Parks and Art

Another day, another adventure. This time I set my sights on the Prado. The Prado’s big temporary exhibit was on Goya in Madrid, and I decided to check that out first. Goya happens to be another artist whom I have mixed feelings about, but I decided to give him a shot. While I wasn’t overly wowed by the Goya exhibit, I did have a wonderful time walking around the rest of museum and identifying pictures from my old Art History class. The piece of art that surprised me most was one by Hieronymus Bosch, or El Bosco. I remember hating learning about his piece The Garden of Earthly Delights, but once I saw it in person I found it mesmerizing. It was one of the few pieces that I kept coming back to.

Another thing that I really liked about the Prado was that they had artists working in the museum. The artists seemed to be tasked with recreating various paintings live, and it was fascinating to see the amount of effort that the original pictures must have taken and to see their duplicates worked on in front of you.

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After I had finished with the Prado, I attempted to go to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, or the museum that houses Picasso’s Guernica. Unfortunately was it closed, so I decided to go to the nearby botanical gardens, the Real Jardín Botánico. I have a huge soft spot for parks and gardens, and the botanical gardens didn’t disappoint. They were beautiful as well as shady.

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Once I had finished there, I walked through another park, the Parque Retiro. It was both larger and much more well sculpted than the botanical gardens, and I especially enjoyed the man-made lake towards the Northern end of the park where you could rent boats and paddle your way across. Because I was on my own, I resisted the temptation to rent a boat since it looked like it would be more effort that I particularly wanted to undertake by myself.

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From there I continued to head North. One of the last museums on my Madrid bucket list was the Sorolla Museum, or a museum dedicated almost exclusively to the work of the artist Sorolla. The museum is actually in the artist’s old home, and it provides visitors with a good mix of culture and art. While several of the rooms have been converted into display rooms, a good number of them are preserved and are as they would have been during Sorolla’s lifetime. My personal favorite was his old studio.

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After that it was pretty much time to call it a day, grab some grub, and then hit the sack.

Remaining Berlin Sites

The day before was technically the last day of the conference, so today was the day that most people went home. Iman and I on the other hand managed to squeeze in an extra day or two, and I thought I’d put down the rest of my Berlin adventures in one post. So, here’s the docket:

The Neues Museum

I know that I already covered the museum, but I actually went back a second time with Iman and Jenny Bruna. We weren’t there for long since we were really only stopping by to see the bust of Nefertiti, but I thought I’d add a few more pictures to the blog. The golden hat is unimaginatively called the Berlin Gold Hat. It’s only one of four golden hats that have been found from Europe’s Bronze Age, and apparently it might has also served as a type of calendar.

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Schloss Charlottenburg

Although Schloss Charlottenburg is a bit out of the way, it was definitely a fun trip to make. Schloss Charlottenburg is a baroque palace inspired by Versailles and one of the few Prussian palaces in Berlin. It was originally built by King Friedrich I for his queen Sophie-Charlotte (whom the palace is named after). The palace was originally a small summer retreat called Lietzenburg but was expanded under King Friedrich I and other royals.

Because I arrived towards closing time, I only bought a ticket to the Altes Schloss, the oldest part of the palace. While the Altes Schloss did have some impressive rooms and a nice ceramics collection, it was shockingly plain. I was confused as to why the interior wasn’t a bit more grand, but I soon learned that the palace had been heavily damaged in World War II. Rebuilding the palace became more of a priority after the East German government destroyed the only other Hohenzollern palace in 1951. Overall, I would give the Altes Schloss a pass, but the trip was not a total waste since I really enjoyed walking around the very extensive and beautiful grounds.

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Turkish Market

The Turkish market appears every Tuesday and Friday in Kreuzberg and is filled with a variety of stalls. People sell things ranging from food to fabric, and although I wasn’t really looking for anything other than a quick snack, it was fun to walk around on a sunny day and get a small taste of local Berlin.

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Tränenpalast (Palace of Tears)

The Palace of Tears is a former border crossing station at Friedrichstaße. The checkpoint was opened in 1962 and served as a gateway into West Berlin. Since this was often the place where East Berliners were parted from their family and friends, it saw more than its fair share of tears (hence the nickname).

The checkpoint was established in 1962, but by 1961 2.8 million people had escaped the GDR, with several thousand fleeing every day. The GDR had heavily fortified the border between East and West Germany, but until the Berlin Wall was erected it was fairly easy for people to slip across to West Berlin on the S-Bahn and underground. The Palace of Tears eventually became one of the main stopping points between the two Berlins.

Although the Palace of Tears had some overlap with the DDR Museum in terms of content, I would say that the Palace of Tears was a much better museum. The content addressed conditions in both East and West Germany and was much more well organized. Here are a few of the things that I found interesting:

  • There was an ongoing propaganda war between the SED and West Germans. The SED would try and justify its politics and send “propaganda bombs” to West Germany. At the same time, West Germans would try and educate SED soldiers, the National People’s Army (NVA), in a similar manner.
  • Visitors to East Germany would have to exchange D-Marks into GDR Marks at a 1:1 rate on entry. This was problematic since it was not an accurate exchange rate. GDR Marks were worth much less than the D-Marks; however, a minimum amount had to be converted upon entry. This minimum increased over time since it generated a lot of Western currency, which the GDR need to pay for its Western imports.
  • After 1964, the SED allowed senior citizens to visit relatives in West Germany regularly. This made these pensioners an important connection to the West as well as a good source of rare consumer goods that were smuggled back from West Germany.
  • School trips into the GDR were welcomed starting in the 1970s, and teachers often took advantage of this to better educate their students on the GDR.

Overall I really enjoyed my time at the museum and would recommend it.

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Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery)

I went to the Gemäldegalerie since I had heard that it was one of the best museums in the Kulturforum. The Kulturforum was West Berlin’s version of Museum Island, and likewise has a great collection of museums and cultural buildings, such as the Berliner Philharmonie. The Gemäldegalerie specializes in European art from the 13th – 18th centuries. Unfortunately this isn’t my favorite period of art, although I did enjoy a number of Rembrandts that they had on display. What really caught my eye was a Mario Testino exhibit that they had, called in In Your Face. Funnily enough, I had seen the exhibit two years before at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I had thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit in Boston, so I had no qualms over paying to see it again, especially since Testino is one of my photographers. I would highly recommend going to go see it if you’re in Berlin and like fashion photography.

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Museum Quarter and the Opera

This was our last day in Vienna so we decided to take it at a more leisurely pace. Our first stop was the Museum Quarter so that we could visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum, or Art History Museum.

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My Dad particularly wanted to see a Velásquez exhibit that was on, and Velásquez is one of the few artists that I vaguely remember from my AP Art History class. Sure enough, I recognized some of his more popular works such as Venus at Her Toilet and Las Meninas. To be honest I’d always thought Las Meninas was a rather blah painting so I was interested to see if I found it boring in person. To my great surprise I really liked it…until I saw that it was actually a copy of the one in the Prado.

Anyways, I still managed to remember enough art history to point out to my Dad that the entire painting is a rather large self-portrait. Velasquez is the rather shadowy painter off to the left of the painting and the canvas in the picture is supposed to represent the painting Las Meninas. So it’s a painting of Velásquez painting the painting. Trippy right?

As for Venus at Her Toilet, the only thing I could remember was that it’s clearly connected to an old and rich history of similar paintings (which at one point long ago I could recall at the drop of a hat). That and the fact that Venus isn’t looking at herself in the mirror. She’s looking at the audience. At the time, this indirect gaze was significant since it represented a shift in these types of classic paintings. And that’s about all my brain managed to dredge up from the depths of my rather shaky art history memory.

meninas  velazquez-toilet-venus-rokeby-venus-NG2057-fmAfter seeing the Velásquez exhibit we walked around the rest of the museum. The top floor mostly contained paintings while the ground level was devoted to a variety of things. My Dad and I liked looking at some of the old clockwork that was on display, particularly because a lot of the clocks were automatons, but we also had a good time wandering around the Egyptian and Roman artifacts.

IMG_2106  IMG_2112  IMG_2108After that it was time for a coffee break. Café culture is huge in Vienna and there are a plethora of well known cafés scattered throughout the city. I decided that it would be fun to visit Café Central. Not only does the café have beautiful vaulted ceilings, it also used to be a favorite haunt of people like Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Peter Altenberg and Leo Trotzki. This meant that my Dad and I were able to sip our coffee and feel somewhat like intellectuals.

IMG_2115  IMG_2117  IMG_2120Once we finished eating, we made our way to Hofburg Palace. Schönbrunn was not always a popular palace and was only regularly attended as a summer palace starting in the 18th century. In contrast to this, Hofburg was used as a residence for over 600 years and was therefore the center of the Holy Roman Empire. It also served as the winter palace for the Habsburgs. To be honest, the information presented in the Hofburg was pretty similar to that in Schönbrunn. That’s not to say the Hofburg wasn’t impressive, but I would say that it’s slightly less impressive than Schönbrunn (but maybe that’s just because I saw Schönbrunn first).

The thing that the Hofburg did have that Schönbrunn didn’t was the Imperial Silver Collection and a current exhibit focused on demystifying Empress Sisi. The overall sense that I got of Sisi was that she was a very unhappy woman who wasn’t particularly attached to her husband (who in contrast was absolutely devoted to her). She’s also well known for being particularly attached to her Bavarian family and for being obsessed with maintaining her beauty. So, while the Sisi exhibit was a bit grim, I would say that overall the Hofburg is worth a visit.

Afterwards we cleaned up for the opera and then headed out for a quick dinner before Rigoletto.

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Unfortunately, Rigoletto is a truly depressing opera. It can be summed up by saying that pretty much everyone dies or is unhappy, while the culprit, the Duke, manages to get away scot-free. I was actually pretty surprised at the lack of a good Christian moral, though I suppose “revenge is never worthwhile” might suffice. The opera is originally based off a play by Victor Hugo (who also wrote Les Misérables) so I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the opera is decidedly sad. That being said, my Dad and I didn’t have any of this background knowledge when we bought the tickets. We mostly just knew it as a famous opera.

As for the opera itself, it ended up being great. The quality of the singing more than made up for the depressing plot. We even managed to enjoy ourselves despite the fact that we could only see about 50 percent of the stage.

Funnily enough, one of the opera’s most famous songs is one that I remembered from Disney’s Aristocats. If you watch the beginning of the Disney video you can see that George, the old lawyer, hums the tune “La donna è mobile” during the first 15 seconds of the video. I guess back in the day Disney was teaching me opera without me knowing it.

Don’t worry, I don’t think our Duke had eyes quite as crazy as Pavarotti’s.

One really great thing about the Vienna Opera is that they offer very cheap standing room tickets (we saw people queuing for them a good two hours ahead of time) and they also project the live performances on a screen outside of the building.

Once the opera had finished, we went to the Sacher Hotel for some of their famous Sacher torte. Now the Sacher Hotel is a fairly swanky place, to the extent that a man helped me out of my coat at coatcheck (he ignored me when I said I could do it myself–I felt a bit like Matthew Crawley in his early days at Downton Abbey).

Fun fact: although the Sacher torte is a renown Viennese dessert, it was an accident. Apparently the court chef fell ill the day a lot of high ranking guests were scheduled to arrive at court, leaving the apprentice chef, Franz Sacher, to come up with a dessert. Clearly he passed with flying colors. Now the Sacher torte at the Sacher Hotel is made from what is essentially a secret recipe. The recipe itself apparently requires 36 steps and exclusive wooden boxes. While this sounds like an excessive amount of effort to spend on a slice of cake, I will admit that it was pretty delicious.

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Thoroughly stuffed, my Dad and I gathered our coats (this time I let the man at coatcheck help me with my coat) and we walked back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.