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An Art Guide to Salzburg: The Stage of the World

April 26, 2017

Arts | by Harry Seymour


Salzburg is one of the best-preserved Baroque cities in Europe. A miraculous survivor of the Second World War because of its swift occupation under the Nazi regime, today it provides perhaps the most charming old-town complex in the whole of central Europe. The towering Baroque churches with their gleaming white interiors, sumptuous staterooms and regal ducal apartments are nestled sympathetically along cobbled streets and around picturesque squares between some of the best modern art galleries and contemporary museums to be found within such a short trip from London. Salzburg’s geographical location in the heartland of alpine Europe has meant that throughout the last two millennia it has been considered the jewel of any reigning power’s authority. Everyone from the Romans, the Catholic Church, the Hapsburgs, Napoleon and Hitler has at some point held the reigns of the city – each leaving their own imprint on the city’s shape. The city was also the birthplace and home of the composer Mozart, the filming location for The Sound Of Music, and in 1997 because of its rich history was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Split down the middle by the Salzach River, which eventually joins the Danube, the city has a historical old town that lies along its banks. Boutiques, gift shops, galleries and Austrian coffee houses jostle for space on the quaint lanes, each displaying their antique wrought iron signage. These town sits in a geological basin surrounded on all sides by mountains and cliff faces, which have historically provided the city with protection from both intruders and the elements. Today it is a city packed to the brim with great art and architecture, charting the tastes of powerful European dynasties throughout the centuries at every corner. Candid Magazine rounds up the best of what to see for art lovers this spring in the city that proclaims itself the stage of the world.

Salzburg in spring

Austria has a somewhat underappreciated knack for beautifully blending the old with the new and the Museum der Moderne, the state’s official modern art gallery, is no exception. The gallery has two locations in the city – one a former 17th century Baroque palace that opened in 1983 and the other in a refurbished Modernist former casino perched on a cliff face 60 metres above the city. The museum was the brainchild of art dealer Otto Breicha who in the 1980’s donated his personal collection to the city. He was a great friend of the Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka and the museum contains the most important public collection of his works in the world. The galleries also contain an impressive roster of works by some of the leading 20th century Austrian artists – who often, for reasons unknown, don’t share the same fame as their Swiss, French and Italian counterparts, albeit undeservedly so. The likes of Fritz Wotruba, Martin Schnur and Herbert Boeckl have helped shape central European art movements of surrealism, impressionism and conceptualism with works that rival the skill and ingenuity of those from their neighbouring allies, which can all be seen in the Museum der Moderne. The forward-thinking museum also contains cultural and scientific research laboratories, artist-in-residence quarters and a publishers. This April two important exhibitions open. One examining the life’s work of Roland Goeschl; the important Austrain sculptor known for his bright, monumental cubist creations, while the other show combines sound, film, space and light in visual art form to explore the ever-changing dynamic way in which audiences and gallery spaces interact. Working with various communities and art educators, the show’s primary research allowed participants to use the space to address notions important to themselves through different mediums – the results of which form the basis of the exhibition. This in turn evolves over time as visitors add their own experiences. It is this precise dynamic approach to the curator’s role that is helping this gallery fast become one of the most applauded in Europe by both visitors and critics, and stresses the underlying beautiful pragmatism adopted by the Austrian’s when it comes to their arts. Their approach blends German functionality with an Italian understanding of futurism and a French taste for beauty. This idea of a unique Austrian method is proven by the theme of their summer show, which examines the role of female artists working in exile – another one not to miss.

Salzburg Museum Moderne

The Dom Quartier complex is actually five museums in one, coveting 15,000 square metres, 2,000 exhibits and 1,300 years of history. It encompasses a cathedral, abbey, palace and fine art gallery called the Residenz Galerie. Because of Salzburg’s tumultuous history, being constantly annexed, empowered and overthrown, the city’s collections of historical artefacts can be somewhat slim on the ground from time to time. Most recently, Napoleon famously plundered the Dom Quartier’s contents, leaving little behind. However, the gallery does have some real fine art gems. Some of these paintings have been repatriated to their original Salzburg home, while various Austrian collectors have donated others over the years. The gallery today contains works by some of the most important European masters including Rubens, Brueghel, Boucher and Strozzi. They might not be the biggest or best works by these artists, but they highlight the power and wealth Salzburg had as a city on the main stage of Baroque Europe. The whole complex has been updated with a feel of contemporary curation applied to these historical objects, in a way that feels coherent and smart. Running from now until June there is an exhibition about the scientific research undertaken on a Rembrandt painting in their collection. The show highlights the academic and scientific work that goes on behind the scenes of these institutions, as well as the scholarship championed by the museum and its collaborators, whilst also telling a fascinating story about the working methods of the Dutch master of moody portraits. The show is practical and informative yet charming in a way that Austrian galleries manage to achieve so well – something yet to be achieved regularly by British institutions.

Dom Quartier, Salzburg

Housed in the Neue Residenz on one of the city’s main squares, the Salzburg Museum charts the history of the city from its beginnings in antiquity to the modern day through art, music, architecture, literature and photography. The museum has taken a unique and innovative approach to its curation that has won it many awards. Each multifunctional room flits between light and dark with modernist glass display cases containing a selection of historical artefacts. The theme here is clearly less is more, with rooms appearing sparse yet well considered. Video and sound installations compliment the works of art to create an immersive experience where cotemporary functionality is used as a tool to tell the story of the past in a method that has seemingly been applied throughout the city. Tradition meets modernity in an idiosyncratic Austrian appearance. A panorama passage allows archaeological remains to be viewed in the round, while an art-hall illuminated by a single monumental light structure displays an ever-changing collection of pictures.

Salzburg Museum

If you’re used to white cube spaces with works of art hanging in neat single file rows, this will change how you think galleries can communicate effectively. The current exhibition FacingAustria, which runs until the 14 of May focuses on the history and contemporary scene of documentary photography in Austria. Structured as a material collection, the show illustrates how Austrian citizens have reacted to their landscape, architecture and art, as well as social, political and economical events and changes during their lifetimes. The show opens dialogues through a visual and literal space between how artists dissect (within an instant snapshot) their world changing around them. The show’s unique approach and layout help explain why this museum is at the forefront of European curation.

Salzburg Museum

This small independent commercial gallery champions up and coming as well as established Austrian and Polish artists, as well as new approaches to painting, drawing and graphic design. The gallery takes a unique approach to its programming – there is no rigid structure to their shows, which are often ruptured to reflect the ever-evolving nature of contemporary art and its production and adaptation. The Gallery Sandhofer works closely with its artists, who are shaping the nature of Austrian art scene and it’s a must visit for anyone who wishes to explore the country’s vibrant contemporary art offerings. The current show, which runs until 11 May 2017, is of the paintings of Piotr Kotlicki, whose absurdist figurative works combine surrealism with symbolism and abstraction to make Francis Bacon-esque portraits of monkeys.

The most dominating feature of the city’s skyline, the Hohensalzburg Fortress sits high up on the rocky outcrop that overlooks the historical centre of the city. Built on top of fortified walls, which are scaled by a funicular railway that whisks you to the top, the fortress has been home to Salzburg’s Archbishops since 1077. Once you reach the summit a labyrinth of corridors lead to various museums within the fortress including a contemporary military museum, history museum and fine art museum that contains paintings by the likes of Brueghel and Bosch. The art inside highlights the how much of a seat of power Salzaburg once. It may not have the best masterpieces in Europe but none the less has important works by some of Europe’s great historical artists. Keeping things contemporary; the courtyard has exhibitions by living Austrian artists who run talks and workshops weekly. There are also stunning panoramic views from the turrets of the castle and an outdoor bar built in to the edge of the cliff.

Hohensalzburg Fortess, Salzburg

Salzburg was a city founded on its ancient salt mining tradition, and any modern city worth its weight of the stuff, is home to an art fair. Being no exception, Salzburg every April hosts the Art&Antique Residenz Fair across the historic buildings of the old town. Exhibitors from across Europe will be showcasing some of the finest contemporary and old master works of art, alongside jewellery and antiques, for the ultimate holiday souvenir. Expect the city to come alive with an artistic buzz, and serious cash. It might not have the same draw as Frieze, TEFAF or ArtBasel, but it proves that this city is truly dedicated to its arts and provides another reason to visit Salzburg this spring.

For anyone visiting the city who doesn’t want the art to stop at night, they can stay at Hotel Auersperg. Located a short stroll from the historic centre of Salzburg, Hotel Auersperg provides the ideal bolthole for culture aficionados to explore the city. Run by the third generation of family owners, the hotel combines contemporary furniture and lighting with antique fittings to create a sleek and intimate atmosphere. Charmingly informal in a way only independent hotels can be, the residence has a large summer garden, roof top sauna and complimentary bicycle hire, while the breakfast offerings are locally sourced and organic. The rooms are bright and spacious with iPod docks, plasma televisions and Nespresso machines. The service is typically Austrian as a friendly smile puts you at complete ease while the staff go the extra mile to make sure every inch of your trip is enjoyable.

Hotel Aursperg, Salzburg

If you want to dine like a local while in the city, there is nowhere better than Zwettler’s. Residing in the vaults of a shoemakers shop built in 1516 down a cobbled lane behind the cathedral, the restaurant and bar is about as authentically Austrian as you can get. Frothy beer is served by the stein while the menu is full of goulash, schnitzel and ragout – all available with dumplings. Every dish is mouth-wateringly hearty in taste and size – handy in the colder months. The rustic setting filled with dark wood, mounted antlers and low hanging lamps is enigmatic of how casual Austrian dining should feel. A vibrant atmosphere and endearing host in the form of proprietor Sophie Hohensinn, round it off to make a great evening.

If you want to go all out, then Stiftskeller St. Peter is a restaurant carved in to the side of the mountain underneath the Hohensalzburg Fortress, and holds the title of the oldest restaurant in Europe (only one in Japan is older) having been documented since 803 AD. Its cavernous rooms are full of old world charm and the food is rich and sumptuous. The wine cellars are set deep in the mountainside and the ballroom hosts a classical music accompanied dinners. Christopher Columbus and Mozart both have dined there in the past, and more recently Karl Lagerfeld hired the whole venue for a party, so you can dine in good, cultured company.

Stiftskeller St. Peter, Salzburg

And once you have had enough of galleries and museums, the culture doesn’t have to stop there. The Salzburg Casino on the city’s edge is housed in the grand (but deceivingly thin) Baroque Klessheim Palace, which during the Second World War Hitler used as his Austrian headquarters to entertain Mussolini. There is also the Sound Of Music Tour that takes in various filming locations throughout the city and the surrounding countryside. Many of the historic gardens, houses and villages are just as picturesque now as they were in 1965 and are full of impressive art collections and offer wonderful examples of historical architecture in their own right. Salzburg provides the ideal destination for a weekend break in Europe, easily reachable by plane, but also train. The Austrian OBB railways are some of the best in Europe offering speed, comfort, reliability and stunning views, making Salzburg the ideal beginning, middle or end point of a European railway art and culture trip.

The Salzburg Card gets you free entry to a host of museums, galleries and events, as well as free public transport, from 24 euros per person.