“Dream and Reality: Vienna 1870–1930”

Künstlerhaus Vienna

In the last several years, turn-of-the-century Vienna has been the subject of a number of exhibitions which have variously explored the creative potential of this fascinating cultural landscape. The most important of these retrospectives was certainly last year’s special show Le Arti a Vienna, at the Venice Biennale. The new and significant aspect of “Dream and Reality” was that, for once, the exploration took place in ’‘Vienna itself.

The scholarly concept behind the show, as conceived by Robert Waissenberger, divided the enormous wealth of material into 24 sections. Each of these centered on an event that revealed new dimensions and that was often anchored in a single, outstanding personality. These sections form the basis of the extensive catalogue, in which numerous specialists have fleshed out these thematic fragments in greater detail; they also provided departure points for Hans Hollein’s visual presentation of the material. And Hollein’s installation was of such extraordinary quality that it turned the exhibition, apart from the subject matter at times, into an event in its own right.

The exhibition set out on a theatrical note with a pageant of original costumes from the “Makart Festzug” (Makart procession). Hans Makart, a painter and interior designer who also designed some of these costumes, created a very popular, heavy, overstuffed, dark, frond-filled style of interior decoration. The costumes were installed along the open staircase leading to the second floor, like a life-size puppet theater facing the stream of incoming visitors in a kind of counterparade. The Makart procession, which marched along the Ringstrasse on April 27, 1879, in celebration of the Silver Anniversary of the Imperial Couple, was the last festive high point in the self-presentation of a society that hardly knew the difference between dream and reality—a society that sought refuge from the social and political reality of the time in a historicizing dreamworld and the champagne festiveness of the operetta. The crisis of this society, its conflicts and efforts at a new orientation, composed one aspect of this exhibition. The sociopolitical milieu was the climactic antipode to explosions of the creative imagination; it was the volcano’s edge around which the epoch danced.

The main focus of the exhibit, however, was creative output in the fine arts and architecture. The new architecture commences with Otto Wagner and his call for a “Nutzarchitektur” (functional architecture) whose down-to-the-last-detail design simultaneously announced its claim to the status of Gesamtkunstwerk. Two of his most important projects, the Postsparkasse and the Steinhof church, were not only thoroughly documented with models and blueprints but can also still be seen and appreciated in their original settings in Vienna. The work of Josef Hoffman was presented as another major stepping stone along the new architectural road, especially in models of his Palais Stoclet, which was erected in Brussels, and, above all, in his capacity as founder of the Weiner Werkstätte whose designs continue to fascinate and impress us today with their freshness. While Hoffmann’s work achieved a high point of ornamental decoration behind which the new clarity of architectural design was almost hidden, the work of Adolf Loos marked the actual inception of the new rationalist architecture. This new style, though far from unadorned in its choice of materials and design, did eschew outright ornamentation. But architecture was also represented in the show by the radical new concepts of the sozialer Wohnungsbau (attractive, practical low-rent housing) like that supported by the Social Democratic government of “red Vienna” after the First World War; the Karl Marx complex, for instance, represented a kind of Ringstrasse des Proletariats.

At the center of the painting exhibit was Gustav Klimt. Not only was he represented by the largest group of works of all the painters included here—Egon Schiele Oskar Kokoschka, Richard Gersd, Arnold Schönberg—but his newly restored Beethovenfries (Beethoven frieze) was exhibited here for the first time in 80 years, in a room reconstructing its original setting.

Just as the Beethovenfries, at the time of its inception, reflected a movement to embrace all the arts, this exhibition also attempted to present all the various aspects of the turn-of-the-century-Vienna zeitgeist, the parallels and intersections of art, music, and literature, of science and philosophy, along with the social and political milieu. And it was here that the major problems of visual presentation arose: information often receded behind an anecdotal atmosphere—perhaps somewhat less in the case of music than of literature. Most awkward, for instance, was the presentation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s typescript of the Logischphilosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-philosophicus) in a cell-like concrete structure. Still, Hollein almost always solved the problem with an esthetic delicacy that led us to all but overlook the shortcomings. A case in point was the way he flooded the nearly empty Sigmund Freud room in a beguiling blue light, which at once created a strong emotional response and also let us see psychoanalysis as that mysterious and unsettling phenomenon the Viennese have indeed always felt it to be.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.