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Modern Times—Vienna 1900:
Style and Identity at the Neue Galerie

10.-Jesser-Beaker-1916-520x520

In the wake of Habsburgian decline, art in Vienna entered a new phase widely known as Vienna Modernism, as the city emerged as a focal point for the arts in Europe. Brimming with Freud’s theories of psychological insight and emphasis on the individual, Schoenberg’s innovative twelve-toned musical landscapes, as well as architectural innovations, the mood of Vienna’s cultural life signaled a growing dissatisfaction with social constraints of prior generations, including notions of women’s status in society. It is those themes of fin de siècle Modern style and thought in Vienna on which the current exhibit at the Neue Galerie focuses. Overall, the exhibit seems somewhat haphazard and contains intermingled paintings, moving images and pieces of furniture and decorative arts. En passant, nevertheless, patterns emerge which highlight this period in Vienna during which the arts flourished and were made anew.

Vienna Secession

One catalyst of this turn of the century burst of creativity was the Vienna Secession. Comprising a group of artists and architects, the Secessionists set out to popularize new ideas in the arts and emphasized modernism as a point of view, rather than an historical, narrative modus operandi. An outgrowth of the Secessionist movement, the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), set out to unify all aspects of life through art (Gesamtkunstwerk). Included in their exhibitions were works by architects, manufacturers, craftspeople, fine and decorative artists and painters, as well as works by tradition-based Japanese fine artists and members of the Glasgow School.

Painting

Responding to psychoanalytic notions of the day, painters strove to mirror the inner reflections and moods of their subjects, and illustrative works by painters Richard Gerstl, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Arnold Schoenberg, among others are assembled in one room. Schoenberg’s Gaze (1910), above, recalls Munch’s (1893) The Scream, showing that such interpretations were in the air, foreshadowing turn of the century sensibilities. In broad, thick brushstrokes, Gaze minimally depicts a single face with few, but pertinent, recognizably human features in sombre tones of brown and black. The mouth is somewhat open revealing a dark core, the huge, staring eyes are bloodshot, but otherwise blank, as if frozen in fearful premonition. Thus, the painter depicts his subject’s innermost, if momentary, identity.

In Laughing Self-Portrait (Gerstl 1908), above, and Lotte Franzos (Kokoschka, 1909) the subjects’ mental states come to the fore in highly nuanced portraits. The Gerstl self-portrait is rendered in heavy, clipped, brush strokes. With a dappled brown and rose background the painter’s face seems illuminated by a nearby light source. The face is depicted in broad swaths of light rose coloring, and a toothy, smiling, open mouth; a picture of momentary delight.

Conversely, Kokoschka’s Lotte (above), is painted in nearly transparent, yellowish hues and the lady barely exists, except for inky blue patches and smudges enclosed in delicate brownish streaks that suggest the topography of her body beneath the gauzy dress. Her small head is tilted slightly downward and her facial features are delicately rendered amidst dots of pale rose and beiges of varying intensity. The figure’s caliginous eyes appear as small, dark blue discs floating in their white surroundings. The background color is identical to the dress, and repeats the same detached mood.

Women

Changes in women’s status in society are addressed here through a variety of media including painting, fashion and moving images. Much is made of Klimt’s (ca. 1890-1892) more traditionally rendered Two Girls With Oleander (above), depicting two young women sharing a moment of sheer pleasure in botanical beauty, for themselves, alone.

Elsewhere in the exhibit are Klimt’s (1907-08) Hope II (Vision), above, and Schiele’s (1909) Gerti Schiele, both in the highly stylized modernist form. Klimt, one of the founders of the Secessionist movement, is broadly considered a painter in the Symbolist manner, best known for his Golden Phase, utilizing gold leaf in his paintings to very strong effect. In Hope II, consisting primarily of an elongate, bare-breasted pregnant woman, Klimt’s skill at use of gold leaf and decorative interweaving of shape and color is evident.

Schiele, Klimt’s student, is known for his skinny, teased out, elongate, erotic and highly colored drawings of bodily intimacies. Here, Schiele’s Gerti (above) echoes his mentor’s style but with pared down decoration and movement toward more naturalistic portraiture.

Moving images present scenes of zoftig nudes tripping lightly in and out of a lake, cajoling and touching one another as images representative of personal liberation from prior restrictions on female behavior and mores. Juxtaposing a tightly drawn (waist-pinching) corset with a so-called freedom dress, which, by current standards is somewhat dowdy, does give an impression of loosening the bindings, so to speak, in women’s fashion.

Furniture

It is the furniture in this exhibit that is most representative of Viennese Modern style across the 19th and 20th Century transition, bearing influences from abroad, most significantly by the Glasgow School and its most noted graduate, gifted artist and architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh’s style, a combination of European design ideas and Japanese interior structural motifs results in clean-lined, delicate, functional forms. Perusing the assemblage of furniture in this exhibit, influences of traditional Japanese motifs overlain with Mackintosh’s meticulously Modern sensibilities are unmistakable. The bulk of the furniture is cleverly placed in a single room and arranged in two sections: one side contains those pieces which embody the Modern style of the Wiener Werkstätte, and, across the room, furniture emblematic of the prior, constricted, formalist aesthetic of Adolf Loos and Oskar Kokoschka.

Museum notes state “Architect Otto Wagner is considered to be the father of the modern movement in Vienna.” In rejecting older notions of form, the thrust of Wagner’s design themes rested on function, rather than form, as contrasted with old style “loyalists” Kokoschka and Loos. It could be argued that, in fact, an eye candy effect took hold as objects achieved greater significance as decorative items.

On view is a chest of drawers by Adolf Loos. Of note is the stylistic barrenness with minimal adornment save for the brass hardware. The piece, constructed solely of maple, has a sturdy, even stately, fidelity to notions of quiet modesty.

On an opposite wall is a grouping illustrative of the marked break from the conservative, rather anonymous look of household items. Comprising ebony, boxwood and mother-of-pearl insets the drawing cabinet by Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill is showy and designed to be seen. The mother-of-pearl edging sets the piece apart from the cacophony of colors and patterns in which it is placed. Architecturally varied, the graduated drawers add a note of whimsy, designed for the eye, alone. The beechwood Joseph Hoffman chair both echoes and extends Glasgow School sensibility, refining and softening lines, reducing the object to mere functionality to sleek structural elements.

The Kokoschka poster for the Kunstschau Wien (1908), too, is emblematic of modernistic winds that swept Viennese and European art. Whimsy makes another appearance in joking, caricature-like, images that, nevertheless, are elongate and closely appressed; a hallmark of modernist style.

The assemblage recreates a room in which delight, not austerity, is the favored tone.

If one perseveres through this somewhat dispersed display of turn-of-the-century Viennese obj’ d’art, the reward is a picture of dazzling transformation in sensibilities by a people emerging from an earlier time into the beginnings of modern thought and expression.

Vienna 1900: Style and Identity
Through June 27, 2011
Neue Galerie
1048 Fifth Avenue, at East 86th Street
For more information, visit the
museum’s website.

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