How the Akademie der Bildenen Künste has Turned Generations of Students Into Masters of the Visual Arts

The Akademie der bildenden Künste has helped turn generations of students from all over the world into masters of the visual arts.

Behind the heavy wooden doors, the whitewashed walls were crammed with lockers and board shelving stocked with sawdust-caked machinery, well-oiled and ready to use.
 But not today, as students, layered against the January chill, summoned their courage to greet visitors with an offer of something to drink in a plastic cup. The simplicity was deceptive: This was an important occasion – the end-of-semester Rundgang (open house) in the sculpture department of the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna), a day when guests are welcomed here, as at the university’s dozen studios all over town, for a look at the work in progress of Vienna’s next generation of artists.

The studio on Böcklinstraße is a proud building, purpose-built in 1912 on the edge of the Prater, where the noise of hammers and chisels would be cushioned from urban life. Inside, exhibits line the floors and walls, human bodies depicted with woven jute, purple ribbon draped in a pile or a black mannequin stretched across the floor, pieces as unique and diverse as their creators.

Founded in 1688 by the court painter to Leopold I., Peter Strudel, the Akademie is one of the oldest art schools in Europe. Originally a private academy, today it is a major university with six institutes, nine major study programs and 300 teachers serving a student body of 1,400, and a majestic main building just off the Ring. The “Bildende” also has one of the most important art collections in Vienna: The Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery), with works by Hieronymus Bosch, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian.

At this year’s Rundgang, Belgian student Pauline Debrichy contributed a complex amalgamation of wooden boxes, whose sheer bulk suffocated the existing space. “It’s called Satellite,” Debrichy explained, a reflection of how power is expressed through architecture. Debrichy came to the Bildende here after her studies in Antwerp had left her unsatisfied. “It didn’t feel right. It’s all very old school [there], so I started looking for a place with more contemporary teaching methods.”

She’s not the only one. The Akademie’s excellent reputation – the alma mater of Egon Schiele, Gottfried Helnwein, Alfred Hrdlicka and other leading names in Austrian art – draws a large number of international students, who make up 47 percent of the total.

“Our workshops create a lot of international interest. We kept them, while other countries decided to go fully digital.” Eva Blimlinger, Rector, Akademie der Bildenden Künste

“These students provide new cultural and aesthetic approaches to art,” explained Rector Eva Blimlinger in a recent interview. To Debrichy, the Bildende was a revelation, especially the ability to switch between classes and receive credit for a course in any area. “You definitely have to organize, but it’s all about expressing yourself.”

Her colleague Mads E. Hvidtfeldt also appreciates the approach and has switched freely between media. A native of Copenhagen, Hvidtfeldt was exhibiting several paintings on the Rundgang, one depicting a ghoulish woman staring through a camera at the viewer. “I like to work with symbolism,” he elaborated. “Through the lens, the picture becomes a part of our visual culture.” And why no sculptures? Hvidtfeldt laughed. “Sometimes my teacher encourages me to make a sculpture again, but in the end, it’s your choice which medium you pick.”

Hands-On Experience

This richness is what makes the Bildende so unique. “We have all the special fields of the fine arts in this house,” Blimlinger explained, “including classical painting and restoration, but also disciplines like the performing arts and video.” But options are only part of the story. Part of the Bildende’s reputation also involves keeping pace with artistic developments, and many of the faculty are active artists with ties to the international scene – like the late German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who taught there from 2004-2011 or Monica Bonvicini, the 1999 Golden Lion winner at the Venice Biennale.

Being at the pulse of the contemporary scene comes with an emphasis on artistic practice, a principle Blimlinger is proud of. “Our workshops create a lot of international interest. We kept them, while other countries decided to go fully digital. Today they know that that was a mistake.” Debrichy, Hvidtfeldt and their fellow students have benefitted from this foresight, experimenting in a hands-on environment. “The rooms and machines are accessible to everyone,” said Debrichy in praise of the working conditions. “There is quite a unique energy to working here,” added Hvidtfeldt. “Everybody is eager to explore new things, and that is very important.”

akademie der bildenden künste
The Bildende has six institutes spread all over the city, teaching everything from painting to architecture or restoration. // © Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien

Looking for Artistic Mindsets

But getting accepted at the Bildende is not easy. The school is famous for accepting only 10 percent of the applicants each year – with one infamous reject a young Adolf Hitler, who failed the entrance exams twice. But that is changing, at least a little. The Akademie has doubled the student body in the last ten years. “It is also a misconception that an applicant must have a perfect portfolio,” Blimlinger said. “If they were perfect, what would there be left to teach them?” Instead, the Akademie looks for artistic potential. “They want people who can find their own visual language,” Hvidtfeldt confirmed, “who have a level of individuality and of course, the talent.”

Those who make the cut discover that a perspective, a direction, is just as important as the diploma to the Akademie. “During the first two to three years after they leave, graduates already have a foot out of the door. And we support them in getting the second one out too,” said Blimlinger, adding that former students can continue to exhibit their work in the rector’s office – a space to exhibit without the professional complications.

The Akademie’s international student body also helps. Alumni from abroad often provide recent graduates with opportunities to work in local exhibitions. This is important to Debrichy: “It’s a way to get involved in international projects.” At the moment, she is preparing for a project in Germany, taking Satellite with her. With the experience she’s gained at the Bildende, she is on her way.

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