Exhibition review: Vienna Art and Design
To anyone who thinks what was avant garde more than a century ago must surely be archaic today, think again.
Vienna: Art and Design, a magnificent exhibition of more than 250 works at the NGV International, demonstrates how close the aesthetic world of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century resembles that of the present, across continents, when it comes to architecture, design and the visual arts.
The exhibition opens with works by renowned architect Otto Wagner, whose career was catapulted to prominence in 1892 by his involvement in the transformative development of Vienna ordered by the Austrian Emperor. His building façade of the telegraph office for newspaper Die Zeit in 1902 astonishes with its modernity. The choice of glass and aluminium almost recalls the entrance to buildings we see in metropolitan cities today and his audacious use of globes without shades lends a stark and contemporary mood.
Wagner’s philosophy of ‘functional style’ was inherited by his students, including Koloman Moser. Widely known for his trademark chequerboard motif, Moser’s application of this principle is best epitomised in the Armchair. Function is embedded in a trendy design which concentrates one’s focus squarely on the black-and-white geometric pattern tucked snugly within an unobtrusive frame.
Another pupil, Josef Hoffman, whose works often reflect strong foreign influences, also embraced Wagner’s mantra of style and everyday practicality. One of his most exquisite silverware pieces — created for Moriz Gallia, a wealthy patron of modern art and design — is the Inkstand. Made of silver and glass, it is aesthetically modern and eminently functional.
It was back in 1897 when the Vienna Secession was founded. Moser, Hoffman, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Gustav Klimt were amongst its pioneering members. They represent a movement that had broken away from traditional academic institutions, with a reformist purpose of educating the public on ‘true art’.
In its entirety, this exhibition, as part of NGV’s series of Winter Masterpieces, articulates the Secession’s ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art): co-existence of architecture, painting, sculpture and handcraftsmanship. Nevertheless, it is arguably the room dedicated to the Beethovan Exhibition (April – July 1902) that most embodies this concept. Here, we see a replica of Klimt’s Beethovan frieze on three sides of an elevated wall, Max Klinger’s plaster sculpture of Beethovan, c. 1902 and a model of Olbrich’s Secession building.
For me, however, it is the combined notion of music, poetry, bleakness, darkness and peace implicit in the exhibits that ultimately works to achieve Gesamtkunstwerk.
Notably, Klimt’s stark outlines of female figures mark a clear departure from his signature depiction of women as subjects of worship, often dissolving their forms into a sumptuous abstract setting. His life-size portrait of Emilie Floge, Klimt’s life-long companion, for instance, presents a young woman whose elegance and confidence is at once entrancing. Here, his indeterminate backdrop serves somewhat to temper any suggestions of passion in her eloquent eyes — it is believed that her relationship with Klimt did not stray beyond intellectual and emotional intimacy.
His portrait of Fritza Riedler shows Klimt’s further development towards modernism. While Spanish artist Diego Velazquez’s Infanta Maria Teresa was an important influence here, Klimt’s addition of geometric squares on the reddish-brown wall, the ornamental design on the black skirting of that wall and the ornamental headrest reflect distinct influences from Hoffman — himself imbibed with rich foreign ideas.
Still, it is Klimt’s erotic series of nudes or semi-nudes in exhibitionistic poses from 1910 that decidedly thrust him into modernity and stand out as the most controversial — horrifying the Viennese society then and shocking visitors to the NGV now. His Reclining woman 1914 – 1915 is an outline drawing in blue crayon that features a woman naked from her waist down. Lying on her back, she rests her left foot on her right bent-up knee. Her eyes are closed. With a look of absolute abandon, she explores her genitalia with one hand while her face leans languidly on the other.
This series compares vividly with works by Egon Shiele to whom Klimt was a mentor. Shiele’s Nude with checked slipper 1917 is a watercolour and charcoal work in which a girl is seen lying with her private parts exposed. He combines his usual angular and distorted approach to composition with free expressionistic colour: she has triangular facial features and a sinewy body; her dark pubic hair contrasts against the pale textured skin, and one multi-coloured slipper. Unwittingly, we find ourselves complicit in the same voyeurism Shiele was often accused of.
In the end, the conundrum remains whether the 20th century architects, designers and artists were indeed visionary or whether their 21st century successors were the ones inspired to resurrect their ideologies.
Vienna: Art and Design
18 June 2011 – 9 October 2011
Admission fees apply