Vienna: Come for the Basquiats, Stay for the Secessionists

Jean-Michel Basquiat is one of America’s most important 20th century artists, so when I heard his work would be exhibited at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, I put Vienna on my itinerary. I saw the exhibit yesterday and it was amazing, displaying dozens of Basquiat’s paintings and telling the artist’s story.

Photo by Mein Bezirk

Basquiat’s story is in fact complicated and tragic. Born to a middle class family in New York City, he became homeless at 17. During the time he lived on the streets, he gained some notoriety painting graffiti. At the time, this was a dangerous art form because Mayor Koch directed harsh treatment for graffiti artists. After NYC police beat Basquiat’s friend to death for painting graffiti, Basquiat changed his medium to canvas. He quickly became the it-boy of NYC’s art world and a protégé of Andy Warhol. He painted frantically for 8 years and then died of a drug overdose at age 28.

Basquiat’s paintings are mostly wild and disturbing, portraying the oppression of black people in the United States and the failure of global capitalism. At first glance, they appear cartoonish, but they’re packed with symbolism, metaphor, humor, and cultural references. Although Basquiat is recognized as one of the 20th century’s most important artists — and one of his paintings recently sold for more than $100 million — few of his paintings are part of permanent collections in the world’s major museums. We can speculate as to why this is, although a lot of speculation is probably not required. But this lack of exposure in permanent collections makes retrospective exhibitions even more important. And for me, the Albertina’s was wildly successful — I left feeling educated, exhilarated, and exhausted.

Cute people providing relief from the exhibit’s intensity.

Of course, Vienna is not just about Basquiat. Vienna is an art-lover’s paradise (even if you don’t care about art, it’s stunning, cool, and friendly). After seeing the riotous Basquiats, I went to Vienna’s fine arts museum, the Kunsthistorisches. This was like having high tea with the queen after an LSD trip. The Kunsthistorisches is located in a spectacular but solemn 19th century palace. Among its many masterpieces are Rembrandts, Caravaggios, and a Vermeer. The crowd favorite seems to be the “Tower of Babel” by Bruegel, which reminds us of the human struggle with ambition and hubris. Although I’m not sure we need more reminders….

Today, I visited the wonderful Leopold Museum, which tells the story of the Secessionists, Austrian artists who defied convention and conservatism in the early 20th century. The Secessionists are considered the leaders of the early Vienna Modernist movement, and their work influenced architecture, graphic art, interior design, and music. Their paintings are emotional, sensual, and humanist.

Of the Secessionists, you know Klimt.

And probably Egon Schiele, who was Klimt’s protégé, and even more controversial.

Schiele painted a lot of nude men and women with some very explicit features. The explicit feature on this work was painted over when Schiele decided to enter it into a rather traditional exhibition.

Scheile is most famous for his portraits but he also painted a lot of houses. In the room filled with his house paintings, an Australian man commented to me on their beauty and earthiness. I replied that they reminded me of Hundertwasser and did he know whether there are Hundertwassers in Vienna museums. He replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t know German.”

Tonight, I checked — Hundertwasser has a whole museum here. So stay tuned if you want to know more about art in Vienna!


  1. Deb and I had a memorable time in Vienna (Wien). We spent our days in old and new museums and galleries filled with both the plunder gathered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and remarkable mold-breaking works of courageous and creative artists and our nights listening to the most amazing music and opera imaginable.

    It seems fitting that Basquiat’s work be featured in this unique city and culture which has been a greenhouse for artistic expression for so long.

  2. Thank you, Kim, I appreciate your art history lesson and look forward to Part 2. When I was eight years old my family was camping in Europe. In Vienna, since I loved horses, my parents took me to see the Lipizzans. I wonder if you can see them?

    1. I would love to see the horses but they aren’t around until the end of the month! Bummer. But I did see them in Southern Spain many years ago so that’s some consolation. Abrazos

  3. Thank you once again, Kim, for an informative and delightful post. Vienna has been on my list of places I must still visit for a long time. In spite of working in France for two years and traveling to many European countries, I’ve never gotten to Austria, but have always been a huge fan of Klimt, Scheile, and in fact, Hundertwasser. I never knew of Scheille’s house paintings, and oh, you are so right: they look as if they could have been painted by Hundertwasser. I’m turning shades of green–want to be there with you!

  4. P.S. Forgot to thank you for exposing me to the paintings by Basquiat and his tragic personal history. Such talent first overlooked, then waisted and lost!! At least he had a moment of fame–but that doesn’t at all excuse or make up for the years of mistreatment and early death.

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