Saturday, June 14, 2008

Auden's last night. Vienna Museums

The earlier blog mentioned Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," and it suddenly struck me that Auden died in Vienna, thirty-five years ago come September. I asked (by e-mail)the Auden scholar Edward Mendelson if he knew the name of the hotel, and he told me it was the Altenburger. I did some checking on the Web and found the address: No. 5, Walfischgasse. It's a location easily reached, so there was no reason not to go and have a look. You don't nowadays find a hotel at this address, but there is actually a plaque mentioning Auden's death, if not the circumstances. He and Chester Kallman had a house in the Austrian village of Kirchstetten. He had stopped for a night in Vienna on his return from the annual summer vacation there. I've forgotten his destination. The reason he chose this modest place to stop was, I'm guessing, that it is just arond the corner from the Staatsoper. Interesting that Auden died in the same city as Mozart.

As long as I'm speaking of memorials, there's on my hotel mentioning the fact that Max Steiner lived at this address. Another exile, but we have the scores of Gone with the Wind and Casablanca as a result. I also saw a monument to Franz Werfel in the Schillerplatz, and I believe that he too died in Los Angeles. My hotel is not far from the Prater, a large park that also has amusements like a ferris wheel and roller-coaster, etc. Not sure many people read the novel now, but one of my favorite Isherwoods is Prater Violet, a fictionalized account of his dealings with a Viennese film director named... I can't recall. But recommend the novel. Isherwood, too, ended up in L.A., along with many distinguished expatriates. Auden (and others) opeted for New York, and the rest is cultural history.

I've been seeing paintings in various museums, for example, the Belvedere, with its Klimts; the Leopold Museum, which has wonderful Schieles and other less celebrated Austrian artists; and, also, the Academy of Fine Arts, which has a fine small collection that includes a Hieronymus Bosch Last Judgement. My reaction to this array of torments alternated between horror and suppressed laughter. Bosch managed to cram in about two hundred varieties of torments for the damned he painted. His demons are composite, with human, reptilian, avian, and mammalian bits, a stupefying work of bricolage. And all these creatures as industrious as can be as they mete out punishments for the Seven Deadlies. One squat woman in a wimple was sauteeing a poor wretch in a frying pan, and I suppose the only reason he didn't climb out of it was that he'd still be in hell fire. Macabre imagination. But, again, there is that element in non-Mediterranean Europe, something dark and nightmarish, which often comes into the art it produces. Vienna seemed actually to revel in that in the years 1890 to 1914. Torment was for Viennese artists what strapping youths were for Whitman--the source of a lot of enthusiasm and artistic production. But if the results include Schiele's painting, who's complaining?

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