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Who Paid the Piper?
The Art of Patronage in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

March 08, 2007 to May 26, 2007

Fin-de-siècle Vienna is widely hailed for the groundbreaking achievements of artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. Less well known, however, are the patrons who supported these artists and thereby made their achievements possible. Vienna in 1900 was a city poised at a crossroads between two collecting paradigms: aristocratic patronage, on the one hand, and the capitalistic art market, on the other. Historically, the Catholic Church and the Imperial Court had been the principal patrons of the arts in Austria, but around 1800, these institutions began to relinquish their hegemony to the emerging bourgeoisie. Over the course of the ensuing century, industrialization multiplied both the number and the fortunes of bourgeois collectors. Increased mobility turned Vienna into a modern metropolis. People representing a broad mix of cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds streamed in from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, creating a dynamic, melting-pot society. By 1910, Vienna's population stood at two million. (It is today 1.6 million). A late-nineteenth-century building boom gave the city the most advanced infrastructure in all of Europe.

Nevertheless, in other ways Vienna was more backward than the rest of Europe. To begin with, Austria was less heavily industrialized and thus less well integrated into the international economy. Consequently, Austria's cultural ties to Western Europe were looser than was the case, for example, in neighboring Germany. And unlike Germany or France, Austria at the turn of the twentieth century had not yet developed an effective cadre of entrepreneurial art dealers. Throughout Western Europe, dealers played a key role in promoting modern art. They acted as impresarios, publishers and intermediaries, connecting artists to a far-flung array of adventuresome new collectors. Comparable dealers did not emerge in Austria until after World War I. It was largely left to the fin-de siècle Viennese avant garde to promote their own innovations. Direct contact between artist and patron--possible only under relatively provincial circumstances--remained the norm in Austria much longer than elsewhere in Europe.

The turn-of-the century Viennese avant garde grew up during a period when official patronage was enjoying an intense but short-lived efflorescence. The grand public buildings erected along Vienna’s Ringstrasse in the second half of the nineteenth century proved a boon for architects, and many artists found employment painting murals within these edifices. Gustav Klimt got his start as just such a muralist, working in partnership with his brother Ernst and the artist Franz Matsch. The team began in the provinces and gradually worked their way to the capital, distinguishing themselves there with the ceiling paintings for the new Burgtheater. But following Ernst Klimt's untimely death in 1892, Gustav's career took an unexpected turn. In three canvasses commissioned for the great hall at the University of Vienna, Klimt eschewed the celebratory allegories customary for such projects and instead presented his assigned subjects--Medicine, Jurisprudence and Philosophy--as futile bulwarks against despair and mortality. A petition denouncing the paintings was circulated among the University's professors, and an anti-Klimt campaign was launched in the press, until finally the artist bowed under the onslaught and in 1905 renounced the commission. Klimt's renunciation marked the unofficial end of official patronage in Vienna, which in any case had been tapering off of its own accord.

Nonetheless, the concept of government patronage remained Klimt's ideal, for only the government could provide artists with a public forum in which to deliver grand statements about human existence. Lamenting the fact that such a forum was no longer available, Klimt instead advocated the formation of a Künstlerschaft, a community uniting artists with likeminded collectors. The mainstays of the Viennese avant garde, the Secession (founded in 1897) and the Wiener Werkstätte (founded in 1903), both embraced this concept. The aesthetic corollary to the Künstlerschaft was the Gesamtkunstwerk, which entailed leveling the fine and applied arts in order to create all-encompassing artistic environments. Collectors were encouraged to deck themselves out, from head to toe and floor to ceiling, in the art and artifacts exhibited at the Secession and produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Friederike Maria Beer, the only person to be painted by both Klimt and Schiele, recalled that she was "a walking advertisement for the Wiener Werkstätte. . . . Every stitch of clothing I owned was designed by them. When I got an apartment of my own, all the furniture, even the rugs, was made by them."

Patronage was a lifestyle choice. As Mäda Primavesi, the daughter of one of the Werkstätte's financiers put it, the idea was "not just to buy paintings or sculptures, but to live the life, humanly, intellectually, socially." Industrialists such as Mäda's father, Otto Primavesi, Fritz Waerndorfer (the Werkstätte's first backer) and Karl Wittgenstein (who paid for the Secession's building) poured huge sums into these ventures. Primavesi and Waerndorfer were eventually bankrupted by their largesse. But all the great Viennese collectors of the early twentieth century bought generously. Wittgenstein owned half a dozen paintings by Klimt and gave numerous commissions to the architect Josef Hoffmann, a driving force behind both the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte. Waerndorfer, too, patronized Klimt and Hoffmann in depth, in addition to supporting the Secession and the Werkstätte with more broadly scattered purchases. August and Serena Lederer owned over a dozen major paintings by Klimt and several hundred of his drawings. Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer owned seven Klimt oils, including two large portraits of Adele, painted in 1907 and 1912. The entire Zuckerkandl family actively promoted the avant garde: Berta was a journalist in whose salon the cultural intelligentsia hatched its plans; her brother-in-law Victor gave the Wiener Werkstätte its first big architectural commission, the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, and his wife, Paula, was painted by Klimt; Victor's other sister-in-law, Amalie, also sat for a Klimt portrait (unfinished at the time of the artist's death).

Klimt was able to thrive with the support of only a few patrons, because many of them were repeat customers and because his prices were very high. (Klimt charged 10,000 Kronen for a life-sized portrait, roughly eight times the annual salary of an elementary school teacher.) But this relatively narrow client base did not bode well for the Austrian art market as a whole. Though the Secession was geared more to the fine arts and the Wiener Werkstätte more to the applied arts, the major players, such as Klimt, Hoffmann and the designer Koloman Moser, were active in both, and as time went by, it seemed that this group was monopolizing the market. Since the Secession, run by and for artists, not only exhibited but also sold its members' work, conflicts of interest were inevitable. The Vienna Secession might have ameliorated these conflicts by following the example of its Berlin counterpart, which in 1899 engaged the art dealers Bruno and Paul Cassirer to manage its business affairs. In fact, the Vienna Secession did have a de facto alliance with the commercial Galerie Miethke, run by the Secessionist painter Carl Moll and Klimt's friend and sailing companion, Paul Bacher. However, the relationship with Miethke only exacerbated the perceived conflict of interest. When the so-called Klimtgruppe suggested that the Secession buy the Galerie Miethke, the rest of the membership revolted and, by a narrow vote, defeated the proposal. In 1905, Klimt and his group resigned, leaving the Secession without its most talented members and those members without an exhibition space.

The Vienna Secession and, eventually, the Wiener Werkstätte, were hobbled by an unavoidable clash between artistic ideals and commercial realities. According to Klimt, the Secession's founding President, its goal was to put "exhibitions on a purely artistic footing, free from any commercial considerations." The turn-of-the century Viennese avant garde had a profound distrust--not to say loathing--of the capitalist marketplace. Professional art dealers, they felt, were corrupt mercenaries. Conveniently ignoring the fact that their bourgeois patrons were equally if not more corrupted by contact with capitalism, the artists believed the collectors' motives were pure. And this was largely true: these people felt so secure in their wealth that their purchases were uninfluenced by any thought of profit or the sort of investment talk so common today. On the contrary, supporting artists was a way to purge money of its capitalistic taint, to put it in the service of a higher aesthetic cause. For the nouveau-riche collector, patronage was a way of aping the prerogatives of a hereditary aristocracy to which, honorary titles notwithstanding, they could never entirely belong. Fin-de-siécle patronage used the fruits of modern capitalism to emulate and prolong an aristocratic tradition that was nevertheless moribund.

Paradoxically, the foregoing circumstances forced the artists themselves to assume the loathsome role of the capitalistic dealer. And the artists weren't particularly good at this. As the Secession split demonstrated, artists' individualistic aesthetic agendas made it difficult for them to serve the needs of a diverse community of colleagues. The Wiener Werkstätte, by comparison, comprised a more cohesive body of artists and artisans. However, their commitment to the highest standards of workmanship and materials led to persistent cost overruns and deficits, which the organization's generous backers constantly had to make good. Opposition to mass production prevented Hoffmann from sanctioning the sort of lower-priced items that might have attracted a broader clientele and kept the Werkstätte financially afloat. The Wiener Werkstätte was not a competently run business, but then, that was never its goal. It is a testament to the endurance and wherewithal of the fin-de-siècle patron class that the Werkstätte managed to survive as long as it did, weathering two brushes with bankruptcy before finally succumbing under the impact of the Great Depression in 1932.

Indeed, the collectors who had patronized the Secession prior to the Klimtgruppe’s resignation in 1905 remained loyal to the aesthetic program launched during those formative years and carried forward by the Wiener Werkstätte. These patrons were not, as a result, especially supportive of the younger Expressionists who came on the scene toward the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. If at all, the fin-de-siècle collectors bought the Expressionists’ work grudgingly and sparingly. The new style was abrasive, the portraits painted by artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele far from flattering. The heiress Magda Mautner-Markhof, a great champion of the Wiener Werkstätte, found Schiele’s work “quite alien”; gritting her teeth, she bought a relatively tame landscape. Fritz Waerndorfer also owned a Schiele landscape. Klimt introduced Schiele to August and Serena Lederer, but it was their fifteen-year-old son, Erich, who invited the artist to paint his portrait, using the proceeds of a winning lottery ticket given him by his grandmother. While Erich would become a great collector of Schiele’s work, his parents never got used to the artist, whom they considered a bad influence.

If the fin-de-siècle patron class was composed largely of the haute bourgeoisie, Schiele’s principal collectors were for the most part middle-class professionals (with the notable exception of Carl Reininghaus, heir to a paint factory and brewery fortune). This cast of characters included the art critic Arthur Roessler, the railroad inspector Heinrich Benesch, the innkeeper Franz Hauer and Oskar Reichel, a well-to-do doctor. In keeping with the Viennese tradition of patronage, most of these collectors were prepared to become actively involved in Schiele’s life: they acted as friends and advisors, ran errands, bailed him out of financial scrapes and sometimes even functioned as dealers. Schiele’s early collectors were also willing to buy in depth: together, Roessler, Reininghaus and Reichel purchased over half the oils painted by the artist in 1910. Benesch, the least well-off of the group, amassed dozens of Schiele watercolors and drawings. But there was a major difference between Schiele’s collectors and the patrons who had supported the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte: the former group had far less money, and Schiele, whose prices were less than one-thirtieth of Klimt’s, found it hard to keep his head above water financially. Less pure of heart than the members of Klimt’s ideal Künstlerschaft, Reichel often used Schiele’s straightened circumstances to drive shrewd bargains, causing the artist to complain, “I will never be able to forget that someone who owns a Van Gogh can speak so crudely.” Roessler, who wore several hats as a writer, friend and de-facto agent for Schiele, increasingly fell prey to acrimonious misunderstandings about what, if anything, he was owed for his services. Schiele’s relationships with all his early collectors gradually soured.

The obvious alternative to the foundering system of private patronage was the relatively buoyant German art market. Unlike Austria, Germany had collectors in a number of urban centers and a network of active dealers connecting them all. At the start of his career, Oskar Kokoschka relied on his mentor, the architect Adolf Loos, to get him portrait commissions, almost all of which were rejected by the sitters. But the artist soon decamped to Berlin, where he exhibited at Herwarth Walden’s Sturm gallery. More than just a salesman, Walden organized shows throughout Europe, brought foreign modern art to Germany, and promoted Kokoschka and other artists through his magazine, also called Der Sturm. By 1916, Kokoschka had transcended the avant-garde circle represented by Walden and was given an exclusive contract by the much better established dealer Paul Cassirer. Both Walden and Cassirer were instrumental in furthering Kokoschka’s reputation and in placing his work in many more collections than the artist would have been able to reach on his own. Moreover, these dealers created a stable market, which was especially significant when it came to resales. In Austria, collectors wishing to deaccession work often had to trade the paintings directly among themselves, which severely limited their options. By way of contrast, in 1918 roughly half of Kokoschka’s paintings had already found their way into the hands of German collectors, many through resale.

It is not surprising that, after a rather desultory exhibition at Vienna’s Galerie Miethke, Schiele began pestering Roessler to get him a dealer in Germany. Roessler obliged, and in 1911 Schiele started showing at Hans Goltz’s Munich gallery, Neue Kunst. But the artist could not get used to working with a commercial dealer, who, unlike a patron, had to make a profit in addition to meeting considerable overhead expenses. The artist refused to sign an exclusive contract, which would have strengthened Goltz’s commitment to him. “That sort of contractual stipulation should apply only to operetta singers,” Schiele wrote Roessler. “If I want to, I will send my work wherever I want.” After an unsuccessful one-man show in 1913, Goltz severed his ties with the artist, pronouncing Schiele’s paintings “unsalable.” A burgeoning relationship with the Vienna dealer Guido Arnot similarly collapsed when Schiele refused to yield to the gallery’s pricing demands. “The Galerie Arnot cannot survive simply by the honor of exhibiting the work of Mr. Egon Schiele,” the dealer caustically noted. To the end of his brief life, Schiele never overcame his aversion to dealers. In 1917, he began talking about founding a Kunsthalle, an artist-run exhibition and sales venue much along the lines of the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte. Schiele was determined to save the “remnants of noble culture” from the “materialistic tendencies of our civilization.” Notwithstanding his own fractious experiences with private patronage, Schiele could not abandon the dream of an enlightened Künstlerschaft. His final triumph, less than a year before his death in October 1918, was a sold-out exhibition at the Vienna Secession.

The greatest paradox besetting Vienna’s modernists was that, despite all their talk of creating an art befitting the age, they were extremely selective about embracing the exigencies of the modern era. After the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the abdication of the last Habsburg monarch in 1918, nostalgia for the lost aristocratic past threatened to completely overwhelm liberal thought. The Viennese intelligentsia had never put much faith in democracy: the strife within the democratically governed Secession, the culture wars fought by Klimt on behalf of his University paintings, and similar battles waged by such diverse figures as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg reinforced a disdain for the judgment of the majority. Culture was the business of a self-chosen elite. The avant garde also harbored intensely ambivalent feelings toward the bourgeoisie. At its best, the bourgeoisie was the backbone of the Künstlerschaft, a group so devoted to culture that, in the absence of public transportation following World War I, they would walk to the Vienna suburb of Mödling to study music with Schoenberg. Yet much as these bourgeois devotees might admire the “noble culture” of the past, they were products of the “materialistic” present. From their ranks came the despised war profiteers and the “speculative” art dealers. And often, the devoted connoisseur and the despicable speculator were one and the same person.

In the 1920s, nostalgia for the aristocracy and fear of bourgeois capitalism helped further Austria’s peculiar brand of socialism, which comfortably amalgamated the bureaucracy, paternalism and the top-down hierarchical governance of the old monarchy. Most ominously, these anti-capitalistic trends also furthered anti-Semitism. Involvement in the financial services, an area historically off-limits to Christians, had given Jews a leg up in the growth of industrial capitalism. Jewish industrialists, by this time largely assimilated if not baptized into Christian society, figured prominently among the turn-of-the-century patrons of the arts. Lacking ties to the more conservative cultural traditions of the Christian aristocracy, the Jewish bourgeoisie was arguably more open to modernist experimentation. They appropriated the trappings of aristocratic patronage but remade its content. The Bloch-Bauers, the Lederers, Oskar Reichel, Karl Wittgenstein and the Zuckerkandels were Jewish. Other collectors married Jews. For example, Otto Benesch, the son of Heinrich, wed Eva Steiner, the daughter of the Jewish collectors Hugo and Lily Steiner, who in addition to patronizing Schiele, commissioned Adolf Loos to design their home. Schiele’s lawyer, Alfred Spitzer, and dentist, Heinrich Rieger, were Jewish, and both amassed considerable collections of the artist’s work, partly in exchange for their services. Among the key Viennese dealers who promoted the Austrian avant garde in the period between the two world wars, Lea Bondi-Jaray at the Galerie Würthle and the book-seller Richard Lanyi were Jewish, as was Otto Kallir [-Nirenstein], who founded the original Neue Galerie in 1923. Following the Nazi Anschluss in 1938, these patrons or their descendents were all driven from Austria, some to their deaths and others to exile. As a result, the seeds of the fin-de-siècle cultural revolution were scattered to the winds. Some of those seeds sprouted roots in foreign soil--such as Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne and Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie New York. Detached from its historical origins, the art became a memento of a lost time, a golden age now gone.

We would like to express our warmest thanks to all the lenders whose generous cooperation made our presentation possible, including Merrill C. Berman, the Neue Galerie New York, and several anonymous private collectors. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works. Copies of Saved from Europe, which documents the history of Otto Kallir’s galleries in Vienna and New York, may be ordered for $25.00 in hardcover or $15.00 in paperback. Shipping and handling charges are $6.00. New York residents, please add sales tax.