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Cultural Hothouse

The home no longer asserted social values, or even aspirations; instead, it was designed to offer narcissistic reinforcement to the weakened ego. It became an image of the self, and thus was detached from society. The nineteenth-century tyranny of historical eclecticism was replaced in the early houses of Viennese art nouveau with the tyranny of a single motif, which was supposed to represent the unique personality of the owner. In an Olbrich or an early Hoffmann house, from the pump house to the salon, from the ashtrays to the ceiling, the owner could rejoice in the sign of his own personality. Architecture, the most practical of all the arts, thus fell under the spell of psychologism no less than did painting. The regenerative impulse in the original Secessionist ideology withered away.

The psychological truths revealed by the painter could not long remain united with the Pollyannaish personalism of the new architecture. Yet in 1908, their integration seemed complete. In that year, the Klimt group mounted Kunstschau 1908, a superb exhibition in which work in the applied arts, with its emphasis on design, clearly predominated. Peter Vergo, who constructs much of his survey on the illuminating sequence of the Secession exhibitions, justifiably stresses the absorption of fine arts into fashionable high style at the Kunstschau. Although called by a contemporary critic “a festive garment around Klimt,” whose work occupied a central hall, his own contributions revealed that his painting had veered since 1905 into the art-deco mode of the arts-and-craftsmen. In a new triad of portraits Klimt situated his subjects, Viennese women of the haut monde, in an abstract, opulent mosaic environment as though the women were the final ornament of their own house beautiful.

Klimt’s psychological anguish and metaphysical seriousness died out as he concentrated on his painter’s craft. Style changed with subject matter: the powerful thrusting movement and linear organicism of his art-nouveau phase gave place to static, crystalline, mosaic forms. Klimt, almost literally, was sailing to Byzantium as middle age, coupled with public defeats, led him to cease from mental fight. He continued to produce works of surpassing beauty, but they belonged to the static aesthetic utopia of the rich and cultivated. He wielded his brush no longer for a sacred spring with all its unforeseen Dionysian insights, but for a stylized Indian summer.


If Kunstschau 1908 marked the apotheosis of Vienna’s aestheticized Wohnkultur, it also, along with its successor show of 1909, was the occasion for an explosive reassertion of painting as the medium of instinctual truth. Two fledgling painters, Egon Schiele and Oscar Kokoschka, uttered their first expressionist cris-de-coeur in the refined precincts of the Kunstschau. Both were employed in the Wiener Werkstätte, the arts-and-crafts affiliate of the Secessionists. Employing the stylized, Persian-garden visual language they had learned in the Werkstätte, they intentionally fractured it as a way of stating their expressionist anguish. Both young men idolized Gustav Klimt, even after they broke radically with his ornamental tendency. Both, in their separate ways, took up the commitment to searing psychological truth which Klimt had dropped for the cool pleasures of decorative abstract beauty.

The artists of the new generation had no initial sense of a mission to modernize, no sense of redemptive public function such as the Secessionists had had. No Athena presided over the drama of their rebellion, no sensuous Nuda veritas inspired them. The painful break with tradition, both moral and artistic, had already been accomplished by their elders. The new generation merely cleared away the rubble of vestigial forms so they could speak their inner truth directly in a new visual language. Klimt had used allegory and archaic symbols—sphinxes, poetesses, Athenas, satyrs—to express the dissolution of the stable, solid universe and the consequent threat to the ego. Schiele employed a direct body language in which we see the psychological end product of that dissolution: a sense of total isolation and the hideous pressures of the insatiable id.

Klimt’s world threatens from outside, as liquefaction; Schiele’s from the inside as explosion. Schiele shows what it feels like to face oneself once a world without structure has become accepted as the unalterable ground of personal existence. In the de-structured, de-cultured universe of the expressionists, there was no place for Athena, whom the Secessionists had coopted from politics as the protectrix of their arts. Nuda veritas as raw emotion is Nike now and destroys her mistress in the consuming flames of instinct. No Athenian shield protects the artist from the Angst of solipsistic isolation, no spear from the inner anguish of uncontrollable sexuality.

The differences between the two generations of painters manifest themselves in almost every aspect of their work. Klimt, with a few very early exceptions, never paints his own portrait. Schiele paints (one might perhaps better say “exhibits”) himself again and again, compulsively, single and in double—now with truncated limbs, now with missing genitals, muscles contorted, bones racked, and flesh mortified by the leprosy of living. Kokoschka rarely achieves so intense a representation of the lacerated spirit, but he too is infatuated with his own psychic states.

Though all three are painters of the erotic, their relations to it differ. Klimt embodies sexuality in women, and fears it in that female form. His women are sensual, knowledgeable, dangerously alluring, femmes tentaculaires with enveloping tresses and insatiable capacities for carnal bliss. Schiele sees in the female a fellow-victim of the relentless pressures of sexuality. But even in copulation, the torture of loneliness persists for both partners, at most assuaged by an evanescent tenderness; it is never lifted. Schiele’s entwined lovers, more like Kafka’s than like Klimt’s, seem to sympathize but not to commune as they nuzzle each other in a vain and desperate struggle to escape their egocentric predicament.

Space itself was differently conceived by Klimt and his successors. Klimt suffered from horror vacui as his outer world dissolved. Especially in his late portraits, he sought walls, grids, uprights, anything that provided solidity of background or backdrop. Schiele’s figures tend to have no environment. They live on a plain white canvas or paper, abstracted from all natural or human surroundings—deracinated, alone. Only the light emanating from themselves surrounds them, like an astral glow. (Schiele, as Comini shows, was touched by the influence of Rudolf Steiner.) Kokoschka’s finest psychological portraits similarly create their own field of energy and their own space—radiant vibrations of the human character lifted off its social ground.

Everything is dead while it lives,” said Schiele; and his art projects this thanatal Eros in all its terror. Small wonder, as Erwin Mitsch observed, that the act of crying out should have been the center of the expressionist consciousness, “a metaphor for the distressed state of human existence”; or that Der Ruf (the cry) was the name of one of the turbulent expressionist journals that succeeded the Secessionist Ver Sacrum.

It is to be expected that the different characters of these artists would be reflected in different methods used by scholars to understand and interpret them. The more saturated the art and its iconography are with a public character, the more useful social and historical analysis is likely to be in understanding them. Conversely, a private art like Schiele’s invites interpretations ranging from the purely aesthetic to the psychological but poses obstacles to the social historian of art.

Of the books under review Rudolf Leopold’s Egon Schiele sticks closest to the art critic’s fundamentals. It is a complete survey of the works, with a critical analysis of each, and a catalogue raisonné extending to the lost works of the painter. Leopold’s readings of the individual paintings seem to me unnecessarily explicit in their descriptive detail. Though it is central to the art historian’s function to help us to see, must we be told everything that is in the picture? Thus, of one of Schiele’s wonderful gnarled and tortured trees:

The stylized hilltop provides a formal counterpart to the similarly shaped outline of the tree top. The bare branches also correspond to this knoll. The tree’s windswept silhouette, on the other hand, is in the strongest contrast to the rounded calm of the hill.

True, this description is linked to a general interpretation of the picture, namely, that the tree “has become a parable of human destiny…anthropomorphic…a dance of death for modern times.” But one wonders why this art historian trusts so little the perceptions of his audience. Whatever its verbal excess, Leopold’s Egon Schiele remains visually impressive. The color plates have triumphantly surmounted the difficulties of reproducing Schiele’s compositions, which often juxtapose brilliant, harsh colors with subtly tinctured stainings, especially in the delicate striations of his sufferers’ flesh. Among the variable achievements of art publishers in recent years, the reproductions in Leopold’s Schiele must rank among the most successful.

The Residenz Verlag of Salzburg and its English publisher, Phaidon Press, put us doubly in their debt by producing, in addition to Leopold’s comprehensive work, a smaller, representative selection of Schiele’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors. In this more modest volume, the color plates often lack vitality, but Erwin Mitsch’s commentary is in some ways more useful than Leopold’s. His account of Schiele’s development as a painter makes acute comparisons with the work of other artists, and he describes carefully the contemporary influences on Schiele’s style. Here one can see how the Secession’s determined efforts to introduce through its many exhibitions the new art of Europe to backward Austria paid off by inspiring young talent; for Schiele, Van Gogh was of an importance second only to Klimt. In its unpretentious reflectiveness Mitsch’s commentary illuminates the relationship between style and idea more satisfactorily than Leopold’s.

Alessandra Comini’s Egon Schiele’s Portraits is no ordinary treatment of an artist’s oeuvre, but a bold effort at psychobiography. As she explains: “The row of changing identities…which he projected on canvas makes mandatory a chronological study of the relationship between his life and his portraiture.” Comini brings the traditional skills of the art historian to her sensitive readings of the paintings as compositions and technical productions. But she also is motivated by two other forces: a strong interest in the problems of sexual identity; and the empirical passion of the biographer to unearth every detail of her subject’s existence, down to the last discarded razor blade. She has produced a fascinating, if sometimes excessively detailed, study in which Schiele’s art and life illuminate each other. Particularly admirable is her use of photographs of Schiele, his friends, and his models in discussing the portraits themselves.

It is hard to believe that a scholar as conscientious and sympathetic as Comini showed herself to be in Schiele’s Portraits could also have written, only a year later, Gustav Klimt. In effect, she attributes to Klimt the same total preoccupation with sexuality that she rightly identifies in Schiele, and then accuses him of screening this behind “façades” of sensuous illusion, allegory, and ornament. She sees Klimt’s art, literally to his last painting, as governed by prurient interest. This “grand voyeur,” suffering from an “unremitting fixation upon sexuality,” used a “dirty oldmaster technique” of covering basically pornographic pictures with ornamental surfaces.

To Comini Klimt represents at his worst a kind of male chauvinist pig, debasing women to sex objects; at his best, “he saw the world, others, and himself—all ‘in bloom’ and all as part of the inexhaustible panorama of Eros.” To explain and buttress this one-sided interpretation, Comini uses the kind of cliché history that has begun to characterize much of the work on Viennese culture: Klimt was another child of “a neurotic, self-indulgent metropolis—already titillated to the point of spontaneous combustion by the ‘erotic pollution’ of Arthur Schnitzler’s plays and Richard Strauss’s operas.” How guickly yesterday’s myth of Gay Vienna has given way to the new myth of Freud’s Neurotic Vienna! Comini does not tell us how the “erotic combustion” of the culture actually affected Klimt, what the real nature of his neurosis and his sexual problems were. She simply assumes that “truth” for Klimt was the same as the one she explored so well for Schiele: “the blunt urgency of [the] artist’s close and unremitting fixation on sexuality,” and she attempts to support this view with quotations from such hostile critics of the Secession as the astringent rationalists Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos. Despite its unhappy compound of pseudo-psychoanalysis and half-baked history, this monograph is worth having for its occasional fine perceptions and, above all, for its illustrations.

What a deeper analysis of Klimt’s work in the Viennese setting can accomplish is shown by Werner Hofmann in his tightly analytical study Gustav Klimt. Hofmann takes up themes which appear in Klimt’s iconography, such as the theater, Nietzschean metaphysics, and women, relating these to the intellectual currents of his time. Klimt’s work passed through an extraordinary range of styles, from mid-nineteenth-century classical realism through art nouveau and symbolism to the beginnings of abstract painting. This tendency to swift metamorphoses, which Klimt shared with many others in Vienna, is full of ambiguity, which Hofmann’s combination of stylistic and iconographic analysis does much to clarify. He effectively invokes the theory of art history developed by Klimt’s contemporary, Alois Riegl, who argued that departures from tradition need not be seen as decadent or degenerate but as produced by a will to new culture. He also shows, by the use of Gestalt theories of perception, how Klimt maintained a continuity of basic forms as an element of stability throughout the many changes in idea and style which his work expressed.2


With the generation of Schiele and Kokoschka, the painter with his painful truth and the practitioner of the applied arts with his cheerful beauty went their separate ways. Adolf Loos, originally a contributor to the Secession, clearly stated the incompatibility of the two spheres: “A work of art should shake us out of our complacency; a house should lull us into it. Art is revolutionary; house-building conservative.” These words accurately describe the yawning gap in style which opened up between the Austrian fine and applied arts in the second decade of our century. One need only glance at the buildings of Adolf Loos and compare them to the expressionist paintings by Kokoschka or Schiele. A Loos house is an extremely rational, ordered structure, from which any visible sign of the complex, nervous quality of modern life is ruthlessly excluded: the space is clear and unclouded; the line secure, strong, and definite. If an ordered environment can be said to produce complacency or, better, a sense of security, surely this architectural style should achieve its creator’s aim.

On the other hand Kokoschka, in an expressionistic portrait of Adolf Loos himself (1909), achieves the opposite effect. Here the rationality of Loos’s architectural conceptions is adapted to present his own psyche: the strong but suffering psyche of “l’homme machine.” A stern profile cuts through a background charged with electric tension. The hands are meshed into each other like two toothed wheels. The face is built of planes similarly locked in tension. Only the irrational force of an iron will seems to subdue and hold together the all-too-rational elements of this powerful personality. Where space in Loos’s architecture is pure and clear, space in Kokoschka’s portrait is a medium surcharged with a heavy, explosive energy. Surely this painting fulfills Loos’s injunction: “to shake us out of our complacency.” It could well hang in a sober living room by Loos; never on a wall papered by the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte.

Let us understand Expressionism,” Kokoschka wrote, “as the living voice of man, who is to re-create his own universe.” Art on this reckoning was no longer an asylum from the collapsing world of reason, as it had been in the fin de siècle, but a visible expression of human power in adversity, the power to render the world’s madness and to create in the midst of chaos. Yet this latter-day Promethean aesthetic world view could find no social force with which to ally itself; the hunger for a new social reality remained. “Loneliness,” wrote Kokoschka, “compels every man, like a primitive, to invent the [very] idea of society. But the knowledge that every society must remain a utopia forces one to take flight into loneliness.” Hugo von Hofmannsthal expressed a similar idea: “It is hard to cudgel with an existing social order, but harder still to have to posit one which does not exist.”

Against this stoical psychologizing, the Austrian architects developed an antidote, and this antidote was the cool geometrics of the international style. Even Loos’s hated rival Josef Hoffmann was known as “Quadratl-Hoffmann,” because of the rectilinear shapes which characterized both his treatment of space and his decor. To fulfill the “conservative” function that they assigned to architecture, these architects had found a conservative style: the architecture of geometrical reason. The late liberal could find in the rationally ordered environment of his dwelling a surrogate for the rational world which had gone awry outside. Rationalistic architecture became a second refuge when the temple of art, revealing its own truth content, ceased to provide comfort.

The rationality of man and the world had been cast into doubt for the cultivated Austrian middle class by its political eclipse in the 1890s. But the dream of reason recollected still offered peace and security to its troubled soul. The house was Reason’s incarnation as possibility when the social and psychological facts of life captured in expressionist painting seemed to undermine its reality. The crisis of liberal culture thus entered a new, more positive stage: the assertion of man’s creative potentiality offered new possibilities for dignity and fulfillment when the comforting world of rational necessity proved to be an illusion.

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    Fritz Novotny has made central to his analysis of Klimt’s work what he sees as the “co-existence of the polar opposites of naturalism and extreme formalism.” Not unlike Hofmann, he stresses Klimt’s formalism as prefiguring modern abstract art. Hofmann’s interpretation is more complex and to me more convincing by virtue of its stronger iconographic arguments. Those interested in Klimt will welcome the current reissue of Gustav Klimt by Novotny and Johannes Dobai (New York Graphic Society), which originally appeared in 1967. It is a critical edition of the oeuvre equivalent in its comprehensiveness to Leopold’s Egon Schiele.

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