert, was a leading playwright of the 19th c.

Here is a draft of a new poem, a short lyric with 11 eleven-syllable lines, currently titled:

Virgin Holy Grail

What fathom of the Wörthersee lies beyond

this viola solo unravelling like

Ariadne’s slaying thread-spool as Celan on

meds just one degree more lucid. O Alma!

Posthorn. Waldhorn. Flügel horn. French horn. Jäger.

Death is a Wiener from Österreich singing

“all over all…” beautiful love-life-drunk world

must keep marching over hill over war all

carnage must be in time lost utterly the

flute obligato after second theme group

“did you name your drink a virgin holy grail?”

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