Saturday, April 4, 2009

Albertina Museum Review

If you are traveling to Vienna, save your Euros by skipping the Albertina Museum. If you like to travel and attempt to compulsively visit every Art Museum in a city, you will occasionally be suckered by a lame museum with little to show and a high price of admission. Vienna, with its abundance of large state-funded museums, seems to be a museum-goers paradise. It's tourism board spends a lot on advertising their museums' various virtues, which apparently infiltrates guidebooks in the form of mindless spam:

My guidebook states "the Albertina houses a collection of one million prints, over 65,000 watercolors and drawings, and some 70,000 photographs," as do most Vienna guidebooks and a section of the Albertina's website. Advertisements plaster Vienna with images of Durer's hare, one of the world's most famous drawings. All of this really leads you to think that you will actually see this and other famous drawings, under dim light, or maybe under bulletproof glass like the Mona Lisa. If you love drawing, or works on paper, you will be drawn to this museum like a fly to honey, so I feel compelled to point out that all of this advertising is misleading. Not outright lies, but misleading.

As you enter the museum, you can head directly to the current temporary exhibition, or wander the back halls of the palace where a number of drawings are prominently displayed. It's suspiciously quiet, as the best parts of museums often are. Museum veterans can testify that often excellent parts of a permanent collection go unviewed while the crowds shuffle like headphone-wearing cattle through the current blockbuster temporary attraction. As I wandered back through the halls, I stared in smug satisfaction at Michalangelo drawings next to Egon Schille, then Klimt, then at last-Durer's hare. I don't think I worked myself up to bliss before my native suspicion took hold: It was quiet, but too quiet. Peering further at the delicately colored lines of the famous rabbit, I searched for the master's hand. It was there, along with a small label stating "facsimile." I quickly retraced my steps, scanning the previous drawings, and they were all--- fakes.

In a furor, I marched back down the halls to the information desk, and patiently waited. "Where is Durer's hare?" I demanded. The docent smiled, and patiently explained to me that If I knew the first thing about works on paper, I would know that they are sensitive to light and cannot be displayed at risk of degrading the drawings. At this point, I may have been rendered clinically insane. I playfully mused that if this was so, how was it that I saw Leonardo drawings in Florence, Michalangelo drawings under dim light in Ohio, and Klimt drawings this very morning across town at the Secession museum labeled under "permission of the Albertina?" Ah yes, well the museum occasionally loans work to other institutions. So, I summarized, to see a work from the Albertina's permanent collection, I have to wait for it to travel to another museum and see it there? Or, he offered, wait for it to be displayed in one of the temporary exhibitions. He assured me that the reproductions were very good, and many experts have been unable to tell them apart from the originals. I wondered how the art pilgrim could be so abused of the object of pilgrimage, and then I wondered if all those bones on display in cathedrals were real or maybe some sort of advanced plastic.

As the docent blinked pleasantly, I was forced to retreat to the gift shop. There was obviously no refund either. As I searched the postcards, I looked for Durer's hare. I could at least take with me own cheap facsimile. It wasn't there. There were larger, more advanced reproductions for sale in various sizes, a husk of hares staring down from shelves from every corner. The lowest priced one I could find fetched sixty dollars, so I contented myself with two postcards of Durer's less-famous, but equally good, watercolor of an owl for three dollars. I went on to the two temporary exhibits, one of prints, the other of some French paintings, feeling hollow and cheated. That summer was extremely hot so at least there was air-conditioning. So my final advice for the Vienna-bound: go by the Albertina and stop at the gift shop if you want to see Durer's hare. They sell reproductions as excellent as the ones you see in the museuem. It's free and air-conditioned. Look at the catalog of the current temporary exhibition while you are there; if you like what you see you can pay the admission. Otherwise, save the fifteen dollars for a cup of coffee.

So traveler beware, if you read that a museum "houses" this or that, you may be paying respects to a tombstone in a tomb that charges admission. Again for museum veterans, this is nothing new. Big museums all have collections much larger than their floors allow for display. My students are always surprised to hear this, and listen in awe as I describe rolling file walls of stacked paintings in humidity-controlled rooms. And when a museum renovates, you can kiss your favorite local Rembrandt goodbye. It will get shipped off to another museum as part of a blockbuster show; good for the people of Podunk, but woe to the pilgrim. Speaking of which, I am so excited to go see the Venetian painting exhibit next weekend in Boston.

(I traveled to Vienna in the summer of 2007. It recently occurred to me that this Blog might be the perfect place for this art-related rant, or museum review of this sort. Guidebooks are all too bland and should be a little snarky, so I think I'll continue to drop a review here or there.)