In Austria, as in Germany, the principal popular art style at the turn of the century was the Jugendstil (named after a Munich periodical), an offshoot of the international Art Nouveau movement. In both countries, this style was the pabulum that fed the infant Expressionist generation, many of whose members began by doing stylized, decorative work with a clear Jugendstil flavor. Austria and Germany differed, however, in the degree of mingling that occurred between the fine and the applied arts. The Vienna Secession (unlike its counterparts in Munich, Berlin and Dresden), from its start in 1897, gave almost undue emphasis to the applied arts. As the nineteenth century waned, it became apparent that the strongest painters within the Secession's ranks were those who, like Gustav Klimt, cast their lot with the architectural faction led by Josef Hoffmann. The decorative arts revival spearheaded by Hoffmann and the designer Koloman Moser--which took concrete organizational form when the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) was founded in 1903--represented not only the dominant wing of the avant-garde but, for artists growing up in the early twentieth century, a significant source of economic and moral support.
Thus it happened that, whereas in Germany the Expressionists continued a painterly tradition that can be traced all the way back to the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century, in Austria the foremost precedent was that of the Wiener Werkstätte and its associates. While certain aspects of Expressionism--particularly those that are shocking or disturbing--may seem to be the direct antithesis of the safe, pretty world promoted by the Werkstätte, the expressive exaggeration and linear precision practiced by both Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka evolved directly from turn-of-the-century poster design, with its emphasis on graphic stylization and negative space. Gustav Klimt, the most important painter among the Secession's founders, was, like his disciple Schiele, a demon draughtsman, and his limpid, fluid drawings revealed a potential for emotional spontaneity that was of prime significance to the Expressionists. The surface dazzle of Klimt's seemingly innocuous "gold" paintings does not entirely conceal the artist's morbid and libidinous impulses, which were to be dragged into the open by the next generation. By stripping away the decorative fill that defined Klimt's approach, Schiele and Kokoschka exposed the glaring void that was always implicit in the master's horror vacui.
The current exhibition traces the development of the Austrian avant-garde from the initial days of the Secession through the interwar period. The work of major applied arts innovators such as Hoffmann, Moser, Carl Otto Czeschka and Berthold Löffler is presented in tandem with that of Austria's principal fine artists, Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Alfred Kubin. By devoting roughly equal emphasis to these two areas, an attempt has been made to stress interrelationships that might not normally be apparent. Just as the Wiener Werkstätte influenced the growth of Expressionism, so too were Expressionistic tendencies evident in the Werkstätte's later development, a phenomenon that is particularly noticeable when (as in the fashion designs of Fritzi Löw, Maria Likarz and Eduard Joseph Wimmer-Wisgrill) the focus is on the human figure. The free interchange that existed in Austria between the fine and the applied arts thus fortified both branches, lending intellectual rigor to the pioneering inventions of Hoffmann and Moser, and ceding to the younger Expressionists a characteristic lightness of touch that distinguishes their work from that of their German contemporaries.