Great masters of Austrian art

It was during the last decades of the Habsburg monarchy that the Austrian metropolis experienced a cultural life whose modern, progressive and cosmopolitan character breathed fresh air into a conservative Viennese society. In art, the founding, in 1897, of the Secession, a movement that was first born in Germany, expressed the break with conventional academic painting and expressed a dynamic will for change. Its aim was to encourage the work of avant-garde Austrian artists but to also organize exhibitions that introduced the Viennese public to the latest, modern developments in the art of Europe’s major artistic centers. Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), one of the founding members of the Secession group and its first president, was one of the pioneers of modernism in Vienna who paved the way for the modern developments in the art of a younger generation. Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Oscar Kokoschka (1886-1980) were among the most gifted artists of this future generation. «Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Their Time,» an exhibition taking place at the Athens Concert Hall, shows the unique way in which each artist explored modernism and helps put across an understanding of the artistic innovations that took place during the so-called period of the «Austrian spring,» from the last decade of the 19th century until the interwar period. The roughly 70 works included in the exhibition come from the collection of Vienna’s Leopold Museum. Effie Andreadis is the curator and Michael P. Fuhr is a specialist who writes in the exhibition catalog. Klimt’s drawings of nude, female figures are among the most elegant works. The lines are sinuous and flowing but also have an angular aspect that becomes more prevalent in the work of Schiele. Klimt captured the allure and sensual eroticism of female beauty. The portraits of his female sitters have the mystery of the femme fatale, one of the most popular themes in fin-de-siecle art. The femme fatale, with all her dangerous trappings, expressed the opposite of logic and order; she symbolized the adventure into eroticism and the instinctual, the unconcious and the unexplored sides of human nature, which psychoanalysis (Freud published «The interpretation of Dreams» in 1900 in Vienna) had brought to the surface. Nudity and sexuality also communicated the spirit of provocation that the Secession movement wished to represent. Klimt’s work had stirred controversy before the establishment of the Vienna Secession. By 1890, he was a successful artist commissioned that same year with the decoration of the staircase of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. He was soon elected professor at the Academy of Fine Arts (the position was denied him by the minister of education). A few years later, Klimt’s allegorical, mural paintings (depicting Jurisprudence, Philosophy and Medicine) for the Vienna University raised ire, were criticized as pornographic and put an end to the reputation that Klimt had enjoyed thus far among academic circles. The Secessionist movement was born soon after that incident. Klimt painted a nude Theseus struggling with the Minotaur for the poster of the Secession’s first exhibition (it is included in the Athens exhibition). Pallas Athena, the Secession’s emblem, is also included in the composition. Theseus’s nude genitalia raised controversy and another version of the poster followed. Klimt’s involvement with the Secession was committed but short-lived. In 1905, internal discord led him and other dissident artists (Carl Moll, Koloman Moser – whose work is also shown in the exhibition – Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner) to group together in new activities. This was also when Klimt started an ambitious project: the design of large, wall mosaics destined to adorn the Stoclet Mansion in Brussels, an impressive building designed by the architect Josef Hoffman. Their rich decorative patterns are indicative of an art nouveau style that heavily influenced the work of Klimt. Nine copies of the original panels are presented in the Athens exhibition. Like Klimt, whom he greatly admired, the younger Schiele broke away from the Academy and joined with fellow artists to found the «New Art» group. As in the case of Klimt, his work caused scandals; Schiele was actually charged with immorality and attacked for his «pornographic» sketches. Of the three major painters in the Athens exhibition, Egon Schiele is the best represented. His paintings are probably the most sombre. «Self-Seer» from 1911 is an almost morbid portrait of man, the depiction of a tormented, anguished existence. «The Scream,» the famous painting by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch who was a contemporary of Klimt, immediately springs to mind. The skeletal faces resemble those in both «Self-Portrait as a Saint» and «Mother and Child,» two of the most striking paintings by Schiele included in the Athens exhibition. The sense of the macabre and the presence of death is one of the most prominent traits in the work of Schiele. Partly traced back to late 19th century symbolism, it was also an aspect of the Viennese fin-de-siecle decadence and malaise. As Effie Andreadis explains in her essay, death had, at the time, become a nearly fetishistic preoccupation, and was expressed not just in art but in other aspects of life as well. The distorted forms and faces that Schiele painted also owe something to German expressionism, one of the most important movements of the first decade of the 20th century. This is also true of the portraits of Oscar Kokoschka, who, along with the slightly younger Schiele, are considered to be two of the greatest expressionist painters. Most of Kokoschka’s works presented in Athens are lithographs: The twisted body and gaunt face of the female figure in «Pieta,» a poster that the artist designed for the summer theater «Kunstschau» in 1909, is striking. Besides the expressionist style, the rich range of colors and the strong color contrasts are two more aspects of his work, as seen in «Two Girls» from 1934. (In later years, Kokoschka traveled to Greece and was inspired by Greek mythology. However, this body of work is outside the time frame covered by the exhibition.) In the exhibition, one will also see paintings by other artists who were contemporaries of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. The art nouveau elements in Koloman Moser’s portrait «Girl with Necklace,» the expressionist style in Herbert Boeckl’s composition of a reclining woman, or the Cezanne-like landscape painting of Anton Faistauer are examples of the diversity and artistic growth that had made Vienna one of the most interesting cultural centers in Europe. At the Athens Megaron (Vassilisis Sofias & Kokkali, 210.728.2000) through December 30. Sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.