October 23rd, 2006

The Illusionist

Catching up, here. Are you familiar with the "plate of shrimp" phenomenon described in the wonderfully weird movie "Repo Man"? This occurs when once you have an idea or word in your head, you begin to see it every where--. Just before and after our trip to Vienna has been a major spate of "Plate of shrimp" for us, everything from seeing the local grocery store having a special on "Vienna bread" to going to a movie on the brink of your trip and finding that it is set in--Vienna.

"The Illusionist" is indeed set in and around 19th Century Vienna--date rather nebulous, since the story action involves both a repressive secret police regime similar to that in place before the Metternich rebellion of the 1840's, and a Crown Prince that partakes of both the unhappy Prince Rudolf, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1886, and Francis Ferdinand, who was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914.

The plot involves the (literally) forbidden love between the boy who grow up to be the famous magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and the girl who would become Archduchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), leading candidate to become the Crown Prince's consort.

Young Eisenheim literally meets an old man along the road who shows him magic--real or illusionary is left in ambiguity. The boy, the son of a cabinet maker who works on Sophie's family's estate, turns his skills to the crafting of magic tricks, which he uses to "enchant" the young Sophie after a chance encounter. Their plan to run away together is thwarted by her family's vigilance, and Eisenheim gets the message to leave the village.

A decade or so later, he returns as the famous illusionist, having traveled the world to learn esoteric secrets. (One of his illusions is "The Orange Tree," orginated and made famous by Robert Houdin, the magician from whom Erich Weiss borrowed the name "Houdini." Movie special effects make the illusion look more real than it would in life, althought the diagrams you see of it later in the film are close to the alleged real thing.) Sophie, attending with the Crown Prince, becomes a volunteer in an eerie mirror trick (one of a number in the movie not explainable by modern ilusionary techniques)and she an Eisenheim recognize each other. She isn't happy with her pending betrothal to Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) , who wants her mainly for her political value, and is willing to take up with Eisenheim where they left off. Meanwhile, Leopold, sensing a rivalry makes it his business to show up the magician, and, when he fails at that, to drive him away.

What happens after that is a very convoluted plot, and it may be giving too much away even to say that all is not as it seems.

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Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity

The same day we went to see "The Illusionist," we had been to see the exhibition "Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity" at the Milwaukee Art Museum. We knew in advance that this facinating travelling show had been assembled with the help of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, but the fact that this show happened this season was another entertaining coincidence.

This exhibition focuses on the Biedermeier period in Central Europe from 1815 to 1830. It brings together almost 300 examples of German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian paintings, furniture, related decorative arts and works on paper that document character of the period and demonstrate how it was a precursor to modernism. The term "Biedermeier" is actually the name of a fictional character-Gottlieb Biedermaier-who came to life in the 1840s in a Munich weekly satirical magazine. This "everyman" represented the typical German citizen, more interested in a comfortable home than political activism. The tendency was to pare forms to their essentials, merging the useful with the beautiful. This exhibition examines Biedermeier painting, furniture and the related decorative arts as a style and a cultural attitude.

We found the exhibition fascinating on its own and also a useful warm-up to Vienna exhibit galleries, particularly the Modern Collection at the Upper Belvedere which covers the Biedermair period also. We found a lot of items, such as the tower clocks, tables and tea sets to have a lot in common with examples from the splendid "Arts and Crafts" exhibit, although separated by almost a century in time and great deal of political and artistic water under the bridge. A lot of the furniture was strikingly modern looking even by modern standards, and all of it beautiful by any standard. (On the other hand, I'd have a hard time living with some of the wallpaper designs--.)

The period is well documented by the exhibit. It is interesting to see how a style can grow just on its own merits, without the overarching manifestos that tend to accompany modern artistic movements. (Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the author, played a part in the later times due to his fascination with color theory, but he did not play the same role in the Biedermaier era that William Morris, for example, did in the Arts and Crafts movement.)

The show is well worth seeing if you are interested in the evolution of Modern art and design, and not just if you are planning a trip to Austria. The exhibition continues through January 1, 2007.

Milwaukee Art Museum Exhibit page: