Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
Everywhere you turn in Vienna, you’ll find gaudy souvenir shops. What used to be a telegram office now sells Sigmund Freud’s face on key chains. What once was a fine confectionery shop now carries a poor facsimile of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss on dish plates. My month-long house-sit in Vienna was coming to an end but I was determined not to leave this city of literary salons, lattes and lost art without a memento of its hidden beauty.
A city such as this, where Sigmund Freud and artists such as Klimt, Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser (and a certain Fuhrer who need not be mentioned) were all strolling the Ringstrasse at the same time in history, is a city not to be shrugged off as merely any other. I had visited all the art galleries, seen the Klimts,Vermeers and Schieles, but I wasn’t sated. I found Mozart’s and Beethoven’s tombs, I dined in the literary salons on the fashionable Graben and Kartnerstrasse shopping streets once patronized by Franz Kafka, Max Brod and Milena Jesenska, but had nothing to show for it. Having more of an old-fashioned countenance than most (I own three typewriters, a rotary phone and wind-up alarm clock), a mere bookmark from the Kunsthistorisches Museum or a designer T-shirt from the posh Mariahilfer Strasse wasn’t going to cut it.
Then I came across The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer written by Anne-Marie O’Connor. Every night after exploring Vienna’s districts, I would race home to read seven or eight more chapters of what Vienna once was during the days of the Secession (a breakaway art movement likened to the Parisian salon des refusés) and the Wiener Werkstatte (a local alliance of innovative designers and artists). I made detailed notes of which famous addresses to visit, if only to see the exteriors.
Toward the end of the book, I found a small picture of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s ex libris, designed by Moser, circa 1900. Having once worked in the Women’s Studies Library at York University, I knew the importance of an ex libris. Latin for “out of the library of,” an ex libris is a stamp with the book owner’s name placed on the inside cover. Vienna’s intelligentsia and literary salons of the art nouveau era would commonly share books, and an ex libris was a way to keep track of who had what.
I had to have an authentic Viennese ex libris, but didn’t know how. And I wondered if the fashionable practice of commissioning an artist to design your own personal ex libris had disappeared.
In my last week, I had a stroke of luck in a modern Viennese coffee shop. Café Supersense in the Second District doubles as an up-cycled antique shop, selling a personalized message in a bottle or recording your voice on a vinyl LP. It also sold wax letter stamps. I asked the shopkeeper if they fashioned personalized ones like an ex libris. No luck, but she pointed me in the direction of a shop in the Seventh District that created personalized stamps exclusively.
A stamp shop! Like a blacksmith or a milkman, it seemed to be the last holdout from an obsolete era. I quickly hopped on a tram and raced to Die Stempel & Schilder Werkstatt. Entering this small hole-in-the-wall with a glass display case of sample rubber stamps and bookplates, I asked in my broken German if I could have an ex libris made. I pulled out my iPad and showed him sample designs by Moser.
The one I wanted was a simple stylized woman with an asp wound on her arm. Moser had originally designed it for Otto Zuckerkandl in 1906 (Zuckerkandl’s wife, Amalie, was painted by Klimt and her portrait still hangs in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery.) I asked if he could photoshop my name in the place of Zuckerkandl. “Kein problem!” (No problem.)
Two days and €35 later, I had in my hands my very own, quintessentially Viennese, ex libris. I traced my fingers over the smooth, curvaceous wooden handle and my name in glorious typeface. It takes pride of place on my writing desk. Now, if only I could find an antique stamp stand.
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