Art,  Museums

Two Superior Museums of Art in the Heart of Vienna

After many visits to Vienna in recent years, we have chosen the Albertina Museum as Austria’s greatest venue for art. The Albertina is the largest museum of modern art in Central Europe. It also possesses 65,000 drawings and roughly 1,000,000 Old Master prints, making the graphics collection (founded in 1776) housed inside the Albertina the most important in the world, in our opinion, with a unique overview of 600 years of art history.

The Albertina presented six major exhibitions in 2023, including one dedicated to Pablo Picasso. On view through June 18, 2023, the Picasso show marked the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death and featured an early painting from the Blue Period (below), among 60 works of art from all of the important phases of Picasso’s long career.

The Sleepy Drinker, 1902 by Pablo Picasso
Girl with Hat, 1962 by Picasso
Beach Stop, 2001 by Alex Katz

The Albertina recently devoted a retrospective to Alex Katz, a pivotal Abstract Expressionist artist whose unique style made him a forerunner of Pop Art. This marked the third major Katz show, following presentations in New York and at the Thyssen in Madrid last year, to mark the 95th birthday of Mr. Katz.

The exhibit in Vienna was remarkable because all of the works on display came from the Albertina’s own substantial holdings, and it featured woodcuts, drawings, screenprints, lithographs, aquatints, shaped-aluminum sculptures and oil paintings. On view through June 4, 2023, “ALEX KATZ — COOL PAINTING” was a winner, far better than the presentation of Katz’s work at the Guggenheim in New York, which closed on February 20, 2023. Unlike Pop Art, which often referenced images already existing in advertising, the large-format images preferred by Katz are based on the artist’s direct observation of the people closest to him, especially his wife Ada.

Ada in the Dark, 2000
Black Hat #2, 2010

While many of these figurative paintings reveal a mood of detachment or isolation, a pictorial depth that enhances the theatrical effect, and a technically perfect realism, Katz retains the allure of Edward Hopper while rejecting the expression of social ideas that Hopper conveyed through his oeuvre. Katz’s unique, streamlined portraiture epitomizes Nouveau Réalisme.

Kym, 2007
Red Coat, 1982
Twilight 1-3, 2009

Like Matisse during the 1930s, Katz deliberately chooses subject matter lacking in content. In a world dominated by photographic images and devices such as the close-up employed in cinema, the portraiture of Katz (inspired by the stencil painting used in commercial art) constructs a motif from flat cut-outs and the luminosity of colors to convey the sitter’s outward appearance, adornments and body language. Even with his cool distance and radical flatness, Alex Katz managed to reveal Ada’s charm and a moment of self-reflection (as he depicted her, below, in front of their yellow summer home in Maine, USA). It is noteworthy and most interesting that Katz’s focus is on the light of the season and his wife’s fashionable accessories (i.e., symbols of the spirit of the times in which we live, and perhaps a remembrance of the simple, spontaneous moments we recall through family photos) rather than on the individual.

Orange Hat 2, 1973
Samantha, 1987
Trio 4, 2009
Darinka, 1986
Roses 2, 1998
White Hat, 1990
Flags, 2013 by Alex Katz

During the first five months of 2023, the Albertina offered something special for every visitor. After enjoying the Katz retrospective on the Lower Level, or Picasso on the main floor, one might have chosen to escape into the world of Habsburg classicism by visiting the 20 lavishly-restored and furnished State Rooms. Lithographs, such as Edvard Munch’s 1895 “Self-Portrait with Skeleton’s Arm” (above left), was displayed as part of the exhibition “Dürer, Munch, Miró — The Great Masters of Printmaking” on Level 1 near the State Rooms. The permanent collection of modern painting and sculpture is located on the Albertina’s top floor (Level 2) where the exhibit “Bruegel and His Time” was on view.

The Last Judgment, 1558 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder {Pieter Bruegel der Ältere}

Through May 24, 2023, 90 works of art explored the technical brilliance and broad scope of drawing in 16th-century Netherlands in a special exhibit entitled “Bruegel and His Time.”

Battle of Amazons, 1564 by Jan van der Straet
Landscape with Hare Hunt, 1601 by David Vinckboons der Ältere
Spring, 1565 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Marketplace with Modern Buildings, before 1606 by Paul Vredeman de Vries
The Parable of the Good Samaritan, 1550 by Master of the Liechtenstein Cabinet

“Bruegel and His Time” Closed on May 24, 2023

The artistic diversity in Netherlandish drawing included motifs depicting social and political change, as well as peasant life, landscapes and biblical themes, such as the Jewish Queen Esther (below) imploring her Persian husband Ahasuerus to show mercy on her people.

Esther before Ahasuerus, 1550 by Master of the Liechtenstein Cabinet
Abandoned (A Life), 1884 by Max Klinger

The Symbolists were artists who emphasized ideals and dreams, and the symbols they used were personal and private, at times morbid. In the visual arts, symbolism may be seen as a revival of mystical tendencies associated with the Romantic tradition, which was characterized by an emphasis on emotion. The etchings by Max Klinger (1857 — 1920) are symbolist in nature, though his execution is realistic and romantic. In “THE GREAT MASTERS OF PRINTMAKING” (which was on view through May 14, 2023 at the Albertina) one could easily see why Klinger was an admirer of Francisco Goya (1746 — 1828). Both men tackled social and political issues, and shared their observations on death, poverty, depression and violence by portraying harsh realities, stark landscapes, and terrifying dreamscapes. Goya has often been described as “the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” It is easy to see how the realism of Goya and Klinger inspired Expressionists such as Munch and Kollwitz, as well as the Surrealists and artists like Paula Rego who died in 2022.

The Dream (A Glove), 1881 by Max Klinger
Candle Dancers, 1917 by Emil Nolde
Night Shadows, 1921 by Edward Hopper
The Sick Child I, 1896 by Edvard Munch
Resting Horses, 1911 by Franz Marc
White-Spotted Peacock, 1906 by Carl Moser
Mythical Creature, 1912 by Franz Marc
The Cotton Picker, 1908 by Oskar Kokoschka
Genesis II, 1914 by Franz Marc
View of Frankfurt, 1914 by Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel

With the advent of printmaking techniques in the 15th century, for the first time it became possible for large numbers of people to acquire art. Woodcut was developed early in the 1400s, followed by copper engraving, and finally (shortly before 1500) etching. While Mantegna was the most important Italian engraver of the late Middle Ages, it was Dürer who made graphic art the equal of painting, and perhaps its superior.

The Large Cannon, 1518 by Albrecht Dürer
The Flight into Egypt, 1504 by Albrecht Dürer
Knight, Death, and Devil, 1513 by Albrecht Dürer

With Dürer’s amazing eyes and skilled hands, woodcut and engraving soon reached their technical limits. By the 1550s and 1560s, Bruegel the Elder and others concluded that etching offered expanded opportunities for technical and creative experimentation. Spontaneous line work brought etching closer to drawing than any other printing process, and the techniques of drypoint (with softer lines) and etching (crisper lines) reached their peak in the middle of the 17th century with Rembrandt.

The Carcass, 1510 by Agostino Veneziano

Albertina’s Etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 — 1669)

Christ Preaching, 1648 by Rembrandt van Rijn
Self-Portrait, 1638
The Three Crosses, 1653
The Windmill, 1641 by Rembrandt van Rijn
Man with Turban, 1760 by Thomas Frye
The Smoking Fire, 1761 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 — 1778) and Francisco Goya were among the greats of etching, a technique that was superseded by lithography in the 19th century.

Lithography, invented in 1796, made it possible to produce sizeable print runs without the wear and tear on printing plates that over time leads to a loss in quality. Inspired by Goya’s 1814 painting “The Third of May 1808,” Manet used lithography (below) to depict the death of Emperor Maximilian. The exhibition “DÜRER MUNCH MIRÓ The Great Masters of Printmaking” closed at the Albertina in Vienna on May 14, 2023.

The Execution of Maximilian, 1867 by Édouard Manet

The Albertina, Vienna

The Village of La Roche-Blond, 1889 by Claude Monet

Monet to Chagall

The permanent display of modern art at the Albertina features the Batliner Collection, and begins with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces. Additional highlights include the major Expressionist groups and artists of the New Objectivity active in Germany and Austria, as well as the avant-garde from Russia and Spain in the early part of the 20th century.

Sleeping Woman with Flowers, 1972 by Marc Chagall
Portrait of a Young Girl, 1879 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Douarnenez, 1883 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
On the Green Bench, 1911 by Henri Lebasque
View of Vétheuil, 1881 by Claude Monet
Breton Woman, 1888 by Paul Gauguin
Moret: the Banks of the River Loing, 1905 by Alfred Sisley
Blue Horse II, 1911 by Franz Marc
Dresden, Augustus Bridge with Steamer, 1923 by Oskar Kokoschka
Young Girl with a Flowered Hat, 1910 by Alexej von Jawlensky
Young Girls in a Mediterranean Landscape, 1907 by Henri Lebasque
The Water Lily Pond, 1917 by Claude Monet
Mermaids, 1899 by Gustav Klimt
Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes, 1902 by Edvard Munch
Street in Arcueil, 1903 by Henri Matisse
Landscape with Lanterns, 1958 by Paul Delvaux
Forest, 1909 by Emil Nolde
Woman with Cat, 1942 by Max Beckmann
Ghosts on the Tree, 1933 by Franz Sedlacek
View of the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera house) from the Albertina
Statue of Maria Theresa, as seen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum

Kunsthistorisches: the Second Greatest Museum in Vienna

Egyptian & Near Eastern Collection
The Art of Painting, 1666 by Johannes Vermeer
Nicholas Lanier, circa 1632 (above right) by Anthony van Dyck
The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, circa 1617 (center) by Peter Paul Rubens
Lamentation of Christ by the Virgin Mary and John, 1614 by Peter Paul Rubens
The Miracle of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 1615 (left) & The Assumption of Mary, before 1622 (right) by Peter Paul Rubens
Collection of Greek & Roman Antiquities
Ansegisel and St. Begga, circa 1612 by Peter Paul Rubens
The Annunciation, circa 1610 (above left) by Peter Paul Rubens

The Picture Gallery inside the Kunsthistorisches Museum, arguably the most important of its kind in the world, developed from the art collected by the House of Habsburg. Early Netherlandish masters such as Van Eyck, Van der Weyden and Memling, German Renaissance painters (Dürer, Cranach) and 17th-century Flemish artists (Rubens, Van Dyck) are beautifully represented here. The collection of art created by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (born in Breda between 1525 and 1530) is the world’s largest and most important. Famous for his innovative choices regarding subject matter, Bruegel was a formative influence on the Dutch Golden Age of painting, even though during his career he painted no portraits — one foundation of traditional Netherlandish art. He died in 1569, before reaching his mid-40s. Of the 40 surviving paintings by Bruegel, 12 can be found here in Vienna.

Peasant Wedding, 1567 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Hunters in the Snow, 1565 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Procession to Calvary, 1564 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel, 1563 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Emperor Maximilian I, 1519 by Albrecht Dürer
The Resurrection, 1518 by Albrecht Altdorfer
Adoration of the Trinity, 1509-11 by Albrecht DürerHieronymus Altar, 1511 (left) by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsasen. The Lamentation of Christ (center) & Legend of the Mortal Remains of St. John the Baptist, 1484 (right) by Geertgen tot Sint Jans
The Virgin and the Child with a Pomegranate, circa 1510 (above left) by Hans Holbein the Elder & Madonna with the Pear, 1512 by Albrecht Dürer
Hieronymus Altar, 1511 by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsasen {also known as the Altar of St. Jerome}
The Baptism of Christ, 1510 by Joachim Patinier
Adam and Eve, 1510 by Lucas Cranach the Elder
The Family of Emperor Maximilian I, circa 1515 (above left) by Bernhard Strigel
St. John Miniature Altar, circa 1490 by Hans Memling
Christ Carrying the Cross, 1490-1510 by Hieronymus Bosch
Triptych, the Crucifixion, 1440 by Roger van der Weyden
Theseus Slaying the Centaur, marble sculpture 1805-19 by Antonio Canova

Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, Titian, Perugino, Giorgione, Lotto and Parmigianino, as well as Baroque artists like Caravaggio and Velázquez, fill the Southern European galleries inside the Kunsthistorisches. The elegance of these rooms is unequaled.

This building and an additional structure which houses the Natural History Museum Vienna were built symmetrically over a 20-year period (1871 — 1891), i.e., the two museums face each other and were designed with identical facades beneath octagonal domes. The grandeur extends to the interior of the Kunsthistorisches, which contains an impressive entrance hall, grand staircase and a cupola adorning the ceiling.

Homage to Christ in the Temple, 1490-1500 by Giovanni Bellini
Mary with Child and Four Saints, 1493 by Perugino
The Madonna of the Meadow, circa 1505 by Raphael
The Three Philosophers, circa 1508 by Giorgione
Depiction of Christ in the Temple, 1516 by Fra Bartolomeo
The Resurrection of Christ, 1520 by Garofalo
Christ and the Adulteress, 1521 by Titian
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 1520-24 by Andrea Solario
Man with a Golden Paw, 1524 by Lorenzo Lotto
Madonna with Child and the Saints Catherine and Jacob the Elder,1527 by Lorenzo Lotto
The Conversion of St. Paul, 1527 (above left) by Parmigianino
Portrait of a Young Woman, circa 1530 by Parmigianino
St. Justina Venerated by a Donor, circa 1530 (above right) by Alessandro Moretto
Susanna Bathing, circa 1555 by Jacopo Tintoretto
David with Goliath’s Head, circa 1600 by Caravaggio
Crowning of Thorns, 1603 by Caravaggio
The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1660-65 (center) by Luca Giordano
Infanta María Teresa, 1652 by Diego Velázquez
Maria Theresa as a Widow, 1773 by Anton von Maron
Egyptian & Near Eastern Collection
Cabinet with Night Clock, 1663-68 by Jakob Herman

In addition to the Picture Gallery, the Kunsthistorisches houses a Coin Collection, Greek and Roman Antiquities, Egyptian and Near Eastern artifacts, and the Kunstkammer Wien.

The Kunstkammer offers a sumptuous mélange of more than 2,000 exotic, rare and curious objects (shown below) collected by the Habsburg Emperors and archdukes from the late Middle Ages through the Baroque period. If you appreciate virtuoso works of art and curiosities, some fashioned by goldsmiths with precious stones and others created from uncommon materials once thought to hold magical powers (e.g., shark’s teeth considered to be the tongues of dragons), these 20 galleries offer a world of wonder and beauty.

Cup with Handles, circa 1625 {amethyst, gold, enamel, garnets}
St. Michael’s Cup (above left) 1532 {gold, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls}
17th-century clocks & scientific instruments
Casket, mid-17th century from Goa, India {gold, diamonds}
Saliera (Salt Cellar), 1543 by Benvenuto Cellini in the Kunstkammer Wien

The 2 Greatest Museums in Vienna & Why We Chose the Albertina Over the Kunsthistorisches

Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Grand Staircase Leading up to the Picture Gallery & Cupola

With its magnificent Picture Gallery and glorious building, we imagine some of you are pondering why we did not choose the Kunsthistorisches as the best museum in Vienna. The answer has nothing to do with the museum’s collection, which is first-rate. Our opinion has to do more with the administration of the institution and the choices it makes. For example, there is no dedicated exhibition space within the museum, some Galleries and rooms are inexplicably closed at times, and too often the lovely café & restaurant (pictured above) are unavailable due to private events. A good example of the temporary exhibition problem at the Kunsthistorisches was a 2023 show featuring Georg Baselitz and entitled “Naked Masters.” This was on view through June 25, 2023 and, to put it politely, this exhibit was a poor curatorial choice. The most defining feature of Baselitz’s body of work started in 1969 (and continues to this day): he paints expressive portraits and hangs them upside down. Born in Germany in 1938, Baselitz explains, “I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn’t want to reestablish an order….” The question we raise is whether this museum should build on its strengths and organize exhibitions such as “TITIAN’S VISION OF WOMEN: Beauty — Love — Poetry” (which it showed in 2021-22) and “CARAVAGGIO & BERNINI” (2019-20), or try to bring new patrons into the museum by exhibiting more modern/contemporary art by a marginal artist such as Baselitz.

Do paintings by Baselitz represent an ideal match with (or the best counterpoint to) the amazing portraiture to be found in the Kunsthistorisches Vienna? We think not.

Entrance to the Albertina Museum

The Albertina, by contrast, augments its possessions of modern art, Old Master drawings and over 1,000,000 prints by offering numerous exhibitions of exceptional diversity and quality. These well-curated displays in different mediums — such as the current show “Michelangelo and the Consequences” (on view until January 7, 2024) and a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective opening March 8, 2024 — relate seamlessly to both its excellent permanent collection and to the previous special exhibits it has presented in Vienna. In 2022, for example, the Albertina presented four fine blockbusters: “BASQUIAT The Retrospective,” “THE DISASTERS OF WAR — Goya and the Present,” “EDVARD MUNCH In Dialogue” and “MODIGLIANI.” In brief, the Albertina has a crystal clear vision of the quality of its holdings, how best to maximize such abundant gifts, and a focused course of action to realize its potential as a premier art institution.

When in Vienna, we encourage you to visit both the Albertina and the Kunsthistorisches, two of the finest museums in the world!

Berggarten {behind the Albertina Museum}

If you want to discover more about art offerings in Vienna, please visit our articles entitled Klimt + Gold = The Belvedere — 4th Greatest Museum in Vienna and The Leopold Museum — 3rd Greatest Museum in Vienna.

Vienna State Opera House {seen from the entrance to the Albertina Museum}

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