Vienna: Art & Design

August 31, 2011
Egon Schiele, Self-portrait with hands on chest

In that period known as the Belle Époque, from the end of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War, Europe went through a prodigious burst of creativity. Modernity had arrived in full force, and no centre, with the obvious exception of Paris, was more dynamic than Vienna. Both cities were melting pots for artists of many nationalities, drawn by a cosmopolitanism that encouraged innovation and experiment.

It was not only literature, music and the visual arts that flourished – architecture, science, design and philosophy were all revolutionised. When Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 he would make an impact on the new century comparable to the way Darwin had rocked the nineteenth century with The Origin of Species.

There must be hundreds of memoirs of fin-de-siécle Vienna. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities (1930-42) is the great fictional account, but nothing is quite as vivid or informative as Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1942), in its account of a golden age irreparably tarnished.

Zweig was a representative figure of that era, a writer from a wealthy Jewish family that had been assimilated into the life of the Empire. His greatest ambition from an early age was to write the feuilleton in the local newspaper – the small essays that were discussed and debated in the coffee shops. It was a comfortable and secure world that gradually came apart at the seams as the Empire was beset by nationalist uprisings and anti-Semitism.

After the carnage of the First World War, Vienna tried to return to its former brilliance, but it was a febrile, hollow affair, beset by intimations of doom. The city today is like a living museum of former glories, where extreme political views and radical artistic expressions suggest that the ghosts of the recent past have never been fully laid to rest. For this phase, look no further than the novels of Thomas Bernhard.

Vienna: Art & Design at the National Gallery of Victoria skates over the surface of the turbulent Belle Époque period, concentrating on its more positive, constructive aspects. It is a rose-coloured view, but nonetheless impressive. It reveals an entirely different dimension of the German-speaking world to that featured in the Art Gallery of NSW’s Weimar Republic show, The Mad Square.

More than any other Australian public gallery, the NGV knows that audiences come to see paintings but will stay to gaze at objects. The Art Deco show of 2008 was full of amazing bric-a-brac, and the Vienna exhibition is also packed with furniture, cutlery, glassware, clocks, printed books, fashion, wallpaper and textile designs.

Despite the preponderance of objects, the biggest drawcard remains Gustav Klimt’s hyper-decorative portrait of his partner, Emilie Flöge, which looks hardly less startling today than it must have looked in 1902. There are just enough paintings by renowned artists such as Klimt and Egon Schiele to prevent this show from being too heavily weighted towards “design” rather than art.

Gustav Klimt AustGustav Klimt Austria 1862–1918 Emilie Flöge 1902 (detail) oil on canvas 178.0 x 80.0 cm

The ideal of the Secession, the radical movement that gave early-modern Vienna its momentum, was the Gesamtkunstwerke – the ‘Total Work of Art’. This called for the union of painting, sculpture and the applied arts. It was a goal that could only be realised with the support of wealthy, enlightened patrons willing to turn their entire domestic or business environments into a showcase for the new aesthetic.

The NGV is rightly proud of owning one of these environments: the contents of an apartment designed by Josef Hoffmann for Moriz and Hermine Gallia. It represents one of the rare occasions when an Australian gallery acted decisively to acquire an important body of work, when it was offered by the Gallias’ grand-daughter, Anne, in 1976. The collection had previously been housed in an apartment in Cremorne Point owned by two Gallia daughters, Gretl and Kathe, who had left Austria in 1938, following the Nazi takeover.

Gretl and Kathe were grandmother and great-aunt to the art historian Tim Bonyhady, who has written about the collection for the NGV catalogue, and in a memoir called Good Living Street. Bonyhady underlines the importance of the acquisition by noting that no other museum in the world has been able to acquire anything comparable for the past 35 years.

As well as the rather fanciful pieces commissioned by the Gallias from Josef Hoffmann, the NGV also has furniture designed by Adolf Loos for the Langer family. This is a marvellous point of comparison because Hoffmann and Loos were adversaries, with completely different ideas about the role of art and design. Loos was a functionalist who believed that design and architecture lost their way as they aspired to the condition of ‘art’. Over the years he became more overtly hostile to Hoffmann and the products of the Wiener Werkstatte, which were considered the acme of high fashion. In 1908 Loos published an essay called Ornament and crime attacking the vogue for decoration, which he saw as “degenerate”.

Although his choice of words now seems unfortunate, Loos would prove to be more in tune with the evolution of twentieth century architecture and design, which shunned ornamentation until the advent of Postmodernism in the 1970s.

Looking back on the works of the Vienna Secession, which held its first exhibition in 1898, it seems remarkably old-fashioned in comparison to the Modernist movements that would follow. Its modernity, as Christian Witt-Dörring reminds us in the catalogue, was couched as a renewal of national Biedermeier traditions rather than a radical break with the past. The idol of the Secession was not Courbet or Manet, but Charles Rennie Mackintosh,

The first room of this exhibition is devoted to the architect, Otto Wagner, charting his evolution towards a more streamlined style. As the nature of the city changed to accommodate a growing population and new technical innovations, Wagner moved with the times. A new style of building led to new types of fittings and furniture, and would exert an influence on the kind of commissions given to artists.

The obsession with style would be reflected in the work of artists such as Klimt, Schiele and Koloman Moser, reaching an extreme point in the wall decorations for the Secession building, included in this show in facsimile. The mannered figures Klimt created for his Beethoven frieze (1901-02) have the languid atmosphere of Symbolist art, but a colour scheme that is almost Byzantine. Their lurid, decadent nature shows the artist’s contempt for conventional standards of taste. Klimt continued this approach with his portraits, where it often feels as if the subject were only an excuse for a pyrotechnical display of swirls and patterns.

The surfaces became more flashy and opulent, but there was a dark undercurrent running through Viennese art: a new obsession with the inner life that was only partly traceable to Freud. The same impulse is at work in the stories of Arthur Schnitzler; the sexualised, confessional images of Schiele; and in musical compositions such as Arnold Schönberg’s Transfigured Night (1899).

The latter was also a dedicated painter, and this exhibition not only features a portrait of the composer by Richard Gerstl, but Schönberg’s own full-length portrait of his prize student, Alban Berg. Schönberg was incapable of doing anything half-heartedly, be it a musical composition or a game of ping pong, and his paintings cannot be dismissed as a sideline. They have the same rawness and intensity as Oskar Kokoschka’s portraits, which sought to reveal underlying psychological states.

It is often said that the turmoil of the late Austro-Hungarian empire turned artists and writers away from politics, and back into their own psyches. While that is contradicted by the work of satirists such as Karl Krauss or the Jewish activist, Theodor Herzl, there was a tension between private and public life that had rarely surfaced in earlier times, under the seemingly eternal reign of the Habsburgs.

“Here in this land,” wrote Krauss, “no one gets ridicule but he who tells the truth.” This was, perhaps, because the truth was increasingly unpalatable – from the revelations that Freud was dredging up from the subconscious to the ethnic conflicts that were rendering politics dysfunctional.

In such times it is understandable that artists and their clients invested so heavily in surface effects. With the advent of war that glittering lie would be shot full of holes, but for one generation it shone with an intensity that would illuminate an entire century.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 20, 2011

Vienna: Art & Design, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 9 October 2011.