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Symbolism and the Austrian Avant Garde
Klimt, Schiele and their Contemporaries

November 16, 1993 to January 08, 1994

When the Vienna Secession was founded in 1897, Austria was a provincial backwater that had been largely bypassed by recent aesthetic trends. In their quest to “bring artistic life in Vienna into more lively contact with the continuing development of art abroad,” the Secessionists cut a wide swath across central Europe, reaching as far west as England, but they touched down only briefly in France. Thus modernism in Austria began not with the thunderclap of Impressionism, but with the gentler rain of Symbolism, a more amorphous movement grounded less in style than in attitude. Symbolism to a degree affected almost every significant artist working in Austria prior to World War I, but its most substantive impact was felt in the work of Gustav Klimt and his sometime disciple Egon Schiele. These two artists therefore form the focal point of the present exhibition, which features a selection of loans slated for inclusion in next year’s Schiele retrospective (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., February 6-April 24; Indianapolis Museum of Art, May 28-August 7; San Diego Museum of Art, August 27-October 30).

Symbolism originated in France in the 1880s, partly as a reaction against the reality-based pictorial formulations of the Impressionists, and quickly attracted followers in Belgium, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Scotland, Spain and Switzerland. Some Symbolists, such as the Belgian group “Les XX” (whose members included James Ensor, Fernand Khnopff, George Minne and the Dutchman Jan Toorop) or the Glasgow “Four” (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret MacDonald and Herbert and Frances MacNair) collaborated fairly closely, while others, like Vincent van Gogh or Edvard Munch, were relative loners. Overall, the Symbolists were united by a desire to (in the words of the critic Gustave Kahn) “objectify the subjective”--that is, to find visual equivalents for emotional, intellectual or spiritual states. Although most Symbolists disdained conventional allegory, the end result might be termed allegory of a new order, shaped not by a shared iconography, but by the personal experiences of the individual artist. Reliance on a custom-crafted formal idiom mitigated against stylistic cohesion: some artists, including Arnold Böcklin, Max Klinger, Félicien Rops and Franz Stuck, retained a realistic manner that gave their work an illustrative tenor, while others, such as the French “Nabis” (among them Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard) forged an entirely new vocabulary of composition and color.

If the Symbolists eschewed a narrowly delineated aesthetic mode, there were nonetheless stylistic affinities among them. Many viewed the picture plane as an essentially two-dimensional, self-contained arena and made only cursory concessions to illusionistic space. The trend toward frieze-like compositions of relatively static figures began with Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and reached its apogee in the work of Ferdinand Hodler, who coined the term “Parallelism” to describe his philosophy of symmetry and repetition, which he felt mirrored nature’s inherent order. Symbolists tended to use color expressively, to convey emotion or establish a unifying mood. Then again, some believed, as did Klinger, that color per se was inextricably linked to the material world and that ideas and ideals were therefore better conveyed in black and white. Odilon Redon, who did no color work before 1895, felt that abstract line directly touched the spirit, and Toorop concocted a complex pictorial code, whereby jagged lines represented evil and smooth ones peace and harmony. As described by Denis, the Symbolist sensibility derived from the recognition that all art entails a deformation of reality--first of all, by the artist’s subjective vision, and second, by more objective aesthetic criteria. The movement as a whole laid the groundwork for twentieth-century modernism by liberating line and color from their previous descriptive function.

In their attempt to mediate between the visible and the invisible worlds, the Symbolists probed many similar themes. Their stance was, first and foremost, introspective. The floating heads and eyes made famous by Redon are pure evocations of disembodied intellect, the spirit essence. Redon was not alone in attempting to penetrate the realm of fantasy and dream; it has even been suggested that Freud was a kind of arch-Symbolist, mining the recesses of the human mind for clues to the working of the subconscious. Not surprisingly, Symbolist portraits attempted to go beyond physical appearance to capture psychological truths. Nature, for the Symbolists, had great emotional resonance and was invested with human and moral qualities. Artists such as Hodler used the seasons or times of day to evoke the various stages and ages of the human life cycle. Symbolists were equally obsessed with sex and death, and Munch envisioned a “life-frieze” fashioned around the different faces of love. Symbolist woman was either Madonna or whore--chaste icon or wicked temptress. Most often, she was presented as an animalistic creature who, by abetting man’s baser instincts, cut him off from his more noble spiritual or intellectual destiny.

Symbolism had a ready appeal for Germanic artists, because it related directly to their native Romantic tradition, evoking a familiar melancholy and a kindred need to reach beyond tangible reality. The Austrian Secessionists, who counted in their midst a strong applied arts faction, were equally drawn to those aspects of Symbolism (derived from a mix of crafts, literary and musical associations) that favored the unification of all the arts in a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Of all the non-Austrian artists exhibited during the Secession’s heroic first seven years, the vast majority had Symbolist affiliations. The Glasgow group, Hodler, Khnopff (star of the first show in 1898), Klinger (creator of the central statue for the 1902 “Beethoven” exhibition), Minne, Munch, Auguste Rodin, Rops, Théo van Rysselberghe, Giovanni Segantini, Jan Thorn-Prikker and Toorop were among those singled out for in-depth presentations, in some cases several times. Only in 1903 did the Secessionists get around to mounting a survey of French Impressionism, and then they included a curiously strong contingent of Symbolists, among them Denis, Puvis de Chavannes, Redon, Van Gogh and Vuillard. The Secession’s most progressive members left in 1905 and did not manage to mount another major exhibition of foreign art in Vienna until the international “Kunstschau” of 1909; the dominant artists here were Minne, Munch, Van Gogh and the Nabis.

Gustav Klimt, the Secession’s founding president, had made his early reputation as a public muralist, and for him Symbolism’s attraction lay partly in its transcendental elevation of traditional allegory. His first major Symbolist statement, a series of three paintings depicting the faculties of Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for Vienna University (of which only the studies, nos. __, survive), established a Klimtian paradigm in its use of decontextualized nude or semi-nude (usually female) figures to connote existential states. Allied with the Secession’s so-called “Stylists” (whose leaders included the architect Josef Hoffmann and the designer Koloman Moser), Klimt responded as well to that aspect of Symbolism which relished flat surfaces and patterns. The dreamy, liquid environment of Moving Waters (closely related in time and style to the University cycle; no. ___) is at once an effective substitute for a more realistic three-dimensional setting, and a calculated visual correlative for what the artist believed to be woman’s elemental, sensual nature. Klimt’s later backgrounds became virtually abstract, yet he could never entirely renounce volumetric modeling in his figures, and thus an uneasy tension persisted between the two elements. It has been observed that Klimt’s most purely Symbolist works are actually his landscapes (nos. __), for only here is the figure-ground dichotomy suspended in favor of an abstract melding of form and emotional content.

Schiele’s artistic quest to probe the deeper meanings of death and life are well documented in his writings, but less than obvious to those familiar chiefly with his watercolors and drawings. The paintings in which the artist’s Symbolist goals are most explicitly presented--the figural allegories--have largely been destroyed, and those that remain are seldom seen in the United States. Few realize that Schiele’s landscapes (which comprise roughly one-third of his mature oils, but a small fraction of his works on paper) are also in a sense allegories. His fragile tree “portraits” (nos. __), to some extent influenced by Hodler’s “Parallelism,” allude to humankind’s isolation in a hostile world. A bare tree, or most poignantly, an autumn tree in summer, represented for Schiele, as for many earlier Symbolists, the inescapable presence of death in life. So, too, his numerous “Dead Cities” (depicting the beautiful Medieval town of Krumau, his mother’s birthplace; nos. __) are empty shells that evoke the evanescence of human life, as well as the ability of artistic creation (the buildings themselves) to transcend death. Although Schiele was as preoccupied with sexuality as any Symbolist, most of his nudes acquire symbolic content only when viewed in tandem with the paintings to which they relate. Schiele’s nudes, like Klimt’s, employed an increasingly simplified vocabulary of pose and gesture to convey feelings and ideas. In the last years of his life, Schiele embarked on a cycle of canvases, depicting “earthly existence,” that was in many ways reminiscent of projects pursued by Hodler and Munch. Schiele is generally classified as an Expressionist, but it must be noted that his evocative use of color and line, the psychological penetration of his portraits and self-portraits, as well as his personalized approach to art, all derive equally from the Symbolist tradition.

Many other Austrian artists working in the first decades of this century claimed Symbolist progenitors. Given that Oskar Kokoschka tended to disavow all influences (insisting, for example, that his early museum forays were limited to ethnographic collections), it is significant that the one contemporary artist whom he acknowledged as a model was Minne. Indeed, Minne’s Kneeling Youth (no. __) clearly resembles the protagonist of Kokoschka’s “adult fairy tale,” The Dreaming Youths (no. __), as well as the skinny and somewhat tortured adolescents in Schiele’s work. Koloman Moser, who began painting only when he was in his forties, emulated Hodler, though after a pilgrimage to visit the Swiss master, he confessed that he was baffled and a little irritated by the arcane intricacies of “Parallelism.” Oskar Laske, who also came to art relatively late in life, was especially inspired by the work of Ensor (which he probably encountered on a 1912 visit to Belgium), Klinger and Rops. Kubin had a sort of epiphany when he first saw Klinger’s work, for only then did he realize that art could give shape to the macabre and magical currents underlying everyday life. Symbolism led each of these artists in a different direction: Schiele and Kokoschka to Expressionism, Laske and Kubin toward Surrealism. Thus through Symbolism, provincial Vienna entered the modernist mainstream.