In Vienna, it is often said that artists were used to a very traditionalist public life style based on Ringstrasse values: economic prosperity and artistic dependence on a classical past. These values had been core to ideal middle-class homes in mid-late C19th. But by the late 1890s, young Viennese artists resented the Ringstrasse mentality and felt that they could not create their own artistic visions.
In April 1897 Viennese architects Otto Wagner and his students Josef Hoffmann and Josef Olbrich joined with artist Gustav Klimt, designer Koloman Moser, Max Kurzweil and others in an arts and crafts renewal. Modelled on the Munich Secession of 1892 & the Berlin Secession of 1893, the Vienna Secession broke with the local Art Academy and declared their independence.
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Emilie Flöge, 1902. Historical Museum of Vienna
Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka used their good connections with Vienna’s New Money, to establish a new world for the arts. And they interacted with other Viennese intellectuals like Alma Schindler, Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Stefan Zwieg. Berta Zuckerkandl was the main patron of the group. Her home was entirely kitted out by Josef Hoffmann and in turn she obtained other architectural commissions for the young men. Her salon was The Centre!
To pursue their goal, Secessionist artists planned to create their own exhibition space. A site along the Ringstrasse was originally chosen, but it was only after a space became available on Friedrichstrasse, just off Ringstrasse, that the Council gave permission for a temporary pavilion. This building announced the arrival of The Secession publicly AND enabled modern artists to exhibit their work.
So why does turn-of-the-century Vienna draw us back repeatedly? Guest exhibition curator at the NGV in Melbourne, Christian Witt-Döring, made three main suggestions. Firstly by 1890, Vienna’s population was so large that it became the fourth largest city in Europe after London, Paris and Berlin. Secondly as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was the bustling cultural capital of a diverse, multinational and multi-lingual population of 51 million people. Finally, and not to be dismissed lightly, Vienna had a long-standing café culture second to none. At a time when the English were still supping on milk tea and sponge cake, the Australians and Germans were drinking beer, the French were drinking wine and the Americans were eating something awful, the Viennese had a passion for splendid coffee houses and patisseries.
The 240 works in the Melbourne exhibition represent the best Viennese artists of the early 20th Century. They have been brought together from The Belvedere Museum in Vienna and the Wien Museum, predominantly, and also from other collections. I was not familiar with the Kunsthaus Zug in Switzerland. But I was pleased to read their home page which says the museum has amongst the most extensive collections of Vienna's modern art outside Austria. Zug includes works by some thirty artists including Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.
The Melbourne exhibition focuses on the main art forms of the 1890-1928 era: paintings, architecture and all the decorative arts (furniture, jewellery and textiles). This exhibition’s own curators say the objects explore and display modernism, individualism, the rise of the Secession movement and the creation of a new style concentrating on the use of colour, design and opulent glamour. If you didn’t know from the exhibition’s name, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos were central to an artistic revolution that modernised Vienna, creating a dynamic and trend-setting metropolis.
Although I personally don’t know anything about modern music, friends are looking forward to musical connections to the art exhibition. “Jewish Music in Vienna at the Turn of the 20th Century” will be held in the NGV’s galleries (Sun 26/6/2011), presented by the Chief Cantor of Vienna’s Jewish community. “Mahler to Schönberg and the Expressionists” (Wed 27/7/2011) promises to develop an enriched understanding of the cultural environment that Mahler, Schönberg and other Viennese musicians experienced.
Thankfully this winter blockbuster will run for a decent length of time: 18/6/2011 - 9/10/2011. The scholarly catalogue called Vienna: Art and Design: Klimt, Schiele, Hoffmann and Loos was published by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2011, to coincide with the exhibition.