Magazine article The Spectator

Splendid Artistic Reasons Why the Austrians Should Tell the EU to Get Lost

Magazine article The Spectator

Splendid Artistic Reasons Why the Austrians Should Tell the EU to Get Lost

Article excerpt

The cold-shouldering of Austria by the other EU governments since the Haider affair seems to me childish but also sinister. It implies that electorates in EU states are permitted to vote only within certain limits, that they must `converge', to use a favourite Brussels word, around the centre. This suggests that the EU will eventually become not merely a single state but also a oneparty state, and thus inevitably a police state. I hope the Austrians insist on their right to vote as they think fit.

My fondness for Austria has increased since I discovered the existence of the outstanding Viennese school of watercolour painting which flourished in the Biedermeier years, after the Congress of 1815: Vienna's centrality in the development of music during and before this time has long been recognised. Sir Henry Hadow, in his Oxford History of Music, wrote, `If I had to cite the the greatest artistic periods in the history of the world, I should name Periclean Athens in the first place, Elizabethan England in second place and, in third place, without a doubt, Vienna in the second half of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th.' But Vienna was thought, at the time, to lag behind in the visual arts. When Bonaparte's troops took Vienna in 1809, his art-boss, Vivant Denon, personally selected 400 outstanding paintings from the royal collections for removal to Paris, on the grounds that Austrians were incapable of appreciating them: `They lack the eyes to see them properly. France will always prove, through her superiority in the arts, that such masterpieces are better seen [in Paris] than anywhere else.'

In fact, the Viennese school of open-air painters was already in existence a generation before it took root in France. As in England, it was associated with the new romantic spirit and the accompanying rise of strong feelings about mountain scenery. It developed later than in England for a particular reason. In 18th-century Austria no one was free to travel around the country without specific permission of authority. In the reign of Joseph II, an `enlightened despot' who banned the use of make-up, the professor of landscape painting at the Vienna Academy and his three star pupils were arrested and locked up as spies for doing on-the-spot sketching in the countryside. This changed under the influence of Archduke John (1781-1859), an enthusiastic patron who gave royal Habsburg approval to the romantic movement.

It was Archduke John's appointment in 1801 to oversee the defence of the Alpine passes which introduced him to mountain scenery. He was overwhelmed by its beauty. He not only climbed alps but hired artists to paint them, setting them to work on systematic commissions to record the topography of the Tyrol, the architecture of its towns, villages and farms, and the costumes of its inhabitants. At one time or another, all the outstanding watercolourists of the school - Joseph Rebell, Carl Russ, Matthaus Loder, Jakob Alt and the great Thomas Ender - worked for John, producing literally thousands of fine sheets, both in pure watercolour and in bodycolour. The archduke fell in love not just with the mountains, but with their peasants, who put up a much stiffer resistance to the rapacious French than the lowlanders of the Danube plain. He was the first Habsburg prince to identify himself with the common people, not in any spirit of ambition but because he admired (like Wordsworth) their moral qualities. It is not surprising that, in the turbulent year 1848, though he was then in his late sixties, the Frankfurt parliament elected him Reichsverweser, or imperial administrator, `not because of, but in spite of, his being an imperial prince', as the speaker of the parliament put it. …

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