There’s no modernism like Viennese modernism, that amazingly fraught, conflicted efflorescence of art and thought that flared up around the turn of the 20th century. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire sank into paralysis in the decades before World War I, Freud discovered the unconscious lurking, unsurprisingly, behind the city’s repressive social codes. Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos designed buildings that rejected the historicist wedding-cake facades of the Ringstrasse. Arnold Schoenberg pursued atonal music in the perfumed wake of the Viennese waltz; and Gustav Klimt painted beautiful women surrounded by mosaic patterns straight out of Byzantium.
When you’re young and new to the very idea of newness in art, Vienna’s visual innovations can be a matter of love at first sight. What’s new in the work of Klimt and his protégé Egon Schiele — the hothouse beauty, bold stylizations and overt sexuality — is initially easier to grasp than the more substantial innovations of Picasso and Matisse. Similarly the sensuous furniture and objects of Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser are alive with delicate grids, fluid lines and opulent surfaces that make them more immediately seductive than the austere Bauhaus designs they anticipate by 20 years.
New York is lucky to have a museum that is madly, if not adolescently, in love with Vienna’s early modernity. This is the decade-old Neue Galerie, spearheaded largely by the collector Ronald S. Lauder, and housed, appropriately, in an exquisitely restored Fifth Avenue mansion, a Gilded Age jewel box replete with vintage frills and tipped-in Hoffmannesque details, like elegantly gridded air-vent covers. The Neue Galerie even conjures up a little Viennese claustrophobia by regularly proving itself several sizes too small for its curatorial ambitions. With its latest venture, “Vienna 1900: Style and Identity,” the museum once more bites off more than it probably should.
Organized by Jill Lloyd, an independent curator and scholar, and Christian Witt-Dörring, the museum’s adjunct curator of decorative arts, the show fills the building with a shifting kaleidoscope of paintings, drawings, architectural models and plans, as well as posters, furniture, a few articles of clothing and jewelry, and several species of decorative objects.
Initially the exhibition feels rather like a grab bag, random and mercurial, a slightly fevered Viennese attic of the mind. But as you settle in, it gains clarity. It’s something like a tasting menu with enough in the way of rich and disparate flavors that you can overlook the gaps and omissions. Spiced with some marvelous loans, and others that are at least idiosyncratic, “Vienna 1900” assumes — often quite rightly — that a well-chosen object or two can inspire viewers to pause, look and think for themselves. You need to see only one early Klimt — his 1890-92 “Two Girls With an Oleander” from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford — to appreciate the leap that his best work represents. He could have spent his life playing it safe as a latter-day Pre-Raphaelite.
Each of the show’s six galleries functions almost as a separate, if not fully developed, exhibition unto itself, with its own curatorial witticisms and its own emotional and formal tensions and contrasts. You never quite know what will pop up next.
The first gallery, titled “Unmasking the Inner Man,” includes a re-creation of Freud’s shapeless, rug-covered psychoanalytic couch overseen by a portrait of the good doctor himself, looking suitably skeptical. Painted by Max Oppenheimer in 1909, the portrait is owned by the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.
A full-length, life-size nude self-portrait from 1908 by Richard Gerstl, who killed himself soon after, at 25, for love of Schoenberg’s wife, hangs nearby. It comes from the Leopold Museum in Vienna and is being shown in this country for the first time. An admirer of German Expressionism, Gerstl depicts himself before a blue background that he seems to be still covering with doodles; he could be mocking the gold-on-gold mosaic patterns of the Neue Galerie’s most famous Klimt, the 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, resplendent, as usual, in the next gallery, “Representing Women in Vienna 1900.”
Here you may be taken aback by a full-length portrait of a young, haute bourgeoise Viennese beauty by the academic painter Hans Makart, the dominant artistic figure in premodern Vienna. (Klimt, one of Makart’s many studio assistants, revered him initially.) Ponderously framed, this froth of cloying brushwork and sartorial detail stands out like a sore thumb opposite Adele. But it vividly locates the artistic stagnation that the painters of other portraits in the room — Klimt, as well as Schiele and Kokoschka — were rebelling against.
At this point it helps to glance over Philipp Blom’s excellent opening essay in the show’s catalog. His main point is that style — and by extension aesthetics in general — became a crucial expression of identity in a society that granted its citizens few other freedoms. And aesthetics were serious business to a dysfunctional government, for which all was show. When Adolf Loos’s plain-faced Goldman and Salatsch Building was erected opposite the palace, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was so offended he vowed never again to use the entrance facing it.
At times the show feels predictable. Schiele’s drawings of wiry contorted sexual imps and Alfred Kubin’s slithery nightmare scenes are once more displayed in the museum’s darkened drawing gallery, this time with the title “Fear, Fantasy and Dreams.” Klimt’s line drawings of reclining half-dressed women, though also familiar, feel fresher because they’re more original, their extravagant lines and details conveying real-life sexual autonomy with a sophistication that has few equals, even today. And the gallery is buoyed by five of Schoenberg’s amateurish yet haunted forays into painting, in this case his masklike, lighted-from-within monochromes, including one titled “Tears.” A rarely exhibited 1900 corner cabinet by Moser offers doors lined, inside, with Klimt-like waifs and adorned, outside, with bulbous glass tears.
Upstairs the show gives way to delicious aberrant moments, like the gallery kitted out in beige walls and chunky red molding. This is a tribute both to the era’s boldly colored poster design and the installation style of the pivotal Vienna Secession, the artists’ organization founded by Klimt and his cohort in 1897, whose gold-domed exhibition hall created an important alternative to imperial patronage. Three of Klimt’s flat, textilelike landscapes and one of Schiele’s almost equally two-dimensional townscapes hang here. But most of the room is given over to Post-Impressionist and Symbolist artists from abroad — including Jan Toorop, Ferdinand Hodler, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis — who influenced their hosts. A single chair represents the Scottish Arts and Crafts designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose example helped inspire Hoffmann and Moser to found the Wiener Werkstätte with the goal — never quite achieved — of making modern design available to the masses.
Next, a stuffed, truly atticlike gallery reviews the aesthetic schism between, on the one hand, Hoffmann and Moser and the Werkstätte ideal of total design (carpet, wallpaper, furniture, objects); and, on the other, Loos’s more relaxed approach to interiors. On the Loos side a crowd of furniture includes his own designs and other pieces that he combined in his apartment and in commissions. The Werkstätte side of the room definitely triumphs visually — look at Klimt’s “Dancer” on Hoffmann’s deep aqua wallpaper! — but Hoffmann clearly had a bit of the old Franz-Joseph autocrat in him.
The third upstairs gallery circles back to the beginning with a tribute to Otto Wagner, generally considered the father of Viennese modernism, especially for his Postal Savings Bank Building, completed in 1904. Here we get three chairs and three bulky wardrobes that trace his gradual renunciation of historicist styles, and an immense architectural model for a gold-domed church that influenced the Secession building. Bare and stark, the room feels a bit like a mausoleum compared to what has come before. Another wardrobe designed by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus in 1927 is also included, reminding us how the aesthetic liberties won in Vienna led into the future.
New York—On Dec. 8, 1881, a fire consumed Vienna's elegant Ringtheater during an opera performance. Hours later, when nearly 400 bodies had been removed from the smoldering ruin, the policeman heading the recovery operation reported to the emperor's famously tender-hearted cousin, Archduke Albrecht, "All saved, Your Imperial Highness." In old Vienna, one maintained a good facade no matter how awful the truth. The exhibition "Vienna 1900: Style and Identity" focuses a sharp lens upon the new wave of art and design that revolted against this mind-set at the turn of the last century.
That this legacy is still provocative is abundantly evident in the 150 paintings, drawings and decorative objects chosen from the museum's own collections as well as from public and private collections here and in Europe.
Represented are leading lights of Viennese modernism, from Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele to Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner. These rebels, who also included such writers as the dramatist and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, felt that Vienna had locked itself in a Romantic, hypocritical fantasy world symbolized by the splendid architectural array along the Ringstrasse, the beautiful circular boulevard lined with public and private buildings in the neo-Classical, neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance styles. The rebels had their own dreams and fantasies, but they were definitely anti-Romantic ones.
To explore questions of Viennese identity and style, the exhibition galleries are arranged thematically, including displays consecrated to Loos and Wagner as well as to such concepts as "Fear, Fantasy and Dreams" and "The Vienna Secession as a Catalyst of Modernism."
Though the exhibition hasn't been planned this way, visitors can first go to the small screening room on the third floor, where Emperor Franz Joseph's imperial capital lives again in a fascinating loop of silent films. Shot from a tram car about 1900, the films offer a virtual tour of the Ringstrasse in all its Hapsburg glory. Meanwhile, excerpts of works by Viennese composers from Schubert to Schoenberg play in the background.
Decorative objects trace the development of Vienna's modernist style in a variety of media, from furniture to jewelry, while revealing the influences that shaped it. The straight white-lacquered planes of a 1902 tall-case clock by Hoffmann and Carl Czeschka are offset by tall gilt-brass panels whose curvilinear motifs evoke the medieval Book of Kells through an Art Nouveau lens. Wagner's 1890 mahogany collector's cabinet combines the profile of an 18th-century breakfront with inset panels of Japanese cloisonné that evoke 1880s English Aestheticism. Roughly a decade later, Wagner's chair designs anticipate the geometric outlines and sleek proportions of 1920s Art Deco and Bauhaus.
Yet while the straight lines and flat veneered panels of Koloman Moser's "Enchanted Princesses Cabinet" (1900) foreshadow a design vocabulary several decades in the future, the long-haired princesses inlaid in marquetry are pure Pre-Raphaelite medievalism, proving that Romantic ideas weren't entirely discarded by the rising generation. Nearby, furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Charles Voysey illustrates international cross-currents.
But the atmosphere really heats up in the painting and drawing galleries, where unbridled sexuality reigns. That this was Sigmund Freud's Vienna is underscored with scholarly perception and welcome humor: A replica of Freud's couch, complete with Persian carpet throw, bears an invitation to visitors to try it out for themselves. And it has been placed beneath Richard Gerstl's full length, full-frontal nude "Self-Portrait With Palette" (1908). Viewed in the context of late-19th-century conventions, many of these works convey an almost frathouse bawdiness, as the artists defiantly strip and dare their public not to look away.
If Alfred Kubin's shadowy ink drawings of "Charon" and "The Dead Emperor" and composer-painter Arnold Schoenberg's oil paintings of hollow-eyed "Gazes" present nightmarish impressions of death and madness, Egon Schiele's "Self-Portrait with Red Eye" (1910) proclaims itself like a prescient thunderbolt. Heightened by a flaring aureole of white, the figure's loose-hipped posture, spiked hair and drugged expression could belong to a late-20th-century punk rocker.
Turning to the women, near a group of Klimt's erotic female drawings, a monitor displays silent films of naughty Viennese ladies stripping to frolic in a pond, their Rubenesque figures liberated from corsets like the one displayed nearby. These drawings are an acquired taste—not because of their sexual candor, but because of their almost exploitative crudeness. Klimt's tentative chalk and pencil strokes do little more than outline and emphasize the foreshortened legs, buttocks and genitalia of his subjects, their scrawled lifelessness compromising the images' erotic impact.
Yet Klimt's early paintings of "Two Girls With an Oleander" (c. 1890-92) reveals him drawing with subtle academic panache, his delicate girls plainly influenced by the late pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones.
Most satisfying are Klimt's iconic portraits. In his celebrated 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the naturalistically modeled face, hands and bust are encrusted in a mosaic-like matrix of gold, colored paints and other media, resembling Hoffmann's dazzling jewelry of mixed gemstones and precious metals. Yet instead of depicting Bloch-Bauer with the softly tinged flesh of his earlier women, Klimt gives her an unhealthy gray pallor.
Similarly, Oskar Kokoschka's 1909 portrait of Lotte Franzos suggests a darker aspect of burgeoning Freudian awareness—her face blank, her stiff, bony hands like tormented claws. And Ferdinand Hodler's "Spring III" (1907-10) throbs with the tension of pubescent indecision as the awkward nude figure of the boy and the rapt, clothed figure of the girl seem eternally trapped on the brink of forbidden knowledge.
Not everything here is tumescent: Théo van Rysselberghe's seascape "Big Clouds" (1893) is a bit of Seurat pointillism on the Danube, and in Klimt's "Forester House in Weissenbach on the Attersee" (1912), the open casements are painted with Van Gogh's flamelike passion.
Whatever your reactions to specific works, you depart this show profoundly stimulated by its overall breadth, and with a new regard for Vienna's distinctive modernist style—psychologically curious, sexually outspoken, muscular, cynical and visually opulent.
Mr. Scherer writes about fine art and classical music for the Journal.
Woody Allen might now be making movies about Paris and London, but the European city New Yorkers may have the most innate affinity for is Vienna. On the way to my shrink, I went to “Vienna 1900: Style and Identity,” at the Neue Galerie, curated by Christian Witt-Dörring and Jill Lloyd, and saw the origins of a particularly local set of attitudes and neuroses.
The exhibition’s first room reconstructs Sigmund Freud’s rug-strewn examining couch; it stands in for the unconscious at the unseen center of the show. Publications in vitrines examine the “woman problem” and the “sex and character” question. Portraits by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka depict dreamers thin in their suits, and fat poets (Peter Altenberg); Adolf Loos’ brass and wood Chairs for Café Campus and Josef Hoffman’s elongated Chairs for the Dining Room of the Parkersdorf Sanatorium give these unstable-looking characters two possible destinations for respite. This is a culture obsessed with sex, coffee and madness, in no particular order.
The Viennese were also passionate about their furniture–a man could live or die by the chair he had in front of his office. “Every chair should be practical” and “perfect furniture produces perfect rooms” were two tenets of the designer and architect Loos. In one room, Otto Wagner’s cushy Chair in Front of the Director’s Office at the Austrian Postal Savings Bank, in upholstered black-stained oak, and zippy Armchair for Newspaper Dispatcher Bureau Die Zeit, in speedy metal, reveal that form doesn’t just follow function, it lovingly stalks it, with obsessively bespoke results.
The Neue Galerie–a Museum Mile townhouse–feels more like a home than a white cube. Few institutions are prepared to take $30 million and $40 million paintings (the museum’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustave Klimt is famously the most expensive painting ever purchased, at more than $130 million) and use them as props in period rooms replete with furniture and carpets. This curatorial premise derives from an adherence to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” style of this period. Perhaps no other museum is willing to take such expensive material and have so much fun with it.
A room stages decorative Secessionist style (block print wallpaper, an hourglass-patterned rug, bold black and white checked Koloman Moser chairs). Colorful Klimts hang here including the exotic 1916 Dancer. The other side of the same room showcases Loos, the original Strunk and White of design and dress simplicity who wrote Ornament and Crime, that vicious bible of good style. His are handsome brass and oak chairs, monochrome and functional gentleman’s club furniture in solid rich materials.
In yet another room, paintings of the countryside show the Viennese vision of retreats on the lakes around Austria. In Klimt’s Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee and Schiele’s Town Among the Greenery, the forest slope and little town are so fashionably mannered with Japonisme and blue cloisonné lines that they are as natural as an upstate Arcadia shot by Terry Richardson.
In the main gallery, next to a constraining whalebone Corset, the flowing Reform Dress represents a breakthrough. In an early Klimt portrait, Serena Pulitzer Lederer, the title subject wears this new uncorseted style, and her figure is dematerialized into a sweeping white column. All the “Vienna 1900″ women have this ethereal new shape. The corset becomes a metaphor for academic art like Hans Makart’s 1875 Portrait of Hanna Klinkosch, laced-up next to the Secession’s supple Modernism.
The Saturn Films company produced erotic films for the Viennese “gentleman’s evening.” Youth Games, Forbidden Bathing, An Exciting Hunt and A Modern Marriage are among the black-and-white shorts on rotation; the crowd around them suggested that they were as mesmerizing today as they had been popular in their time. Diana in the Bath marries the Austrian passions for hunting and voyeurism into one inspired clip of a huntress stripping and dipping in a forest pond. The content of Klimt’s Reclining Female Semi-nude Facing Right and of other graphic odes to women gently masturbating belies their clinical titles.
Saturn’s films were banned by 1909, and in 1912 authorities charged Schiele with kidnapping and corrupting a minor, jailed him and burned his drawings. Private fantasy and public morality were at odds. With the Emperor Franz Josef already 70 years old, the official policies were not as radical as the city’s art and design culture. If, as Arnold Schoenberg said, “Art belongs to the unconscious mind,” then the empire was its policing superego.
Vienna in 1900 was a place where you were defined by what you wore and what chair you bought, where everyone went to the country to pretend to get away yet saw their urban neighbors there. Its apartments were crowded with stuff; it was a place where women were seen as being more autonomous and dangerous than ever before. It was the myopic and stylish center of its own empire. So it’s easy for a New Yorker to feel at home in the Neue Galerie this spring.
Vienna 1900: Style and Identity at New York’s Neue Galerie, makes a marvelous companion to the splashier Great Upheaval at the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim show commemorates the explosion of the international avant-garde in 1910 and focuses on the French, Italian, Russian and German innovators who beat the drum for utopia in a steady and fervent crescendo. The Neue Galerie show explores more ambivalent developments in Vienna, where even the most adventurous thinkers advanced into the new century with trepidation and an unhealthy tendency towards nostalgia.
Vienna 1900 is an ambitious show, straining to encompass the totality of Viennese culture at a time when art, architecture, literature, music, journalism, philosophy, psychiatry and theatre waltzed together to the wistful strains of the fading Habsburg regime. Klimt, Freud, Kokoschka, Mahler, Schnitzler and Schiele anticipated the death of empire with a fevered mingling of delight and despair. The museum’s lofty goal is to chart the modern redefinition of identity, but the show covers so vast and gnarled a cultural topography that it can’t possibly map the entire panorama. Instead, it offers a scatter of loosely related insights, introducing us to a range of staggeringly original thoughts that can’t possibly cohere into a unified theory of revolution.
Amid the cornucopia of jewelery, furniture, manuscripts, costumes, architectural models and assorted objets, one theme emerges clearly from the finest paintings: women lay at the throbbing centre of all the uncertainties about self and society. While Paris’s cubists and Milan’s futurists fragmented the human body into dangerous little shards, the Viennese cherished their nudes. Flesh flooded the dreams of philosophers and surged into the paintings of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka; anxieties about women infiltrated every debate, an ambivalence that mirrored the way these painters felt about modernity itself.
Deluging the workforce in ever-larger numbers and agitating for shifts in the power structure, women represented a threat to most men whatever their politics. Jill Lloyd’s absorbing essay in the exhibition catalogue details the violent reactions against even the most modest demands for equality. Conservatives noted the emancipation of women and the influx of Jews, condemning both groups as diseased destroyers of the old social order. But the intelligentsia outdid even the political rearguard in vehement misogyny. Karl Krauss denounced Vienna’s “vaginal society”. Sigmund Freud pronounced women’s desire for equality a form of penis envy. And the exhibition includes a copy of Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, in which the author laments the rise of “virulised women” and Jews, in both of whom he detects the lack of an autonomous moral self.
Many of the representations of women on view here enshrine Weininger’s brand of enthralled repulsion. With warped fixity and narcissistic lust, Schiele churned out pinched, emaciated girl-women for a circle of avid collectors. Klimt, too, manufactured fantasies for a covey of adoring fans. Less radical than he seemed, he didn’t shock the marketplace so much as pleasure it, and socialites clamoured to impersonate his orgasmic females awash in cataracts of hair.
He may have played at bohemianism, but Klimt was no outsider; in 1908, the imperial government paid a fortune to acquire his iconic “Kiss”. His drawings were outré in their explicitness, but stylistically they didn’t stray far from standard issue. He practised the line of a hip or the angle between two spread legs with compulsive pedantry, and tackled the topic of the masturbating woman with scholastic rigour. Klimt’s academic bent extended to his fondness for allegory. “Hope II (Vision)” showcases him at his decorative best. A foetus-like nude, wrapped in a mosaic rainbow, floats through a gilded sea of amniotic fluid. Klimt endows her with pendulous breasts, a bulging belly and a cluster of female votaries at her feet, all proof of her fertility. He also envelops her in a glittering pattern that betokens riches and abundance. But this is Vienna in 1907 and, if you see a sexy woman, chances are that Death lurks somewhere nearby. Sure enough, a skull rests on that baby bump.
And of course there’s Kokoschka, the finest painter in the Viennese triumvirate. For the most part he refrained from the sentimentality and camp that seduced his peers, and his portraits retain their immediacy as well as their horror. In his portrait of Peter Altenberg, the writer’s pale, pointy head hovers before a swelling cloud of blackness. His eyes bulge and his walrus moustache droops. The neck is a slab of rare meat; crimson spreads across the tips of the fingers like evidence in a crime. Kokoschka practised an equal-opportunity form of disgust.
Why were these Viennese so set on decrepitude? While the rest of Europe looked forward to a bright 20th century, Vienna’s modernists twisted the bodies of women into inscriptions of dread. They looked back plaintively toward the symbolist Salomes, sphinxes, and vampires of the fin-de-siècle, and deployed the female body as a way to rebel – revolution through titillation. (At the same time, though, they shoved women themselves off the paths of progress; the Secessionist group admitted not a single female.) But then, in those years, perhaps artists who indulged in morbid sensuality were simply behaving rationally. The pure, tempered brilliance of western utopians must have seemed pretty inspiring in 1910, but a few years later all that clean-slate conviction had yielded only bitterness and doom. The lascivious Viennese, on the other hand, painted a song of mass death foretold.
‘Vienna 1900: Style and Identity’ continues through to June 27. neuegalerie.org.