PRINT March 1963

Viennese Expressionism

THE RECENT “DISCOVERY” IN AMERICA of Viennese painters of the pre-World War I epoch revives an attitude toward the human figure which has been largely overlooked by recent figurative painting. This is the exploitation of the human body, with all its possibilities for a wide range of intense expression in terms of emotions grounded in specific human feelings and moods. Of course, the momentum of the various recent abstract movements has almost insured that those artists who followed them would embody “expression” in vigorous brushstrokes and dynamic forms and movements, even when they painted the human figure. But now, when the battle for Abstract Expressionism has been decisively won and the gains consolidated, and artists are discovering in the most unexpected places so many diverse sources of feeling, sensation, shock, and so on, such a movement as Viennese Expressionism may suddenly seem to have an added relevance to contemporary directions. The themes of this movement—anxieties, suffering of physical and psychic origin, morbid speculations on death, and an overt sensuality—certainly have a special appeal in American culture today. And so the discovery in America of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt seems to be partly the result of recent directions in our own painting, thus once again indicating how much our view of the past responds to present aspirations.

Expressionism arose in Vienna about 1909–1910 in the intensely searching portraits of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, and it met an abrupt and tragic end in the aftermath of the Great War. Severe wounds suffered during the early years of the war still incapacitated Kokoschka in 1918, and the influenza epidemic that had swept through a war-ravaged Europe caused the deaths of both Gustav Klimt and Schiele together with Schiele’s wife. The war years saw also the final and complete dissolution of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the death of Emperor Franz-Josef, whose family had already been decimated by suicide and assassination, and the collapse of his benevolent but outdated autocracy. Thus the themes of impending doom and of extreme anxiety in personal life that permeate the art of this brilliant and tragic epoch have one of their roots in the culture itself. And the movement that began with such an eager reception of the new artistic ideas from the west, and which had finally begun to achieve success both in Vienna and abroad, was even more poignantly tragic because it was engulfed so completely in the debacle of 1914–1918. Not even the German expressionist artists, with several of them killed, the victim of psychological collapse or taken prisoner, and all of their lives violently disrupted, had suffered such complete devastation as a result of the great conflict. Among the gentle, pleasure-loving Viennese only Kokoschka survived, and he was still suffering from a mental imbalance which was the result of his wounds. But he had already been uprooted from Vienna in 1909, an escape from the outrage of a public still living comfortably in the golden aura of outdated views of both art and politics, and he had found a sympathetic climate among the more forthright and aggressive German writers and artists in Berlin. In 1924, after his recovery, he left a position in the Dresden Academy for many years of wandering throughout Europe, during which period the hostility of the Nazis made it impossible for him to remain in either Germany or Austria. The year 1924, therefore, marks the end of his association with the lands of his mother-tongue, and the beginning of an era when Kokoschka was to become an international figure.


The main currents of the new artistic ideas of the turn of the century—called “Jugendstil” in Germany, “Art nouveau” in France, and “Modern Style” in England—were slow in reaching the capital of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, chiefly because of its political and cultural position midway between Europe and Asia. The culture of 19th-century Austria was not only still rooted in the great era of Maria-Theresa, but Austria’s peculiarly precarious political position as ruler of an overwhelming majority of non-German peoples, Slavs, Czechs and Slovaks, kept it absorbed with a cultural as well as a political balance of power centered in Middle Europe. Metternich had rightly observed that “Asia begins at the Landstrasse.” And the reactionary conservatives, Metternich and his successor, Prince Schwarzenberg, succeeded for a long time in maintaining by sheer wits and by cunning diplomacy this delicate balance of the status quo. This was almost matched by the determination of the Viennese academic artists who, by means of their organization, the “Kuenstlergenossenschaft,” and control over the official exhibition facility, the “Kuenstlerhaus,” successfully resisted both the work of the adventurous younger men and new art from abroad. Even in the field of music, which was the art most loved by the Viennese, a similar conservatism prevailed, and Johann Strauss, Junior, together with the great masters of the late 19th-century, were adored while Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg faced much the same neglect as Kokoschka and Schiele.

When the “Art nouveau,” that had already been sweeping through western Europe for a decade, reached Vienna it entered through architecture and the decorative arts. For modernism in architecture had already been heralded by Otto Wagner in his work and in his influential book of 1895, Moderne Architektur, wherein he demanded that architecture respond to the conditions and concepts of modern life and no longer to reminiscences of past golden ages. It was the pupils of Wagner, joining together with the younger painters of the “Kuenstlergenossenschaft,” who in 1897 took the bold step of establishing a new artists’ organization, the “Vereinigung Bildender Kuenstler Oesterreichs,” or the Vienna Secession. One of them, J. M. Olbrich, designed their own headquarters and exhibition building in the Friedrichstrasse, almost across the street from the Academy, and they published one of the most elegantly designed art journals of the time, Ver Sacrum (Consecrated Spring), to illustrate their own work and that of the contemporary masters of western Europe of whom they knew so little. The program of the Secession and Ver Sacrum featured all the arts; painting, architecture, sculpture, and the decorative arts, but it was architecture and the related useful arts that showed the way. So successful were the architects, that Joseph Hoffmann and his fellows designed the Austrian pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris in 1900, and again in Rome in 1912 in the new “Secessionstil.” And the pages of Ver Sacrum bore the exciting new art of the Englishmen Beardsley and Burne-Jones; the French, Rodin, Bonnard, Puvis de Cheyennes; and the Germans, von Stuck, Liebermann, Slevogt, Corinth, and the “Jugendstil” designers of Munich. From the ferment of this association of artists working in various media, Hoffmann established in 1903 the “Wiener Werkstaette” devoted to the production of utilitarian objects designed by the best artists. Viennese silverware, glass, fabrics, and interior decoration since that time have been established as one of the most elegant styles of modern industrial art.

The Secession’s exhibition program, however, was mainly concerned with showing paintings. In 1903 a large exhibition by the well-known Swiss painter, Ferdinand Hodler, made a deep impression upon the Viennese artists. Hans von Marees and Edvard Munch were also shown, and the influence of the latter is evident in the choice of themes by Klimt and Schiele. The great international Kunstschau of 1909, where Schiele’s work was seen for the first time, presented an imposing array of French masters, as well as the better-known northern Europeans. But while these artists were greatly admired by the artists of the Secession—sunflower paintings after Van Gogh appeared in the work of both Klimt and Schiele—the French were still little known outside the group itself. And Klimt’s murals for the University of Vienna, awarded a Gold Medal in Paris in 1900, were violently rejected at home.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918)

Klimt’s training and early experience led him directly into the sumptuous architectural decoration that was so popular among royalty and the wealthy upper classes as an enhancement of their brilliantly lavish social life. His father was a goldsmith, and Gustav was at first destined to follow his craft until his talent for drawing led him to the “Kunstgewerbeschule” and work in mosaics, ceramics, and then painting. By the time he was he was a partner in a studio making ornamental theatre curtains and wall decorations for palaces and public buildings on the newly completed grand boulevard, the Ring. In 1888 he was chosen to decorate with allegorical paintings the recently-completed Burgtheatre, then the center, with the new Opera, of Viennese social life. He soon took over the position left vacant by the death of the leading academic artist and favorite of Emperor Franz Josef, Hans Makart, whose pretentious recapitulations of Baroque historical and portrait types were so flattering to his patrons. But Klimt was already the better and the more adventurous painter; his compositions were firmly composed, his drawing vigorous and his color richer and more harmonious. His interest in such ideas as those represented by the new art coming from abroad, however, virtually put an end to his career as an official decorator. There were no public commissions for artists who insisted on employing themes drawn from life or whose images reverberated with vital and intimate themes of the “self.” The rejected murals for the University show clearly the influence of such modern foreign artists as the Dutchman, Jan Toorop, and the Englishman, Aubrey Beardsley, whose drawings with their elegant, linear arabesques were often seen in the pages of Ver Sacrum. Moreover, the murals, in representing Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, avoided the conventional devices of either showing the respective patron gods together with their emblems, or an array of portraits of distinguished members of the faculty. His paintings were assemblages of mystical figures vaguely evocative of dreamy states of mind with overtones of a rather pessimistic view of man’s fate in the world (see Jurisprudence, 1903). But however inappropriate they may have been for the purpose and place intended, they were viewed with great excitement by the artists of the Secession and, as the first important example of the new style by a Viennese artist, exerted a powerful influence upon the younger men for an entire decade. When the rejected paintings were exhibited to the great crowds who flocked to the Secession to see them, the young men laid a wreath before them bearing the motto of the Secession, “Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (To time its art, to art its freedom). But the Emperor, who had once decorated Klimt, now angrily refused to allow him the use of the title “Professor.” Thus with these paintings began the “Secessionstil” and the first stirrings of Vienna’s modern expressionist movement.

Klimt had developed out of the Art nouveau style his own quasi-abstract patterns with the special sumptuous quality of Viennese decorative art. Alfred Werner has observed that the crafts influenced and were even the guiding factor in the “major” arts of painting and architecture. The sumptuous decorative backgrounds in Klimt’s later paintings bear this out, although there was always an unresolved conflict between Klimt as a decorator and as an expressive painter. The sumptuous surfaces, often richly decorated with gold leaf or even mosaic, are in the best tradition of Viennese crafts, while the representational or expressive elements—faces and fragments of the bodies—are almost overwhelmed by these vibrant patterns. It might even be said that Klimt’s human beings are imprisoned in an elaborate, sensuous environment that has robbed them of the power of freewill and has predetermined their fate. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that the plays of Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal of the 1890’s are filled with a similar imagery and that they frequently describe life as illusionary, and the world like a stage. Their absorption with the world of art and their rejection of naturalism identify them like Klimt, as artists of the fin-de-siecle. However, as the Viennese had known almost none of the vigorous intellectual and artistic battles over naturalism, science and social theories that had shaped French art and thought, their “modernity” was strongly permeated by a Romantic and idealist view of man and nature that found it difficult to distinguish between actuality and fantasy. Arthur Schnitzler had written in 1897 that “Waking and dreaming merge one into another/ Like truth and falsehood/ Certainty is nowhere.”

The image of woman obsesses Klimt’s paintings after 1900. Elegant and beautiful female nudes had always graced his traditional mural paintings, but now he turns his attention more specifically to the female face and body and to its evocative sensuousness. His subjects are the great seductresses, Leda and Danae (illustrated), and the destroyers of men, Salome and Judith. However, their threat is not of violence but of a gentle and indolent seduction. The types are based on ideal upper class Viennese women of culture and leisure, exceedingly beautiful and over refined, indolent and sometimes wanton. Meier Graefe, the German art-historian, explains that in Austria, “The worship of women is an integral part of the national culture.” Sometimes a mystical symbolism dominates, employing images from Toorop or Beardsley: serpents, long winding cascades of hair, death’s heads ominously peering at beautiful children or lovers in an embrace. All of them are caught up in a melancholy mood of futility, again reminiscent of the sad loneliness of the life and death dramas of Hoffmannsthal.

EGON SCHIELE (1890–1918)

Egon Schiele projected the innovations of Klimt into a much more personal and highly emotionalized style that brought him into the main stream of Expressionism. Whereas Klimt’s sources were in the local decorative arts tradition and in the Jugendstil of the end of the century, Schiele belongs to the 20th century’s obsession with themes of the “self” expressed in incisive and emotion-laden line and color. Although he was deeply influenced by Klimt about 1908–09, his drawings and paintings were derived from nature rather than from decorative patterns. And his study of natural objects was embodied in line drawings of the most acute and powerful expressiveness. His drawings evoke the great Germanic masters, Duerer, Holbein, Altdorfer, and the Dutch Hercules Seghers, although in their brevity and intensity they are entirely in the spirit of modern times. He captured, to a degree few of the other Expressionists attained, the quiver of a sensitive eye, or hand, or body under the stress of intense inner passions. And he suggested, by a wiry line as probing as a scalpel passing through nerves and flesh, mysterious and fearsome psychic impulses that lie deep within the being (see Dr. von Graf, 1910, and The Prophet, 1911). He evoked, by his color and brush stroke, flesh that is hypersensitive to stimuli from within and without, and that is variously fresh and petal-like in his beautiful, wide-eyed and awkward children, and satiated to drowsiness or flayed with mental suffering in his adults. It has been suggested that Schiele’s concern or even obsession with intimate personal emotions and with the erotic is analogous to Freud’s investigations of these areas of psychology during the very same years. Of course, there is scarcely an analogy between Freud’s rigorous scientific method of investigation and the artist’s intuitive exploration of these themes. Nevertheless Schiele, like the scientist, intensely investigated the most intimate aspects of human behavior. He portrayed the human body, especially his own, heavily charged with sensations, including the most intimate—an area of experience conventionally presented only when highly idealized. Such frankness was unknown to the Viennese, although perhaps in no other European city was there such an appreciation of the sensuous pleasures of life. And the public indignation toward both scientist and artist was in large part due to their having shattered the massive facade of respectability that concealed these universal but tabooed subjects. In this respect Schiele differs from writers such as Arthur Schnitzler, whose tales of sophisticated licentious still lie within the sentimentalizing conventions. The theme of love with Klimt and, especially, Schiele is often fraught with violently tormented and morbid emotions, but it deals directly and graphically with intimate subjects. The paintings of lovers lost in a guilt-ridden ecstasy, or desperately clinging together in a world that is disintegrating about them, seem to moralize about more than to glorify sensual experiences.

Schiele had been deeply influenced by Klimt about 1908 and had with amazing rapidity absorbed the idea of the decorative background and the expressive silhouette. Abandoning his own impressionist landscapes, he took up an intensive study of the human figure and cast it into melancholy little scenes of visionary experiences and suffering. The expressionist intensity of his silent pantomimes was given added force by his admiration for Van Gogh, whose work he had studied at the same exhibition where he himself had first appeared. Several sunflower paintings with petals writhing with inner tensions bear witness to this influence.

Schiele’s chief subject in his drawings and water colors is the human figure, often nude or partly clothed. These figures are isolated from the background as though suspended in a neutral space, and therefore act as a focus of the artist’s attention. Sometimes the intensity of his expression is increased by a personal identification with the subject, resulting in the intense suffering of St. Sebastian, or the tender pathos of family scenes, which represented a wish he was not to see fulfilled. As with the other Expressionists, Schiele’s work is concerned with intimate subjects, sensuous experiences, and the erotic. That Viennese Expressionism should be concerned with these to such a degree is to be expected, considering the tradition of pleasure in their art and especially in the enjoyment of the nude human body that characterized Austrian Baroque painting and sculpture. But while the human body in Baroque sculpture may writhe under its charge of emotion, it is still permeated by buoyant and joyful sensuality. In contrast, Schiele’s figures are driven by inner psychic impulses that are involved with the sensations and tensions of the “self.” The conscious awareness of intimate matters was also an innovation of Freud who, in the words of Alfred Kazin, “proclaimed above all else that ‘nature,’ which is nearest to us in the erotic side of man, and which culture and society are always pushing away as unworthy of man’s ‘high’ nature, has constantly to be brought back into man’s awareness.”

Under the stress of this new attitude and with this new thematic material, Schiele’s line about 1910 became hard and wiry, infusing the figures with its own brittle tensions. The composition at times violently expanded, spreading and opening out the figure, or, alternately, turning inward as though refusing contact with the outside world. Particularly expressive, even with young people, are the claylike hands, enlarged heads, and wide-open, intensely burning eyes. The quivering brushstrokes in acid colors evoke mottled and flagellated flesh (see Nude, 1911).

In 1915 Schiele was finally able to marry Edith Harms, who appears frequently in his paintings and drawings. Even though he was inducted into the Austrian army a few days later, his work entered into a new phase when it was much less shaken by his own passions. The morbid themes of around 1911 had largely disappeared, along with the bitter, tense line and the shrill color. He drew the full, rounded figure of his wife and also family scenes with a firm and clear line enclosing solidly composed forms. His paintings of children, clearly motivated by admiration, captured the charm of their fresh sensibilities.

His many landscapes are extraordinarily serene in concept, with large quasi-geometric areas of water, earth, and buildings locked in complex, clearly-integrated masses. No human beings appear in them and neither are they empathically penetrable by the observer. It is as though Schiele found in landscape a calming agent that removed him from himself and from other people, and evoked in him great powers of composition. The Houses with Drying Laundry of 1917 (illustrated) is one of his greatest paintings of the village of Krumau in Bohemia. The major areas are simple, clearly defined, and generally flat, but they are extremely varied in their relationships one to another. The smaller elements, such as the shingles, are enormously varied in contour and color. The result is that within the stable structure of the whole, the painting quivers and pulses with the sense of a vividly experienced situation. And while it is essentially linear in construction, the substance of the paint is richer than in any other period. He continues here the traditional Germanic view of nature as a vibrant, living entity, vitalized by the power of hidden spirits.

In the portraits of the later years Schiele is no longer driven so much by personal impulses, but comes to grips directly with naked personality traits. He captures the great emotional force of his friend, the artist and writer, Paris von Guetersloh, in a flurry of quivering, angular brushstrokes.

Schiele’s art is in large part autobiographical, the burning intensity of his own life reflected in the many saints, martyrs, hermits, and lovers which he painted. In many of these is the unmistakable likeness of his own face and figure. He lived a monastic life of isolation, having little to do with the people of culture and fashion who, at the end of his life, had begun to seek him out. The severe discipline of his art was matched by the austerity of his life. As Otto Benesch wrote, his art is “not lush and luxuriant, but severe and restrained, even if it was shaken by demonic powers.”


Although Kokoschka like Klimt was the son of a goldsmith, his sources were independent of the decorative arts tradition, being rather derived from the exuberant and vigorous arabesques of Austrian Baroque art and architecture. He entered the “Kunstgewerbeschule” in Vienna but he must also have had much to do with the academy of painting, for he became acquainted with Schiele and Klimt. Only his earliest work while still a student was touched by the Secessionstil of the Klimt school, as seen in his illustrations for his own fairytale, Die trauemenden Knaben of 1908 (illustrated). But their flat, curvilinear, patterns define motifs more in the rugged style of folk-art than in the refined arabesques of the Werkstaette artists. However, in the same year he illustrated his own play dealing with his personal version of the familiar theme of the struggle between the sexes, a violent and hopeless conflict between man and woman. The play, entitled Moerder, Hoffnung der Frauen, with music by Paul Hindemith, was produced at the Kunstschau in 1909, and the violent, expressionist treatment of a theme conventionally clothed in sentimental or sensuous trappings was so shocking to the public that Kokoschka was forced to leave the city in order to avoid arrest. In his illustrations of this theme, he abandoned completely all traces of the Secessionstil for a violent, free style that was characteristic of his work from that time onward (see Woman Riding Man as a Horse). Where Schiele had brooded upon his feelings in silence and isolation, Kokoschka’s emotions burst forth with explosive violence and both his subject matter and his drawing style were swept along with his feelings.

After Kokoschka had left Vienna with his friend, Adolph Loos, he gradually was drawn into the circle of Herwath Walden and the “Sturm” group of writers and artists in Berlin. His portrait drawings frequently appeared in De Sturm and his plays were published there. From 1910 until his enlistment in the army he moved back and forth from Berlin to Vienna, but he was most closely associated with Berlin’s vigorous Expressionist movement in art and literature. In this new environment his painting became more forceful and the brushstrokes lost the character of lines or edges and became more broken and able to endow substance to the forms. The Self-Portrait of 1914 (illustrated) is built up of a matrix of freely applied strokes which nevertheless maintain their individual vitality. The later Paris Opera of 1924 (illustrated) is similarly constituted of vigorous strokes, although now broader and bolder.

In reaction to the outbreak of the war Kokoschka exchanged two of his best paintings, those dealing with themes from his personal life, for a horse and uniform in order to join the Austrian cavalry. While in action on the Russian front he received serious head wounds which caused him to lose his sense of balance for several years. While seeking a cure he settled in Dresden, but he was soon again seized by restlessness and in 1924 left for Paris. His first painting of the Paris Opera was made from his hotel window. The stay in Paris marked the beginning of his wanderings, during which time his art gradually lost its regional characteristics.


The end of the brief expressionist movement in Vienna came suddenly and with the same finality that had swept away the Austria-Hungarian Empire itself. With the assassination in 1914 of the successor to the throne, the Archduke Ferdinand (the same who had threatened to break every bone in Kokoschka’s body), and with the death of the aged Emperor Franz-Josef two years later, the Imperial family was wiped out. The regime itself, however, was doomed long before the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918. Crushed by the decisive defeat of the Imperial armies and weakened by the privations accompanying the conflict, Vienna was ravaged by the great influenza epidemic that swept across western Europe. Klimt died in February, 1918, at the age of 56, and at the end of October both Egon and Edith Schiele were mortally stricken, the artist dying three days after his wife. Schiele had just passed his twenty-eighth birthday. As Hodler had also died in this year and as Kokoschka was in Germany still struggling to regain his health, the expressionist movement in Vienna virtually ceased to exist.

The remaining men had either drifted toward Germany or had abandoned the bold courses set by Schiele and Kokoschka. The most promising, Richard Gerstl, was still unknown in 1908 when at the age of 25 he committed suicide. Alfred Kubin was associated with the Munich and Berlin groups, and Hans Boehler went to America to fully realize his talents. Paris von Guetersloh, the subject of many of Schiele’s most penetrating portraits, continued through the war years and then changed to a kind of dream-like Surrealism. Ludwig Jungnickel, among them all, was the only one to survive the war and its aftermath unscathed.

At the end of his life Klimt had abandoned the work on architectural decorations that had made him famous in favor of a quiet, monastic life in the retreat of his suburban garden, where he painted sumptuous portraits of elegant ladies, such as The Fur Mantle. Although, unlike Schiele, he had lived long enough to develop the potentialities of his art, a large portion of his work was not to survive. In 1945 the retreating Germans set fire to a castle in Lower Austria where a large collection of Klimt’s paintings, including the University murals, were stored, and they were all destroyed.

Schiele’s death came, by contrast, at the moment when his success, already assured abroad, had finally been recognized at home. The Secession’s exhibition of his work in 1918 had been greeted with wild enthusiasm by collectors who bought up the entire show, and both press and public proclaimed the talent of their now-famous artist. Schiele could at last afford a studio and sufficient comforts to provide for the child that he and Edith were expecting. His death, at the very moment of his highest triumph and anticipation, made his earlier paintings on the theme of Death and the Mother seem prophetic, as though he, like Van Gogh, had premonitions of a shortened life. The fierce intensity of these two artists’ lives is indeed comparable, and one is tempted to speculate on the stature of Schiele today were he still living, with a body of work covering more than a half-century instead of less than ten years.

Kokoschka’s career after 1918 has become a part of history and is so well known that it need not be repeated here. His sojourn in Paris in 1924 was the beginning of extensive travels throughout Europe that led him eventually to settle in England and then return to Switzerland. But first in 1918 and finally in 1924 came the break with his native land, after which he developed an individual expressionism no longer closely associated with either German or Viennese Expressionism.

Dr. Chipp is professor of art at the University of California, Berkeley.



Most of the paintings reproduced here are included in the exhibition, “Viennese Expressionism, 1910–1924,” currently at the University of California, Berkeley (through March 10). The first showing of these artists on the West Coast, the exhibition will also be seen at the Pasadena Art Museum, March 19 through April 12.

Dr. Chipp’s article is a somewhat expanded version of his essay prepared for the catalog of the exhibition.