120 years ago Melbourne was the richest city in the world; the Abu Dhabi of days gone by. Melbourne’s fortune was fuelled not by oil, but by gold. I’m convinced that in another 100 years the next golden city will be fuelled by a supply of fresh water or perhaps something even rarer like common sense. Melbourne is the one place in Australia where I almost forget I’m down under, the Yarra River could be the Chicago or the Thames. The gumtrees disappear, the outback ends and Sydney and Brisbane fade to black. It would seem that Melbourne spent its entire fortune on art. The city is ornate and bejewelled in every un-Australian way you can imagine; for the rest of Australia is decidedly unprepared. Go see the Blue Mountains and there is little by way of description, just look you fool; no amusement parks or Ferris wheels, no pictures of Grandpa in a barrel going over the three sisters, it’s just there to enjoy or drive past, whatever floats your boat.
This weekend in Melbourne a few things became clear to me. For a weekend with my wife in a fancy art series hotel, I’ll do almost anything and if that includes 5 hours of boutique shopping, sipping wine and gulping down over priced coffee – where do I sign up. But my true epiphany came on Sunday when I was prompted to attend the Art Museum of Victoria to see a collection of Viennese art, circa 1880 to 1915. I couldn’t help but think that this period represented a meaningful time in human history as it coincides with Melbourne’s glory days, the origins of the educational system to which I now espouse and perhaps more significantly it perfectly predates the post war period in Europe, the three decades prior to a butchery, the extent of which had never before been seen in the annals of human history. I kept walking around looking at the art, the architecture, the fashions and the style trying to figure out - what were these people thinking.
What I found was a unique take on existentialism. A place and period deeply concerned with objects. An entire gallery of photographs, paintings, sketches and artefacts without one action shot. There was one outdoor painting but it was static, no hint of wind, and not a person within the canvas. There was a huge emphasis and even a dignity conferred to everyday household items. There were chairs festooned with silly bobbles in a style which would have made sitting in one a chore. But never chairs (plural), never a dinner party, just a chair sitting nobly alone in all its “chairness”. And there were tea cups and goblets, geometric architecture, and portraits of the men and women who obviously understood the sanctity of the new modern world. Existentialists believe that only human existence is meaningful, that the world is essentially mad, fundamental truths are never to be believed and the human plight is the only lens with which to exact refuge from an absurd reality. Therefore the emphasis on the here and now, the human struggle either with one’s self (Freud), others (Darwin) or cutlery (Julia Child?) is singularly worth review. I can see the aesthetic nature of Montessori education born in 1907 having been influenced by Vienna; its emphasis on practical life, the nobility of the child and the precision with which the Montessori materials were crafted as characteristic of this period. It’s also not a huge leap to suggest that Art Deco spawned from these Viennese roots, and the jazz music of the early 20th century could have been developed from the composers influenced from this romantic period.
Vienna of the late 19th century was probably one of those intersections of place and time that influenced human history to a greater extent than we think. Like Alexandria of the bc/ad switch, everyone arrived, everyone partied, lots of people thought and the ideas that followed spread around the world like wild fire. I hadn’t really considered it until a September 11th walk around Melbourne put me in a pondering mood. Was it 30 years of Viennese self-indulgence that spurred today’s consumerist society, the one driven by the glorification of objects over ideals. Probably not, more than likely it’s been a gradual perversion of the existentialist paradigm over time as a generation of baby boomers tries to recover from some previously grisly behaviour.
Still I can attest that Melbourne is a good place to hang on a spring afternoon. My particular take on art has always been closest to Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “art is a mechanism by which rich people make poor people feel stupid” but obviously something in all that oil on canvas got me thinking. Or it could have been all that cappuccino, we’ll never know.