Bridging East and West: Vienna’s Role as a Gateway within Europe

Sitting at the ideological edge between East and West, Vienna has traditionally been the gateway between the two poles of Europe.

In late 2009, new to Vienna’s art scene, I saw an exhibition that blasted open a previously-unknown part of Europe towards my American perspective. Curated by Bojana Pejić from Belgrade, Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe filled three floors of the mumok with more than 400 paintings, sculptures, installations, videos and posters created in the Communist Bloc (before and after actual communism) by 200 artists, most of whose names I’d never encountered before. Some have since become household art world names, like Marina Abramović from Serbia and Geta Brătescu from Romania; other memorable artists were Anetta Mona Chişa & Lucia Tkáčová from the Czech Republic, Katarzyna Kozyra from Poland, or Russian Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, whose 1996 self-portrait-in-drag as Marilyn Monroe graced much of the exhibition’s publicity material.

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe self-portrait for Gender Check

Even if the titular focus was how gender roles took shape, then shifted, in the region, the show felt big, seminal, important. It was about art and life behind the geopolitical and intellectual Iron Curtain, and about the artistic production that had always gone on, but that had somehow eluded the machineries of the Western art worlds.

Eastern and Western Europe are no longer split in the same way; neither is their art. It’s reductive to even try to categorize “Eastern” and “Western” European art, given the continent’s regional, national, and identity-based differences—and similarities. But it makes sense that this type of exhibition was first shown in Vienna. Why? The city sits on the ideological edge of Eastern Europe.

But at heart, Vienna is Eastern. Austria’s German name is Österreich, literally meaning “Eastern kingdom”, and the country’s capital has long been a gateway between the continent’s many differing artistic sensibilities and systems, due to the wide-reaching Austro-Hungarian empire’s lingering affinities and proximity, and the city’s history as a polyglot intellectual center.

Examples of Eastern European artists settling or showing in the Austrian capital are many, but I think of two unusual protagonists bracketing a century: sculptor Teresa Feodorowna Ries, a Russia-born maverick who moved to Vienna in the late 1800s, and whose provocative and weighty sculptures—like Witch Doing Her Toilette on Walpurgis Night (1895)—caught the eye of Austrian emperor Franz Josef, whose attention catapulted her to Fin de siècle art stardom. Her work (also remarkable because she was due to her status as a 19th-century divorced female artist) was again on view at the Lower Belvedere’s City of Women (2019) exhibition.

Installation view of City of Women with sculptures by Ries © Johannes Stoll for Belvedere

A contemporary counterpart of sorts might be Zsófia Keresztes from Budapest, whose colorful, mosaic-laden, almost- Dr. Seussian sculptures are visual expressions of our increasingly virtual world. They are just as weighty and risky as Feodorowna Ries’s work, and just as equally of their time: a wild and wonky mashup of post-internet and post-communist aesthetics. Keresztes shows at Gianni Manhattan, a young gallery in Vienna’s third district; her hometown was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of course. During its reign, “East” began somewhere else. But those new and old connections might be part of what makes Vienna pivotal to understanding where “East” might be now, with less delineation and more integration.

Installation view of works by Zsófia Keresztes at Gianni Manhattan © Courtesy of Gianni Manhattan
Scads of art students from countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo and other former Yugoslavian countries, the Ukraine—the list goes on—come to Vienna to study at the two major academies, due to their long-established but yet ever-growing networks and outstanding quality of instruction. Institutions, too, reflect the city’s role in European art. Ivet Ćurlin, Sabina Sabolović and Nataša Ilić from the curatorial collective WHW of Zagreb, Croatia have headed up the Kunsthalle Wien since 2019; their inaugural show … of bread, wine, cars, security and peace is a colorful explosion of geopolitical messages by artists from both sides of the blurry East-/West divide, calling for increased solidarity. It hints at the potentials of a more unified Europe, or world, even—but also the ongoing struggle to get there.
Installation view of ...of bread, wine, cars, security and peacel © Jorit Aust for Kunsthalle Wien

Gender Check was on view over a decade ago, and ideas of what Eastern Europe and its art represents have since evolved. But to use another threshold metaphor, Vienna is still the biggest window through which art’s East-West winds (meaning: ideas, markets, and lots of innovative people) can blow, no longer hindered by curtains.

Kimberly Bradley is an art writer who has lived in Vienna and is now based in Berlin. She has taught courses on contemporary art practices at New York University’s Berlin campus and art writing at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts. Her work was has been published in periodicals including ArtReview, BBC Culture, Frieze, Monocle, Smithsonian, and The New York Times.