The world of yesterday

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 60

Lucinda Bredin explores a Vienna redolent of lost imperial glory.

"We failed," wrote Stefan Zweig in 1942, "to see the writing on the wall in letters of fire." His haunting elegy, The World of Yesterday – a masterpiece of 20th-century literature – evokes fin-de-siècle Vienna with yearning. It was Zweig's vision of Vienna that Wes Anderson drew upon in his 2014 film, The Grand Budapest Hotel , to confect an imaginary Mitteleuropa. His vision was so seductive that, as well as burnishing Anderson's reputation, it revitalised Zweig's status, perhaps even that of Vienna itself.

Walking through the Baroque streetscapes of the former imperial capital today, every step is haunted by a sense of this irrevocable cleaving from the past. By the time Zweig committed suicide in 1942 – the day after he handed in the manuscript for his memoir – the city had fallen from capital of a pan-European empire to a provincial German city. At its peak, Vienna presided over some 50 million souls and all or part of what we now call Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

The cafés and concert halls of present-day Vienna still may still hint at the languid daily routines of an empire dedicated to unchanging order but they are also physical monuments to the radicalism that once pulsed through the capital – and which is still being given voice by some of the city's most august imperial institutions.

In 2018, Anderson returned to his theme, curating the extraordinary show Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures at the Kunsthistorisches Museum on the city's Ringstrasse. In this ground-breaking show (which runs until 28 April), Anderson explores the spectacular breadth and depth of the museum's collections, incorporating everything from a necklace of ceramic beads strung together in ancient Egypt to a wooden monkey carved in Indonesia almost 5,000 years later. The museum also holds the art treasures of the Habsburgs: the world's largest Bruegel collection, Raphael's Madonna in the Meadow, the Infanta paintings by Velázquez, plus work by Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian and Tintoretto. The Kunsthistoriches is not just an expression of the glory days of the Habsburgs, but of a world that aspired to present all that was fit to know in a series of galleries.

Opposite the museum is a building that is its mirror-image: the astonishing Natural History Museum, which is virtually unchanged since it was opened by Emperor Franz Josef in 1891. With its enfilade of rooms, containing stuffed animals and other specimens in glass cases (there are nine rooms of geological rocks alone), it was once revolutionary in the way it presented its collections scientifically rather than by the Wunderkammer method. For maximum effect, I recommend walking through every room, making sure not to miss the Venus of Willendorf. Only 11cm tall, this small statue, carved between 24,000 and 22,000 years BC, with coiled hair, swollen breasts and stomach, is perhaps a fertility offering. Giving a palpable sense of the simple humanity of our forebears, it sits at odds with the grandiloquent surroundings.

The city has always been about status, about theatricality, but it was also one of the most radical places in the world. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a crucible of science, art and politics. In the city's famous Café Central, on any given day, you might share a coffee with Freud, Kokoschka, Klimt, Lenin, Schoenberg or Adolf Loos. The city was, as Zweig put it, a "rigid militaristic society... full of dangerously infectious eroticism".
Few artists captured this better than Egon Schiele, who studied, died, and in between produced some of his best works in the imperial capital. The Leopold Museum holds the world's most important Schiele collection. This is part of the city's innovative Museum Quarter, where the former imperial stables have been transformed – costing €150m – into an ensemble of museums, including MUMOK, the Museum of Modern Art.

One of the best ways to understand Vienna is to follow the Ringstrasse. This monumental boulevard girdles the old town, lurching from Classical to Gothic, High Baroque, decorative Jugendstil and then the unclassifiable Hundertwasser House, a flight of utopian fantasy from the 1980s. One of the most remarkable buildings is the MAK, a Neo-Renaissance treasure box, modelled on the V&A, which includes Gustav Klimt's gilded design for the frieze of the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. For more Klimt – without having to deal with the crowds gawping at The Kiss in the Belvedere – visit the Secession Building, created as a manifesto for that quintessentially Viennese movement, to see the superb Beethoven Frieze.

When war – precipitated by an act of terrorism by Serbian nationalists – broke out in 1914, this brittle confection fell to pieces in the face of riots, assassinations and the inflammatory rhetoric of assorted demagogues. By Armistice Day, the serene confidence and prosperity of central Europe had turned to despair. "Austro-Hungary is no more," wrote Freud. "I do not want to live anywhere else... I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole". In Vienna, the greatest pleasure is the ease with which that whole can be brought back to mind.

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

For access to most of the city's museums, see; for a travelcard covering trams and trains, see

Where to eat:

According to essayist and gourmet Joseph Wechsberg, "In Vienna, someone who couldn't talk learnedly about at least a dozen cuts of boiled beef didn't belong, no matter how much money they made or which title the Kaiser had given them..." For the Viennese, Tafelspitz is the true taste of the city and Plachutta Wollzeile, less than 200 yards from the MAK, the place to eat it. If you want to go all out on the Viennese cuisine, then schnitzel is another must. Although every restaurant in the city serves the dish, Figlmüller, founded more than 110 years ago, is justifiably the most famous. For fine dining, head to Konstantin Filippou also in the Museum Quarter. This Michelin-starred 35-seat restaurant offers an idiosyncratic blend of Austrian and Mediterranean influences. If Old World elegance is more your style, make reservations for afternoon tea at Demel, in the Kohlmarkt. Alternatively, a trip to Ramasuri gives a glimpse of the new, hip Vienna. It offers impeccably fresh, locally sourced dishes to a fashionable crowd. The Adolf Loos-designed American Bar (below), off the Kärntnerstrasse, is a haven for lovers of architecture, art – and industrial-strength cocktails.

Where to stay:

Anyone who has ever struggled to understand the minute gradations in the titles of the nobility in fin-de-siècle Habsburg Empire understands that the Austrians love hierarchy, and when it comes to Viennese hotels the opulent Hotel Sacher sits firmly at the top of the heap. Set in the heart of the city, behind the Vienna State Opera House and adjacent to the Albertina Museum, this palatial hotel has the distinction of selling the 'original' Sachertorte, a right won after a bitter ten-year legal battle with Demel. For a more contemporary take on the Austrian capital, book a suite in the DO & CO Hotel in the shimmering, postmodern Haas Haus, which enjoys front-row views of St Stephen's Cathedral, and has an excellent bar, Onyx. Finally, sharing the same square as the Sacher Hotel, Das Triest was refurbished by Terence Conran in the 1990s. It remains a benchmark, even in a city where chic décor and impeccable service are always the fashion. L.B.

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