Moving Water. 1898. Oil on canvas. 21" x 26 1/8" (53.3 x 66.3 cm). Private collection.
Art in Vienna, 1900-1914
From Secessionism to Expressionism
Accounts of Austrian modernism often begin with the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897, but a true understanding of this seminal event requires at least a summary review of Austrian art over the course of the preceding century. During the first decades of the 1800s, the dominant trend in Austria (as also, if to a lesser degree, in Germany) was the style known as Biedermeier--a cozy mix of the utilitarian and the decorative, geared to middle-class tastes and aspirations. The style found its principal expression in the applied arts, while painters were constrained by the lack of an effective outlet for their work, other than that provided by the rather reactionary Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
This situation was to a degree remedied in 1870, when the Genossenschaft Bildender Künstler Wiens (better known as the Künstlerhaus) opened its exhibition hall, the first in Vienna devoted to the display of contemporary art. Interest in the fine arts was further sparked by the Emperor Franz Josef's mammoth building program--a project which began in 1857 with the ordered destruction of the medieval ramparts surrounding the inner city of Vienna and their replacement by a grand semicircular thoroughfare, the Ringstrasse. Along the Ringstrasse was erected a series of public edifices, each aping the historical style most appropriate to its function (the parliament, for example, was neoclassical), and the grand interior hallways and stairwells of these structures proved a boon to mural painters throughout central Europe.
Painters flocked from all over to vie for the lucrative mural commissions generated by the Ringstrasse program, but the most successful of the lot was a native son from Salzburg, Hans Makart (1840-1884). Today "Makartism" has become synonymous with the worst excesses of historicism--a combination of lightly veiled sexuality, pretentious allegory and lavish spectacle. However, it cannot be denied that Makart--who inspired fashions in dress and decor and could draw crowds of thousands to the exhibition of a single new work--succeeded in stimulating an enthusiasm for the visual arts heretofore unknown among the Viennese.
Makart, at the peak of his fame, received perhaps his most important commission shortly before his untimely death. That project, the decoration of the great staircase hall in the new Kunsthistorisches Museum, seemed almost to carry a curse. The next man to tackle it, Hans Canon (1829-1885), died before he could do more than complete preliminary sketches. In 1890, the assignment finally went to a promising trio of young painters who had won accolades for their work in the Vienna Burgtheater several years earlier: Franz Matsch (1861-1942), Ernst Klimt (1864-1892) and Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).
Within the next decade, Gustav Klimt, Makart's heir apparent, had made two moves which would forever separate him from the safe world of Ringstrasse historicism. The Künstlerhaus, seemingly a progressive innovation, never strayed far from the close confines of respectability. In the nineties, a coalition of younger artists succeeded in winning some concessions within this conservative institution, but, as they became increasingly vociferous, the established leadership became more antagonistic. In April 1897, a new group, headed by Klimt, was formally organized with the intention of "bringing Vienna into more active contact with the advancing development of art abroad . . . of awakening in wider circles a modern view of art, and lastly, of inducing a heightened concern for art in official circles." Though the Klimt group did not intend to make a total break, they were left with little choice when the executive committee of the Künstlerhaus voted to censure them. Thus was the Secession born.
Despite their renegade position, Klimt and his followers remained in the good graces of the authorities. Help from the city government enabled the Secession to secure land for an exhibition hall with record speed, and the building itself was constructed within a few months. At this time, Klimt was embarked on his most important official commission to date: the ceiling paintings for the auditorium at the University of Vienna. More than the founding of the Secession, Klimt's execution of this commission marked the end of his career as a purveyor of tame public art. Although there were already hints of trouble when Klimt presented his final sketches to the Ministry of Education, he did not come into open conflict with established taste until 1900, when the first of the University panels, Philosophy, was exhibited at the Secession. What was perhaps most shocking to his contemporaries was the painting's unabashed nudity. The imagery went beyond literal physical nakedness to suggest a spiritual nakedness. Lofty concepts had heretofore always been presented in lofty settings, be they religious, historical, mythological or literary. Such settings held the viewer at a distance. The problem with Klimt's Philosophy was that it brought its theme too close for comfort.
Klimt's use of symbolism was a not illogical extension of historicism, for both approaches depend on allegorical metaphor. What provided a more radical element in Klimt's work was his association with that faction of the Secession which placed its emphasis on practical design applications. The notion of collaboration on a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) was hardly new. The idea of combining painting with architecture had motivated the German Romantics and found concrete expression in the buildings of the Ringstrasse. However, it was left to the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), founded in 1903 by Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and Koloman Moser (1868-1918), to extend the Gesamtkunstwerk concept to embrace every article of human use. That Austria had in the previous century embarked on an artistic program whose effect, if not conscious intention, was the unification of the fine and applied arts was a precedent not lost on Hoffmann and his followers, who openly admired the Biedermeier. The presence of these crafts-oriented individuals in the Secession, however, did not sit well with the many members who favored old-fashioned easel painting, and after a few squabbles of varying intensity, the Klimtgruppe in 1905 went off on its own.
Klimt's work had always betrayed a feeling for design and pattern. Architectural forms, often neoclassical in style, surrounded much Ringstrasse wall painting, and were on occasion touched up with gold. The incorporation of broad architectural masses--the internalization of what had formerly been external--gave an abstract quality to some of Klimt's early canvases. Unlike older painters, he did not use architectural elements for classical ambience, but to provide a rigid and essentially two-dimensional compositional structure. Simultaneously, he began using gold to heighten the decorative effect of his work. From the edges inward, the metallic color seeped into his canvases, first as an extension of the traditional frame or border, and ultimately as an integral component of the image.
As abstract form became more dominant in Klimt's work, the position of the human figure became increasingly tenuous. Gone, finally, was the architectural illusion, and the three-dimensional figure looked ill at ease in the resultant flat space. The conflict between Klimt's realistic subjects and the painterly world which he created for them was to haunt the artist for the rest of his life. Around 1907 or 1908, he found a partial solution to this problem by adopting lusher, more heavily impastoed paint surfaces that to a degree equalized the treatment of the flesh and its surroundings. This softer style, with its muted, pastel colors--in a sense the direct antithesis of the "gold" period--characterized Klimt's work for the last decade or so of his career.
Meanwhile, the goal of bringing new foreign art to Vienna was gradually being achieved. The Secession's exhibitions favored Symbolists such as Klinger, Khnopff and Toorop, or artists active in the crafts movements of foreign lands. Work by Rodin, Renoir, Pissarro, Signac and other French artists was shown. In 1903, the Secession mounted a major survey of Impressionism, which traced its roots to the contributions of Velazquez and Goya, as well as including more advanced painters such as Gauguin and Van Gogh. Paintings by Munch were exhibited twice in the Secession's early years. An ambitious show of Japanese art was less than successful, though it impressed a number of Viennese artists.
The Secession lost most of its sparkle after the departure of the Klimtgruppe, and it was not until May 1908 that Vienna could boast of an exhibition comparable in caliber to those held before 1905. In that year, and again in 1909, Klimt and his comrades arranged two exhibitions titled, quite simply, "Kunstschau" (art show). The first was a comprehensive survey of contemporary Austrian art--fine and applied--while the second, incorporating work by such leading foreign artists as Munch, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse, was the last international art roundup to be staged in Vienna before World War I.
Coming in the wake of an era dominated by the applied arts, the brooding personal expressiveness of Munch and Van Gogh seemed to address a profound and as yet unspoken need on the part of Austrian artists. For while the desire to give vent to the more desultory or challenging aspects of human existence had always been present in Klimt's allegories, it was all too often submerged in a plethora of ornament. Similarly, Klimt's frequently slick surfaces did not satisfy the native Austrian passion for the painterly Baroque, which found an echo in Van Gogh's dense impasto.
Perhaps the first artist to address these latent needs was the ill-fated Richard Gerstl (1883-1908), who died by his own hand at the age of twenty-five without ever having publicly exhibited his work. Expressing intense disdain for all other artists, he followed a somewhat checkered path through the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He had, however, a genuine interest and respect for musicians, and was admitted to the circle of the composer Arnold Schönberg, to whom he gave casual painting lessons. During the summers of 1907 and 1908, which he spent with the Schönbergs in the resort town of Gmunden, both his creative and his personal development came to a climax. Artistically, Gerstl had been pursuing a very idiosyncratic variant of Impressionism, in which each daub of pigment gradually took on an emotional life of its own, culminating in a painterly frenzy not equaled until the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Unfortunately, events in the artist's private life simultaneously took a turn for the worse, for he fell hopelessly in love with Schönberg's wife. It was the termination of this affair that precipitated Gerstl's suicide, bringing an end to the career of one of the most advanced artists then working in Europe.
Gerstl was the only Austrian artist of the Expressionist generation old enough to have seen the Secession's 1903 Impressionism show. For Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), the first exposure to foreign art was undoubtedly provided by the 1909 "Kunstschau." At this time, Kokoschka--who in fact was trained in the applied arts--had already taken his first tentative steps as a painter. He had debuted at the 1908 "Kunstschau," exhibiting his decorative, yet sexually charged illustrations for an adult fairytale (published by the Wiener Werkstätte), Die träumenden Knaben, as well as a rather garish polychrome sculpture of a head.
Kokoschka's "Kunstschau" sculpture, with its exposed nerve endings and grotesque expression, seems to have foreshadowed most directly the artist's later work. As an essentially self-taught painter, he drew his greatest influence from the local ethnographic museum, developing a primitive portrait style whose scraped surfaces literally laid bare the sitter's soul. After exhibiting one of these works at the 1909 "Kunstschau," he was taken under the wing of the iconoclastic architect Adolf Loos, who proceeded to line up a spate of portrait commissions from culturally prominent Austrians. Matching Kokoschka almost step for step was the artist Max Oppenheimer (1885-1954), whose style was not only very similar but may, in fact, have emerged first. Together, these two artists managed by the end of 1909 to establish Expressionism as the dominant new trend in Vienna.
Schiele came comparatively slowly to Expressionism, influenced more by the work of Gustav Klimt (under whose artistic spell he came following the 1908 "Kunstschau") than by Kokoschka or Mopp (as Oppenheimer was called). While Schiele did, toward the end of 1910, briefly emulate the scraped surfaces of the latter two artists, his line had a sinuous perfection and an awareness of negative space that owed its greatest debt to Klimt's decorative innovations. In Schiele, Klimtian formal solutions were diverted to expressive ends, though it is hard to find any direct precedent for the acid-tinged nudes with which, in early 1910, the younger artist first revealed himself as an Expressionist.
From 1910 on, the paths of Kokoschka and Schiele diverged. In that year, Kokoschka left Vienna for Berlin, where he lived off and on for the next four years. Here he came in contact with the German Expressionists, exhibiting with them at the prestigious Cassirer gallery and becoming a regular contributor to the avant-garde periodical Der Sturm. His palette, though not yet evidencing the tonal richness of his later years, became more varied, with a heavy concentration on deep, lush blues, and his paint textures became concomitantly more sumptuous. It was only after World War I, however, that, while working and teaching in Dresden, he came into his own as a colorist. The bold ink drawings and bright watercolors of the "Dresden period," with their patchwork of colors, lay the foundations for the ever more complex harmonies of the artist's later years.
Schiele, meanwhile, pursued a year-by-year development so concentrated and concise that one might imagine he sensed he would not live long. From the boldly colored and expressively distorted work of 1910, he somehow evolved a graceful, precise and almost neoclassical line. At the same time that his drawings became more representationally realistic, his paintings became more densely brushed and technically Expressionistic. Yet it is the earlier canvases--constructed and limned more like watercolors than like conventional oils, that hold the most fascination for the contemporary viewer. Here, Schiele appropriated the allegorical tradition of Gustav Klimt and turned it inward, transforming his own psyche into a mirror of the human soul.
With the deaths in 1918 of Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Egon Schiele, the heroic era of Austrian modernism came to a sudden end. The privations of the postwar economy could scarcely sustain an active art market, and while both the Wiener Werkstätte and the Secession limped along, their driving force was gone. Though Kokoschka would live briefly in Vienna after the war, most of his lengthy subsequent career was spent abroad. And when, with the coming of Hitler in 1938, the remainder of the native intelligentsia was largely eliminated through exile or extermination, Austria suffered a cultural loss from which it has, to this day, never really recovered.