With the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte, Vienna around 1900 was one of the cradles of modern art. The Fondation Beyeler
is mounting the first comprehensive exhibition ever devoted in Switzerland to this theme, curated by Barbara Steffen. On view will be about 200 paintings, water-colors and drawings, supplemented by architectural models, furniture, textile designs, glass and silver objects, artists posters, and photographs.
At the center of our exhibition of Viennese modernism stand the renowned ornamental portraits and landscapes of Gustav Klimt, the expressive figure depictions of Egon Schiele, and the legen-dary erotic drawings of both artists. Presented in addition will be works by the young Oskar Kokoschka, Richard Gerstl, and Arnold Schoenberg. Running like a thread through the exhibition is the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk, a leitmotif of the artists, artisans, and architects of the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte, as witnessed by models and drawings of key buildings and furniture designed by the major architects of the day including Otto Wagner, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos as much as by objects of applied art, especially those by Koloman Moser.
Vienna around 1900
The imperial and royal capital and residence city of Vienna formed the stage for a profound, epochal change at the end of the old and beginning of the new century. In those years, Vienna magnetically attracted people from all over the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to the bastion of visual arts, music, literature, applied art, and architecture. The artistic and intellectual climate in Vienna oscillated between tradition and new beginnings, faith in progress and apocalyptic gloom. Franz Kafka and the Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler projected a pessimistic view of the world. Otto Wagner in architecture, like Klimt in painting and Freud in science, embodied that profound change of paradigms that introduced essential impulses that were to influence the art of the following gene-rations.
The Vienna Secession
The founding of the Vienna Secession (Association of Austrian Visual Artists) by Klimt, Hoffmann, Olbrich and other painters, sculptors and architects in 1897, set off a burgeoning of fine and applied art in the city that would last for two decades, and trigger the programmatic development of the interdisciplinary gesamtkunstwerk known as Viennese modernism. The Vienna Secession artists rejected the traditional, conservative and historicist definition of art that dominated the Künstlerhaus academy, and advocated public recognition of art on an international level. The concept of the gesamtkunstwerk was understood as a collaboration of fine and applied artists, in-cluding architects, on a basis of equality, an idea of design that transcended borderlines between fields, premised on the notion of subordinating every detail to the effect of the whole. Everyday life, in particular, was to be suffused with art.
The exhibition ranges from the founding of the Vienna Secession to the end of the First World War in 1918, the year of death of Klimt, Schiele, Wagner and Moser. The Secession exhibition building, erected in 1898 to plans by Olbrich (1867-1908), a striking structure with a golden, leaf-patterned cupola where the first Secession show took place that same year, became a Vienna landmark. It was also the site of Klimts renowned Beethoven Frieze of 1902, a replica of which in the foyer forms the prelude to the Fondation Beyeler exhibition. On view in the first room are historical archi-tectural models, artists posters and documents on the Secession, and a fan of leaves designed by all of its members.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), first president of the Vienna Secession, was a gifted painter and drafts-man and the key figure in the gesamtkunstwerk movement. Three exhibition rooms are devoted to around fifty of his paintings, drawings and sketches. Klimts best-known motifs, apart from alle-gories, include his ornamental female portraits, of which the masterpieces Judith II (Salome; 1909), Water Nymphs (Silverfish; c. 1899), Goldfish (1901/02), and The Dancer (1916/18) are on view. The last-named painting embodies the quintessence of the artists portraits of ladies: its flat com-position, patterns of color, aesthetic-erotic atmosphere, and abstraction coupled with a standing female figure, already anticipate the art of the later twentieth century.
A frequent motif of Klimts landscapes was lake Attersee in the Salzkammergut, where he sum-mered between 1900 and 1907. With well-nigh abstract color compositions like Attersee (1901) and The Park (1910 or earlier), he advanced in the direction of nonobjective art. Due to its inno-vative representation of space and plane, Approaching Thunderstorm (The Large Poplar II; 1903) is considered Klimts most outstanding landscape.
Klimt served as a mentor to younger artists such as Kokoschka and especially Schiele, though both were to develop in a different direction, turning away from the gesamtkunstwerk to adopt nascent Expressionism.
Schieles ties with Klimt and his admiration for him are reflected in his famous oil, The Hermits (1912), which represents the two as a double figure cloaked in a black coat. In contrast to Klimt, whose figures were always embedded in an abstract colored pattern, Schiele liberated himself from all aesthetization. He was interested in the true, indeed tormented human body and human sexuality.
The exhibition brings together twenty important paintings (portraits and landscapes) and more than fifty of the extremely valuable works on paper by Schiele (1890-1918). Prematurely felled by the Spanish Flu, Schiele was a master of self-staging and psychological visualization. His famous self-depictions, such as Self-Portrait with Lowered Head and Self-Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder (both 1912), count among the major works of Expressionism. Schiele rejected the predominant classical idealization of the male body and had no scruples about addressing scandalous subject matter, as in the renowned painting Cardinal and Nun (Tenderness; 1912).
A separate cabinet devoted to erotic art includes the great, sensual watercolors and drawings in which Schiele transcended the theme of the nude to represent unprecedented aspects of sexuality. Often the models assume eccentric poses, appearing isolated in an undifferentiated space. A pub-lic showing of these works was unthinkable in Vienna around 1900. In 1912, Schiele was taken to court for publicly displaying licentious erotic art.
The majority of Klimts drawings of women are done in pencil or charcoal sparingly highlighted with color, in which the female body is sketched with precise contours. Many of the drawings are expli-citly erotic in nature. Unlike the comparable works of Schiele, rarely does a womans direct gaze at the viewer disturb her sexual self-intimacy.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), painter, printmaker and author, represented an Expressionism he understood as a universal movement. His portraits, done between 1907 and 1910 and absolutely unusual at the time, concentrate on head and torso, mostly depicted against an indeterminate background. Out of the purely corporal shell Kokoschka liberates psychological aspects of human existence.
Similarly to Schiele, Kokoschka focused especially on the position and gesture of hands. In Annun-ciation (c. 1911), an outstanding example of his religious art, the Bible story is combined with ex-treme gestures and body movements. The exhibition includes a famous Self-Portrait (1917) and other portraits, such as that of his partner and muse Alma Mahler and the composers Anton von Webern and Arnold Schoenberg.
The dual talents of many Viennese modern artists and their relationship with music are reflected especially in the work of the composer Schoenberg (1874-1951), whose oeuvre holds a special place in Viennese art of the early twentieth century. It comprises self-portraits, landscapes and painterly visions that are concerned with the human gaze and image. The exhibition includes a series of Schoenbergs major works. A fascination with ones own gaze, veritably programmatically expressed in Gaze (1910), also served Schiele, Kokoschka, and Gerstl to reveal their inmost selves.
Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) had an affair with the wife of his friend Schoenberg, Mathilde Schoenberg, and portrayed her several times. Among Gerstls most important works is Group Portrait with Schoenberg (1907), whose impulsive paint handling stands in contrast to the Seces-sionists focus on aesthetics and beauty. In his famous Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1904/05) Gerstl depicts himself as a messianic figure, quoting formal and substantial elements of depictions of Christ to convey his self-image as an artist. Similarly to Schiele, his self-portraits are characterized by a strong narcissicm and unleashed expressiveness.
The Wiener Werkstätte
The Wiener Werkstätte, a production commune of visual artists and artisans, was founded in 1903 by the entrepreneur Fritz Waerndorfer, its leading light Koloman Moser, and Josef Hoffmann. Modelled along the lines of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, the aim of the shop, which colla-borated with the Secession and Vienna School of Decorative Arts, was to expand the definition of art to include the crafts. The Werkstättes love of experiment and the high demands it made on quality had a style-shaping influence, both on architecture and on the implements of daily life. Wardrobes, desks, chests of drawers, lighting fixtures, chairs and tables were produced, along with entire interiors, fashions, jewelry, glass, silver objects, and book designs.
The oeuvre of Koloman Moser (1868-1918), active as a painter, graphic artist, furniture designer, artisan, stage set and exhibition designer, represents a gesamtkunstwerk in itself. His painting extended from landscapes in intense colors to portraits and figure depictions. Mostly portrayed frontally or in profile, the sitters have a rather stiff appearance, as if frozen in the midst of a dyna-mic movement. Significant Moser works in the exhibition, alongside numerous examples of applied art, are the paintings Venus in the Grotto (c. 1914) and Two Girls (c. 1913/15). An example of extraordinary design and artistic treatment are his Buffet cabinet and picture frame (1900/190102) titled The Abundant Catch, which Moser showed in 1910 at the eighth Secession exhibition.
An outstanding example of the idea of the interdisciplinary work of art put into practice is the cabaret Fledermaus (Bat; 1907), conceived by Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and extensively documented in the exhibition, every facet of which, from interior to furniture, tableware and program brochure, was designed by Hoffmann himself. Chairs, cabinets, silver and glass objects, and an architectural model of the Purkersdorf Sanatorium (1904) attest to the the artists wide-ranging creative activity.
Otto Wagner (1841-1918) taught architecture at the Academy of Visual Arts. This Wagner school produced famous architects like Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Adolf Loos, whose names alone cover an essential part of building in Vienna around 1900. Wagners prime motive in architectural design was functionality, which included the use of modern materials like steel and aluminum. In his pathbreaking Postal Savings Bank (1904-06), apart from reinforced concrete and marble, he employed aluminum both as a design element on the outer cladding and as a structural material. Wagner also conceived the entire interior furnishings of the building, defining hierarchical structures by means of a precise use of materials and a conscious formal language. Among his further well-known buildings is St. Leopolds Church am Steinhof (1905/06), whose side windows were designed by Moser. Both structures are exhibited in the form of architectural models.
Adolf Loos (1870-1933), a committed opponent of the Vienna Secession, postulated the functional, simple and lucid in architecture and utilitarian objects, something that extended to interiors as well. He became a groundbreaker for modern architecture as a whole. Looss famous residence on Michaelerplatz (1909-11) opposite the Imperial Court Building, a model of which is on view in the exhibition, caused a scandal on account of its facade, stripped of all ornamentation.
The vital creativity of the artists active in Vienna around 1900, their supplanting of ornamental Art Nouveau by a clear, functional style, and the rapprochement between fine and applied art manifested especially in the Wiener Werkstätte and the source of the gesamtkunstwerk idea had a lasting influence on the development of art. The close cooperation among the artists encompass-sed a new definition of interdisciplinary art which would be ramified at the Bauhaus and in the De Stijl movement. The effects of the gesamtkunstwerk can in fact be traced down to the present day, the strict line between high and low art having by now well-nigh disappeared. Such contem-porary projects as those of the architects Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Gio Ponti, and the artists Tobias Rehberger, Jorge Pardo and Takashi Murakami, reflect continuations of the gesamtkunst-werk idea.
The exhibition has been especially enriched by eighty loans from the Leopold Museum, which harbors the largest Egon Schiele collection worldwide. The Albertina in Vienna, with one of the most significant and extensive collection of prints and drawings in the world, has lent forty drawings. From the Kunsthaus Zug, Stiftung Sammlung Kamm, the most important collection of Viennese modern works outside Austria, come fifty loans. Further distinguished lenders in Vienna are the Belvedere and the MAK Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, the Wien Museum, the Vienna Secession, and the Schoenberg Center, the BA-CA Kunstforum Wien, and the University of Applied Arts. Further generous support was provided by the Neue Galerie, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, all New York; the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, the Galleria Internazionale dArte Moderna di Ca Pesaro, Venice; the Kunstmuseum Basel, Kunsthaus Zurich, and Kunstmuseum Bern.
The exhibition was conceived by guest curator Barbara Steffen. From 1988 to 1992 Ms. Steffen was assistant curator at the Eli Broad Foundation, Los Angeles, from 1992 to 1998 head of European projects at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and from 2006 to 2008 curator of contemporary art at the Albertina, Vienna. Her major exhibitions include the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Albertina (2008), Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and Fondation Beyeler, Basel (2003-04), and Visions of America The Ileana Sonnabend Collection at the Essl Museum, outside Vienna. She has been awarded the Maecenas art sponsoring prize in 2000, and the Gustav Klimt Prize in 1998. Ms. Steffen currently resides in Vienna.