Days of Art & Imagination at Burg Wildegg

Our intrepid reporter is engaged to model for aspiring artists in a magical 12th century castle

On The Town | Rennie Sweeney | May 2013

Burg Wildegg in the ­Wienerwald, dated 1188, is a castle worthy of the name (Photo: Karl Grube)

When I was offered the chance to spend a weekend modeling for artists at a castle, I didn’t need details. I couldn’t help imagining Neuschwanstein, although the organiser warned not to get too excited: "This is a small castle."

Coming from a castle-free country like America (excepting Disneyland), how could I not be thrilled to work in one? Despite Europeans having a fairly broad definition of what the term defines, I expected something between a German fairy tale palace and a crumbling pile of turrets. My imagination conjured up thoughts of drafty, ghost-filled halls and fantastical intrigue. I was on board for any adventure in an 800-year-old edifice in Sittendorf, in the Vienna Woods.

A fantasy setting

We drove through fields of cows and horses and rolling rows of crops before turning onto a narrow, winding lane, cutting through the yards of a riding school. The car tilted as we climbed, and the pale, high yellow walls of the Burg came into view through winter-bare trees covering the surrounding hills.

No piles of crumbling bricks and far bigger than a manor, and – best of all – topped with a turret. I could picture it illuminated at midnight by lightning bolt against a black sky. A real castle, worthy of the name! Passing through the airy courtyard, amazed, gazing at the layers of balconies and rounded wooden doors at each entry, we got down to business.


A colourful group of participants had signed up, to my surprise including one couple with a toddler, another with a dog. This wasn’t my experience in studios – always quiet except for background music, children and animals were strictly excluded. The unusual setting of the event seemed to lend itself to unconventional conditions.

An organiser shared the castle’s history: The first mention appeared in 1188. Owned by a Catholic youth organisation since 1947, today it is rented for moderate prices to arts and inspirational groups. Legend has it that the castle changed hands in a shady business transaction: After being sold for one shilling on the condition that a remaining original door go to a museum, the buyers neglected to hand it over. The ornate wooden door is there still, an old-world element along with creaking, worn-smooth wooden floors and narrow spiral staircases.

The nitty gritty

Model drawing in studios has the benefits of minimised distraction, space to work in different mediums and to get messy, use varied perspectives with platforms, chairs and big cushions. A high-ceilinged room had been adapted for this purpose, filled with small tables stacked atop one another for drawing. A large platform was set in front for posing, while plenty of wall-size windows let in April sunshine.

Otherwise, the event differed from most figure drawing sessions. Here, posing was inspired by storytelling. But first – warm-ups of short, classical poses, and a challenging exercise of "blind" drawing. Artists were instructed to never look at their paper, only at the model, and finally they could take a peek and see what had appeared on the page. Laughter indicated that results were far from flattering.

Following a dinner of hearty Austrian fare prepared by the castle kitchen staff, we posed and drew into the night before attempting sleep (hindered by some snoring participants, whose guttural convulsions echoed through the drafty communal sleeping rooms).

Inspired by opera and mythology

After a ghostless night, the next day’s drawing followed the story of Mozart’s The Magic Flute: After an artist explained parts of the plot, the opera’s music "guided" models into a portrayal of the scene. It was a challenge not relying on familiar poses and, instead, accurately trying to convey characters in a story. We worked through The Magic Flute and on to Trojan War mythology. Accompanied by thundering music and frequent scene changes, the time raced by.

Another model revealed that her aunt, uncle and sister were attending. "Is it strange? Your family drawing you nude?" I had to ask. She waved it off casually. "Nah," she insisted, "They want to learn!" This light-heartedness defined the event – breezy experimentation with technique and stories, classical music, and bottles of Gösser Radler on every break.

Leaving that evening, pleasantly exhausted from nearly nonstop drawing and posing, I laughed with a friend about the one-shilling story, speculating that Dracula had had to sell his Austrian property in a recession. The car wound down and away, past horses and fields as the castle on the hill receded from view, swallowed up by the surrounding Vienna Woods.

Nude modelling in a castle… now who can top that on their CV?

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