I can’t remember any trip of mine so richly affected by so many formal art exhibits. In the space of five Central European days in October, my family took in shows featuring Gustav Klimt, Andy Warhol, Alfons Mucha, the Maine-trained Donna Huanca, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Only the Klimt, long a favorite of mine, had been planned. The others we happened upon more or less by chance, as apparently one does in Prague and Budapest. Observations include:

Ethnography Matters: Austrians naturally claim Klimt for their own; he headlined the Secessionist Movement based in native Vienna, so it’s no surprise his most famous works remain permanently on show at the Belvedere, an 18th century palace built by the Habsburg Prinz Eugen. Sharon and I went there straight from our morning plane, checked our bags in the cloakroom, and gadded about the grounds before meeting our son Silas and his girlfriend Rene, who’ve been backpacking about the Continent since Sept. 7. We treated them to lunch then went back across the strasse to see the Klimt, who didn’t disappoint. The Belvedere curators require tourists (and the place was full of them) to roam through 2.5 full floors of oversized Romantic Eras shite before getting to the Secession stuff (which included some Munch and Von Gogh I’d never seen). Our hosts knew exactly whom we’d come to see — the entire experience was built around it. There was even a special room where folks could take selfies with an oversized poster version of The Kiss — some 50 feet from the real thing.

We were further struck by the way Slovaks studiously maintain a different sort of claim, but still a legitimate one, on Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from Eastern Slovakia (in the various placard lit his mother was repeatedly referred to as Ruthenian, a reference to Greek Orthodox Slavs who live outside the Rus). This show, in Prague, occupied the third floor of GOAP Prague (Gallery of Art Prague). The more intimate, dormered fourth floor concentrated solely on Warhol’s young life and his parents’ early days in Pittsburgh where so many Slovaks and Poles landed (remember the wedding scene from The Deerhunter?). This was wholly appropriate — the attic is where old family stuff is mean to be stashed.

Two floors down we took in a fascinating exhibit on Alfons Mucha, an illustrator of whom I was wholly unaware — until I saw his posters of Sarah Bernhardt. These launched his career and created a whole subset of the art nouveau milieu — a niche I recognized but could not have attributed to anyone in particular until I’d seen it. Naturally the Czechs feel possessive and proud of Mucha, a native or the nearby Moravian region.

Hungary’s claim on Frida Kahlo (whose work we saw at the National Gallery, high in the Buda hills, overlooking over the Danube) is more tenuous, speculative even, but her connection to Magyars, even today, is palpable. This was by far the most well attended show of the six. Seems Kahlo took a lover in the 1930s, the Hungarian photographer Miklos Muray, when she’d grown weary of Diego Rivera’s many infidelities (with her younger sister, among others). Later in life, she publicly mused that her father’s German ancestors were in fact of Hungarian descent – something that has never born up to scrutiny but nevertheless punctuated this exhibit in the capital and prompted breathless coverage in the press. Kahlo is something of a worldwide pop-cultural icon to be sure, but it seems the locals in Budapest, epicenter of Victor Orban’s increasingly nationalist Hungary, are eager to claim her, no matter how specious the claim.

To be fair, no one is immune to this dynamic. Before Silas and Rene showed up in Vienna, Sharon and I cooled our heels at the Belvedere’s Lower Palace, the impossibly Baroque but still secondary joint separated from the Upper Palace by 40 rectangular acres of fancy-ass gardens. O the down low, as it were, we stumbled into a showing from the modern artist Donna Huanca, whose massive, splashy abstracts share space with some truly bizarre sculptures seemingly installed from found objects. Impassively padding about the sculptures — mute and buck naked, their skin festooned with paint and textile elements — are live female models who, according to Huanca, “are presenting as live textures and live paintings, as if they are looking at themselves as something that they’ve never seen before. This allows them to detach from their ego, to detach from the idea that they are supposed to entertain… I don’t want that kind of feeling of wanting to please the audience. For me their silence is also a kind of resistance.”

By the time I’d read these artist notes, I’d also learned the Chicago-born, Berlin-based Huanca had been trained at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, of all things. As a Maine resident abroad, in my own small way I’d already claimed her.

In other Vanderlips Art News Abroad:

  • The three-story exhibit in GOAP featured Dali on the first floor, Mucha on the second and Warhol on the third and fourth. There was no sound accompanying the Dali, but into the Mucha rooms was piped music of the fin de siècle variety — no waltzes but rather the lighter stuff an orchestra might play during Bernhardt’s Gismodo, the play whose posters made Mucha’s career. It was extraordinarily effective to have this period music washing over me whilst absorbing the exhibit. Even more so the Velvet Underground tunes that accompanied the Warhol exhibit. Every museum should do it. Well, within reason.
  • Thirty-four years ago, I was in Budapest as a backpacker. That was behind the Iron Curtain, at the time, and I remember going to the same National Gallery that housed the Kahlo exhibit to see a show of Hungarian impressionists. At the time, I had no idea there were such things…
  • The Dali spread was pretty amazing stuff. I’d never seen so much of his work in one place — so many drawings, lithographs and sculptures in addition to the paintings we know so well (and not at all). To see the Lincoln piece in the flesh was really something. I had the good fortune to be standing there, up close, with a young Czech dude; when I made mention of the Lincoln thing in passing — the further back one steps, the more Abe’s cubist visage come into focus — the kid clearly didn’t know what I was talking about. I backed him up and the look of utter shock and recognition on his face was worth the price of my admission. Dali would appear to have been a true goofball genius, a standard-bearing Surrealist who never saw the need to outgrow his fascination with the absurd. “The difference between the Surrealists and myself,” he said, “is that I am a surrealist.”
  • We encountered a lot of public art during our Central European travels. Silas found a way to interact with much of it. But honestly, between gardens, memorials and the breadth of architecture, we couldn’t hardly escape it. See here a sampling: