Beauty and the Abyss
These four protagonists played a leading role in making the fin de siècle period such an important time for art in Vienna and Austria. And 2018 marks a sad milestone for each of them: they all died 100 years ago. In 2018 Vienna will be showcasing the creative output of these and other exceptional artists working in the ‘Wiener Moderne’ era.
The period between 1890 and 1918 was a crucial phase in Austrian history. The dual monarchy of the Habsburg led Austro-Hungarian Empire swung between beauty and the abyss. Countless new developments in art, literature, architecture, psychology, philosophy and wider society were shaped by the ‘Wiener Moderne’ or Viennese Modernism. Artists were at the vanguard. Their works shook up the ossifying Habsburg monarchy and came to terms with the failure of liberal politics after the catastrophic stock exchange crash of 1873. The outcome was revolutionary thinking in all areas of life. Until the cruelties of the First World War stalked the earth – the first watershed moment. The second came with the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938.
Klimt’s portraits of women, Schiele’s unflinching self-portraits, Wagner’s ideas for a modern capital, Moser’s designs, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music, Gustav Mahler’s modern symphonies (both composers are given prominence at the House of Music), Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (he also designed many features of the Wittgenstein House in Vienna) and Arthur Schnitzler’s 'landscapes of the soul' were just some of the most important accomplishments of the age. Vienna was dominated by an abundance of the new. In the capital’s coffeehouses – chief among them Café Museum, Café Central and Café Griensteidl – writers such as Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg debated with fellow intellectuals and artists. Architects such as Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph-Maria Olbrich constructed buildings that marked a bold departure from the historicist Ringstrasse style and incorporated new materials. Artists, politicians and scientists discussed the issues of the day in salons run by Jewish salonières from the burgeoning upper-middle classes. In fact, there was a palpable move towards a greater role for women: Alma Mahler-Werfel, Rosa Mayreder, Grete Wiesenthal, Lina Loos, Gina Kaus and Berta Zuckerkandl were just some of the leading figures at a time when Vienna was the intellectual center of the world. By 1910 the capital’s population had grown to two million.
Urbanist and graphic designer
It was in this hotbed of creativity and amongst a ferment of change that Klimt, Schiele, Wagner and Moser reached their artistic peak (turn to page 14 for biographies). The oldest, Otto Wagner incorporated the spirit of the times, bringing together entrepreneurialism, urban planning and design. In today’s parlance he was a designer, urbanist and developer. He believed that functional objects required no more and no less design than was required for them to be of effective use. At the same time he came up with an entirely new formal language that reflected the dynamism of the city and its underlying faith in progress. Leading examples include his Stadtbahn commuter railway project (now the U4 and U6 subway lines) and regulating the course of the city’s rivers. Wagner not only shaped the face of the city – as a professor of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts he influenced several generations of students.
Koloman Moser, on the other hand, was what we would today call a graphic designer, as well as a product designer, interior designer and exhibition designer. He turned his hand to everything, from wallpaper to books, stationery, furniture, windows, posters and logos. And he was also a painter. His early curved floral forms increasingly gave way to a geometric ornamental surface style and a highly aesthetic design signature, which would significantly shape the world-famous products created by Wiener Werkstätte – which he co-founded in 1903. Moser taught at the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule (now the University of Applied Arts), which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017/18.
The Kiss and Wally
Gustav Klimt also studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule. In the early days of his career he worked with Franz Matsch and his brother Ernst on the opulent interiors of the Burgtheater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Klimt gradually became a public favorite and portrait artist to the burgeoning middle classes. His journey to becoming Austria’s best-known artist was not without its issues: Klimt’s view of the world and the nudity in his works were the subject of scandal. Today, Klimt’s painting is synonymous with a particularly sought after and expensive type of Viennese art that has enjoyed enormous popularity in past decades. Klimt’s portraits of women elevated Austrian art nouveau painting to new heights. His best-known work, the Kiss, is on display at the Upper Belvedere.
Egon Schiele was heavily influenced by Klimt. Schiele, like Oskar Kokoshka after him, had Klimt to thank for his fascination with pictures of women that portrayed their innermost thoughts and sensibilities. Schiele too focused on depictions of the human body, mostly his own, taking the genre to an almost ecstatic and demonic new level. His landscapes and pictures of cities are also masterpieces of expressionist art. His two best-known works – Portrait of Wally and his Self-Portrait with Physalis – are on display at the Leopold Museum. Although Schiele only lived to the age of 28, he left behind a significant and highly-respected oeuvre.
In 2018 these four leading lights of Viennese Modernism and many others will be the focus of various exhibitions and events (turn to page 22 for information) – as part of what is already promising to be a highly interesting year.