Virtual Museum: Vienna’s ‘Beethoven Moves’ Exhibition Ingeniously Fêtes Ludwig’s 250th
Exhibition view, Photo:© Mark Niedermann for Tom Postma Design
What if you were the greatest composer who ever lived, and someone was throwing you a 250th birthday party…and then no one could come?
Well, not exactly no one. But the truly exalted Ludwig van Beethoven does indeed turn 250 this December, and a flurry of tribute events was appropriately planned across a great sweep of the Western World. In New York for instance, a three-day Beethoven Fest is still slated for this December at St. John’s in the Village—yet it remains at risk of cancellation due to the swelling of the coronavirus numbers.
But although Ludwig was actually born in Bonn, Germany, it was Vienna that became his physical and spiritual home from teenhood until his untimely death in 1827, aged just 56, from cirrhosis of the liver. (He had alas been well-acquainted with the bottom of a bottle from an early age.) So the city had vigorously organized a rapturous celebration of both his life and his nothing-less-than-hallowed body of work…but then, the pandemic obviously had other plans.
“Of course, it has meant that very sadly a number of wonderful events were either postponed or cancelled altogether,” laments Jasper Sharp, curator at the city’s glorious Kunsthistorisches Museum (which houses one of the most important collections in the world). “An obvious example is the production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at the Theater an der Wien, directed by the actor Christoph Waltz, which was never in fact performed before a public audience.”
Despite the challenges, Sharp and the Kunsthistorisches bravely went ahead and recently debuted the utterly fascinating, even daring new exhibition Beethoven Moves—which, of course, very few Americans will actually get to visit in person. But the virtual edition does have a marvelous go at making the viewer genuinely feel as if they are wandering from room to room in one of Europe’s most towering cultural institutions.
As history has it, Herr Beethoven, ever irascible and tragically misunderstood (all so vividly captured in Gary Oldman’s performance in the 1995 biopic Immortal Beloved), legendarily suffered the deterioration of his hearing at the height of his creative powers. But to this day, to listen to the 9th Symphony‘s ‘Ode to Joy’ is to be astonished as to what degree his music was able to conquer his despondency, even while in life it eventually completely overwhelmed him.
But the exhibition, rather than settle for a dry, chronological retelling of his monumental story, instead insightfully puts his music in “dialogue” with the works of a stunning array of modern and contemporary painters and sculptors—some of whom were well known to have shared the composer’s restless, tumultuous spirit.
In doing so, Jasper recalls, they attempted to capture the wild passion, as well as the emotional maelstrom that drove Ludwig on to so prolifically and ardently create such awe-inspiring symphonies and captivating sonatas as he did between the years of 1783 and 1827. The inclusion of Francisco de Goya, specifically, resonates with a melancholy poignance. In 1886, at the age of 40, he was appointed court painter to Spain’s King Charles III—yet by the end of the 19th Century, he too would suffer the loss of his hearing, spiraling him into darkness and cynicism.
Elsewhere, the work of renowned artists of the past—Auguste Rodin, J.M.W. Turner—and present—Tino Seghal, Rebecca Horn, John Baldessari (who actually passed away earlier this year)—are all juxtaposed with Beethoven’s music in thoughtful, fascinating, and even radical ways.
“It is an exhibition composed like a symphony,” explains Jasper, “with four complementary movements that each evoke a range of different emotions. As curators we chose to pursue a radical, uncompromising approach to the exhibition design and the objects on display, in the hope that this would convey the sense of Beethoven’s own radical, unexpected, risk-taking approach.”
What Beethoven Moves also helps to accomplish is to push the Austrian capital’s considerable 18th Century / baroque legacy on into the 21st. The city in fact is one of the most culturally dynamic and even zeitgeist influencing in all of Europe; yet beyond the Continent, it is often not considered outside of its starchy reputation for waltzes, opulent architecture and diet-destroying pastries. And as the digital age discombobulates cultural chronology, it’s perhaps the ideal time to view Beethoven’s relationship to Vienna in a completely new way.
Jasper observes, “As one of the most remarkable human beings that ever lived, his legacy is hard to define in any categorical sense, for the fact that he means something different to everyone. And that itself is perhaps his greatest achievement: each person has their own deeply personal relationship with him and his music.”
Certainly that is something that no degree of pandemic, quarantines and travel restrictions could ever possibly diminish.
N.B. – For more information on Vienna, visit wien.info/en.