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Vienna’s museums calling: Two, one, zero, der Alarm ist rot – Wien in Not!

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

MAK - Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art

For anyone remotely interested in modern art, what was originally modelled after the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, i.e. the MAK - Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art is a must-see institution to sate architectural, design and contemporary art related appetites. With its collection centred around exhibiting furniture, glassware, ceramics, textiles, design and jewellery, highlights include but are not limited to the Wiener Werkstätte archives and objects by Lucien Gaillard, Josef Hoffmann and James Turrell.

What makes the MAK ( ) stand out is its idiosyncratic way of marrying the past with the future via an expertly curated collections, which are housed in expansive exhibition halls.

Further nuanced by themed special exhibitions and discourse-centred events, which form an integral part of its offerings, the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts proves to be current and relevant to the public in all its endeavours.


Not far from the MAK, another leading art museum of Austria has found its incarnation in two locations: Geared towards creating and offering sensory and intellectual experiences of art, the Albertina museum has established itself deliberately as what could be perceived to be a Janus-faced institution: On one end of the spectrum, renovated and authentically re-furnished staterooms stand for the princely lifestyle once maintained at the former Habsburg residence the Albertina has taken over, while the large-scale temporary exhibitions plus its permanent presentation of modernist and contemporary paintings attest to its character as a thoroughly modern museum.

It is through its extraordinary programming centering around both great masters of art history as well as current and emerging talent and the fact that they are further substantiated and accompanied by multilingual outreach work geared to people of all educational backgrounds and ages, that it ranks high on international terrain in the realm of graphic arts.

Further enhanced by Albertina’s inherent ambition to break new scholarly ground with the accompanying research they do and the recognition of the arts’ indivisibility, drawings are proactively examined in combination with the artworks with which they are directly related. Personal favourites include the Albertina’s ( ) Photographic and Batliner Collections, the later of which are comprised of paintings rooted in French impressionism and span a period reaching to Picasso’s emissions, thereby setting a nice counterpoint to the museum’s Graphic Arts Collection.

During our most recent visit to the Albertina, we had the chance to enjoy the retrospective of the history of printmaking over a period of six centuries, from Albrecht Dürer and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Kiki Smith, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Damien Hirst, which is split across both the Albertina’s locations and completed by one dedicated solely to the most important printmaker of the 20th century, i.e. Picasso.

Needless to say, personal highlights included representation of Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, and most importantly, Anselm Kiefer.

Belvedere Museum

Another pivotal institution that due to its preservation of heritage and embrace of the contemporary ranks high amongst the world’s leading and long established museum is the Baroque jewel and World Heritage Site that is Vienna’s Belvedere.

Juggling the status of being an Austrian landmark that the site of the Austrian State Treaty and its ambition to evolve amidst differing priorities of cultural and scientific demands, loyalty to the local community and tourism, the Belvedere perceives itself as a mediator of history and as an inconvenient interrogator of the present.

While lesser institutions might find themselves struggling with the at times conflicting priorities, being independent and letting the path into the future be inspired by the past and perceiving itself to be both a learning and teaching organisation, the Belvedere manages to maintain its position as a point of reference in a more often than not disorienting present.

Needless to say that the Belvedere’s grandiose location and the estate it is situated in, it could be perceived to be an elitist exercise in luxury that remains inaccessible and thereby unappealing by commoners.

The opposite is the case: Informed by the belief that the Belvedere ( ) is a place of engagement, it makes a concerted effort to cater and make itself approachable to a broad, diverse public by communicating in a credible, understandable, and interactive way, addressing real-life topics and current issues, thereby bringing historical art into the present by recognizing and conveying each work as an expression of an astute and creative contemporaneity.

Taking the aforementioned into consideration, the presentation of the collection looks beyond a purely stylistic history of art to focus on the interactions between art and society, with influences derived from social-political contexts, the impact of internationalisation, migration and economic factors thereby enabling for the artistic production to reflect the respective complexity of its time.

Leopold Museum

Serving as a backdrop to some of the most important collections of Austrian art along with over six thousand other exhibits, Leopold Museum’s ( ) focus is firmly set on the second half of the nineteenth century and the emerging stream of Modernism, which allows insights from the Biedermeier period via Atmospheric Impressionism, Expressionism to New Objectivity.

Based on the collecting activities of Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold, two ophthalmologists who as seasoned connoisseurs amassed a unique collection over the course of five decades, beginning in the 1950s, the collection includes an unrivalled comprehensive selection of artists whose oeuvre were considered taboo during their timely context, such as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.

Apart from the aforementioned artists, a Leopold-centric highlight is The Würth Collection, which spans across two exhibition levels and unites works from Classical Modernism to contemporary art and thus allows for a unique journey through hundreds of years of art history.

While the floor dedicated to Classical Modernism with entire rooms being dedicated to the likes of Max Beckmann and Pablo Picasso, what excited me most was the Würth’s Collection second level focussing on contemporary art, featuring works by Gerhard Richter, rarely seen artefacts from the artist couple Christo and Jeanne Claude, as well as Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, who is represented with some of his finer recent creations.

Kunsthistorisches Museum (“Museum of Art History”)

Talking of Georg Baselitz – while the Leopold Museum gave a taste of Baselitz’ significance, the Kunsthistorisches Museum’ Baselitz- Naked Masters exhibition sees the artist actively enter into a visual dialogue with the Old Masters.

Having selected the respective seventy-five works himself and with the theme of the exhibition being the elementary human condition, Baselitz’ paintings are juxtaposed, framed, accentuated and at times complemented by forty paintings from the Picture Gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum ( ), the total of which focus entirely on the nude, the naked figure.

Given the festive palatial building on the Vienna Ring Road, with the location of its two grand renaissance facaded locations situated directly across Maria-Theresien Platz and being crowned with an octagonal dome, it should not prove to be wondrous that the museum’s focus on art history is more than mere lip service as it inherently applies to both the institution and the lavishly decorated interiors of the main building, which is given further credibility by the fact that it was initially chosen to be a suitable home for the Habsburgs' formidable art collection to be made accessible to the general public.

With its primary collections focussed on those of the Habsburgs, a never not breath-taking sight is the grand stairway featuring paintings by Gustav Klimt, Ernst Klimt, Franz Matsch, Hans Makart and Mihály Munkácsy.

We highly recommend that you prime yourself for your visit by viewing The museum Johannes Holzhausen's documentary film The Great Museum, which was filmed over two years in the run up to the re-opening of the Leopold’s newly renovated and expanded Kunstkammer rooms in 2013.

Schönbrunn Palace

Let’s allow for this article to culminate with one of the most important cultural monuments not merely within the confines of Austria but one that ranks in terms of splendour on par with European palaces like Versailles, albeit being smaller in scale: Schönbrunn Palace ( ) in the southwest of Vienna’s city limits was originally incepted to be an imperial hunting lodge and summer resort Emperor Leopold I commissioned the Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach to create as the seventeenth century drew to a close, before it evolved into the palatial imperial residence over the course of the eighteenth century that it is still heralded for today.

With close to extremely elegantly decorated 1500 rooms, 40 of which are open to the public, the attention to detail paid to the coordination of interior design approaches, influences of which range from the oriental to elaborate ceramic wall inlays. Private chambers are complemented by restaurants, lavishly adorned ballrooms and a Hall of Mirrors, which is fabled to be the place where a young Mozart serenaded Empress Maria Theresa.

What constituted the pinnacle of luxury for the Habsburgs, radiates with its striking yellow hue across an expansive area comprised of impressively kept and tended to impeccable gardens with flower beds informed by rigorous symmetry and trimmed tree walls that serve as the home for 44 characters from Greek mythology, a man-made Roman ruin, a rock mounted obelisk, a zoo, a sculpted marble fountain and the wonderful baroque summer house reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, which is situated on a grass-covered hill, thereby offering one of the most breath-taking panoramic views over Vienna one could hope to indulge in.


Words by AW.

Photos courtesy of the respective institutions.


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