PRINT September 1984

On the Couch: The Vienna Secession

GUSTAV KLIMT’S ELEMENTAL BEETHOVENFRIES (Beethoven frieze, 1902), which formed a kind of prelude to “Le Arti a Vienna dalla Secessione alla Caduta dell’Impero Asburgico,” the most comprehensive exhibition of Viennese Secessionism and Expressionism to date, could certainly be seen as an interpretation in a cosmic context of the “Arte e Arti” topic of the 41st Biennale. This icon of the union of the sexes is also an image of complementarity echoing the sun and moon symbols that appeared as thematic logos throughout the Biennale literature, posters, and catalogue. Finally, however, the leitmotifs running between the storia in this show in the Palazzo Grassi and the attualità in the Giardini could not be developed very far. The artists of the Vienna Secession did not reject the idea that the past might inform the present, but the past was never the actual subject of their work, and this Viennese strain of Jugendstil certainly repudiated the kind of historicism so prevalent, in all its possible variations, at this Biennale.

The new direction proposed by Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Otto Wagner involved not just a flat, geometrical style incorporating the Byzantine legacy, but a permeation of life by the arts; in this it repeated elements of the British Arts and Crafts movement. The school entirely lacked the utopian perspective of a William Morris, however, for despite increasing social hardships, the estheticization of life it sought in the capital of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire was on a relatively luxurious level. The foundation of the Wiener Werkstätte by Hoffmann and Moser in 1903 lent the movement a decisive push, and its concern with the creation of total artworks reached a high point with the dining hall of Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905–11), which included a mosaic frieze by Klimt. The Secession’s new awareness of style and medium was a true departure in a materialistic age; what was not new, however, was the tendency, perceptible again today, to stand off from any concept of the esthetic transformation of the ordinary workaday world.

With Klimt’s rejection of the common reality and his fascination with the links between death and the beautiful as a principal accent, the drift of the exhibition was toward a nostalgic sensuality which certainly evoked a still-prevalent myth about turn-of-the-century Vienna. Yet the real subject of the show was a phenomenon shared by the existentially heightened situation of today: a nervous consciousness of crisis. Theolder stylists sought to repress their anxiety in the creation of dream worlds and in their intoxication with progress. The unmasking role fell to those skeptics who had their doubts about an institutionalized civilization—Adolf Loos, for example—and to such younger prophets of Modernism as Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Arnold Schönberg.

There were 1200 or so entries in the exhibition—architecture, furniture, graphics, fashion, and decorative and utilitarian objects in addition to painting and sculpture—and it was unfortunate that these Modernist figures were documented by what seemed relatively few works. For while the more recent Austrian artists in and around the Wiener Aktionismus group do not engage in the eclectic quotation that pervaded this Biennale, their work certainly reflects the nonornamental revelation of psychic calamity, erotic obsession, and the expressivity of body language pioneered by the Viennese Expressionists. The intense creativity of that era seemed very impressive in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and offered parallels to postwar concerns with the sexual aspects of life and the sense of threat to human existence. However much external influences may have affected such extremely diverse artists as Christian Ludwig Attersee, Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Arnulf Rainer, they repeatedly demonstrate a specifically Viennese delight in ecstatic states, extreme situations, and the artificial. Until recently this perspective seemed a closed chapter for the younger generation of painters like Siegfried Anzinger and Hubert Schmalix, but Anzinger’s newer work shows increasing indications of a more than merely formal confrontation with Austrian Expressionism. Here was a lost opportunity for an approach to the Biennale theme of “Arte e Arti. Attualità e Storia.”

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.