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The Artists Chalk It Up on Sidewalks of Vienna

October 25, 1987|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American author and journalist living in Vienna

VIENNA — --The sidewalk is their canvas.

You usually find them on hands and knees working with colored chalks, reproducing an old masterpiece such as the "Mona Lisa" or a work by Rembrandt or Raphael.

The sidewalks of Vienna's central district provide an alfresco studio--with an admiring, attentive audience--for a new kind of itinerant master painter. A tourist delight, his "works of art" fascinate everybody who passes by.

These Leonardos of the pavement chalk up a winner every time. Their sidewalk paintings, done expertly with classroom chalks, are treated with great respect by pedestrians; very few people step on them while work is in progress. How can you, if the artist seems to be capturing, let's say, the mysterious eyes of the Mona Lisa and her famous enigmatic smile almost the way Da Vinci did.

Subject to the Weather

"Yes, I know that my portrait is not going to last very long because it is subject to the weather, especially the rain, but I wouldn't want the painting made permanent by somebody putting varnish over it or someone removing the sidewalk slabs and putting them into a museum.

"I consider myself a public entertainer, and I enjoy having 20 or 30 people watch me as I do my thing. And if they appreciate my talent and the pleasure I give and then throw a coin into my hat, well, that's the name of the game. Simply put, I need the money to get by . . . ."

Those are the words of Phil from Australia. (He won't tell his last name.) He and his wife, Patty, have been touring all of Europe's major cities for a year or so. With his handful of colored chalks and pavement paintings, which in contributions bring in about $40 a day, they are meeting their expenses as they move with their few belongings and chalks from one city to another.

A little farther down the street another painting is in progress, a Caravaggio called "The Vocation of St. Matthew," being done by a Polish refugee, Ignacy Gorczyn. This 38-year-old comes from Czestochowa. He abandoned Poland with fake papers, and while waiting with hope against hope to immigrate to the United States or Canada, is using his training as a graphic designer to do sidewalk art to keep his modest savings intact.

Scrubbing Out the Faces

Ignacy was scrubbing out the faces in the Caravaggio because they were too big, he said in half German and half English. "Caravaggio would not like," he said. "Working outside is like working in a free studio. I have come to like it. With all those people looking at me, it gives me big energy.

"I do not make too much money, but I keep alive. The materials cost big. So I make my own pastels. I mix colored powder with glue and water. My next painting, when I finish this, is one by Guido Reni, because the Viennese like him."

Ignacy cooperates with another Polish artist who doesn't have as much artistic talent as he does. When Ignacy has to leave his unfinished painting for a few hours, his partner takes over. He pretends to be working on the incomplete drawing so that admirers still throw their coins into a cardboard box. Ignacy's sidekick (who wants his anonymity respected) has a serious face and wears eyeglasses. He doesn't look like the usual street artist, but more like a university professor. Which he was.

While putting the finishing touches to Corot's "Girl With an Amulet" at a roofed tram station along the Ring Strasse, 43-year-old Karl Koran estimated, conservatively, that in the 10 years he has been working the sidewalks he's executed more than 2,000 paintings. It takes him two hours to do one painting when the weather is warm, but during the winter months when his fingers are stiff, a painting can eat up five hours of work.

His Favorite Artist

Koran, a former free-lance commercial artist who lent his talents to ad agencies for 15 years, decided one day to chuck that career in favor of making his living out on the street all year long, weather or no weather. Partial to Italian painters, he says his all-time favorite is Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), a neoclassic artist from Lucca whom he pushes a lot.

"I do his stuff from memory, rarely using an photograph of his work," Koran said. "Sometimes I may change an aspect or a small detail of a painting because that's what I feel like doing. For instance, in this Corot I'm finishing up, you'll notice that the amulet around the girl's neck is not exactly the same amulet Corot put on her. And I've done the painting under this shed while people come and go or wait for the next tram.

"Here the rain can't get at it, so it should last about three days before shoe leather and boots wear it off." Koran is an Austrian from the nearby town of Krems along the Danube River.

Though Vienna's statues do not permit "defacing" sidewalks, the police never bother the artists, nor for that matter has a city biggie ever ordered a painting to be hosed away. So chalk one up for the law.

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