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MOMA’s Vienna

Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture & Design 21, 1986.

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. New York, July 3–October, Catalog by Kirk Varnedoe
264 pp., $19.50 (paper)


One enters the Vienna show at the Museum of Modern art through a long corridor that seems low-key, even colorless. Be not deceived. Like everything else in this brilliant, coherent exhibition, it is carefully thought through. The corridor is composed like an overture in graphics to open the viewer’s senses to the range of fin-de-siècle Vienna’s burgeoning visual culture.

The corridor also conveys without words certain principles that have governed Kirk Varnedoe, the curator, in projecting his image of Vienna. On its left wall is arrayed a long parade of posters—posters designed by the best of Vienna’s modern artists for the exhibitions they organized to promote their ideas and to sell their works. The Viennese modern artists of the fin de siècle, caught between a moribund patronage system and an undeveloped commercial gallery system, marketed their products in collaborative shows, just as the French Realists and Impressionists had to do some decades before them. But the Viennese moderns, with wider cultural ambitions than their French precursors, created interior settings to present their works as elements in a Gesamtkunstwerk that would inspire in the viewer a new sense of possibility for a coherent life beautiful. The poster simultaneously conveys the new art and suggests a new cultural life style. Through it Varnedoe at one stroke recaptures the aspiration of the Viennese artists and turns their exhibiting practice to his own account to project his idea of their art, as he does in principle wherever possible in the sensitive installation that follows.

Chronologically arranged, the posters also give us a swift overview of the history of style that is, with the exception of the show’s architectural section, a second organizing principle of the exhibition. We proceed from the classicizing art nouveau of two posters by Joseph Olbrich and Gustav Klimt in 1898, through several dynamic, curvaceous Jugendstil posters, to the peak years around 1908 on which MOMA’s Vienna centers—years of luxurious fantasizing within geometric forms. Thereafter comes the denouement in posters of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele: the breakthrough of raw expressionism which explodes the happy integration of art and high living. Thus the posters introduce us to the swift trajectory of stylistic change over the two decades covered by the show, 1898 to 1918.

Opposite the posters, on the right side of the entrance corridor, are three small offerings to Clio, the muse of history generally held at arm’s length in MOMA’s construction of Vienna. Two are paintings that remind us of the culture of the Ringstrasse era against which the young artists of the Secession (the organized modern movement) rebelled in the name of modern truth and beauty. One painting depicts the studio of Hans Makart, its décor freighted with the eclectic trappings of history that the new artists would consign to the junk heap in their struggle for a modernity defined as lean simplicity. The other canvas, an early Klimt, is a collective portrait of Vienna’s Ringstrasse élite assembled for its favorite cultural sport: a performance in the Burgtheater. We are thus reminded that a still vital baroque passion for theater permeated Austrian culture. In the exhibition, as in its interpretation, theatricality serves the curator as a third principle of understanding, supplementing the other two organizing ideas suggested in the array of posters: the integration of painting with environmental design into a Gesamtkunstwerk, and style as the focus of art history.

The third tribute to Clio is a newspaper-style publication available to visitors. Its odd-numbered pages provide a most useful guide to the show, room by room. Its even-numbered pages are devoted to wider aspects of Viennese culture—literature, culture criticism, etc., each with a short general paragraph and thumbnail sketches of important figures. Although there is some effort to correlate odd and even pages, it is not seriously pressed. Historical “background” and artistic “foreground” remain in Robert Musil’s ironic sphere of “parallel actions,” where the ideal world of art-illusion cannot allow itself to engage with the wider reality without jeopardizing its dream of autonomous power.

History in the larger sense provides MOMA’s Vienna exhibition with no principles of presentation or understanding, but only an uneasy penumbra. The show achieves its greatest impact and historical verisimilitude at the point where the Viennese artists themselves, in a brief moment of opulent glory around 1908, created a design for aestheticized living, in which, with the support of a wealthy, well-educated élite, fine art and high fashion became fruitfully conjoined.

Before going on to the show itself, I must say a word about its structure. It is divided into three stylistic phases, which might be labeled Secession (1898–c. 1904); Kunstschau (c. 1904–1909)—a label suggested by the Kunstschau exhibition of 1908 organized by artists who withdrew from the Secession; and Expressionism (c. 1909–1918). The first two phases involve fine and applied arts in close association; the last is concerned only with painting and drawing. The second, Kunstschau phase claims nearly half the space of the show. Including Klimt’s richest, so-called “golden style” painting and the luxurious craft arts of his associated designers, its three rooms constitute the show’s aesthetic climax as well as its dramatic peripety. To these rooms the Secession exhibit serves as prophetic, searching prologue; after them the Expressionist rooms (“Drawing” and “Later Painting”) provide a fevered denouement.

Architecture is separated out from this tripartite temporal stylistic sequence. It is presented, for reasons that must be partly practical, partly intellectual and interpretative, in a space removed from the body of the show. Nevertheless architecture has a prominent and highly effective part in the exhibition itself. Indeed, the sensitive installations of Jerome Neuner become the primary means of suggesting the historical setting, however subliminally, in a presentation whose curator is avowedly committed to safeguarding art and its appreciation from what he sees as the distorting impact of the Vienna vogue, the dangers of the “contextualist vision” in presenting Vienna’s art, and the excesses of “the revisionist rebellions within academic art history in the last twenty years, against…ahistorical formalism” (catalog, pp. 19–20).


The evocative power of a good installation becomes evident at the very entrance to the Secession room. It is decorated with the symbols used by architect Joseph Olbrich on the portals of the templelike exhibition hall he designed in 1897 for Vienna’s redeeming religion of art for modern man. To the left and right of the entrance are flat reliefs of the potted laurel plants that wound their way vine-like up the building’s solemn front. Above is inscribed the defiant motto in which the Secession challenged the historically oriented older generation: “To the Age its Art. To Art its Freedom.”

Across the center of the Secession room springs a vaulting arch of light wood that establishes in a single subtle gesture the organic Jugendstil in which the Secessionists heralded their “spring-time of art” and their renewal of Austrian culture. In this room, alone among those in the exhibit, fine and applied arts are displayed together, to emphasize the aspiration toward comprehensive cultural renewal, and the fluidity between the artistic genres as the artists tried to define their own powers. Some well-selected art nouveau furniture and objects for daily use suggest the range of the Secession’s experimentation in the applied arts—my favorite is a pewter tea and coffee service by Joseph Olbrich, in which curvilinear ornament is ingeniously controlled in rectilinear forms. The open va-et-vient between art and graphics is also represented in this room.

One can recognize the influences of English, Belgian, and German applied arts to whose earlier achievements the Austrians gave their own more modern, geometrizing signature. Varnedoe illuminates this stylistic transformation well in his always thoughtful catalog. Analyzing Koloman Moser’s early wallpaper and cloth patterns, he notes that Moser “drew his curvilinear Jugendstil forms directly from pliant natural life—mushrooms, fish, swan’s necks…[but] interlocked them in airless repeating patterns that made the vague and viscous dynamism of Art Nouveau dance to a stroboscopically intense beat” (pp. 81–82). Soon it was the square that became the hallmark of the Secession style, serving as a containing module to neutralize the sinuous thrust of art nouveau forms. Ver Sacrum, the house magazine of the Secession, was square in format, its simple geometry at first in acute tension with the often fantastic, dithyrambic page ornamentation within.

A few early issues of Ver Sacrum displayed in the show make the stylistic point well; one senses both the strong imaginative wills at work in the Secessionists and the flailing quality of their search for a visual language to convey a new kind of mentality, one that is peculiarly fin-de-siècle, in which thought and feeling permeated each other. The poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal called it denkendes Fühlen und fühlendes Denken (“feeling that thinks and thinking that feels”). Although this mentality involved a new recognition of the world of instinct and concomitant doubts about the claims of reason to order the inner world of man, it is not synonymous with “anxiety,” “morbidity,” or “decadence”—words that have congealed into stereotypes of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Varnedoe rightly attacks such distorting clichés, both in his presentation and in his catalog discussion of the Secession. In holding nonartistic culture at rigid arm’s length, however, he offers little to enable the viewer to grasp how the protean forms assumed by the art itself were generated by a new philosophical and psychological outlook.

MOMA’s Vienna stresses the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk and a new, integrated life of beauty, Wagnerian in its inspiration. It largely ignores the Secessionists’ equal commitment to a new existential truth and its attempts to project the ideas of Nietzsche in a credible art. Nuda veritas—a nubile woman holding a mirror to modern man—was one of Klimt’s most effective images to dramatize this existential-psychological aspect of the Secession’s aims. Some of the allegorical and symbolic figure painting and graphics done in her name were as good as the landscapes by minor painters chosen for the Secession room, and deserved to be shown. Especially in the case of Klimt, one misses any example of his overt espousal of a Dionysian conception such as the painting Music would have provided. The ideas and iconography of Klimt are not congenial to Varnedoe. Both in the catalog and in the show, he ignores or belittles the clues iconography provides to Klimt’s stylistic development.

As we pass through the Secession room we become aware of a trajectory of stylistic change in both fine and applied art. The furniture, objects, and graphics pass from curvilinear to more geometric forms, while the painting, especially with Judith I, Klimt’s languorous, oriental femme fatale, moves toward a stronger ornamentalism. The end wall of the room brings our journey through the groping efforts of the Secession to a happy ending. On it hang two of Klimt’s most magnificent portraits: those of his mistress, Emilie Flöge (1902), and of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of the philosopher (1905). Between them is a great square opening into the next room through which, like the light at the end of the tunnel, beckons the golden central icon of MOMA’s Vienna: Klimt’s The Kiss.

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