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 …

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