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.
The Kiss was first shown at the most comprehensive and dazzling exhibition of arts and crafts held in Austria—and perhaps in Europe—before 1914: Kunstschau 1908. With generous government support, it was mounted by the Klimt group as part of the celebration of the emperor Francis Joseph’s sixtieth jubilee. By that time, most of the best Secession artists had been given posts in the various institutions of art education, and were receiving important commissions for public buildings and for official applied art, graphics, etc. Even the postage stamps of the aging empire were for the first time in Europe designed in the modern style—by Koloman Moser. Only Klimt, as the result of the controversy over the sensualist images and Nietzschean philosophy in his paintings of 1900–1903 for the University of Vienna, had been excluded from any state patronage. In 1908, however, the Ministry of Culture seemed to bury the hatchet. It bought The Kiss (then called Liebespaar) at the Kunstschau for its new gallery of modern art. Modern artists and officialdom were finding each other.
The Kunstschau had made clear how far the Secession’s critical intellectual and existential mission of defining modern man, the aim symbolized by nuda veritas, had receded into the background in favor of the artists’ other objective: creating an aesthetic living culture. “Ver sacrum,” the bursting holy spring of 1898, had become by 1908 a warm, ripe summer; the Kunstschau exhibition displayed the bountiful harvest, its fruits revealing the lineaments of gratified desire. Ten years of interaction and collaboration among painters, architects, and designers in the minor arts had produced an elegant and luxurious common style of sensuous but classically controlled materiality. As the designers, often coming from painting or architecture, produced furniture and use objects with the demanding standards of high art, the painters, with Klimt in the van, raised ornament into a means of expression.
The Kunstschau blazoned over the portals of its pavilion the old Secession motto, “To the Age its Art, to Art its Freedom.” But the catalog carried a different message in an epigraph for the painting section, a quotation from Oscar Wilde: “Art never expresses anything but itself.”1 Similarly, while the Secession’s motive of cultural regeneration was still strong in Klimt’s opening speech, he defined it purely aesthetically:
[Our group] is motivated solely by the conviction that no sector of human life is too small to offer scope for aesthetic efforts…and that the progress of culture is based only on the ever greater permeation of all life with artistic purposes.2
Klimt defined the group to include not only the producers of art but also its consumers. They too should be numbered among the artists. He invented a term for the social group thus committed: “Künstlerschaft: the ideal community of all those who create and enjoy.”3 In practice, as the Kunstschau’s fifty-four rooms made richly evident, the creators’ fulfillment had come to lie in the production both of art and use objects to enhance the style of life of the wealthy.
It was the turning of the fine artists to the tasks of applied art that made possible the astonishing achievement of the Secession in the decorative arts that is celebrated in the central section of the MOMA show. But in the process the line between art and high fashion began to erode—to the profit of fashion and styles of living, I would maintain, but at the expense of the fine arts, whose wider function of devising a meaning for modern life was arrested in the Klimt group by its absorption of art into artisanry, of the truth searching of the Secession into a sophisticated living culture.
No one who visits the three rooms into which Kurt Varnedoe has condensed the many-splendored climax of Viennese design in the Kunstschau can fail to appreciate the magnitude of its achievements. In the other recent shows of Viennese art, in Vienna’s Künstlerhaus and Paris’s Beaubourg, the objects made by the Wiener Werkstätte, the craft product offshoot of the Secession, have also dazzled the public with their brilliance, and they have been displayed with ingenuity and sympathetic imagination, But none has so effectively illuminated the quality and variety of the work as MOMA. The other exhibitions have tended to overwhelm the viewer with the sheer mass of beautiful objects, while Varnedoe has practiced an almost astringent economy that paradoxically heightens the opulent effect. We can enjoy and absorb the special character of three tea services, where fifteen would befuddle our senses, If economy is the premise, selection is compelled. Varnedoe turns necessity to account by making his choices with impeccable taste. To be sure, some objects, like the heavy and pretentious jewel-encrusted silver vitrine by Carl Otto Czeschka, as the catalog makes clear, are selected not for their aesthetic merit, but to make a stylistic point as examples of the trivialization and deterioration in design after 1908.4
The ultimate secret in the power of the display is in the installation, which, by a sensitive reconstruction of the Kunstschau’s own exhibition design, links Klimt’s golden painting with Koloman Moser’s interiors, Josef Hoffmann’s furniture, and Wiener Werkstätte luxury crafts. The Klimt room is a case in point. At the Kunstschau, Hoffmann had designed for Klimt an elegant room, like a chaste, satin-lined jewel box, to house the great retrospective of the artist’s recent work. This room seems to have inspired Jerome Neuner at MOMA to ornament the wall of his Klimt room similarly with well-spaced light gray squares and a discreetly patterned, Hoffmann-like molding.
The square is now ubiquitous. Three of the Klimt canvases shown are square in shape, and in two—The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)—squares appear in a background derived from Japanese golden screen painting. A square-shaped armchair by Moser with a black-and-white checkerboard seat prepares our passage to the next room, where we encounter a marvelous ensemble of uncompromisingly rectilinear black-and-white cabinets from Moser’s guest room. For the table services and related products of the Wiener Werkstätte, Neuner has designed a refined showcase in the style of the Casa Piccola, the fashion salon of Klimt’s companion, Emilie Flöge.
The soigné historicity of this installation, which does not slavishly replicate but evokes the spirit of the Werkstätte geometric style, creates an ideal atmosphere for comprehending the relationship between architecture, design, and painting—or, to speak of the men who were most successful in combining them, the relationship between Hoffmann the architect, Moser the designer, and Klimt the painter. This is museological work at its best. The installation not only reinforces the interconnected character of the works displayed, but also demonstrates a principle to understand what it is that makes works of different genres cohere in a single community of stylistic discourse.
That principle of understanding is articulated by Varnedoe in one of the most important analyses in his learned and perceptive catalog. The principle lies in “the conquest of applied art by architecture.” From architecture—especially from Hoffmann’s—came a tectonic rigor which curbed and disciplined the fantasy, the sense of play and sensuous affirmation of the Secession’s high art. The square was the perfect design module to integrate these elements; it was scaleless, and could unify in a single design concept house, furniture, and teapot. Hence the pervasiveness of grid and checkerboard. A plant stand of square-punched sheet metal “could have both the look of a visionary skyscraper and a gauze-like airiness.” These designs warm up the cool of geometric structure with surface ornament reflecting, in Varnedoe’s words, their makers’ aim to redefine “material pleasure, purified of the gross vulgarity of historicist bourgeois taste.” Between the historicist vulgarity of the Ringstrasse and the modernist asceticism of Adolf Loss (see below), the Werkstätte found a middle way—a synthesis of formal abstraction and sensuosity. Varnedoe ventures one of his rare historical judgments in declaring that the “premise of the Werkstätte was that at its best, the bourgeois spirit—with its combination of pleasure-affirming worldliness and a disciplined work ethic—was close to the soul of the new age.”
“The decorative arts had been central to all that was progressive and ambitious in the [Viennese] modern movement.” In this judgment (“progressive” is here meant purely aesthetically) Varnedoe gives us a key to his assessment of Klimt as well as of the designers. He identifies ornament as the very language of communication in Klimt’s golden paintings, the means to escalate sensuous materiality into abstraction. This interpretation, original and convincing as far as it goes, overlooks the human side of the great portraits: these women of the elite are hermetically sealed into opulent, windowless environments, composed like Wiener Werkstätte dreams. Their personal characters are virtually eliminated in favor of the ornate setting that encases them or encodes them. Thus in the stunning portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a rich Viennese who also appears to have been the model of Klimt’s languorous Judith I, the golden dress and interior are composed in quasi-mosaic fashion of small symbols, some purely sexual, some abstract-archaic, others more personal. The initials A and B appear in her dress, the B sometimes in the form of two breasts seen from above. (It has been suggested by Solomon Grimberg that Klimt had a protracted affair with Adele Bauer.5 )
For Varnedoe, “hard elegance and high fantasy” raise the golden paintings above all Klimt’s others—especially above the principal symbolic works that Varnedoe treats with caustic deprecation: the Beethoven Frieze and Jurisprudence of 1902 and 1903–1907, works that register Klimt’s responses to his unhappy encounters with conventional academic culture, religious philistinism, and political power. If it is true that the golden period portraits are, as Varnedoe concludes, not only “absolutely of their time,” but “the least dated of his works,” that says something about our time and the taste for “hard elegance and high fantasy” that MOMA’s exaltation of them reflects.
Kunstschau was not only a moment of high consolidation but also, as Varnedoe says, a swan song. After it, painting and the applies arts went separate ways. In the final room of the Kunstschau phase of the show, centering on the chic Fledermaus Café, we are made aware of the loss of rigor in design as the hedonistic imagination got out of hand. From ceramic sculpture to jewelry and book design, a new historicism—rococo, pseudo-Persian, or folkish—characterizes an arty, ornamental craft production that became widespread in the 1920s in a sometimes tasteful, often tinselly art moderne.6 A countertendency also surfaced within the Kunstschau as young artists schooled in decoration showed the first signs of turning the lessons of their masters in simplified design into a new language for expressing psychological states. It was here that Oskar Kokoschka made his debut; MOMA displays his virtuosity in this metamorphic enterprise that ushered in Expressionism.
To leave the final Kunstschau room for the Expressionist drawings that follow is to be catapulted out of the well-groomed garden into a parched wilderness. Here there is neither need nor place, as in the gold-and-silver center, for ingenious installation to reinforce the artists’ message, and none is attempted. The drawings, like the paintings of Schiele and Kokoschka in the rooms that follow, are simply hung on pure white walls to utter their cris de coeur. An especially rich group of Schiele paintings, many from the Sabarsky collection, shows the full range of the artist’s charged vision. Here it is that Varnedoe’s idea of Viennese theatricality comes to the fore once more; the concentrated dramatic force of a closely arrayed display of Schiele works is overwhelming. Yet Varnedoe does not seem to believe they make authentic statements. In the catalog, he interprets the dramatic images of Schiele’s lacerated and mutilated persona in the self-portraits as a strategy of artful self-concealment. “What seems most tellingly modern about these works is not the directness of their communication, but its obliqueness; not the sense of revelation, but the sense of performance.” Not even “acting out,” then, but concealing the self by acting as though acting out! How far do the artifices of art criticism have to be carried to neutralize the life of feeling art contains? Varnedoe’s hypothesis seems especially inappropriate for an alienated subculture like Schiele’s, in which the artists shared with one another a profound spiritual malaise as they desublimated art.
Much closer to the truth of Schiele is Varnedoe’s general characterization of his intellectual cohort as it revolted against the Secession’s aestheticism: “They cared much less about the role of art in life and much more about the role of life in art.” That shift in values fueled the energies of the Expressionists as they took up once more the torch of nuda veritas that Klimt and the Werkstätte had dropped. Where the Klimt generation began the liberation of repressed instinct with Nietzschean philosophy and the affirmation of an aestheticized sensuality, the Schiele generation completed the process with direct, raw presentations of anguished, often violent sexuality in a visual language created for that task.
The architecture section of “Vienna 1900” is not organized, as are the others, according to the history of style. Instead, attention is concentrated on five outstanding buildings by four major architects. They are displayed through splendid models and drawings, with explanatory labels much more generous than those provided for the most important objects in painting or design. Four of the five buildings are from the same high years around 1908. They reveal, as does the important catalog argument, more about what, at their best moment, these architects had in common than about their bitter differences in ideas, which another choice of buildings could demonstrate with equal force.
Unfortunately, architecture is presented in the splendid isolation of its own genre at the expense of understanding the changing relations among the visual arts that Varnedoe clearly wishes to convey in the show. The architects that suffer most from being taken out of context are Joseph Olbrich and Adolf Loos; the parts of the exhibition that suffer from the architects’ absence are the already under-privileged sections: Secession and Expressionism. Olbrich’s Secession building is the architectural incarnation of the threefold commitment of the Secession: truth speaking, cultural regeneration, and the elevation of art into a religion. Had it been part of the Secession exhibit, the building’s stylistic and iconographic meaning would have been clarified by the art around it, and vice versa.
More urgently needed was the presence of Adolf Loos among the Expressionist painters. He was their ally, their patron, and their partner, along with Arnold Schoenberg in music and Karl Kraus in cultural criticism. The astringent rationalism of Loos’s building was the conscious complement to the fervent instinctualism of the new painting.
In alliance, architects and painters challenged in a two-front assault the aestheticist fusion of art and craft (including architecture) that reached its height at Kunstschau 1908.7 This second, critical Viennese culture was sociologically based not, like the Klimt group, on integration into officialdom and the circles of the cultivated wealthy, but in the formation of an autonomous social subgroup of intellectuals, often, as in the case of Loos and Schiele, with ties to the socialists. Loos formulated the relation of art and architecture thus: “The work of art aims to shake people out of their comfortableness [Bequemlichkeit]. The house must serve comfort. The artwork is revolutionary, the house conservative.”
This radical antithesis of the functions of painting and architecture produced an antithesis of styles in the two domains, neither of which can be understood without their reciprocal relationship and the recognition that each accorded to the other. One longs for a modest, unornamented Loos house in the Expressionist rooms to make the analogous kind of point that Varnedoe made by placing the Moser chair in the Klimt room. Stylistic complementarity, grounded in a common critical estrangement from the aestheticized culture of the late empire, was not only a social but an art-historical reality. It is lost in the formalistic segregation of genres in the last part of the show.
The architect best represented in the exhibition is Otto Wagner, three of whose buildings are shown. A facsimile of an aluminum and glass front for the office of the newspaper Die Zeit is placed like a totem pole at the entrance to the show, with stunning effectiveness. It makes manifest the integration of rigorous form and sensuous play with materials that is at the heart of Varnedoe’s postmodern aesthetic. At the other end of the exhibition, the last display we encounter as we leave is also of Wagner: a splendid, transparent color montage of his pioneering office building, the Postal Savings Bank. With the help of informative wall labels (and even more after reading Varnedoe’s analysis in the catalog), we recognize here a truly prophetic postmodern building.
A Viennese critic, reviewing the Kunstschau in 1908, called it “a festive garment around Klimt.” The same could be said about MOMA’s Kunstschau. Otto Wagner marks the beginning and end of the exhibition with his brilliant buildings, but Klimt is the thread on which its jewels are strung: he is present at the creation in the Secession; his late, exotic, bonbon-colored canvases are scattered among the Expressionist paintings as if to relieve the agony in the garden at the end; above all, he is at the center of the show where arts and crafts are fused to create the golden glory of the Viennese life beautiful. Out of all the turbulent, tension-laden Viennese culture of nascent modernism, it is this sybaritic moment of glory that we carry with us as MOMA’s Vienna.
In many little ways, the peripheral aspects of the show reinforce MOMA’s privileging of Klimt at his socially privileged moment in Austrian art history. The flag over the entrance is silver and blue, with motifs from a Klimt frieze. The type design in the beautifully crafted catalog is inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte, and on its cover is a high-period Klimt portrait of the elegant Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein—one of the most serene and untroubled he ever painted. Want to buy a poster? You have a choice among five high-period Klimts and two high-period Wagners. Schiele and Kokoschka, Olbrich and Loos are not in the club.
In the sculpture garden, where a delightful outdoor café has been installed under a festive tent, the furniture comes from Hoffmann, the planters and other décor are in the Wiener Werkstätte style, just as it was in the lovely tea garden of the Kunstschau. (In 1908 Oscar Wilde’s disquieting Birthday of the Infanta was performed there; in 1909—a sign of new times—Kokoschka’s shocking Murderer, Hope of Women.) The point about the Kunstschau-style garden is that it fits into its architectural setting at MOMA like Cinderella’s foot into the glass slipper.
Varnedoe’s brilliant projection of Vienna is more than an art show. It is a major statement at a critical moment in the definition of the function of art museums in society, in the relation between art criticism and history in scholarship, and in the special place of MOMA in the advancement of modern art.
MOMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, dedicated his museum first and foremost to “the conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity.” Since he was trying to introduce a revolution in taste, to promote an art where canons were not yet established, this was an important commitment. Varnedoe has kept the faith. His resolute sense of artistic quality gives a special luster to his Vienna: this is more than an art show; it is a work of art. That earns it the right to be analyzed not only aesthetically but historically.
A second commitment of Alfred Barr was to the unity of the arts. Inspired in his youth by Henry Adams’s Mont-St-Michel and Chartres and then by the social aesthetic of the Bauhaus, he became a museological pioneer both in the integration of the arts and in raising the public consciousness of the relation of the arts to society. Varnedoe refreshes that aesthetic-synthetic part of the Barr legacy long neglected by MOMA, even as he rejects its social side. He has organized the catalog conservatively, by genre. But his penetrating readings of works in every genre reveal the connections among them. It is hard to overestimate the freshness of his scholarship here. The Kunstschau moment that he favors realizes those connections best, by virtue of its own conception of aesthetic autonomy. Of course there is a sense of history in the structure of the show. Except for architecture, it is essentially organized, in surprising contradiction to the catalog, by period rather than by genre. To deal with problems of a stylistic integration, history quite naturally reasserted itself in the curator’s mind.
Only in the last, Expressionist phase, when culture took a turn unfavorable to the purely aesthetic form of relation between fine and applied arts, does Varnedoe return to separate genres—at the expense of the underlying unity that subsisted between the polarized styles—a union of opposites that was premonitory of the Bauhaus. For the art of Vienna, sociocultural categories of understanding are necessary both to resolving an essentially aesthetic problem—the stylistic interdependence of opposites—and to its museological presentation. The show had to go on with the paradox unresolved. This too contributed to making the sybaritic Kunstschau moment seem like Vienna’s greatest, and resulted in MOMA’s projecting yet another reductionist image of Vienna that must take its place with the many that that city’s cultural complexity seems to invite.
Other recent exhibitions chose to explore Viennese art in a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives. MOMA, by contrast, took the highest road that is also the narrowest: to present Vienna through visual arts alone. That this purged, aestheticist approach issued in the cleanest and most beautiful of all the exhibitions lies beyond question. It is at once the most didactically effective and, alas, the most indifferent to the function and meaning of art in society, the now-abandoned portion of MOMA’s legacy of concerns from Alfred Barr.
September 25, 1986
Katalog der Kunstschau (Vienna, 1908), p. 23. ↩
Katalog der Kunstschau, p. 4. ↩
Katalog der Kunstschau, p. 4. ↩
That a similar deterioration took place in architecture, especially among the Hoffmann students, is indicated in Vienna 1900: Architecture and Design by Franco Borsi and Ezio Godoli (Rizzoli, 1986), pp. 257–269. ↩
See Art and Antiques (Summer 1986), pp. 70–90. ↩
The rise and fall of the Viennese applied arts is treated in detail by Jane Kallir in a new study, Viennese Design and the Wiener Werkstätte (Galerie St. Etienne/George Braziller). ↩
See my “Revolt in Vienna,” The New York Review (May 29). ↩