Vienna - a city rich in history and culture. Having only a few days means tough decisions needed to be made regarding where to go and what to see. Much time was spent walking through the old city centre admiring the architecture and statues. However I had specifically wanted to visit the Natural History Museum so this is where I started. Much like the Natural History Museum in London, the collection is housed in a grand historic building. The collections began under the reign of the Hapsburgs in 1750 and has now become vast with an estimated 20 million objects.
I had specially wanted to see the prehistoric figurine - the Venus of Willendorf. This small figure is only eleven centimetres in height but 29,000 years old. In recognition of her significance she is housed in her very own room. It is believed to have been carved during the Paleolithic period and is one of the oldest examples of art in existence today. (There is some debate about the name and in academic circles she is referred to as the Woman of Willendorf to distinguish the association from the Roman Goddess of Love). Although she is often regarded as a divine fertility figure, anthropologists and researchers are still divided as to whether she is truly a representation of a Palaeolithic goddess. We will probably never be sure, but regardless, it is an astonishing ancient work of art.
While I knew this figurine was in the collection, I was delightfully surprised to find the Museum also has an exquiste collection of Blaschka glass marine creatures. Leopald Blaschka (1822-1895) was a Bohemian glass artist who made glass models of invertebrate marine creatures. His son Rudolf (1857 -1939) became his only apprentice, so sadly when he died, the knowledge about production of the models was sadly lost.
While Professor of Zoology in Vienna, Carl Claus commissioned 150 glass models for the museum during the 1870's and 1880's. These tiny delicate models capture the ethereal mystery of the deep sea, and in an era before underwater photography, were instrumental in teaching naturalists about invertebrates. Real specimens were often difficult to study as they often collapsed and would loose their colour when stored in jars. These beautiful 'artworks' are an early example of science and art working together.
The University of Vienna has the second largest collection of Blashcka models in Europe. The collection was in use until the 1930's and presumably put into safe storage during the war. They were rediscovered during the 1980's. It is estimated that between father and son as many as ten thousand marine invertebrate models, and a further 4,400 botanical specimens were produced.
Guido Mocafico has made a series of stunning photographs of these glass works capturing their incredible accuracy and beauty. They can be viewed here.
As you enter the marine galleries, the visitor passes through a small Victorian lecture theatre. Several impressive stain glass windows form a wall along one side. Depicting Ernst Haeckel's intricate drawings, they create a cool moody 'underwater' atmosphere. A portrait of the man looks down from the back of the theatre. There was a feeling of walking into a very special place - a cathedral to nature!
I have recently been looking at these drawings in relation to my next piece of work so was thrilled to come across this room.
Ernst Haeckl (1834 - 1919) was a German naturalist, philosopher, physician, artist and a strong proponent of Darwinism. In an age where polymaths were multi talented and able to combine their various experiences and observations, Haeckel's legacy is outstanding. Among his achievements he discovered and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms and through his detailed drawings of microscopic life forms, was instrumental in expanding knowledge and curiosity about the natural world. He produced illustrated volumes of enduring value and biological atlases that have remained unparalleled in their precision.
And so in conclusion...
Moving on, another day, and a different place - the Belvedere Gallery, I conclude here with this charming statue of St Elizabeth. While the crowds flock to see Gustav Klimt's The Kiss (which was magnificent) this understated 13th century sculpture in the medieval gallery is the artwork that stood out above all others. I was moved by its simplicity, and serene quality. Perhaps it was also due to the stark contrast between this and the grand mythological statues we had seen on every building throughout the city!
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