Gleams From a Gorgeous Twilight
TIME: Architecture & Design – July 21, 1986
Gleams From a Gorgeous Twilight!
Two exhibitions brilliantly evoke turn-of-the-century Vienna
Neither as chic as Paris nor as intriguingly edgy as Budapest, the Vienna of today is a cozy and polished metropolis. But at the beginning of the 20th century, Vienna was chockablock with giants of the age: Freud and Wittgenstein, Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg, Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Hoffmann, Wagner and Loos — as well as the young Adolf Hitler, a desperate artist-architect manque. Old cultural dogmas had been discredited, new doctrines not yet entrenched. Imminence was all. Artists and intellectuals all over Europe shared a sense of being on the very cusp — between a smug century and a mad one, between well-behaved traditionalism and liberated modernism — but nowhere was the sense more highly refined than in hothouse Vienna. Right now, on each side of the Atlantic, that singular, overwrought time and place is evoked in two remarkable museum shows.
In New York: Gemutlich Radicals
Until the last decade or so, turn-of-the-century Vienna was neglected by serious historians of architecture and art, considered somewhere between unfashionable and taboo. The architecture of Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner and the paintings of Gustav Klimt were camp curiosities at best — parochial, high-strung, dead-end digressions. Today, however, a kind of Viennese revival is under way. Prominent designers and architects are producing furniture and buildings distinctly reminiscent of Hoffmann, Wagner and Adolf Loos. Every second book jacket, it seems, has a thick, angular sans serif typeface derived from the Wiener Werkstatte, the seminal crafts collaborative established in the city in 1903. Nearly the whole crop of high-design coffee services and teapots marketed since 1980 seems to have been plucked from an avant-garde Viennese workshop sometime before 1910.
Now, with the opening of “Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design,” a dense display of objects at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the revised revisionism is official: the arts and crafts of early 20th century Vienna may have been idiosyncratic and lush, but they are products of the modern sensibility. MOMA’s entire ground floor has been given over to the exhibit, which consists of 700 works produced between 1898 and 1918. The show, which derives from more expansive exhibits seen in Vienna and Paris over the past two years, will be on view until Oct. 21.
In the eerie, gorgeous twilight between empire and dissolution, the city’s ; radical young artists and architects broke from the local academy, named themselves Secessionists and established their own countersalon in 1897. They called their journal Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) and practiced, as a matter of principle, a manic cross-fertilization. With Klimt, art became overtly decorative, gold-inlaid portraits masquerading as rich bijoux; with Hoffmann and his Wiener Werkstatte collaborator Koloman Moser, bowls and chairs aspired to art. It was a feverish, unresolved time, and the Viennese fin-de-siecle impulse was to savor the exquisitely confused cultural moment.
In design and architecture, however, there was a strangely short period of clarity and balance just after the century turned, an aesthetic blip that coincided with the fruitful first few years of the Werkstatte. Hoffmann, Moser and its other founders, repelled by the residual fairy-tale flourishes of aging Jugendstil (literally, Youth Style, the German Art Nouveau), sloughed off applied ornament and embraced elemental geometries — the right angle, the circle, the sphere. In his thoughtful, gracefully written catalog for MOMA, Adjunct Curator Kirk Varnadoe says that Moser and Hoffmann were out “to recover richness from reduction.” The result, briefly, was a deluxe austerity, furniture and objects stripped down and spare but still eager to delight. Only in Vienna: gemutlich modernism.
Many of the great chairs of the era were designed for cafes, only natural in an urban subculture of coffeehouse-and-cabaret cosmopolites. Adolf Loos’ lithe, sensual sidechair for his Cafe Museum (1899) makes its Thonet bentwood forebears look dowdy by comparison. Loos’ nemesis Hoffmann, though, was the absolute master of furniture and domestic objects. No one has designed handsomer seating in the 20th century. His best-known and most widely copied chair was designed for the Kabarett Fledermaus (1907), a club by and for the avant-garde. The regularity of its limbs and parts is strict, but as with all the best Wiener Werkstatte work, severity is not carried too far. Six wood spheres, billiard ball-size, tucked under each arm and atop each leg, are a perfect ornamental gesture, precise and machined but irrational and gay.
By the end of the century’s opening decade, alas, Hoffmann and some Werkstatte colleagues were retreating into florid ornamental applique and comfortable Sacher-torte treacliness. Sharp geometry had only been a phase. At MOMA, a painted silver box (1910) is hardly recognizable as Hoffmann’s work. In Viennese design, the purifying fin-desiecle rebellion had taken place later and then ended earlier than anywhere else in Europe.
In architecture, the relative gifts of Hoffmann and Loos were reversed. Hoffmann seemed to lack a coherent, full-bodied vision: his designs were never more than the sum of their odd and luscious details. His best buildings, like the Purkersdorf Sanatorium (1904-08), stick rather intently to a naked neoclassicism. His supposed apotheosis, the Palais Stoclet (1905-11), is handsome in elevation but ponderously classical in plan and, in all, fussy and overrich. Loos used lavish materials too, but with a redeeming simplicity. He was a hard-liner about tarting up facades: “Ornament equals crime,” he wrote. And though Loos’ polemical celebration of yeoman-like unoriginality was a bit disingenuous, his own architecture — as in the controversial Goldman & Salatsch building — was indeed relaxed, restrained, simple-seeming.
But the most significant architect was an apostate from the older generation. Otto Wagner was, surely, the world’s first great modernist. The MOMA show includes a fine display of his masterpiece, the steel-and-glass interior of the Postal Savings Bank (1904-06). It was an architectural space exuberantly of its age, right on the boundary between the classicized past and the industrialized future.
Just as the architects’ and designers’ pioneering zeal seemed to give out, the enfants terribles Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka (see following story) had their first shows of paintings in Vienna. Their intense, expressionist works did not flirt, like Klimt’s gilded sultanic pictures, with bourgeois prettiness and what the catalog calls “proto-psychedelic sweetness.” Schiele, who died young (in 1918, along with Moser, Wagner and Klimt), has been the subject of more passionate popularity than Kokoschka over the years: his images were the more earnestly pained and ugly. As Varnadoe writes, Viennese arts had lost their capacity for compromise between “the giddy and the sullen.”
A strong curatorial case can be made for ending the story in 1918. It is too bad, however, that the MOMA show, unlike its Vienna and Paris predecessors, omits all but a bit of political context. There is scant reference, for example, to the troubling de facto alliance between the Secessionist aesthetes and Vienna’s populist right against late 19th century liberalism, or to the right-wing regime that ran the city during the % Werkstatte’s glory days, or to the unpleasant fact that the bank Wagner designed was established as an alternative to the “Jewish banks.” By remaining ahistorical, MOMA has abetted a kind of pernicious boutiquism: as beautiful as the wallets and postcards and fabrics and jewelry are, the show occasionally takes on the knickknacky aspect of an upscale mall. The distinction between museum shop and museum exhibit has seldom been blurrier.
Astute museumgoers will supply the missing history for themselves. And perhaps on their own they will also draw the tempting parallels between Vienna’s fin-de-siecle and today’s end-of-the-century ferment. Sometimes the connections are plain: a brooding eroticism pervaded Viennese art, and today in Manhattan, a well-attended theater piece called Vienna: Lusthaus is heavy with that musky retro scent of doom and libido. The handsome stripped classicism of Loos and Wagner has clear echoes in the architecture of Michael Graves, Andres Duany and Mark Mack. Today as then, the hip bourgeoisie is overeager to embrace bratty, nihilistic expressionist painters. If the confident, public-works liberalism of the 1960s is our version of Vienna’s 19th century Ringstrasse urban renewal, then Reagan is our reassuring figurehead Franz Josef. The Wiener Werkstatte? The firm of Swid Powell, for whom the most prominent architects design tableware. Turn-of-the-century Viennese could feel cataclysm coming — and in retrospect, the anonymous presence of young Hitler makes that last-waltz skittishness seem almost operatically prescient. Today the moment-by-moment potential for nuclear war supplies the apocalyptic undercurrent. In both eras, the ambitions of architects and artists seem rather diminished, their work purely picturesque or else merely solipsistic. Now as then, people dress beautifully, live elegantly, party madly, and wonder with a sly smile about the end of the world.