vienna: 4 posts

“I’m Dying of Love for You” : The Letters of Isabella von Parma

I returned from my recent trip to Vienna bring back not only an obsession with Johann Georg Pinsel, but also with Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), who lived at the same time as the mysterious 18th century sculptor. Isabella was one of the most remarkable personalities of the 18th century, admired for her achievements in art, music, and philosophy. The reason I became fascinated with her, however, was an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria. “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.”

I am once again struck by the narrow lenses through which we see women in history. In many books Isabella is repeatedly described as “mad,” “tragic,” or “odd.” People search for the roots of her melancholy moods in the family tree and discuss at length the mental problems of her father and her mother’s cold attitude. What about the fact that princesses in the 18th century were little more than breeding mares, and Isabella had half a dozen miscarriages during her short marriage to Joseph II of Austria? The couple was under enormous pressure to produce a male offspring to the Hapsburgs.

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The Passion of Johann Georg Pinsel

It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.

Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.

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Angels and Mysteries of Johann Georg Pinsel

Johann Georg Pinsel is a mystery. Nobody knows where he was born, where he studied or even if Pinsel is his real name. The only thing that is certain is that he could make wood shed blood and tears. Last summer I found myself in the small town of Buchach where Pinsel worked and died. In just ten years, between 1750 and 1760, he created a series of sculptures and carvings of extraordinary drama and complexity. Pinsel’s angels flutter, his saints grieve, his Christ extends his hand to you in mercy.

pinsel

From 28 October 2016 to 12 February 2017, the Belvedere in Vienna will honor this Baroque master, giving viewers a rare chance to see his work up close. He was active in the western Ukrainian region of Lviv (Lemberg during his lifetime) and decorated many churches in the region with his wood and stone sculptures.

Many art historians compare the power of his work to that of Michelangelo, and the only reason you haven’t heard of Pinsel is because his work came to light fairly recently. Like much of Ukraine, Pinsel’s masterpieces were affected by the terrible events of the 20th century. Just to give you an example: Lviv changed hands no fewer than eight times between 1914 and 1945. Then the Soviets destroyed the churches where Pinsel’s sculptures were housed. It’s a miracle that any of his works have survived.

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Viennese Vanilla Crescents with Tonka Bean (Vanillekipferln)

Tonka beans look like dusty, wrinkled pods, but they smell like smoky cherries, sugared almonds and sun warmed hay. Many fragrance raw materials have heady aromas that are as complex as those of a finished perfume, but few rival tonka bean for its luscious seduction. Gourmand doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s decadent, sultry, and addictive.

The best way to experience the complexity of tonka bean is not just to smell it, but to eat it. Tonka bean is the flavor of the moment in Europe, where I’ve encountered it in cakes, ice cream, chocolates, and even savory dishes. The sweetness of tonka lends itself perfectly to desserts, especially anything that contains almonds, vanilla, or cherries. These ingredients explore natural affinities, and you can’t go wrong by adding a pinch of tonka to cherry compotes, almond cakes or vanilla custard. The best way to imbue as much tonka flavor as possible into a dessert is to grate it finely and either infuse it in warm liquid, or as I do in the recipe for Viennese Vanilla Crescents (Vanillekipferln), cream it with butter.

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