Oh, Vienna!

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Few city names in the world are as evocative as Vienna. The birthplace of dynamic artistic and intellectual movements, the city of Haydn, Klimt, Freud, Strauss and a host of others (including Beethoven, who called Vienna home for the last 30-odd years of his life) was for a century or more the centre of European cultural life. Today Vienna’s main buildings are the legacy of an ambitious building programme by the great Viennese architect Otto Wagner, which entailed demolishing the medieval city wall, replacing it with the Parisian boulevard-like Ringstrasse (Ring Road) and lining it with grand buildings. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ringstrasse was greatly celebrated on its 150th birthday in 2015. Art-lovers are spoiled for choice in Vienna, which is home to the world’s largest collections of Venetian paintings, graphic arts and works by Bruegel, Schiele and Klimt – among them some of the most instantly recognisable pieces in the history of art.

Schiele1, 12.03.2002, 11:34 Uhr, 8C, 8000x9470 (0+162), 100%, chrome 7 stops, 1/30 s, R62.3, G25.6, B31.5 Egon Schiele: Selbstportrait, Aquarell 30,5x44,3 cm
Egon Schiele, ‘Self-Portrait with Striped Shirt‘, 1910 © Leopold Museum

A great place to start is the Museumsquartier (Museum Quarter, or ‘MQ‘), one of the top ten largest cultural complexes in the world. Its Baroque facade is the longest in Vienna and its enclosed piazza is a favourite hangout. On the site of the former imperial stables (check the finely carved horse heads above the entrances), the MQ is home to 60 cultural institutions, including three of the city’s top galleries.

The most visited gallery in the MQ is the Leopold Museum, a giant, light-filled cube of white shell limestone housing hundreds of works of Austrian modern art assembled by the collector Professor Rudolf Leopold. The main focus is the Austrian Expressionist painter and graphic artist Egon Schiele, with over 40 paintings and some 200 works on paper – the most important and largest collection in the world. It is accompanied by an extensive selection of works by the founder of the Vienna Secession movement Gustav Klimt (see BOX) and fellow Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. The Leopold also shows Viennese art nouveau and handcrafts and furniture from the Vienna Workshops, a community of architects, artists and designers which evolved from the Secession, and there is a series of changing exhibitions. (Tip: Don’t miss the cityscape view from the fourth floor panorama window.)

Exhibition view from Ludwig Goes Pop at Mumok. Photo: Mumok/Laurent Ziegler
Exhibition view from Ludwig Goes Pop at Mumok. Photo: Mumok/Laurent Ziegler

At the other end of the MQ, the Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art, or ‘Mumok‘) is the largest museum in Central Europe for art since Modernism. Housed in an austere, dark grey cuboid clad in basalt stone, the collection of around 9,000 20th and 21st century works comprises Pop Art (Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns), Fluxus (Yoko Ono), Photorealism and Nouveau Réalisme and includes paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, graphics, photos, architectural models and furniture. Viennese Actionism, Austria’s most important contribution to the avant-garde movement, is extensively represented and there are a few leading works of Classical Modernism by the likes of Picasso, Klee and Mondrian.

Somewhat tucked away in a corner of the MQ, the Kunsthalle Wien (‘Kunst’ is German for art) focuses on local and international contemporary and modern art with a series of themed exhibitions. Elsewhere in the city, an annex museum, the Kunsthalle Wien Karlsplatz, is a glass pavilion which presents art as if in a display window.

Ernesto Neto, ‘O tempo lento do corpo que é pele‘, 2004, on display in the Baroque Marble Hall of the Upper Belvedere
Ernesto Neto, ‘O tempo lento do corpo
que é pele‘, 2004, on display in the Baroque Marble Hall of the Upper Belvedere

A short walk over to Maria- Theresien-Platz brings you to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum), built between 1871 and 1891 to house the extensive collections assembled over the centuries by emperors and archdukes. A young Gustav Klimt worked on the series of paintings in the main staircase. Its Picture Gallery (actually a series of monumental rooms) includes the world’s largest collections of works by Bruegel (‘Tower of Babylon‘, ‘Peasant Wedding‘) and Venetian paintings, while numerous major European works from the 15th to 18th centuries include pieces by (deep breath) Caravaggio, Raphael, Holbein, Velazquez, Vermeer, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian, Tintoretto, Cranach, van Dyck, Veronese, Canaletto and a host of others. The museum also has an Egyptian and Near Eastern collection, Greek and Roman antiquities, a coin collection and its famous ‘Kunstkammer‘ (cabinet of curiosities). This year celebrating its 150th anniversary, no wonder it made The Times top ten list of the world’s best museums.

Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum)
Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum)

A block from the Vienna Opera House (whch shows live concerts free on a giant screen to passers-by), the Albertina houses the largest and most valuable graphical collection in the world, comprising over a million prints and 60,000 drawings. Works by Rubens, Schiele, Cézanne, Klimt, Kokoschka, Picasso and Rauschenberg are displayed in rotating exhibitions, while famous originals such as Dürer‘s ‘The Hare‘ and ‘Hands folded in prayer‘ and Klimt‘s studies of women are shown only every few years in order to preserve them. On permanent display is Monet to Picasso: The Batliner Collection, over a hundred works tracing the most important art movements of the last 130 years. Some of the countless highlights include Monet’s ‘Water Lily Pond’, Degas’ ‘Dancers’ and Renoir’s ‘Girl’ along with works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, Giacometti, Bacon, Picasso, Rothko, Kandinsky, Nolde, Chagall and many others. The Albertina also has an extensive photographic collection, while in another wing the Habsburg State Rooms give an insight into a luxurious lifestyle.

Vienna’s most visited art museum is the Belvedere, a Baroque complex which comprise the upper and lower palaces. The Austrian Gallery in the Upper Belvedere holds the nation’s 19th and 20th century collection, at the heart of which are works by Gustav Klimt, including his legendary gilded paintings ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Judith I’, which face each other at opposite ends of an entire gallery of his works. Austrian Expressionism is also represented by works by Schiele and Kokoschka, and these are joined by masterworks from other key movements such as French Impressionism, German Expressionism and Symbolism.

A short walk from the Belvedere is the 21er Haus (House 21). The low, glassencased building was constructed as the Austria pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where it won the Grand Prix d’Architecture for its innovative design. Dismantled and moved to Vienna, it was rebuilt and opened in 1962 as the city’s first museum dedicated to 20th and 21st century Austrian art. Renamed after the new millennium, it shows changing themed exhibitions as well as the estate of the sculptor Fritz Wotruba. The surrounding sculpture garden is a pleasant place to relax.

The world of design, architecture and art and craft can be explored at the Museum Angewandter Kunst (Museum of Applied Art, or MAK) in its magnificent 1863 building on the Ringstrasse. The museum shows furniture, glass, china, silver and textiles from the Middle Ages to the present day, including Vienna 1900, a collection of Viennese arts and crafts. Art Nouveau highlights include Klimt design drawings, Otto Wagner furniture and ‘The Seven Princesses‘ (1906), a beautiful frieze by Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There are also examples of Baroque, Rococo and Classicism and a permanent collection of Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer work and woodcuts.


The Secession. Photo: Jorit Aust
The Secession. Photo: Jorit Aust

In much the same way as turn of the century artists in Paris rebelled against the art establishment with the first exhibition of Fauvism, Austrian artists objected to the prevailing conservatism. In 1902 a breakaway group which became known as ‘the Secession’ inaugurated a new type of exhibition based on their concept of ‘Gesamtwerk‘ (complete work), incorporating painting, sculpture, architecture and music. With Gustav Klimt as its first President (and Charles Rennie Mackintosh a big influence), the Secession had its own building. With its white walls, detailed outer panels and dome of gilded leaves, it is a beloved Vienna landmark. Inside, the centrepiece is Klimt’s monumental ‘Beethoven Frieze’ based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Depicting man’s search for happiness, it was originally intended as a temporary installation and is now considered among the main works of the Viennese ‘Jugendstil‘ (Art Nouveau). www.secession.at



Located in the pleasant 9th district just outside the Ring, the Harmonie Vienna combines the Viennese charm of the Baroque building with modern, 4-star style. It occupies two 1863 buildings on Harmoniegasse, which was the first major project designed by the famous Austrian Art Nouveau architect Otto Wagner. (He later joined Klimt and co. in the Vienna Secession). The 66-room hotel has dance as its central design theme, as illustrated by a series of works by the Peruvian artist Luis Casanova Sorolla, whose ‘Signapura‘ collection is displayed throughout the hotel. A beautiful video in reception – the first thing to greet guests as they enter – shows how Sorolla captured traces of ballet movements by having ballerinas dance on colourpigmented paper.



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