Lange Nacht: Art Gluttons

The annual orgy of aesthetics, where even torture can be fun

On The Town | Vera Mair | November 2009

Sat. evening, Oct. 3, 20:30. The tram station at Hernalserhauptstraße flashed an announcement on the digital overhead sign. Trams would run until 2am, read the bright yellow letters. This was the Long Night of Museums.

Hosted annually in October by the ORF (Austrian Radio and Broadcast) it was the tenth time that museums all over Austria opened their gates for one night from 18:00 to 1:00. This year the event broke all previous records. With Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Slovakia partaking, a total number of 443,500 visitors, seized the opportunity to gain access to about 650 museums, exhibitions, galleries and other cultural institutions with only one ticket.

For the organizers, the reason was clear:

"The incredible demand shows that we have exactly met the Austrians’ interest in art," said ORF general director Alexander Wrabetz, on the event’s website. In Vienna alone the long night attracted around 193,800 visitors. With a vast choice between of 94 museums ranging from A like Albertina to Z like Zahnheilkundliches Museum – the Museum of Dentistry, it was hard to imagine a need that was not being met.

At the Burg Ring tram station, two teenagers were arguing. What could be more fun than the Museum of Torture?

Our goals were a little different. My friend Esther was visiting from Germany and we were off to the KHM, the Art History Museum at Maria Theresian Platz. She had her heart set on seeing the "The Art of Painting" by Vermeer, the subject of a controversial restitution claim. It might just be our last chance. Inside, dampened murmuring of voices reverberating through the marble entrance hall – a round gallery with a high stucco ceiling, a cupola and dark red marble columns. Happily, it was not as crowded as I had feared; there are so many options during the Long Night of the Museums, that some of the traditional museums are pleasantly relaxed. At that moment, apart from an elderly couple, we were the only ones at the ticket window.

Built in 1891 at the behest of Emperor Franz Joseph I, along with its sister museum the Naturhistorische Museum, the KHM hosts a variety of permanent and temporary art collections. My friend and I decided to take a look at the Egyptian and Oriental collection and the Ancient Greek and Roman exhibition.

Small groups of visitors had already gathered in front of the glass cases displaying clay jugs, jewellery and even sarcophagi, and so we decided to continue on, strolling slowly through the exhibitions, taking a closer look at a small turquoise statue of a hippopotamus, a painted sarcophagus its colors still vivid after long centuries in a sealed tomb, a life size white marble bust of the Greek healing god Asklepios holding a cane with a winded snake on it. We moved on, again passing the entrance hall, gazing up at the ceiling above the grand white carrara-marvel staircase opposite the entrance. Framed by golden stucco ornaments you see a large fresco – the "Apotheosis of the Renaissance."

Here, the museum too is worth the visit. In the first hall of the Egyptian and Oriental collection – being sparsely lit, its walls and ceiling ornamented with paintings of Egyptian farmers harvesting corn, and of the bird-god Iris with black, red and blue feathered wings...

Our next destination – the Art Deco butterfly house at the Burggarten – was only five minute walk away, but the line was long at 22:30, and it was a very chilly night. So we returned to Heldenplatz and hopped on a bus to the Wien Museum at Karlsplatz. This fine Museum of the History of the City of Vienna is a favorite, and this fall has a special exhibition called "Grande Entrée" portraying the fashions of the Ringstraße Era, after the old city wall had been razed and in its place a boulevard of ornate public buildings encircled the city center. This was Vienna at its most theatrical, when couples strolled the Corso in their elegant finery, to see and be seen. A pair of lace-up boots in lush red satin filled the giant poster at the entrance. We could hardly wait.

The exhibition was the highlight of our tour. On display was clothing of the Viennese upper – class of the late 19th and early 20th century. We peered with interest at a "ladies motoring hat" - a flat beige bonnet with a very wide brim and tied with a sash under the chin. "It looks like a pizza," my friend whispered. In 1907, we learned, 16 Viennese women already owned their own cars.

The Ringstraße Era however, was still a "men’s world," as became obvious at a later exhibit,  "Afternoon toilette."  Here was a pale-green satin dress that could be worn at a visit at the coffeehouse Demel or for a shopping spree – two of the few activities women were allowed to do without male company," the notice read. Its cut was exemplary for the then modern "s-curve," the waist about half the size of a slim female waist today – leading the style to be called sans ventre [French for ‘without a tummy’]. This high-necked dress had a wide skirt and bustle that accentuated the tush and an oh-so-tiny waist. To achieve such slender girth, women of the upper class wore custom made corsets from their teens onwards. Poorer girls resorted to ribbons and even a broomstick to achieve a straight posture.

In the third glass case was another instrument by which women modeled their bodies according to the prevailing ideal of beauty: finger-formers. A set consisted of ten single iron clips which were applied on each fingertip for twenty minutes to constrict the blood circulation and shape them to a point.

I squinted at my friend: Perhaps we had ended up at the torture museum after all!

The next section showed sports gear including a swimsuit for men. The knee-length dark-blue cotton with red stripes and buttons also covered the shoulders, back and the front of a man and resembled an oversized romper suit. Then followed richly ornamented gowns with short trains designed to be worn at a visit to the Austrian court…

Suddenly, a gong resounded through the halls.

"Dear Visitors, the museum will close in fifteen minutes, so we kindly ask you to exit…," a female voice announced. It was 12:45am. My friend and I caught each another’s eyes and dashed off in another direction, gliding through the remaining sections of the exhibition hoping no one would stop us. We passed several black lace dresses to wear in mourning, as well as some splendid paintings of the Viennese upper class gowned and booted for outings along the Ring. At five to one we arrived breathless in the lobby.

A museum staffer eyed us skeptically. "Hey, ORF people," she called to two sagging recruits for the Long Night of Museums. "We are closing now. You can go home."  Was she annoyed?  Just tired? Hard to say.

As to us, there was no doubt. We had had a thoroughly marvelous time.

Other articles from this issue