Vienna’s famous Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) tends not to have the kind of regular exhibitions you get from an Albertina or Belvedere. Partly, I’m sure, because the permanent displays are so rich and comprehensive.
The few exhibitions held each year tend to fall into one of two categories: “small and special” or “major and magnificent”.
Below I’ve listed past exhibitions that I visited and/or wrote about, so you can develop a feel for what to expect from this prestigious art museum in the future.
Caravaggio & Bernini
(Part of a portrait of Caravaggio; courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
2019’s end-of-year extravaganza brought together over 70 works from late 16th and early 17th century Rome: a first for a museum outside of Italy. The displays included several Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures (the latter’s Medusa being a particular highlight).
The Caravaggio exhibition didn’t quite scale the heights of popularity of 2018’s Bruegel equivalent but provided intriguing insights into the groundbreaking world of early baroque Italian art (ended January, 2020).
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
One of the best and most popular events in recent Viennese museum history: the Bruegel exhibition featured around 75% of his surviving works, thus offering a once-in-a-lifetime Bruegel experience.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum already owns the world’s largest collection of Bruegel paintings (thanks to the Habsburgs) and the loans enabled themed works to be displayed with each other for the first time in centuries. I believe the appropriate technical term was….awesome (ended January, 2019).
Other major exhibitions
Summer 2021 seemed an auspicious time for an exhibition on how humanity views the elements that control our lives: God(s), fate, luck, Karma, public health requirements…etc.
The Higher Powers exhibition covered various beliefs through history and across societies and civilisations. Items from the extensive collections of the wider museum group and contributions from the public provided illustrative physical manifestations of these beliefs (ended August 15th, 2021).
A little foray into modern art for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with the Rothko exhibition featuring over 40 of his works. The connection to the earlier art you associate more with the KHM comes from the sources that inspired Rothko. He travelled extensively to the great historical centres of European art and drew on mythology and religious iconography.
The exhibition included the famous Seagram Mural Studies that (perhaps fortuitously) never appeared in the restaurant setting they were first intended for (ended June, 2019).
Poor old Ludwig had a whole year of citywide celebrations to look forward to for his 250th birthday. But 2020 had other plans for us all, so the exhibition suffered from unavoidable delays and fewer visitors than it deserved.
Beethoven Moves juxtaposed historical and contemporary art with Beethoven-related material to illustrate how he inspired and influenced others and continues to do so in the 21st century (ended January, 2021).
Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin
An unusual title for an eclectic exhibition curated by none other than Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf, who picked out their favourites from the museum’s large and diverse collections. The Spitzmaus of the title is a mummified shrew from the Egyptian department (ended April, 2019).
(Small exhibitions that present one or two works alongside some new or special insight.)
Head of Medusa by Rubens
Ansichtssache #23 compared two paintings of the Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens, one from the museum’s own collection and the other a loan from Brno’s Moravian Gallery; one on canvas, the other on oak (ended March, 2019).
A fascinating little exhibition that featured brief biographies of numerous Roman Emperors. Each biography included a selection of coins to illustrate how the manipulation of objects, images and narratives clouds objectivity and colours our understanding of people and histories (ended February, 2021).
Update: reopened until March 31st, 2022!
Jan van Eyck
This small exhibition paid hommage to another pioneer of European painting, with a triple treat of van Eyck works: the 1439 Madonna and Child at the Fountain, the 1436 portrait of Jan de Leeuw, and the 1435 (ish) Portrait of a Scholar. Misattributed and related works completed the displays (ended January, 2020).