Vienna’s washrooms

So there we are looking for breakfast. We end up at Schwedenplatz. We cross the Donau Kanal using the Schwedenbrücke and stumble into Spelunke on Taborstraße. It is one of those cafés that doubles as a nightclub. Versatile. But as we have found over the years, the proof is in the toilet, and Spelunke is special. The breakfast was ok, too.

So, the first challenge is to get in. Because one does not expect to find instructions on the floor, the tantalising glass door just refuses to open. It takes a couple of helpful women to point out the floor sensor (above left).

Once in, there’s more going on. Now I did not go into the women’s toilet, but my partner came out with a couple of interesting shots from inside a cubicle where the portal window has a couple of surprises (left and right).

And just in case you cannot find the loo roll, it is illuminated.

So the next day, we are after breakfast again. We concede Stadtcafé adjacent to Freyung, a rather central location. The café is pretty regular. The porridge was good. Then in the toilet one finds another mysterious piece of equipment, albeit designed by Dyson (right). These three-in-one contraptions never seem satisfactory and always challenge. The wash basin itself is a bit of a mystery. It is more of a drainage channel.

As a design idea, this borrows directly, I think, from the old ghastly Wallgate three-in-ones that seemed very popular with English public authorities either building or refurbishing their public conveniences (left).

Wallgate picture by Retroscania (Flickr) from Dudley bus station

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Das Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna

This museum and art gallery is just about as outrageous as it gets. The only concession to normality is the cloak room. Everything else screams empire, wealth, kleptocracy and vanity. It’s great.

Recently, our favourite art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, made a series of four documentaries about the British Royal Collection. It’s a familiar story of European royals, they have all used art for propaganda, as a store of value, diplomatic gesturing and self-gratification. The Habsburgs were no different. Their collection is equally outrageous, but at least the Austrian Bundes Republic now owns the collection and a grand building in which to display it.

David Teniers’ fantastic picture of Leopold Wilhelm (1614-62) inspecting his haul of 51 Italian works from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton in Brussels (above left) just captures the obscenity – or scale economies – of art buying and collecting. It is simply my favourite picture in the Italian collection on show which took us 3 hours to view with as much respect that we could.

The curators enjoy juxtaposition. Some of which vaguely work. Others not. Putting Titian up against Picasso is an interesting one (above right). Titian’s intimate portrait of Pope Paul III (1546) was, I sense, intended to humanise him, without diminishing his stature as Pope. He sits. His hands and arms are almost close enough to touch. But not quite. By contrast, Picasso’s portrait of Carlotta Valdivia (painted, not surprisingly, in his blue period in Barcelona, 1904) is not accessible at all. She was not ostentatiously rich, but her pearl earring and cowl suggest more wealth than Picasso had at that time as a bohemian. The slight rosy colouring of her face suggests, apparently, a former physical beauty swept away by the years.

This flattery of sitters is not uncommon. In England, we know that Holbein, Henry VIII’s court painter, overdid it on Anne of Cleves before the King married her. Probably not a good idea. This overdoing is on display again with Titian’s second  portraits of Elisabeth d’este (1534) who looks amazingly good for her 60 years’. Good work.

Over the years we have learnt a lot about how to look at pictures and, indeed, what to look for. Andrew Graham-Dixon taught us to go for the detail. For example, Lazarus in, what is simply a landscape painting by Pieter Breugel. So, when viewing landscapes, it is the little detail that makes the difference. Take, for example, the view of Schönbrunn Palace gardens (1758/61) by Tintoretto (right). There are lots of court figures in the grounds. But, of course, to keep everything perfect, the groundsmen had to follow them with their rollers. And look closely (left), we can see them!

More recently, Waldemar Januszczak’s documentary about Mary Magdelene, has us always looking for her in depictions of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. To be honest, I’m not sure if I have found her at Jesus’ foot in The Lamentation of Christ by Savoldo (around 1513, right), but probably.

Another Graham-Dixon prompt is to look for Ghouls, particularly done by Germans. Now this one doesn’t quite qualify, but by goodness, that is one heck of a snake (Raphael in 1518) that St Margarete has to slay (left).

The Gods are always good value in 16 Century art. Venus and Adonis, in particular. Of course, Adonis is destined to be killed by a wild beast (Venus knows this because she has that most awkward of powers, the divine power of prediction). But when if comes to affairs of the flesh, this does not really matter. I trust that when one’s nipple is being squeezed (right), the future is of little concern. Veronese’s picture tries to warn us with storm clouds, but my eyes are elsewhere.

Tucked away in one of the small rooms off the main gallery is a series of four pictures about the seasons by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566). Each one has a profile portrait to make the point. The portraits are entirely made up of non-human components – for want of a better word – such as fruits and, here (left), fish. They are extraordinary pictures. Peculiarly unsettling.

There are, of course, pictures that remind one of earlier times. My mother was particularly enamoured by the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Delilah was a lot of a baddie, and not only took away Samson’s strength by cutting off his hair, but also had him blinded. My mother was keen for me to grow my hair, which I did, but I was never strong enough to push down a temple (top panel, right Tintoretto 1543).

Finally, there are some pictures that quite simply do not belong in this part of the collection. There’s a Turner, for goodness sake (another attempt at juxtaposition). There is also Bathers by Paul Cezanne (1890, left).

OK, we had no time for the huge collection of low countries art, Gustav Klimt and Dürer. We’re coming back, soon, to mop up.

Unconscious bias

As a lecturer at a university, I am confronted on a daily basis with my own biases. After all, I’m a middle-aged white male in a relatively powerful position vis-a-vis my students (a discussion about relative-ness, is for another time). As a course leader, I am charged with achieving inclusivity targets (however it is measured) and widening participation. These are good things, but achieving them is very hard indeed. I’ve been on the training courses, studied exemplars and worked with knowledgeable colleagues. To some extent, it is not for us to define. One cannot wish into existence wider participation, for example, in a climate – economic and political – that is structurally biased against the very people we are trying to include.

Last week I was driving home listening to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis, entitled: Why are even women biased against women? As a white male, naturally, I’m looking to get off the hook. In my head, I can hear things like, “well, if women are biased against themselves then I’m ok”, etc. And so I listen. The programme is presented by former Times journalist, Mary-Ann Sieghart, but that is not significant other than her admitting to her own biases against women.

In the programme are two scenarios. I was listening whilst driving paying reasonable attention. I am mortified that I got caught out by both of them. I have been naughty taking a bit of BBC intellectual property and posting it on to my blog. But as Sieghart says, not only are we complicit in our unconcious bias on a daily basis (the conscious bias is another question), but we must find ways of exposing ourselves to our biases on a daily basis also. So here goes:

Scenario 1: 

Scenario 2: 

So, how did you get on?

If readers want to try something else, go to the Harvard Implicit Bias project website and do the test. I did it myself (before the Analysis programme) expecting the worst. I came out of it neutral. But as my failure in Scenarios 1 and 2 demonstrates, there are no laurels to rest on.

 

JPS identity crisis

John Player Special is trying to knock us over with its striking new campaign, Make your Day. There’s a lot of red. It is supposed to “fit in”, as the strapline indicates. Because it is compact! What is a compact cigarette? More tobacco? If so, the bit they do have to put on the poster “Rauchen ist tödlich” is as fitting as ever. Deadly.

Gauloises’ winter season continues

Gauloises’ Vive le Moment campaign sticks with the winter theme and young people being naked in the snow. This time it looks like a hot tub in the garden with the clothes carelessly discarded on the wet snow. For some reason, there is no catchy strapline (I suppose it is cheaper that way?), the picture says it all!

Seville in December – Museo de Belles Artes

Take your passport for free entry into this wonderful example of a city gallery celebrating the work of its sons, if not artist daughters.

There is a lot of extraordinary medieval – largely religious – art here from the likes of José de Ribera, Juan de Valdés Leal, Taller de Zurbarán and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. But also some more contemporary work from the likes of José Garcia Ramos, Rafael Senet, Jose Villegas Cordero and Gonzalo Bilbao Martinez. There are some cameos by influential Flemish artists including Jan Brueghel de Velours, Pieter van Lint and Sebastian Vranckx. There’s also the odd German; namely, Lucas Cranach.
 
The building is a former monestery (left). It has two floors and an inner garden courtyard. The religous art tends to be about alterpieces. There’s plenty here with lots of virgins with child and grusome crucifixions. I recall Andrew Graham Dixon on his Art of Germany series that no one does ghouls better than the Germans. That may be true, but the Spanish and Flemish artists throw them in, too. Martin de Vos’, The Last Judgment (1570), has some pretty nasty ones dragging the sinners to their eternal damnation (right).
There’s a couple of paintings by 17th Century painter, Francisco Pacheco. His Portrait of an Elderly Lady and an Elderly Man (c1630) is chilling in its wizened-ness (left).
 
Alonso Vázquez’s The Last Supper (1588) has a wonderful sinister feel, notwithstanding Judas with his bag of money. There is something decidedly inedible on the table and some creepies on the floor. The apostles are muscular figures deeply concerned about the traitor amongst their number.
Maestro del Papagayo’s Holy Family (right) seems wholly mischievous. The child squeezes the nipple but is tempted by a grape! The symbolism is, I assume, fertility and the blood of Christ?
There is a lot of St Francis of Assissi going on in this gallery. For example, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Stigmatisation of St Francis (left) dating from c1645. More of Murillo’s wonderful work was in a special gallery where no cameras were allowed.
Another favourite son is Taller de Zurbarán. The gallery houses some rather large canvasses of saints; for example, St Anés with lamb (whom I know nothing about) and St Dorotea with fruit and flowers (both 1650, right). Dorotea was a legendary virgin martyr who may have lived in the 4th century. She is called a martyr of the Diocletianic Persecution.
Francisoco de Goya y Lucientes finds a place in this gallery as well as the cathedral. In the gallery, one finds his dark portraiture; for example, that of Canon José Duaso y Lastre (1824, left). This is the precursor to Goya’s black paintings, and you can see why.
 So, back to the Flemish artists, Jan Brueghel’s depiction of paradise with its paired animals, verdant backdrops and the odd naked Adam and Eve (right) delights in its detail and idealism.
This being a local museum, quite a bit of space is given over to paintings of dubious value. There are something like 8 canvasses by Domingo Martínez charting the route of a allegorical carriage through Seville in 1747 (left). It seems reminiscent of those major cavasses representing street scenes in Venice. Clearly important for the city but not necessarily for art. Though Martínez was very much a student of Murillo and the depictions are rare examples of secular art of the time.
 Talking of which, the more contemporary art occupies a few rooms on the second floor. Two things are really important in Seville. Flamenco and bull fighting. Both are represented in the collection, but not always as one might expect.
The dancing, for example, has a modesty about it; it is street flamenco. For example,Manuel Rodríguez De Guzman’s Baile en la taberne (right) and José Garcia Ramos’s Baile por bulerias (left). These both strike me as capturing the spontaneity of flamenco in Sevillian society. All you need is a spanish guitar (and someone to play it) a frilly frock, some shoes and maybe a male partner. And knowledge and passion, for I have no doubt that it is a technical art. Whilst I find flamenco myself to be rather dull to watch, I do not doubt its importance to the culture. Also nothing dies, unlike with the bullfighting.
The matadors are heroes. When one is lost, it is captured on canvas by the likes of José Villegas Cordero’s La Muerte del Maestro (1913, right).
Back to the real heroes, the people of the city. Part of the city’s wealth came from tobacco. Gonzalo Bilbao’s La Cigarreras (1915, below left) lets us into the working environment in one of the cigarette factories. It looks like a cathedral rather than a factory; it has all humanity in it.
Rafael Senet’s La Pescadora (1885 right) also draws on the lives of ordinary folk. The fisherwoman walks the beach with her large basket and exposes her feet as she tries to keep her dress from getting too wet.

Finally, I share, what is clear from our visit to Seville. The people love to dance and celebrate. Gustavo Bacarisas’s Sevilla en fiestas left (1915) captures this nicely with, what seems to be a night-time scene where the light captures three woman all dressed up with somewhere to go.

If you are in Seville and are looking for somewhere to go, this gallery is a gem.

Seville in December – the city walls and back

Early new year’s day in Seville is tricky for breakfast – don’t try it before noon. Our favourite place, Picatoste, was closed. We ambled along to the Cathedral area and found a hungover cafe bar with torched croissants on offer. Full of charcoal, we ambled further along the river to Puente del Barquita walking south east towards the district of Macarena. There one finds the remains of the 12th century city wall (left) and gate. Most of the wall was removed in recent times to facilate the expansion of the city. It does, however, face the parliament building, a converted hospital! Nestled in between is the baroque façade of the Basilica de Macarena. It’s not really baroque. It is also closed, like most places, to visit on 1 January.

We then walked south along San Luis, a wonderfully narrow throughfare with a mix of dereliction, exquisite restorations (Santa Marina) and local people. This is not really tourist central. San Marcos has a Mudéjar tower, a reminder that the 14th century church was actually built on the site of a mosque. We managed lunch in a fast-running-out-of-food tapas bar close to Santa Catalina. In the sunshine. Unfortunately, 5 minutes later one is back El Centro. Back to the hotel for a cup of tea.

Seville in December – where did we eat?

Breakfast is not so difficult. There are plenty of cafes doing it; though what constitutes breakfast is mixed. In Seville there is lots of Churros and chocolate sauce. Churros are long and thin doughnuts.

More to our liking was warm croissant with jam. Easy. Coffee comes as leche (with milk), solo (espresso) and Cappucino. For meat eaters, add ham. And ham.

We have frequented a locals’ place called Picatoste. It’s fast, furious, loud, of mixed clientele. And inexpensive. We’re off there now.

Seville is full of Tapas. I recall a few years ago in Malaga finding many veggie options; not least aubergine and courgette. But Seville (and Cadiz) serve largely tapas with fish and ham. There is one place, though. Habanita is tucked away in an alley near to the cathedral. It is meat and veggie – the latter predominating. Not only can you get aubergine, but also banana balls, garlicked yucca, wok-ed vegetables, stuffed pepper some sort of black bean pancake thing and even veggie steak (we didn’t try it). For dessert, the caramelized apple custard is a must (right). We also had cheesecake. Interesting. The online reviews are mixed; in relative terms, it is inexpensive, cheerful, cosy and welcoming.

The only exclusively veggie place we found was Restauranto Ecovegetariano Gaia. We had a couple of visits with mixed results. The set menu is probably best avoided as the better dishes are excluded. For example, there was a tofu/spinach egg-less quiche that lacked something. By contrast, the sauteed bulghar, tofu and vegetables was great as were the pasta and salads. A couple of vegan cakes for dessert finished off the meal nicely.

If one has to do battle with the tapas bars, then there are some hidden veggie dishes. At one place we had gazpacho – a cold tomato and cucumber soup. It came with grilled aubergine, courgette and mushrooms. Excellent. There are a number of variations: Salmorejo, for example. This comes without cucumber and is topped with olive oil. We also got served spinach and chick pea stew. It was not stew at all! But very welcome.

Seville in December – The Alcazar

The Alcazar stands adjacent to the cathedral and is a UNESCO world heritage site. A palace and seat of power and repression for a thousand years. It was thought to have been founded in the eighth century and maasively expanded in the eleventh century to serve as the great court of the Abbadid dynasty. Seville was the favoured residence of four centuries of spanish kings. In the twentieth century, it found favour with Franco and in the present day is home to current spanish monarch when visiting Seville. For good reason, it is certainly a tourist attraction. Without an advanced booking we waited 3 hours to get in. Take something to read and drink.

Inside one is confronted by all of the architecture, design and colour that one would expect from a clash, complementarity and contrast of Moor and Spanish aesthetics. Ornate carvings, exquisite 15th century ceramic tiles – I love ceramics – and amazing gardens complete with fountains and live peacocks (an important symbol captured in the decor).

I have to say that I did not work out the logic of the building with its many courtyards and significant rooms; for example, the eye-shattering Ambassadors’ Hall (below left). There is actually a maze in the garden, but the palace itself is sufficiently labrynthine to not need to get further lost, unless one has children.

One of the first courtyards is that of the maidens (below right). It has a longitudinal pond with dipped gardens around it. The arches are lobed and in Mudejar-style. The ceramic tiles adorn the outer walls. The caligraphy is arabic and contrast with the renaissance-style of the upper floor/gallery. It is not possible to walk on the upper gallery, but the guidebook highlights the existence of renaissance wedding medallions and coats of arms from the period.

The Ambassadors’ Hall is the show-off room where official receptions were held. It has a golden celestial cupola that is visible from outside and and lavishly decorated from the inside. It is not particularly well lit, So the guide pictures are much better than what we can manage with our gadgets.

This is particularly true of the Hall of Justice with its stucco decoration. Already very brown from the plaster, the shade – and my struggling eyesight – render the fine plasterwork short on detail, of which there is much – largely drawn from nature; leaves, flowers and shells (fertility).

The tapestry room has five large tapestries cascading down the walls. One is a lesson in developing cartography, the operative word being developing. There is also a magnificent depiction of Spain’s victory over Tunisia in June 1535 (the tapestry was comissioned by Philip V 200 years later, right).

And finally, the sub-terranean bath (left). It is a suitably cool space. It’s big, so presumably it is for sharing.

Seville in December – The Cathedral

Seville is the location for the largest cathedral (left), by volume, in the world. It’s gothic old, dating from 1506. Expect to queue to get in – it took us about 30 minutes. But once in, there is plenty of space for all. And more.

So, What to look for? Well, in many respects the cathedral is a museum and gallery (with each chapel acting as a themed room). There are some notable pictures – Goya‘s Santas Justa y Rufina (right) depicting the two pious sisters tortured by pagans for refusing to sell their earthenware pots at a Pagan celebration.

This being Spain, there are many treasures exchanged between clerics from Spain and the Americas. These range from exquisite to kitsch (my guide describes them universally as dull).

Christopher Columbus is, naturally, a revered historical figure in Spain. His tomb (left) was originally in Cuba but repatriated to Seville at the time of the revolution. The sarcophagus is an imposing exhibit on the south east side. The coffin is held aloft by four figures representing the kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragón and Navarra. It’s a selfie paradise.

Adjacent to Columbus one finds – what my guide describes as – the masterpiece (right) of the Cathedral, the central altarpiece (Capilla Mayor). This is debatable. It is certainly impressive and is, apparently, the life’s work of the sculptor, Flemming Pieter Dancart. There are 45 carved scenes of the life of Christ, intricately carved and guilded. Unfortunately it is defended by an enormous iron gate (as are many other altarpiece in the cathedral) which really prevents one from studying the panels in any meaningful way.

This cathedral is not the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is austere and cold. Hushed. Next stop, the Alcazar. I’m writing this in the queue. Looks like a few hours are needed!