Stately Vienna has quirky, playful side
A visitor studies a forgery of Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow at Vienna's Museum of Art Fakes. The original hangs in the city's Kunsthistorisches Museum. LANCE HORNBY/Postmedia Network
VIENNA -- In the diverse and elegant Austrian capital, the unusual is often just a U-bahn stop away.
Behind a palace, next to an art gallery or within earshot of a concert hall, something unscripted always beckons. Like that rich chocolate icing on the city's signature sachertorte dessert, these experiences topped off my family's grand Vienna experience.
ART OF DECEPTION
Getting duped was never so much fun.
A few stations from where Gustav Klimt's haunting portrait of Judith graces the Belvedere museum, a lookalike resides in the Museum of Art Fakes. In this centuries-old art hub, where tourists line up for hours to see historic works, this one-time wine cellar near the Danube Canal is the copycat capital.
More than 70 convincing forgeries are here, not just Klimts, Rembrandts and Chagalls, but pages from Hitler's reputed diary, counterfeit British pounds, bastardized book covers and comic rip-offs.
Filling the gallery was 11 years of painstaking work by partners Diane Grobe and Christian Rastner, who set out to tell the story of the scammers.
Grobe and Rastner met people in the "business" by chance and were fascinated by their deception skills, motivation and often checkered private lives. Those tales are also detailed at the museum so visitors can view the imitations and get a lesson in how the fakers got away with it.
A favourite subject of Grobe's is Englishman Tom Keating, an embittered art restorer whose heyday in the 1970s saw him produce hundreds of convincing copies, many of works by British landscape romantic Samuel Palmer. Claiming he was striking a blow against unscrupulous art dealers, Keating confessed, but avoided a long prison term and eventually became a media star.
Hungarian Elmyr De Hory, whose knack was knocking off Piccasos, said he toiled on the dark side to prove to the art community he was an undiscovered genius. De Hory also came clean and later did well as a consultant.
Some forgers weren't as lucky and met a grizzly end. London forger Eric Hebborn was found in the streets of Rome in 1996 with a crushed skull.
While it might give some guilty pleasure to think of a business baron choking on his cigar and cognac when informed his prize painting is bogus, no one pitied Nazi art thief Hermann Goring when he was swindled on a Vermeer.
It wasn't easy for Grobe and Rastner to build up their collection.
"It's very hard to find a good fake, with a good story and a good price," Grobe said. "A Keating and De Hory can cost between $10,000 and $12,000 (Cdn).
Many legitimate copies are on display here as well, since restoration is such important work for aging or damaged pieces, and copyright laws allow for some duplicates to be sold once an artist has been dead a certain amount of time. The are even fakes of fakes on display, pieces that fooled museum owners when purchased.
ALL HAIL THE SNAIL
Andreas Gugumuck's breeding farm has no walls, fences or barbed wire, an unlocked gate inviting a mass escape.
But his unique stock -- 30,000 delectable snails -- aren't going very far, very fast. Except to the big kitchen of his family's 400-year-old acreage, where guests devour -- slowly -- six-course dinners, each prepared with varieties from the escargatoire (nursery). Soup to dessert, they're washed down with some fine wine home-grown in the Danube Valley microclimate.
The majority of mollusks will be earmarked for fine restaurants in Europe and for snail caviar shipped to New York City and around North America.
Our visit is part of a field-to-table tour of the Gugumuck farm, located just outside the city hub in the 10th District. Visitors can't miss the farmhouse gable, topped by a Turkish cannonball found on the property after invaders gave up their last siege of Vienna in the 1600s.
As Gugumuck shows the modest wooden structures, where Roman and Helix snails repose after gorging on vegetation, he details their historical place as a handy food source in this region, from the stone age to Roman times, when the massive army base of Carnuntum operated nearby.
In the Middle Ages, when meat-eating was restricted during Lent in Catholic Vienna, the local monks gave permission for snails as a substitute.
Snail vendors were once such a common sight in Vienna's markets, that Gugumuck fetched a 1775 cook book to show the oldest recipes. He can rhyme off their many complementary uses in ragu, goulash or served simply with butter and parsley.
"Our tradition was almost forgotten," he said. "No one liked them, no one would order them. It was hard work for me to work with the restaurants here to sell them again. Now it's a kind of trend."
Deeply concerned about how the planet will sustain itself, Gugumuck plans a futuristic farm tour with nutritionists and agriculturists preparing different breeds of protein-rich snails that he hopes will counter the rising costs of livestock, feed and inherent damage to nature.
With insects gaining popularity in the western world as a 21st-century food group, tours might soon include his recent harvesting of drones while working to restore the local honeybee population.
Tours of Gugumuck farm accommodate up to 30 people and should be booked two or three weeks in advance.
A HAUS LIKE NO OTHER
Stepping inside the Hundertwasser Museum is to be thrust into the drawings of a Dr. Seuss book.
Austria's most radical artist/architect/environmentalist still fascinates 16 years after his death through a legacy of abstract buildings, churches, incinerators, farm silos and this quirky tribute house.
"The straight line is godless," was one of Friedensreich Hundertwasser's favourite principles, one expressed in this multi-storey edifice near the Danube Canal. The floors rise and fall -- "a melody to the feet" -- cobblestones intersect hardwood and the rooms -- meant to "flow like a river" -- reveal his vibrant paintings, lithographs, stamps, flags and tapestries.
Many are themed upon vegetation and foliage. Most striking are trees that stand in place of windows, which he saw as breaking down barriers between people and restoring the greenery that once ruled on earth.
Hundertwasser (the name he adopted translates as Peace-Realm Hundred Water) is quite the story himself. Born Jewish, he and his mother avoided Nazi persecution by posing as Catholics, the former even joining the Hitler Youth as a ploy.
Though he rejected so many conventional forms, he was given a free hand by authorities to create Hundertwasser Haus in the 1980s, a working class apartment just a short walk from the museum.
"A house in harmony with nature," it has striking primary colours, irregular outlines of frames, gables and daubs of exposed brick, ringed by curious shutterbugs during the day.
Hundertwasser Haus is a private residence, not open for internal tours, but there is a communal fountain, where visitors can take a break, and a gallery of shops and restaurants next door, both themed on Hundertwasser architecture.
MORE VIENNA SURPRISES
-- People, pets and passing cyclists watching the Vienna State Opera and ballet live outdoors on a 50-foot HD screen.
-- House of Music -- Six floors of multimedia, interactive history of sound in the old city centre home of a former duke.
-- Watching bathers at The Badeschiff, a public pool enclosed in a barge on the Danube Canal.
-- Arenberg Park, a quiet neighbourhood green and dog park, with two imposing World War II anti-aircraft batteries, now art projects.
-- A quick bite at the Bitzinger wurtzelstand in the Prater park watching the 120-year-old Riesenrad Ferris wheel, once the world's largest.
NEED TO KNOW
-- Details for the Museum of Art Fakes can be found at museum-of-art-fakes.com. Both the Hundertwasser House and the museum are in walking distance of the Art Fakes museum. For details, check kunsthauswien.com.
-- For information on travelling to Vienna, contact vienna.info, which has the latest tips in 13 languages, an itinerary planner and event database. Hotels can also be booked online.