You enter the palais through the portal and walk past an elegant outbuilding that houses the museum's two restaurants. Inside the soaring central foyer stands an enormous painted and gilt-wood state carriage. Twin staircases beckon visitors to ascend to the upper floors beneath magnificent ceiling frescoes uncovered during the recent renovations. But first they must pass through the library, an extraordinary Neoclassical interior that was moved, with its 100,000 volumes, from another family residence in the city (the next restoration project on Kräftner's agenda), a space that allows visitors to leave, as Kräftner puts it, "the noise of the world outside."
The first suite of galleries on the upper floors Kräftner has set aside for temporary exhibitions of Austrian art. In the remaining galleries, martyrs, generals, banquet scenes, and landscapes by Hals, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Raphael hang in dizzying profusion; the paintings are set off by credenzas, inlaid pietra dura tables, and other period furnishings.
Rubens is the artist who in many ways defines the museum, partly because the family collected so many of his lush, sweeping canvases—30 still remain in the collection—and partly because his work is the painterly counterpart of the building's architecture. There is an entire room devoted to one of Rubens's most famous epics, the Decius Mus cycle, which depicts the sacrifice of three Roman consuls in service of the empire.
As part of his plan to promote the Baroque glory of Vienna, Kräftner has been roving the world buying things, spending, by his estimate, some $12 million to $25 million a year on paintings, porcelain, sculpture, and furniture. Some of these objects he feels he is simply returning to Vienna, recouping the city's former glory one purchase at a time. A stunning Frans Hals portrait, with the impatient brushwork of a Manet, which had been expropriated from the Rothschilds and then hung in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was restored to the family in 1998, then sold by them—and bought by Kräftner—at Sotheby's New York last winter. Another recent purchase is an extraordinary collection of 18th-century porcelain, confiscated by the Nazis from the Bloch-Bauer family, returned to their descendants, and bought by Kräftner—who proudly showed me a turn-of-the-century catalogue designed by Josef Hoffmann. He plans to include the collection in a show of Viennese Baroque and Neoclassical porcelain.
In fact, few noble or Jewish families managed to retain their art collections through both wars. The Liechtensteins were among the lucky ones. Now, Kräftner and the prince have forged alliances with some of those same families, convincing them of the value of opening their houses to the public so that their equally impressive riches can be viewed on a combination entry ticket with the museum. He has also persuaded his famously competitive colleagues to stage, next winter, a suite of Rubens exhibitions in Vienna's museums. And he strongly believes that the Baroque should, and can, be modern. "My dream is to have a Vivienne Westwood show—imagine those fantastic clothes, here! Baroque, but on the other hand, up-to-date." And to prove that the museum can once again be what it was, he intends to hold a perpetual open house. "I want to give people the chance to come in, relax, stroll around the gardens, hear chamber concerts, go to one of our restaurants," he says. "I want a living museum." ¼
1 Fürstengasse; 43-1/3195-7670, www.liechtensteinmuseum.at. ("Rubens in Vienna" is on view from December 5, 2004, through February 27, 2005.)