Vienna – An Abysmal Beauty


As is normal in the beautiful abyss that is Vienna and Austria, the first week of January offered up the pleasure of not one, but two public holidays: New Year’s Day and, on the 6th, Heilige Drei Könige (or Epiphany). Social commentators, business leaders and advocates of the Protestant work ethic (it never really took off here) were unanimous in their opinion that the peoples of Austria were clearly in need of more recreation, coming so soon as it did after the extended Christmas break and all its biscuits.

Unfortunately, the second holiday fell on a Saturday. A public holiday on a day when most people normally don’t work leaves one with a lingering sense of sadness, especially if you haven’t worked out what to do if the shops are closed (blame the Papacy). But it also played havoc with the planning of holidays amongst “employees and workers” who go to great lengths to leverage their time off efficiently around the infamous Fenstertag (this is where a working day is sandwiched between a public holiday and a weekend day and can be translated into English as “window” or “bridge day”).

As national sports go, arranging your holidays in Austria sits just behind alpine skiing and counting down the days to your pension. However, if like me, you are a veteran of the self-employed merry-go-round, “window days” can be a blessing or a curse. Especially it you still suffer the embarrassment of necessity where a shortened week, straight after New Year or not, contributes very little to your efforts to swell your bank balance to reconcile consumptive needs and the constant nuisance of the taxman and their cousins over at the social insurance Ponzi scheme.

As such, and with surprising zeal, the working year began with an early flourish. And in spite of the old British passport coloured mornings, which I find exceptional for the silence which usually ensues, the first week of January in Vienna is a fine time to resume the activity I call work. Many people are still away and the schools are closed. This means the mean streets are hushed (the inner districts are like ghost towns), public transport is a breeze and everybody is, uncharacteristically, relaxed.

Having said that, the city – by this I mean the Innere Stadt – was still bustling with tourists, obviously heeding my advice last year that the best time to visit Vienna is sometime between January and March. Not surprising, then, that Vienna and Austria are expected to announce record years for tourism in 2017, measured in something called “over-night stays”. In Vienna it should exceed the 15 million mark and for Austria as a whole, 143 million. (Just for context, in 2007 the year before the global financial crisis, the number was 120 million.). Whatever you think about tourism, or too much of it, this will be considered a triumph.

But what can we expect from the number one city in 2018? Well, this year’s motto is “Beauty and the Abyss”. My initial thought was that I had no idea they were dedicating 2018 to my life. (My second thought was that Beauty and the Abyss referred to the new coalition government of Sebastian Kurz and Heinz Baked Beans Strache). In any case, 2018 is all about culture, specifically modernism, and will commemorate the contribution of the famous boy band of Gustav, Otto, Egon and the other guy at the back, Koloman, who all died 100 years ago this year. Needless to say, they make a valuable contribution to the tourist coffers of 21st century Vienna, so who were they?

First, we have Klimt (Gustav) Austria’s most celebrated painter, who did a few sketches and painted the celebrated “Kiss” displayed in the Schloss Belvedere. The museum housed in the palace is currently promoting the works of Klimt with the slightly clunky, perhaps misguided choice of words in these post-Weinstein times, with the tagline of “Come for a kiss”. Whether or not you are tempted by the tantalising prospect of a visual smooch, all I can say is do not watch the biopic about Klimt’s life starring John Malkovic. It is henious.

Second, there is Wagner (Otto), arguably Vienna’s most famous modernist architect or indeed any architect if you exclude Hundertwasser and his antipathy towards straight lines. Wagner’s legacy of art nouveau – the Viennese version – is dotted all around the city although my favourite remains his villa out in Hütteldorf, which you can reach using the tram number 49 (and then walk up the hill).

Then there is Schiele (Otto), another painter, who was heavily influenced by Klimt and famous for his depictions of the human body which he took, to quote the Viennese Tourist Board, “to an almost ecstatic and demonic level” (no doubt fuelled by early versions of Red Bull). You can find pieces of his work down at the Leopold Museum bought by the Leopold family when the works of Schiele were worth about as much as crypto-currency next week.

And finally, Moser (Koloman), a key founder of the “Wiener Werkstätte”, a collection of artists, designers, architects and early pioneers in modern design. Moser was apparently the world’s first graphic designer and was an integral partner in the projects of Otto Wagner and his fabulous buildings (he did windows, fixtures, tiled the toilets, that kind of thing).

Of course, for real pop stars, rather than artistic and architectural masters, 2018 is also the year which sees the twentieth anniversary of the death of Hans Hözel (Falco), who came to an untimely end on the island of the Dominican Republic after crashing his car in 1998. Poor little Austria doesn’t produce many lasting pop icons (not the ones anyone would want to listen to a second time unless you had been drinking and are sitting on a wooden bench in a large tent) and so Falco continues to be endowed with a certain mythological status permanently embedded, it seems, in local cultural consciousness with his string of unforgettable hits (go on, name another).

However, one song stands above all others: “Rock Me Amadeus”. Not only did he top the American charts in 1986 – singing in German, the first to do so – but he also reached number six in the Billboard Top R & B Charts (then called the “Black Singles Chart”). This was significant, writes Harald Havis in his book Weird Vienna, because it was extremely rare for a non-black artist and, more weirdly, a European to do so (only Blondie before and later Eminem have reached such similar heights.)

Tempting as it is to assume Vienna is all about culture, there are, of course, other pressing matters that the capital and the country will entertain in the coming year. We have a new government to look forward to which is always fun; a coalition of the great and the goons who are already causing quiet disquiet with their recent proclamations concerning the housing of asylum seekers.

In short, the new Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (Freedom Party) caused a bit of a furore with his call for migrants to be “concentrated” in camps on the rim of Vienna. Combining the words camp and concentration in one sentence takes some nerve, given Austria’s history. But in spite of being heavily criticised, Kickl – a man with the look of someone who has recently been informed that his sole reason to exist is to be chained to a wall and have his peachy cheeks caressed by a leather-clad biker – claimed it was simply a semantic misunderstanding (a versatile excuse which I shall be using in all dealings with the authorities, tax office and any police officer deserving some cheeky comment) and brushed it off with the usual superciliousness of the extreme. However, if he is so keen to house asylum seekers on the rim of the capital, then it is now time for Herbert to show his true commitment to the welfare of his fellow citizens. So I suggest his home town of Villach in Carinthia, about 400 km from Vienna. Preferably next to his parents’ house.

Across the political spectrum over at the town hall, the doppelganger mayor of Trumpton is finally calling it a day and retiring fulltime to the Heuriger. But like an ageing alpha male in a troupe of large primates, incumbent Michael Häupl is not leaving without first “appointing” his successor. Call me old-fashioned with a non-Putin interpretation of what it means to live in a democracy, but I always thought we were supposed to elect our public officials, even me, disenfranchised to the last. Anyhow, front runners are Michael Ludwig, the current city housing chief, and Andreas Schieder the SPÖ Klubchef (basically Socialist Party Chairman). Both are party apparatchiks, old faces, with the emphasis on not especially neu. The name of ex-Chancellor, Christian Kern, defeated in the general election last October, has also popped up in some quarters and the smart money (gold, silver and tulips) is on him. Personally, I would have welcomed a newer visage. I shall try and raise this issue at my local SPÖ monthly meeting although I fear I shall be looked at with puzzlement, offered another placatory beer and then ignored.

Also, it will be 100 years since the founding of the first Austrian republic after the crushing and humiliating defeat of World War One in 1918 and the eventual abdication of last Kaiser, Karl. After much dithering, caused by a misreading of a growing shitstorm on social media (hasthtag – letkarleatcake) he dutifully retired, serendipitously as it turned out, to the island of Maderia, where he lived out his days boring locals and other wealthy expats with his extravagant tales of once being the undisputed Emperor of one of Europe’s most powerful continental dynasties.

It is worth noting, of course, that the establishment of a republic was almost inevitable after the territorial losses post-armistice (especially in Italy), more so with the honour and standing of the Monarchy fatally weakened and with the rest of the world muttering that they never really liked the Habsburgs anyway. But this was no revolution in the conventional sense. We know this because in his book, The Austrians, Gordon Brook Shepherd notes there were no anti-monarchist street gestures in spite of the fact there was looting and mob demonstrations. In fact, as he writes:

“Not a single government ministry or building was stormed. Indeed, not as much as a brick was hurled through any imperial window. Nobody was murdered in their home […] Nobody was shot on the streets. There were no barricades. The ‘revolution’ was popular mood, not a popular movement.”

How very, very Austrian.

We shall undoubtedly return to some or all of these themes in the coming months but until then there is one anecdote worth repeating which captures beautifully the “decorous nature of this transition from Monarchy to republic” and the Austrian way of revolutionary fanaticism. It concerns one Prince Francis Liechtenstein, one of the “pillars of the fallen order”, who, in the early hours of the new republic, apparently strolled into his Vienna haberdashers to buy a new pair of gloves (I still do this). Courteously directed to the door by the assistant, he was told: “No, Your Highness, please call again tomorrow. Today is revolution day!”


© 2018 RJ Barratt