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Gustav Klimt/Egon Schiele/Oskar Kokoscha
From Art Nouveau to Expressionism

November 23, 2001 to January 05, 2002

The present exhibition, planned many months ago, was originally intended as a two-fold celebration. We wanted to complement the contemporaneous exhibition, Klimt–Kokoschka–Schiele: dall'Art Nouveau all'Espressionismo, which we curated for the Museo del Vittoriano in Rome, Italy, and which will run through February 3. We also wished to salute the opening, on November 16, of the Neue Galerie, the first New York museum devoted to Austrian and German art. These two goals are still worthy and valid, but the events of September 11 have dampened the celebratory spirit. Amazingly, the Rome exhibition opened as scheduled on October 6, and none of the many loans, flown in from museums and private collections all over the world, was delayed. The Neue Galerie, similarly, is splendid in its newly renovated home opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 1048 Fifth Avenue. Life goes on, but nothing looks the same as it did before September 11, including the Central European art that lies at the heart of all the aforementioned undertakings.

Austrian modernism has won a devoted following over the past thirty years in part because it can so readily be reinterpreted to suit the needs of a given moment. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, fin-de-siècle Vienna seemed to offer convenient parallels to America’s ongoing social and political upheavals. Although Schiele never truly renounced his bourgeois roots, many Americans embraced him as a kind of ur-hippie. The popular historians Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin compiled a laundry-list of similarities between the American and Austro-Hungarian Empires, ranging from greedy complacency and pervasive bad taste to governmental knavery and the zero-sum game of superpower politics. Klimt’s star rose with the ever-increasing affluence of the 1980s and ’90s, the glitz and glamour of his society portraits handily overshadowing the brooding pessimism of his allegories. Most recently, it was hoped that the end of the Cold War would revive Vienna’s nineteenth-century hegemony as the pivotal multi-ethnic capital linking Eastern Europe with the West. In tandem with rising national self-confidence, Austria’s art community became much more proactive, both at home and abroad, and cultural developments in cities such as Budapest and Prague were gradually reintegrated into modernist history.

In certain respects, the end of the Cold War did return Europe to conditions similar to those that had prevailed prior to 1914, as became painfully evident when Yugoslavia, the powder-keg that ignited World War I, was rent asunder by ethnic fighting. The dismantling of the bipolar power structure that had held such rivalries in check since 1945 created fertile ground for conflict, even as it has facilitated positive international exchanges on a scale never before imagined. At a crossroads between unity and discord, we live in a transitional period not entirely unlike that which shaped the art of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. Like them, we stand at the threshold of a new century, but whereas we were born into the modern age, these three men witnessed its dawn. In the passage from Art Nouveau to Expressionism, Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka gave artistic voice to a transformation that also had far-reaching socio-economic and historical ramifications. And different though their era was from ours, we share the common touchstone of modernity and the unease that comes from imminent change.

The Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, writing his memoirs in 1941, dubbed the pre-1914 period The World of Yesterday. It was a world that seemed exceptionally secure, if a bit stifling and dull. Valuing age over youth, Austrian society was epitomized by the revered Emperor Franz Josef, who celebrated sixty years of rule in 1908. Looking back on those sixty years, Austrians naturally assumed things would continue as they had been. Most people did not dwell upon the fact that their Emperor was clearly quite old and sure to die soon. They did not wonder what would come next, nor did they recognize that so much stasis and stability had rendered the country inflexible and unfit to face the future. Europe had enjoyed relative peace for many decades. The occasional armed skirmishes tended to be geographically remote from the main population centers. While in retrospect these insurrections may be seen as harbingers of greater battles to come, at the time “little” wars must have seemed a painless way to maintain the status quo. The roiling conflicts beneath the smooth surface of Austrian society—between rich and poor and among the Empire’s antagonistic ethnic minorities—did not register strongly with the general public.

This, then, was the world into which Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) were born. Klimt, the eldest of the three, was the most decisively shaped by the period that Austrians refer to as the Gründerzeit (founders’ age). During that era of unprecedented economic growth, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Vienna became a modern city. It shed its medieval walls and replaced them with a ring of imposing public edifices, as befit a multinational empire. The new buildings created a bustling market for mural painters, and it was in this arena that Klimt first made his reputation. Despite the subsequent vicissitudes of his professional life, Klimt never stopped believing that his mission was to craft public statements of universal relevance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, Klimt, influenced by international Symbolism and Art Nouveau, had become completely alienated from the academic traditions that circumscribed a public muralist’s agenda. The turning point in his relationship to officialdom—as well as in his personal artistic development—came with a series of allegorical canvases, commissioned for the University of Vienna, depicting the faculties of philosophy, medicine and jurisprudence. When the first of these was initially exhibited in 1900, it provoked a scandal unlike any ever seen before in Vienna. The blatant nudity of the figures was one issue, but people were at least equally upset by the paintings’ unrelenting negativism. The three faculties were shown as essentially powerless to stave off death or to ameliorate humanity’s intrinsic ills.

The University scandal effectively terminated Klimt’s career as a public muralist. Already in 1897, he had cast his lot with the nascent Austrian avant-garde by assuming the presidency of the Vienna Secession. Henceforth, through the vehicle of the Secession and subsequently the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), he would look exclusively to private collectors for his commissions. This career shift served to accentuate the decorative aspects of his style, and Klimt increasingly devoted himself to producing flattering society portraits. The sumptuousness of these portraits may at first glance seem at odds with the darkness of the artist’s allegories, but there is in fact a logical explanation for the two-pronged approach. Klimt’s patrons, after all, were not members of the old-line aristocracy, but rather were the recently arrived scions of bourgeois capitalism. If Klimt’s allegories tacitly critiqued the entrenched establishment by calling attention to unpleasant realities, his portraits were visual affirmations of the new order that patronized him. Thus the artist’s support of and by the wealthy bourgeoisie actually represented for its day a progressive stance that was fully compatible with the more adversarial aspects of his vision.

Like his colleagues at the Secession, Klimt strove to create an art appropriate to the present era, rather than aping historical styles. The next generation of modernists would advance this mandate with an all-out embrace of the new, a more forthright sundering of prior convention. “Newness” figured prominently in the vocabulary of the Austrian and German Expressionists. The Munich gallery that represented the Blaue Reiter group was called Neue Kunst (New Art). Schiele and his comrades dubbed themselves the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group). Otto Kallir, founder of the Galerie St. Etienne, named his original Vienna gallery the Neue Galerie. (And it is from this context that the recently established Neue Galerie in New York takes its name.) Concomitant with “newness” came an increased emphasis on youth. The rising young artists would efface the stultifying culture of their elders, in the process abolishing hypocrisy, injustice and all the other failings of the past.

The early support which Klimt gave Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele is indicative of the underlying compatibility of the three artists’ missions. In 1909, when Kokoschka was still a student at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art), Klimt encouraged his participation in the Kunstschau, a significant round-up of contemporary art. The following year, when the Kunstschau was reprised with a more international focus, Klimt did the same for Schiele, also at the time a student. The Kunstschauen were instrumental in launching the careers of both men. From here, Kokoschka was soon taken under the wing of the radical architect Adolf Loos, and subsequently sent off to Berlin, where he was nurtured by the legendary dealer Herwarth Walden. Schiele remained in Austria and continued to be aided by Klimt, who introduced him to colleagues at the Wiener Werkstätte and to his most important private patrons, the Lederer family. Although Kokoschka and Schiele occasionally ran afoul of the more conservative elements in Austrian society, neither artist was ever the brunt of a scandal comparable in magnitude to that provoked by Klimt’s University paintings, because neither artist ever courted public patronage. The audience for contemporary art, as well as its style and tone, had shifted decisively.

Between them, Kokoschka and Schiele literally and figuratively changed the face of Austrian art. Dispensing with the ornamental trappings that had filled Klimt’s canvases, they stripped their portrait subjects psychologically bare and cast the sitters in an existential void. What had been implicit in Klimt’s art became explicit in theirs. Mortality remained a recurrent theme in the work of Schiele, whose allegories, like Klimt’s, were frequently populated by obscure demons. Sexuality, another important Klimt subject, was taken to far greater extremes by Kokoschka and Schiele. Paralleling the contemporaneous investigations of Sigmund Freud, both artists used the female nude not to sublimate but rather to explore sexual anxiety. Although Klimt is best known for his paintings, the younger generation was equally influenced by his line. The spontaneity of Klimt’s drawings reflected a visceral engagement with the subject that was central to the approach of the Expressionists. The tensile animation of Klimt’s Art-Nouveau line became, in the hands of Kokoschka and Schiele, an expressive tool of surgical exactitude.

While Klimt’s paintings still exude the perfume of the nineteenth century, the work of Schiele and Kokoschka looks entirely modern. Their portraits depict faces we might easily encounter on the street today; the erotic tensions expressed in their work reflect concerns we have acknowledged for many decades. Taken as a group, Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka document the transition from an old century to a new one. All three artists welcomed change as an invigorating, liberating force. Yet when change finally came to Austria, it brought much destruction and pain. The Austro-Hungarian Empire did not survive World War I. The old Emperor died, and in 1918 his successor was deposed. Schiele and Klimt, too, did not survive the end of the war. Only Kokoschka lived to see the Austrian government overthrown once more, by Hitler in 1938. Kokoschka spent the remainder of his very long life in exile, first in Czechoslovakia, then in England and finally in Switzerland.

Great artists occasionally anticipate historical events, and some interpreters have seen portents of the two world wars in the bleaker aspects of fin-de-siècle Austrian art. Just a few months ago, we believed we had a chance of transcending the worst horrors of the twentieth century. Democracy had been established throughout the developed world. Something akin to a “united states of Europe,” which Schiele prophetically endorsed, had been achieved under the rubric of the European Union. Whereas modernists before World War I were animated by a transnational sharing of ideas, we dared hope that globalization would bring with it a genuine appreciation of cultural diversity. All these developments may be seen as the culmination of the modern revolution that Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and many others of their era heralded in their art. Yet even as these artists believed fervently in the positive potential of human development, they were keenly aware of the dangers presented by humankind’s baser instincts and inherent fragility. It is those very dangers which many Americans, inured by a half-century of comparative affluence and comfort, had until recently forgotten.

We would like to express our warmest thanks to the many lenders who generously contributed works to our exhibition, including Eric Fischl, Harriet and Richard Gold, Eric and Denise Kandel, Howard and Sharon Lawrence, the Miller Family, Dr. Edith Neumann and a number of anonymous collectors. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for prints and full dimensions for all other works.