Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka were with little doubt the three most important artists in fin-de-siècle Vienna, if not in the entire history of Austrian art. Yet despite their physical and temporal proximity, and the undeniable existence of mutual influences, each artist’s style is decidedly idiosyncratic. It is possible to speak of a distinctly Viennese brand of modernism only in the most general sense, for even Klimt’s colleagues, the Secessionists, were united less by style than by practical necessity. Schiele and Kokoschka can be loosely categorized as Expressionists (Kokoschka the more so through his association with the German exponents of the genre), but their work has little in common.
The primary reason for this phenomenon is probably to be found in the generally weak support system that Austria provided for the fine arts. Attempts to rectify this situation—as, for example, with the founding of the Secession in 1897—did have a degree of success, but it was limited in both scope and duration. Contact with foreign art remained minimal, maintained either through sporadic imported exhibitions or erratic personal travel patterns. On the whole, painting aroused far less enthusiasm among Austrians than did the decorative arts—focus of both the Biedermeier movement in the nineteenth century and the Wiener Werkstätte in the twentieth. Ironically, the lack of a firmly entrenched fine arts tradition became an asset when, at the turn of the century, academicism crumbled throughout Europe. The Austrians, with their loose allegiances, were uniquely situated to take advantage of the individualistic freedoms that modernism offered.
To Gustav Klimt would go the role (played by such artists as Paul Cézanne in France and Lovis Corinth in German) of linking the nineteenth century with the twentieth. Klimt began his career in a highly conventional manner: trained as a decorative painter at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts, he made a name for himself by producing lavish allegorical murals for public buildings. His break with this tradition was precipitated by a series of paintings commissioned for the great hall at the University of Vienna. Klimt unwittingly violated prevailing standards when, in executing this commission, he decided to dispense with the historical or literary allegory customary for such projects and present his subjects literally naked of all conventional trappings. The protracted scandal that these paintings engendered eventually prompted the artist to renounce the commission. Hereafter, his principal source of income was portraiture, though for his own pleasure he painted landscapes and brooding allegories of the human condition. While Klimt is best known for his seemingly lighthearted “golden” style (actually dominant only for a brief period during the first decade of this century), the innate pessimism and grotesque appearance of many of the allegories constitute his most important legacy to the Expressionist generation. Equally important was Klimt’s superb draughtsmanship, a product of the academic training that he shared with Schiele and the central core of the younger artist’s oeuvre.
Schiele first encountered Klimt’s work when he was studying at the highly conservative Vienna Academy of Fine Art. Schiele’s sense of negative space (the void implicit in all Klimt’s ornamental fill) and the tensile animation of his line are evidence of the master’s lasting influence. However, the garishly colored and painfully twisted nudes with which Schiele established himself in 1910 are so radical that no adequate precedent for them can be found. The lurid palette and extreme gestures of this series eventually became more subdued, but Schiele’s probing exploration of the human psyche continued unabated throughout his brief career. When he died at the age of twenty-eight in 1918, he left behind a breathtaking complete documentation of the universal quest for personal, spiritual and sexual identity.
If Schiele owed at least some artistic allegiance to Klimt, as well as to his academic background, Kokoschka seemed to spring full-blown from nowhere. Like Klimt, he studied at the Vienna School of Applied Arts, but he was trained to be an art teacher, not a painter. His early work was very much in the graphic tradition of the Wiener Werkstätte, although there was an expressive tension in his line and a disturbing undertone to his content that hinted of a change to come. In 1909, Kokoschka exhibited one of his first oil paintings: a somber portrait whose scraped surfaces seemed to physically as well as psychically lay bare its subject’s soul. His influences, Kokoschka claimed, came not from any painter, but from primitive masks and sculptures observed at Vienna’s ethnographic museum.
Of the three artists, only Kokoschka survived the end of World War I, and thus his production extends well beyond the confines of what one observer has called the “hothouse” environment of fin-de-siècle Vienna. After 1910, Kokoschka lived intermittently in Germany, and his style underwent a series of progressive shifts that reveal the cumulative influence of his German colleagues—particularly of Die Brücle movement. Later, he lived in Czechoslovakia, England and finally Switzerland, assuming the status of a multinational cultural ambassador whose work transcends association with any particular locale. Nevertheless, even during the period when he was most influenced by the Germans, his style remained distinctly his own. Kokoschka’s greatness, like that of Klimt and Schiele, resides in his invention of a singularly personal form of modernism.
We are extremely grateful to the various collectors who so graciously extended their loans to our recent Egon Schiele retrospective, thereby making these works available for the present exhibition so that they may be seen by those who missed the earlier show.