LETTER FROM VIENNA / Tales from the Vienna woods: Deirdre Coffey on a mix of art and politics in modern Austria

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IN SPITE of a stubborn strain of xenophobia, the Austrians have perfected the art of packaging their history and culture for consumption by tourists. One of Austria's most publicised artists, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an art professor whose ambition seems to consist of covering everything from postage stamps to a complete Carinthian village with his nave decorative patterns, has most successfully exploited this packaging industry.

Most of the inhabitants of the targeted village are undaunted, enthusiastic even, about becoming another Hundertwasser tourist attraction and so bringing more money into the area. Unfortunately, some snottier Carinthians objected to the village being turned into a Christmas cracker and so once again Hundertwasser finds himself at the centre of a legal row.

He remains seriously bitter about his failure, a few years back, to force the government into accepting his design for Austria's car license plates instead of the European standard they opted for. His massive campaign embarrassed even his fans, especially as his much-vaunted philosophy suggests everyone should go around on bicycles anyway.

About the only commercial avenue not yet explored by Hundertwasser is brand-name perfume. But just give him a little time, and some smelly concoction with packaging designed to delight a hobbit will no doubt be on sale at his Vienna souvenir shop.

A million or so visitors a year trip (literally - since the tiled floors are bunched up to mimic forest paths) through his ornate private museum, the kitschy KunstHaus, where his bright, decorative paintings are displayed alongside dubious gobbets of philosophy, such as 'If we destroy our roots, we cannot grow'. There are also (uncommissioned) designs for various national flags. His proposed 'Flag of Reconciliation' for the Middle East is blue for Israel because, according to Hundertwasser, Jews possess visionary genius, and green to symbolise the vegetable innocence of the Arabs.

On leaving, one can buy Costa del Sol-style memorabilia that have been given the Hundertwasser treatment - lots of swirls and circles, brightly coloured and childlike, but somehow missing the innocence or spontaneity of a child's vision.

The enthusiast can choose from several videos featuring Hundertwasser delivering improving tracts on our relationship with the environment. He complains that everyone, except him, is abusing nature. Try telling that to a tree growing feebly out of a window in the famous council house (Hundertwasser Haus) he overhauled in 1985 or to one of the disoriented white bunnies hopping about the grassed-over roof of the KunstHaus where Hundertwasser is wont to sit in silent commune with his bemused art students.

'A ustria's most sought-after cultural export' is how first violinist Clemens Hellsberg likes to describe the magisterial and defiantly all-male Vienna Philharmonic. Smartly packaged in their morning suits, they brought their much-promoted 'Golden Sound' (which some members claim women are incapable of capturing) to London earlier this month on the first stage of a European tour.

Being a democratically run association, the Philharmonic is able to wriggle out of auditioning any women who apply for the few lucrative vacancies that crop up. The fact that there are now a lot of younger musicians in the orchestra hasn't changed things; many young Viennese are devastatingly conservative anyway. Apologists argue that, if the women become pregnant, they won't be able to practise and so will undermine the Philharmonic's high standards.

But if the orchestra is unable to confront the present, it has shown itself able to confront the past. In presenting his history of the Philharmonic, to mark its 150th anniversary, Hellsberg caused quite a stir by revealing that over 40 per cent of the orchestra had joined the Nazi party, 11 Jewish members were sacked, six died in concentration camps and over half the orchestra's audience (the Viennese Jews) disappeared.

Conductors such as Otto Klemperer, Erich Kleiber and Bruno Walter left after the Anschluss but others, like Wilhelm Furtwangler, remained. The orchestra's collaboration exempted its members from military service and allowed them to keep their independence and the priceless historical instruments which, together with their male hormones, constitute the 'Golden Sound'.

Austrian State Television (ORF) is in the process of being repackaged by British designer Neville Brody. The facelift has caused much testiness here. Whether Brody's new no-nonsense chunky logos and advice can save the ORF from itself remains to be seen. Brody must have been stunned by the grisly quality of the programmes and the style of presentation, which seems to have been discovered in the Seventies and stuck there.

Like the BBC, Austria's state television is under siege. It is financed through a mandatory licence fee (in support of which viewers have endured a lot of threatening reminders) and chunks of indigestible advertising.

The Director General's attempt to raise more money through longer advertising time has so far been thwarted. The rest of the media were outraged at the greediness of the proposal but, as people switch to cable and satellite television, and talk of privatisation becomes more vehement, it's clear that the ORF needs more than just a facelift.

Vienna Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall, 8 Feb, 30 May, 071-928 8800