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Austrian avant-gardist Curt Stenvert is subject of exhibition at Vienna's Belvedere
Curt Stenvert, The Year of the Child Is Over!!! (Opus 747), 1983. Assemblage, 85 x 15 x 130 cm. Belvedere, Vienna - gift from a private collection © VBK Vienna, 2011, Photo: Belvedere, Vienna.

VIENNA.- The Austrian avant-gardist Curt Stenvert (1920–1992), who was born as Kurt Steinwendner, had made his first appearance as a painter, before he gained international recognition with his films and, starting in 1962, with his object art. NEODADAPOP is the first show to present the artist’s complete oeuvre. During his studies under Albert Paris Gütersloh and Fritz Wotruba at the Vienna Academy, Stenvert primarily dealt with the themes of movement and perspective, which found their expression in sculptures made of aluminium and acrylic glass. His Violinist in Four Phases of Movement (1947) earned the founder member of the legendary Art Club admiration from renowned colleagues, including Marc Adrians: “Standing in front of it, one was simply astounded that it was possible to dissolve a sculpture into movement.”

Movement remained one of the central elements in Stenvert’s work and became a crucial motivation for his preoccupation with the medium of film. Stenvert’s early filmic works, such as the first Austrian experimental film Der Rabe [The Raven] (1951), deal with the biological, psychological, sociological, and philosophical conditions of human existence. There followed numerous experimental, feature, and documentary films that received international awards. These films also led Stenvert to his unusual object assemblages, with which he attracted attention at the 33rd Biennale di Venezia in 1966 and subsequently in museum exhibitions in Italy, Sweden, and Germany. Curator Harald Krejci: “Stenvert the visual artist is unthinkable without Stenvert the filmmaker. The theory of cybernetics was essential for him in order to give artistic shape to complex intellectual processes and activities.” In line with his time, Stenvert interpreted art as a social medium, his works lending the student unrests, public protests, and anti-war initiatives a language of their own that was to serve as an “enlightenment of existence via the eye”.

The Belvedere, staging Stenvert’s first and hitherto only one-man show in Austria as early as 1975, is now presenting the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s oeuvre. Amidst objects, films, and paintings, the three-part work Stalingrad (1964–67) constitutes one of the exhibition’s highlights. Juxtapositions with examples by Marcel Duchamp, Richard Lindner, Wolf Vostell, Daniel Spoerri, and Arman are meant to illustrate Stenvert’s relationship to Neo-Surrealism, Pop Art, Neo-Dada, Fluxus, and Nouveau Réalisme.

Themes of the exhibiton

Violinist in Four Phases of Movement – An Unusual Sculpture
At the wish of his father, Stenvert – then twelve years old – was to learn to play the violin. This undertaking proved toilsome and unsuccessful. Beginning in 1937, the artist created drawings involving both the violin and music in general. Stenvert also became increasingly interested in the phenomenon of motion, and in the relationships between individual phases of movement and perspective. Subsequently he created works, on paper and in oils, depicting a violinist in multiple phases of movement. Stenvert’s exploration of movement and mechanics, as well as his interest in unifying Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism in one work, culminated in the unusual Plexiglas and aluminum sculpture of 1947, Violinist in Four Phases of Movement. Four individual phases of movement were captured in an elaborate life-size sculpture, which unfortunately has not survived to the present day. This seminal work numbers among the most unusual sculptures of both Austrian and international art history in the 1940s. The violin is a motif to which the artist frequently returned in later works.

Wrestling was a theme that also interested Stenvert. Matches could be seen at the Heumarkt in Vienna, and the drawings they inspired Stenvert to produce generally depict several overlapping phases of movement. The artist also explored the confrontation between the human and the machine, as can be seen in the painting Lesbia contra Motor and in the 1955 film Giant and Girl.

“Kurt Steinwendner influenced me profoundly […]. I was very impressed by his ‘Violinist in Four Phases of Movement’, which he created using Plexiglas. One stood before it and was astonished at how it was possible to dissolve a sculpture into movement.” - Marc Adrian, 1996.

The Legacy of Marcel Duchamp,/B>
In a note from a work description, Stenvert names The Bride, one of Duchamp’s central works, as an intellectual model for his object montages. Beginning in 1962, Stenvert increasingly devoted his attention to object art. Initially he developed flat vitrines having a concrete, reduced formal language. Later these works expanded into complex assemblages that at times also integrated writing. In Europe, after the impact of Abstract Expressionism had subsided, artists’ attention returned to Duchamp and his conceptual approach to using found objects. The New Realists around Yves Klein in France and the Fluxus artists in Germany showed renewed interest in the Dada movement of the 1920s. In 1965 the Austrian art historian Wieland Schmied put on a Duchamp exhibition in Hanover. Schmied – who during the same year also opened the Stenvert exhibitions in Berlin at the Benjamin Katz Gallery and in Düsseldorf at the Niepel Gallery – was an important figure for the artist, with whom he engaged in intense discussions. It was most of all the box format that inspired Stenvert, and numerous other artists as well. Arman and Spoerri provide good examples for this development, and thus our exhibition includes a work by Arman that was part of the Suitcase developed by Spoerri in 1961. The reception of Dada was also an important aspect of the exhibition Pop etc. – held at the Vienna modern art museum known as the 20er Haus – where Stenvert, as well as Frohner and Rainer, showed new object assemblages.

The Doll as a Metaphor of Being
In his object assemblages Stenvert often used lay figures, mannequins and model skeletons. They served him as symbols and metaphors for the human being. Thus he tied in with a tradition that found expression in the art of Surrealists like Hans Bellmer, and that provided artistic material for the international object art of the 1950s and 1960s.

Using dolls and skeletons, he constructed situations in which the human being is – voluntarily or involuntarily – obliged to take part. Stenvert explored the human being’s problematic relationship to his environment and his social surroundings, and also to fundamental questions of being. In the fifth episode of the film Viennese Women, “Helene”, he uses the example of the puppeteer as a vehicle for exploring the social milieus of the time, linking them with queries into the various dimensions of human existence. The human always enters the picture as a being compelled – between personal responsibility and social compulsion – to make decisions.

“Forced to be human”: this frequently used phrase demonstrates how the human being, from birth onward, is spanned between the poles of “positivism” and “spirituality”. Understanding human existence as a whole and putting the human at the center of interest always remained the primary impulse of Stenvert‘s artistic creation.

Battle of the Sexes
After intensive exploration of the questions of human existence, Stenvert turned his attention to the woman as a theme for his art. The media role models of the 1950s were dominated by images of the woman as the guarantor of family bliss, as the loving and dutiful mother and housewife. Stenvert thematized the neglected side of such conservative roles by drawing attention to the problems surrounding the woman’s role as a sex object. In the mid-1960s the introduction of the Pill broke open the ossified role models. Stenvert, in the object Forced to Be Human & Castaway in Space, shows how precisely those attributes assigned to the good housewife had become a straightjacket of tradition in an age of massive social transformations. He was interested in the woman’s new self-determination, and in his object cases he explored this theme in a variety of situations. Stenvert reacted positively toward women’s new self-confidence, which formed the backdrop before which he interpreted motifs such as the female cosmonaut, the victim of violence and the modern “Eva”.

Stalingrad – or: The Profitability Computation of a Tyrannicide – A Didactic Object
Political themes arise repeatedly in Stenvert’s work, and here he could be compared to Wolf Vostell or John Heartfield. Already during the war, the artist created drawings of soldiers, of apocalypse and murder. In the late 1950s Stenvert produced short films for the Austrian Army, including The Patriot or A Lunar Rocket for Every Austrian. His further exploration of this thematic complex, as well as of historic events such as the Prague Spring, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination, led him to conceive a work that, despite its highly charged visual language and content, is a strong statement for the human being and a plea for humanity.

“Kill dictators in time!” wrote Stenvert regarding his work Stalingrad. In two volumes he provides a detailed account of the conception and realization of the central work of his object art, which was created in the years 1964–67. “Live in freedom” is the tenet upon which the work is based; it is through “existential illumination via the eye” that the beholder is to achieve this insight. In order to safeguard coming generations from the scourge of a new war, Stenvert plunged into an exploration of one of the largest and most terrible battles of the Second World War, filling three vitrines with countless articles of war, which shockingly demonstrate to every beholder the brutality, and also the senselessness, of war: mutilation, cannibalism, a brain-eating Hitler, animal heads, body parts, blood, everyday objects. “Rescue your sons!” was the warning call at the end of the third vitrine, which closes with photographs of the artist’s son.

Stalingrad was shown in 1967 at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris and in 1968 at the Musée national d’art moderne. The arrangement of the work as it was then displayed is retained in this presentation. Stenvert prescribed the barriers between the vitrines as a means of establishing a precise viewing sequence and controlling the work’s readability, thus drawing a relationship to film.

Painting – Late Work
Beginning in 1971, Stenvert increasingly turned his attention to painting. In doing so he tied in with the motion studies he had done in the 1940s. A further influence that he named was the Viennese Kineticism of the 1920s, which had also been devoted to the exploration of movement. In this context, Stenvert was interested in the ways in which human perception operate, and he sought possibilities for achieving processual depictions of the perception of movement. His interest in cybernetic theories, which had begun in the 1960s, also emerges in these paintings. With an almost scientific meticulousness, he analyzes, for example, an encounter between two people, visualizing it as a segmented sequence of figures and abstract color fragments. Stenvert himself named the work of Richard Lindner, an artistic autodidact and a prominent exponent of American Pop Art, as an important influence on his late painting. Beyond the formal influence, we also see correspondences in content, for example in Lindner’s exploration of the theme of interpersonal communication in the painting Telephone. Another essential feature of Stenvert’s late painting is his rediscovery of the gold ground, which can be seen as a vehicle for reflecting anew on “the spiritual in art”.

Vienna Belvedere | Curt Stenvert |

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