Family matters

They say, you can choose your friends, but not your family.  Well, I guess that depends on how you define family.  The way the Dom Museum Wien sees it, there is certainly many ways to look at families, and family histories can be tragedies or comedies, or both.  The current exhibition, Family Matters at the Dom Museum spans art works  from the Middle Ages to today.

“Family can be everything: a place of love, belonging, and solidarity, but also a place of violence, control, and abuse. Family can be fantasy and nightmare all at once. A look through art history shows that for more than 2000 years families have been providing material for tragedies and comedies alike.”

(Extract from the exhibition brochure, Dom Museum Wien)

The exhibition features loans from national and international museums and collections, selected objects from the museum’s own avant-garde works from the Otto Mauer collection,  and several contemporary works. The paintings, video installations, and sculptures on view show flexible constructs of the idea of family, and how these have changed over time. On an instawalk with IgersVienna, I was able to attend a guided tour through this very interesting exhibition.

Katharina Mayer – familia, from 2000 – 2019 (C prints behind Plexiglass)

Katharina Mayer, for example, is represented in 12 photographic works from her series “familia”, which she produced between 2000 and 2019.  Her images are staged, often to convey a message, but are pictures of real families from different cultures, religions, social backgrounds, and taken in various cities.  There are couples, single-parent families, families with adopted children, and several other family constellations.

The exhibition is not structured chronologically.  Instead, there are several interesting juxtapositions of ancient art, such as this medieval Madonna, juxtaposed to the Australian artist Sam Jink´s eerily life-like sculpture  of an old woman with a baby (with hyperrealistic silicone skin so perfect that you can see every vein and with real human hair).  Jinks made the sculpture as a symbol of the cycle of life, where birth and death are always close, and it also alludes to Mary and the baby Jesus.

Werner Berg – Young Family (1932) – Werner Berg presented himself in this picture together with his wife, his eldest daughter Ursula and the newborn daughter Klara in the “parlor” of his courtyard.

In a reference to his own life, the German painter Neo Rauch, a prominent member of the New Leipzig School, painted a dream-like, surreal scene, where a formally clad young man is holding a miniature man — a baby with an adult face? — in his arms, while a third man is photographing an odd assortment of objects in the foreground. One is not quite sure what to make of this strange composition.

Neo Rauch – Father (2007)

Among the older works shown are a number of paintings from the Biedermeier period, a time when artists typically painted sentimental and pious views of the world.  Look, for example, at the paintings by Peter Fendi and Josef F. Danhauer below.

Family scenes by Peter Fendi and Josef Franz Danhauer from the 1830s-1840s

Even so the Biedermeier period was not completely devoid of realism.  Happy as it may seem, the scene of a foundling child being cared for by a farmer´s family in the painting by Ferdinand Mallitsch below also alludes to more troublesome social conditions, where unwanted babies are left to be “found”.

(A little aside here – abandoning children was quite common in Europe throughout history.  Foundlings were often sold into slavery, kept as farmhands or given to monasteries. It was only in the early 1700s that the first poor houses and orphanages were built, to which such children were taken and found some support. Pope Innocent III decreed at the end of the 12th century to install rotary shutters at the gates of foundling houses,  baby flaps allowed the secret deposition of unwanted babies. Lest you think that practice is over, you may be surprised to learn that in Vienna we have such baby flaps at two hospitals in Vienna, although they are used much more rarely than the option of anonymous birth in our hospitals.)

Detail from Ferdinand Mallitsch – The Foundling (ca. 1851)


Contemporary art, ranging from paintings to video, to sculpture is prominently represented.

Hans Op de Beeck, Determination (Video)

It´s complicated

Family life is complex and can be hard at times.  At least that is the impression Ron Mueck seems to be sending with his hyperrealistic sculpture (2013) of a woman carrying a baby and two heavy shopping bags.  Her tired eyes speak volumes.


I like the way the brilliant George Bernard Shaw summed up family.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
George Bernard Shaw, Immaturity

And that´s just what the exhibition at the Dom Museum Wien does.  It lets skeletons out of the closet, and maybe it rattles your bones.  The exhibition is, at any rate, very much worth seeing.

Somehow disturbing, this photographic dramatization by Judith Samen, untitled (Cutting Bread) (Detail) (1997)

Apart from this temporary exhibition, the Dom Museum also has a fine permanent collection of medieval sacral art.

Pieces from the permanent exhibition at the Dom Museum Wien

There is even a secret script by Rudolv IV., which you can explore in an installation by Johanna Kandl from 2017.

Clear recommendation!

Thank you for your kind hospitality, team Dom Museum!



The exhibition is on view until August 30, 2020.


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