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Fantastic Realism Set to Open at The Belvedere in Vienna
Max Ernst, The Banquet of the Sphinx, 1940. oil on canvas. 42 x 48 cm. Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Oldenburg © VBK, Wien 2008

VIENNA.- Forty years after the international breakthrough of Fantastic Realism, the Belvedere is showing a focused retrospective on one of the most successful “export brands” of Austrian art. It will not only present the major works of the five great masters – Arik Brauer, Ernst Fuchs, Rudolf Hausner, Wolfgang Hutter and Anton Lehmden – but, for the first time, the early history and context of this special movement of late Modern Art.

The roots of Fantastic Realism as a specific Viennese phenomenon go back to the 1920s, when Modern Art split into a wide range of various diverging movements, a period which saw the emergence of Cubism and Constructivism, as well as Surrealism and Magic Realism.

During the new dawn in art immediately after the war in Vienna, the “Fantasts” soon formed a circle of friends around the “Art Club” president Albert Paris Gütersloh. The “Art Club” illustrates the non-dogmatic diversity of the awakening scene, when Expressionist, Cubist, and Surrealist formations, including young artists such as Maria Lassnig, Arnulf Rainer, and the later “Fantasts”, were able to coexist side by side.

Publications by the art critic Johann Muschik and the Belvedere exhibition in 1959/60 ensured that Fantastic Realism finally started out on its triumphant progress worldwide as the “other face” of the modern movement and an alternative to the abstract painting of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the years after 1945, a group of young painters – including Rudolf Hausner, Ernst Fuchs, Wolfgang Hutter, Anton Lehmden, and Arik Brauer – was seeking historical continuity, with the painting of the late Renaissance, Symbolism, and Surrealism serving as its models. During the period of post-war reconstruction, they offered the public an immediate access to Modern Art. Up to the present day, Fantastic Realist painting has partly determined international perception of Austrian art after 1945.

Almost fifty years after the group’s first comprehensive exhibition at the Belvedere in 1959/60, which contributed to establishing the label of Fantastic Realism – coined by Johann Muschik – as its commonly known name, the Belvedere is presenting a retrospective of this movement. The focus of the show is on the roots and context of Fantastic Realism, as well as on its early masterpieces, which have acquired international fame. On the occasion of the imminent 80th birthdays of the four main exponents of Fantastic Surrealism who are still alive – Ernst Fuchs, Wolfgang Hutter, Anton Lehmden, and Arik Brauer – this exhibition offers a complete survey, both of the early art-historical borrowings made by these painters and the main themes of their painting during the two decisive decades after the war, between 1945 and 1965.

The exhibition starts out with a series of juxtapositions illustrating the artists’ close relationship with certain periods of art history. For example, late Renaissance painting as it was practiced at the court of Emperor Rudolf II fascinated the young artists because of its bizarre subject matter. Accordingly, a flower painting by Wolfgang Hutter is being juxtaposed with a composite head made up of flowers by a follower of Arcimboldo, while Peter Paul Rubens’ famous Head of Medusa from the Kunsthistorisches Museum is being contrasted with a large mythological painting by Ernst Fuchs. European Surrealism of the 1930s was a central point of reference for the “Viennese Fantasts” as well. The exhibition is thus displaying a work by the main representative of the Pittura metafisica, Giorgio de Chirico, next to an early Surrealist picture by Rudolf Hausner; another painting by Hausner is being compared to a composition by Salvador Dalì.

The exhibition’s following section is devoted to the immediate preliminary history of Fantastic Realism during and after the Second World War. Important influences were also exercised by the exponents of Magic Realism, above all by Albert Paris Gütersloh, in whose studio at the Vienna Academy the “Fantasts” gathered shortly after 1945. In this context, the work of several exiled Austrians active in the Surrealist circle around André Breton in Paris deserves mention as well. Their most prominent representative was Wolfgang Paalen; but also Greta Freist and Gottfried Goebel, whose paintings of the 1940s were explicitly Surrealist, turned out to be important contacts for Ernst Fuchs and the other young “Fantasts” in Paris after 1945.

Besides Gütersloh’s master class at the Academy, the Vienna “Art Club” used to be another important breeding ground for Fantastic Realism. Between 1947 and circa 1955, this group and its founder- president Albert Paris Gütersloh attracted most of the modern young artists of the Viennese scene to the legendary “Strohkoffer”, located beneath Adolf Loos’s “Kärntner Bar” in Vienna’s city centre. Cubists, Realists, and abstract painters displayed their works there peacefully side by side. This was also the period when the “Hundsgruppe”, an artists’ group that had briefly gathered around Ernst Fuchs, performed. Arnulf Rainer and Maria Lassnig presented themselves as Surrealists, together with later “Fantasts” – such as Arik Brauer – and other artists that have largely fallen into oblivion today – such as Mia Löblich.

The exhibition’s central section is devoted to the Fantastic Realists’ masterpieces. Its protagonists are the movement’s five “classics” – Brauer, Fuchs, Hausner, Hutter, and Lehmden – accompanied by artists from their circle and followership. The presentation concentrates on the thematic focal points of their art and thus vividly conveys the pleasure the painters took in fantastic and enigmatic narrative. Such themes as “Eros and Thanatos”, “Stage and Labyrinth”, “Religion and Myth”, and “Nature and Landscape” underscore the great variety of interpretations of the world as seen by the Fantastic Realists.

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