Holidays in the sun 

Have mercy on me, dear reader, for I spent most of today in irons (have I mentioned my hotel used to be a prison?)

I spent hours in irons. But not shackles. Rather, I surrounded myself with Iron, bronze, silver, and marble, too. I made a visit to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology my first order of business, thinking I’d spend an hour, perhaps 90 minutes there, before revisiting Tokapi Sarayi and the Aya Sofia, maybe pay a visit to that doge interred on the upper gallery. Best laid plans, and all that.


Founded in the latter half of the 19th century to house a number of the palace’s growing collection of sarcophagi, the collection currently spans four buildings, with a prodigious amount of exhibits off limits while engineers shore up the main building against seismic activity.
Given the utterly overwhelming volume of artifacts I saw, I decided to pinpoint three areas where I felt the museum excelled. I qualify that by pointing out this museum doesn’t do anything badly or even merely competently. The labels could benefit from some proofreading, but that detail doesn’t detract from the scholarship, the choice of items on display, or the superb framework the curatorial text lays out for visitors.


I was most interested in two areas when I started exploring — the local Chalcedon Culture that began roughly concurrently with the Hellenic city of Byzantium and pre-Persian (or Parthian) inhabitants, of the region around the Sea of Marmara.
The Chalcedonian aspect of my curiosity they handle extraordinarily well because there’s so much archaeological material right here in town. Since the Chalcedon culture was firmly entrenched from the sixth century before the common era (bce) in the areas between Uskudar and Karakoy on the Asian side, digging the subway endured a wealth of artifacts. 

They coyly hint at the uncertainty of the etymology for the culture, but one can discern that whoever wrote the text sided with the account that the Persian warrior King that defeated both them and Byzantium called their kingdom the land of the blind, joking you’d have to be blind to choose to live anywhere but the promontory currently occupied by the Topkapi Sarayi and the archaeological museum, among other highlights.

Given Istanbul’s location and the trade advantages its position between the Bosphorous and (some ways to the west) Dardanelles, the city has been a sort of grand central station to the Hittites, the Phrygians, and countless others, so my interest in preparthian history is very well served by this museum.


What I didn’t know was that at some point in Istanbul’s inhabited history, both the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea had been fresh water 

That must have complicated trade a little bit, but not enough to dent the city’s trade profile. Interaction with Assyrians, Cypriots, Hellenes, and the Parthians visibly shaped what one sees in the local grave coverings, but it also adds weapons technology, additional materials (like soapstone, alabaster, and eventually marble) to the attention of local artisans. 

What I didn’t walk into the museum expecting was the superb level of granularity that the exhibit on Troy provided. I’ve seen two or three exhibits that focus on what Schliemann did and the mistakes he made (attributing jewelry to Homer’s Troy that belonged to an earlier civilization, to name one), but never have I seen an exhibit which breaks down every layer; details its population and area consumed; described burial methods; discussed their economic position; and described their relations with neighboring cultures.


If I am to be honest with you, the fact is I haven’t done this museum and its four buildings’ contents even remotely well. This complex took me the better part of four hours and I read almost every label. 

I barely scratched the surface. I doff my hat to the curators who’ve assembled this amazing treasury of glass, statuary, jewelry, ceramics, weaponry, and even the oldest love poem!

Vacation: a rose by any other name…

Today, while looking at fashion history at the MAK, I got into a conversation with a dubliner. We were comparing notes about hot fashion items through the centuries, and we chuckled over parallels between hot fashions and all the political rides on both sides of the Atlantic. 

About a decade my senior, he pointed out that referenda tend to be funny things because, insofar as they are the most direct voice of the populace, how they are pitched by their proponents makes all the difference. 

“Take last year’s same sex marriage referendum,” he exhorted. “Because someone told my fiercely religious country to think of our gay and lesbian siblings as ‘god’s children,’ the gay marriage referendum passed. By a landslide! Is there lashback? Do some people have second thoughts?

“Sure they do! But because the initial thrust was one of inclusion, those who are insecure enough to go against the tide are shamed, even by conservatives, because now they’re questioning god’s love. You don’t have to believe in God to think that’s clever.

“But,” he went on, I can’t figure out your trump, and I can’t figure out Farage. I’m worried about May. With the Brexit results and the groundswell for that mad man you’ve got, it beggars belief!  

“Your man will have walls around everything, while Theresa May will have us all Agitating for a wall to keep the republic safe from the Six Counties. I thought Boris was touched in the head, but she’s going to be trouble.”

And we talked for a good half hour before I realized the museum was closing and I hadn’t seen the carpets yet. I made my excuses and left. He wasn’t altogether gracious as I left, principally because he could tell I needed to flee his torrent of speech.

 As I took the ornate steps down, I wondered if that’s how people felt talking  to me or, more accurately, trying to get a word in edgewise. That’s when it hit me. My idea of a vacation, of necessity, entails hardly ever speaking to anyone for more than, “can I get a Diet Coke and the lamb vindaloo? Yes, very spicy, thank you.”

I get exhausted taking nonstop, but when I’m in my hometown, surrounded by folks I know, I feel this compulsion to talk. To talk at length. To talk about a number of topics. To talk aggressively and to entertain or become the center of attention wherever i am.

And it drains me. It drains those around me. It exhausts me trying to keep entertaining, and it enervates me trying to think up fresh stories, topics, or ideas. 

When you go to a country where you don’t speak or understand the language, these issues fade into nothingness. Your conversations become blissfully brief and utilitarian. You keep yourself to yourself. You don’t interpose your conversation or opinions on those around you — not in restaurants, hotels, the subway, or in museums. Because you can’t understand them, and they can’t understand you. 

Now, that’s a true vacation of the body and soul. And when you come back home? People actually seem happy to talk or listen to you again! It’s a win-win. 

Back in the saddle again (or, a tale of two visionaries)

After two days respite from museums, I felt ready to tackle a couple, albeit not as exhaustively as I had over the past week. 

I visited Kunst Haus and the MAK (Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst). The former houses a lot of the artist Hundertwasser’s paintings, maquettes, stamps, and other works, while MAK focuses on design. 

Having resolved I wouldn’t drive myself insane by trying to see every little thing, I focused on the works of Hundertwasser, but found I couldn’t read much of the things he himself wrote. 

I found myself sympathetic to his goals, desiring to replace overdevelopment with nature and restoring a, curvy, organic shapeliness to all buildings designed by people. I particularly loved his dedication to planting more trees in the cities, in houses, everywhere. 

But I realized I’d go mad if I were in a room with him — his writings and paintings betrayed a monomaniacal “true believer” vibe that I’ve found difficult to be around. I idolize woody guthrie and Susan b Anthony, but I suspect they’d have driven me nuts, as well. 

Although the museum forbade visitors taking photographs in the main section, the special exhibition, a retrospective of Martin Parr’s work, encouraged it. Much of Martin Parr’s work won my heart and soul because it had warmth, vibrancy, and a sense of humor. One section in particular, titled Dance, proclaimed that photography was the 2nd most democratic form of expression in the world, after dance. 

There was such exuberance and Joie de Vivre in his photos of people dancing that it made my heart beat faster:


This one he shot in Rio and I can only hope people will find that release and sense of ecstasy when the olympics make it there. Not holding my breath, though. 


This one he shot in Moscow, and it utterly disabuses the viewer of any notion of joyless and bleak life in the capital (a city I loved and would happily visit again).

Other collections of photos examined families at beach resorts; visitors to foreign climes (including Las Vegas — I can’t imagine what an Englishman would make of the world that is Vegas); and people approaching their 1st formal balls. 

A leisurely hour of walking brought me to MAK, which for all intents and purposes, resembles the Victoria & Albert in London or the Smithsonian’s Renwick in DC, prior to its renovation. MAK features the arts and craft of design, disciplines like fashion, rug weaving; jewelry; furniture; or printing. That sort of artistry. 

I could go on about the joys of discovering more art nouveau treasures:


Or how completely at home I felt in the room with carpets:


But those are not what jazzed me to my core. The discovery of architect Frederick Kiesler had me peering at photos, trying to imagine what life on Broadway must have been when a new production with his stage sets debuted; or wishing I could have been a fly on the wall the first time he and Peggy Guggenheim met (at her fervent request). 

Like Hundertwasser, Kiesler had a vision in his head so complete that he tried to illustrate his design principles (which coalesced in his term ‘Corealism’) in a convoluted,multi-factor equation. I think he, too, was a True Believer, and was a handful in person, but I’m impressed with his visionary zeal and energy. One product of his zeal I’d like to see is “the temple of the book” he built for Jerusalem. The maquettes were brilliant.  

His “city in Space,” which he exhibited in Paris in 1925; his notions of houses and furniture which could be infinitely reconfigured to create new living spaces; and his redesigns of both stage and movie theaters qualify him as one of the most exciting designers I’ve ever encountered. Why had I never heard of him for the first seven squared years of my life?

Postscript: I realized this morning that I could have easily cited Joseph Hofman and Otto Wagner as my two visionaries. They certainly would both qualify. 

Tumbled,  not Stirred

I don’t know how double-oh-seven does it, really. Have you ever seen him look less than dapper? Less than exquisitely groomed? More to the point, have you any reason to believe he ever has to do laundry, especially while on assignment?

I’m no International Man of Mystery; i lack the animal magnetism of Connery, the suave self-assurance of Moore, and the sly roguish charm of Brosnan. Craig?

I’ve got nothing on that guy.

But I’ve got dirty laundry. What i mean is, there comes a time in every intrepid traveler’s odyssey when just buying another tshirt in a museum gift store won’t suffice. One must launder!

Fear not, the traveler has options.  One can just buy all new stuff. One can get the hotel to wash it (I did that once at a place in Sri Lanka. Cost me $82). Or you can find a laundromat near your hotel. 

I chose option (3) and it cost me €10. Ten euros. Thirteen, if you count the soft drinks I got from a vending machine. That and an extra hour to compensate for a dryer that didn’t, well…DRY. 

Not rapidly, at any rate. So, instead of the whole thing costing me €7, I ended up pumping €3 in the machine for three additional twenty minute cycles. But I had my secret weapon — a fully charged kindle, loaded with mysteries and stuff.

The entire enterprise should have been dead simple. I had my phone on airport mode to save money, so in my hotel room, I got walking directions on google maps and then took screenshots. 


I •ought• to have been there in twenty four minutes, except I got distracted by architecture (as I often do). For instance:


Or diverted by whimsical stuff:


Pretty sure my mom bought a few of those back in the 70’s when handheld dryers were all the rage. And by rage, I mean the noise of it drove our cat Sydney mad. He destroyed a couple, thinking they were attacking my mom whom he had sworn to Bastet he would protect. 

But I digress. Again. 

Eventually, I found the Waschsalon and set to washing my clothes. Should be straightforward, right? This is me, remember? I’ve been accused of making things complex in the name of a good story. To which I plead the fifth. 


Okay, here’s what I loved about this:

  1. All the washers and dryers are controlled from one place — no trying to get coins in each one. 
  2. The soap was free! They give it away!
  3. The glowing blue slot at the bottom makes change for a €5 or €10 note!

I also found this moderately helpful, once I found it. It cleared up some questions  for this tourist who doesn’t read German:


 No story would be complete without a grand finale. This is, after all, Vienna, Austria — a town renowned for opera. In this dramatic final scene, I managed to get lost on the way back to my hotel. 

It seems hard to believe, but there was no moon, and I was very busy composing this post in my mind. I clearly took a wrong turn and lost track of east, west, et cetera. Finally, I did that which bond would never, ever do. 

I asked someone for help.

Mumok

Let’s just say that out loud, shall we? 

MUMOK

There. Wasn’t that fun? An abbreviation of MUseum MOderner Kunst, Mumok sits in The Museum Quarter and exhibits challenging works that ask the visitor to reexamine the role of art in society, in one’s life, and over time. 

A current exhibit, Painting 2.0, tirelessly examines how the Internet, Social Media, and technology at large have transformed our understanding not only of painting as a medium, but also audience; surface; and representation. Actually, the exhibit has the admirable effect of causing me to wonder where artists go from here. 

When representation and abstraction are no longer binaries opposed and the idea of shocking images (be they erotic, violent, politically charged or morbid) no longer elicits a thrill or (much) outrage, what’s next for the artist? For the critic? For the collectors? Or just consumers of art like myself? What do we want/need?

How do you conceive of a next step when folks like pollock, Stella, Rauschenberg, or Warhol took things to a plateau and the Internet doubled down on the programmatic challenges (who is the audience? How important is the medium? How important is the material, when you can reconstitute it in pixels?)

I found Painting 2.0 an excellent stab at the directions artists can take next — have taken already — and what are the stakes. But I didn’t glean insight about me, or about art as it is becoming. I don’t fault the curators of this exhibit for this failure on my part — they did their job, and the artists did theirs — admirably so. 

What struck me most emotionally was a collection below street level which traces the founders’ efforts not only to collect and display,  but also to promote artists and movement they might not have personally liked. Also worth noting was the tireless effort of the founders to bring artists who’d fled the nazis back to Vienna, particularly Oskar Kokoshka. 

These drives to promote unknown bro dynamic artists and honor those already influential struck me as admirable, and made me happy that I had worked my way through the entire museum

The Leopold Museum

If you love the work of Egon Schiele and you want to see as much as possible in one place, the collection Rudolf Leopold started and maintained looms large.  I’ve loved his work for years, and wanted to get some perspective on his creative development. To that end, the Leopold Museum’s current exhibition, SELF-ABANDONMENT AND SELF-ASSERTION, met my needs perfectly.

I don’t think I’d ever grasped the extent to which he embraced Klimt early in his career, but that made his evolutionary growth seem much more dramatic. I will qualify that by stating the evolution struck me as more creative than emotional — letters attributed to him struck me as precious and petulant.

Just as we can never know how he could have grown as an artist, had he lived past the age of 28, we are left wondering what he’d have introduced to his work, had he  accepted a paid opportunity a patron had arranged for him to visit Paris. 

My thoughts on his maturity aside, this exhibit’s sheer quantity of schiele’s work reinforced my sadness that he died so very young. To survive World War I, and die months later seems like a cruel joke.

Shifting gears somewhat, I want to touch on a couple other artists I’d either never studied or heard of before. I’d seen a few of Oskar Kokoshka’s paintings, and I love his saturated colors and intensity, but somehow, I’d never been exposed to the Anton Kolig  or Richard Gerstl (the latter having died in 1918, along with Schiele and Klimt –what a deadly year for art!)

Also, I somehow had missed out on the Wiener Workstatte until today. How was I unaware of that atelier? The artists who comprised it had a wonderful eye for reconciling form and function. In particular, Josef Hoffman’s souvenir from the Concordia Ball caught my eye:


I was equally struck by an armoire by Kolo Moser precisely because it was so elegant, but nonetheless practical:


I could go on about Moser at some length — his paintings also stirred me. But I’d rather do some research before I say something stupid and ignorant. 

Seccession

Art Nouveau has long been a favorite era of mine, and I find the Viennese idiom particularly delightful. I had to see the building the practitioners established as a space for their shows, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’d seen pictures, but they were lacking details like the plant tendrils on the sides of the building…


…or the turtles supporting the giant planters on the front steps:


The real magic, of course, is the building taken as a whole, but what I think a lot of people come to see is Klimt’s frieze in the basement. Known as the Beethoven Kiss, it winds around three of four walls high in a simple, softly illuminated room.


I’ve excerpted a section I particularly loved for its fluid grace and luminosity, but really, the whole thing needs to be seen at once, as a whole, and not on a computer monitor, tablet, or phone. 

In other words, get off your ass and see it for yourself. It’s worth the airfare, the Jetlag, and everything else. Just go.