Safety Curtain

Redesigning the "Safety Curtain"

From a static, frozen medium to alive museum space

Changes at the Opera

During the last half century there have also been radical changes at the opera. The repertoire has become more modern. The genre has undergone a far-reaching transformation under the influence of modern and post-modern theatre as well as in the musical field through new interpretation and through the cultivation of new listening habits brought about by contemporary music. As a result of this, the audience at the Vienna State Opera expects to hear and see tradition preserved as well as find relevance for the present. An opera which does not develop will ossify like any other of the performing arts which does not allow change. This is especially important for the Vienna State Opera since it is professed to be one of the great international opera houses.

The Safety Curtain

When the present safety curtain was designed by Rudolf Eisenmenger (1954–55), the work attracted public controversy. Following the purely Austrian competition to design it, not one of the designs met with the approval of the jury. After numerous changes, Eisenmenger's work came into being as an acceptable compromise. At the time, the balanced judgement of the well-known art historian, Wieland Schmied, stood out against vehement disapproval on political and artistic grounds. "A competition about which enough bad things have been said, has come to a conclusion in an acceptable compromise. Eisenmenger's design, although to our taste too massive for his theme – the power of music – will look good as a decorative border-line between the auditorium and the stage." (Die Furche, 18 December 1954).

New Technologies

Almost fifty years have passed since then, which have also made a deep impression in the field of art. New technologies have made new kinds of exhibition possible. Even the medium of the safety curtain need no longer to be statically conceived. The redesigning project from museum in progress in cooperation with the Vienna State Opera is reaching towards a new way of meeting the challenge of the safety curtain. So far it does not have any international parallels. It will also attract attention outside Austria as a great innovation in the fields of both opera and art. Each opera season an art work will be put up for a limited period in front of the existing safety curtain. These works will be developed by contemporary artists who will be chosen by an international jury of recognised art experts. In the next years an international artist will present a personal vision of the safety curtain of the Vienna State Opera for ten months during the opera season. The large-scale pictures will be put up in front of the safety curtain using new technological processes (CALSI, magnets). The view of the safety curtain will change with each season just as the productions of the opera house change. The current safety curtain will be carefully conserved and will continue to be used during the summer months. The safety curtain will not be changed or destroyed, nor will it be taken down or painted over as a consequence of the decision to modernise it and make it more dynamic.

The Safety Curtain as Living Museum Space

The existing safety curtain will, in future, only be added to and brought into a state of dynamic change. The design from 1955 will welcome one respected international artist per year as a guest. The safety curtain, which weighs 16 tonnes, will be transformed from a static, forever frozen medium into living museum space. This also represents an additional attraction offered to the public by the Vienna State Opera. After an interval of ten months, opera-goers will now not only be able to experience a different opera production. The large-scale picture which, in the form of the safety curtain, will accompany the audience's contemplation of the opera production before, during the interval and at the end of the performance will be regularly changed. The most important innovation in this project from museum in progress and the Vienna State Opera is the concept of the safety curtain as an independent medium and potential museum space. Far removed from being merely a design commission for a craftsman, the safety curtain creates conditions for a picture to be presented and experienced which are hardly paralleled in any other situation in which art is contemplated.


Following the fire at the Vienna Ringstrasse Theatre the safety curtain was taken up all over the world as a mobile fire protection between the stage and auditorium. Although subject to different laws, the safety curtain was quickly recognised by artists as a new medium in the same way as the stage set. Modern art created more, partly Utopian, projects around this theme.

In 1954–55 public discussion of the safety curtain for the rebuilt State Opera was not least concerned with the question of whether or not modern art was suitable in such a context. Several designs in the competition at the time were rejected on the grounds that pure abstraction was not suited to the theme. On the other hand, there were rumours that Marc Chagall and Oskar Kokoschka were prepared to work with the Vienna State Opera on stage sets as well as the safety curtain. With hindsight it must be said that the time was not then ripe for radical modern art to be involved in such an area. Modernism was not then recognised, even in Paris. French museums owned practically no works by Marc Chagall. In September 1964 a nationwide scandal followed the unveiling of Chagall's famous ceiling fresco at the Paris Opéra Garnier, which had been pushed through by André Malraux as Minister of Culture. It was only in the sixties and seventies that a lasting reconciliation between the public and modern art came about. In 1989 it was no longer an issue when the abstract avant-garde painter Cy Twombly designed the safety curtain of the new Opéra Bastille.

A New Art Experience

The special situation of the visitor who is waiting for a performance looking at a picture surface of approximately 176 m² is fundamentally different from that of a painting exhibition. In the case of the safety curtain, the picture is part of an unusually dense architectural ensemble. In addition, the viewer sees the work moving repeatedly. Its disappearance and reappearance create the rhythm of the evening. This requires the artist to be sensitive to a situation which is in some respects an way of looking at pictures and paintings.

New Solutions

During the last five decades it has become a commonplace of painting actively to take account of the surrounding space and, to a certain extent, to include it in the symbolic space of the picture. The integration of photographic techniques, screen printing, computer processes and language into painting has created a new relationship between art, reality and contemporary experience of life. In addition, the traditional border between the genres of "pure" and "applied" art has disappeared. In 1955 the medium of the safety curtain was still unambiguously allocated to the field of craftsmanship, even in the wording of the invitation for entries and the design of the works which were finally completed. Pure painting crossing the frontier into the decorative and applied fields and vice versa has now long been common. We can therefore expect the invited artists to produce quite radically transformed concepts which will simultaneously take account of the architectural and contemplative situation of the observer and the institution "opera" as a whole. New allegorical and symbolic processes replace, among other things, recourse to the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome, which fifty years ago was still at the forefront for such a project.

A Complete Medium – the Genre of Opera and Art

The flexibility and regular redesigning of the safety curtain has been made possible by new processes for the creation of large-scale pictures together with a magnet system which is able to attach these pictures without causing any damage. For the first time, this has made the safety curtain into an independent and complete medium for art, a use to which it has not previously been put. The former static picture space will now become extended museum space outside the traditional museum as important international artists contribute to an evolving collection of works especially designed for the location. This dynamic and flexible use of the safety curtain also has parallels in modern theatre.

With the new, dynamic concept of the safety curtain and the participation of leading international artists the Vienna State Opera is, to a certain extent, making up for the request for a wide international invitation for entries to artists which was repeatedly called for in 1954–55 but which was not then carried through. At the same time, the treatment of the safety curtain as evolving museum space will also write a new chapter in the history of the genre of the safety curtain, which is the only medium which belongs both to the world of opera and of art.

(May 1998)