Between Nouveau and Deco

1.

The imaginative fervor that gripped avant-garde master builders and artisans around 1900 in Vienna, the capital of the vast and culturally diverse Austro-Hungarian Empire, paralleled equally radical innovation in other creative realms, including the music of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, the painting of Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, and the writings of Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. Yet the singular contributions to the visual arts that the Viennese made during this epoch have never loomed large enough in general chronicles of modernism.

Private Collection
Koloman Moser’s design for a poster announcing the opening of the Wiener Werkstätte Neustiftgasse showroom, 1904–1905

The constant rewriting of art history is not solely the province of critics and scholars; cultural institutions exert enormous influence on the way the past is perceived. This has been demonstrated most forcefully by the strong Francophile bias of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, whose founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., set out a Gallocentric narrative of modernism—a begat-begat-begat genealogy that began with Cézanne and posited Cubism as the central development of twentieth-century art. Barr’s highly selective account deeply affected received opinion for many decades. However, even some loyal supporters of MoMA have been aware of how much has been neglected because of Barr’s preferences. Among them is Ronald Lauder, the New York cosmetics heir, collector, and longtime trustee of the Modern, who served as its board chairman from 1995 to 2005 and cofounded the Neue Galerie, a privately funded museum devoted to Austrian and German modernism, in 2001.

The idea for the Neue Galerie began with Serge Sabarsky, a Vienna-born, New York–based dealer in Expressionist art who in 1993 bought a Beaux-Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue and started a foundation devoted to advancing awareness of that work. After Sabarsky’s death in 1996, his friend and client Lauder took over the project and created what now seems an indispensible part of the city’s cultural life, not least because the Neue Galerie’s high standards of programming and presentation have almost single-handedly redressed the Modern’s systematic overemphasis on the School of Paris. In recent years, such hugely popular Neue Galerie exhibitions as “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” and “Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933” have stood out as major curatorial accomplishments.

They are now followed by yet another triumph, “Wiener Werkstätte, 1903–1932: The Luxury of Beauty,” a comprehensive survey of the applied arts collective founded in Vienna by the architect Josef Hoffmann, the artist Koloman Moser, and the patron and collector Fritz Waerndorfer. The Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops) was a direct offshoot of the Vienna Secession, the maverick faction of avant-garde painters, sculptors, and architects who in 1897 broke away from the stultifyingly conservative Association of Austrian Artists. The new exhibition, brilliantly curated by Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs, makes a wholly convincing case for this brief efflorescence of incomparably exquisite high-style design.


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