Art

An enlightening buildup to Viennese modernism

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

“Vienna on the Path to Modernism” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, is essentially an illustrated history of sociopolitical developments leading to the city flourishing as one of the world’s great cultural centers from the mid-18th century. The principal chronology begins with the Viennese Enlightenment, followed by the Biedermeier period (1815-48), then the Grunderzeit phase of the mid-19th century. The Viennese modernist path terminates with a smattering of expressionist paintings among the 300 exhibits.

Eighteenth-century Enlightenment values were received in Vienna by absolutist monarchs as a means to effective state governance. Public schools were reformed, new technologies emerged, like that seen in the 1784 print “Johann Stuwer’s Hot Air Balloon in the Prater,” and institutions such as Vienna’s main general hospital were inaugurated.

Authoritarian protocols proceeded apace with censorship and the monitoring of the city’s inhabitants, increasingly regarded as capital resources. As an operatic contest between light and dark, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (1791) captured something of the period’s quandary, between Enlightenment ideals and their practical implementation. Freemasonry’s Viennese luminaries, Mozart among them, constitute a small section of the exhibition.

The Biedermeier period’s social tensions and political repressions sent the middle class retreating into idealized domesticity. This was accompanied by radical aesthetic reforms as Biedermeier also became the name of the first significant middle-class style of interior design, characterized by reduced and streamlined furniture and tableware. Christiane Gruner’s “My Grandmother’s Room” (1840) illustrates the mise-en-scene of domestic life in the time of Franz Schubert. The homely bourgeois style became the agenda-setting direction for the later Wiener Werkstatte group of artisans from 1903, which also followed the model provided by the British arts and crafts movement. More aggressively plain forms, like Dagobert Peche’s “Vase” (1922) approached geometric abstraction.

The Grunderzeit economic phase commenced in 1857 when Vienna’s medieval-style fortifications were razed to recreate the city as a modern metropolis. The new architecture was historicist pastiche: a neo-Greek parliament, a neo-Gothic city hall, a neo-Renaissance Kunsthistorisches Museum, a neo-Baroque national theater. Writer Hermann Broch called the melange a “value vacuum.”

This vast decorative scheme became the antithesis of burgeoning modernism. Younger architects, including Adolf Loos in 1910, pronounced ornament a hindrance to mankind’s progress, and a crime. Such positions paved the way for modernist austerity and, later, minimalism.

But period tensions about decoration were never resolved. At the extremes, the human body was either mesmerizingly covered up, or laid brazenly bare. Gustav Klimt in “Portrait of Emilie Floge” (1902), for example, tended to shield his figures beneath magnificent Byzantine mosaic patterns. Egon Schiele, by contrast, frequently depicted his subjects, like “Male Nude” (self portrait, 1912), with genitalia exposed. Occasionally his figures openly engaged in masturbatory fantasies.

And with Sigmund Freud’s unmasking of mankind’s irrational interior life through his identification and employment of psychoanalytic methods, arrived psychological modes for interpreting art and constructing the cult of the modern artist.

Oskar Kokoschka, for example, pursued psychological explorations in painting, such as his lithograph advertising the theatrical performance “Poster for ‘Murderer, Hope of Women'” (1909). Kokoschaka’s psychoanalytic approach in figure painting via the recent development of expressionism also informed his concoction of himself as a complex and eccentric, modern individual. He shaved his head, lived in a black-painted studio, and went around town accompanied by a yellow canary.

“Vienna on the Path to Modernism: The 150th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between Japan and Austria” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs until Dec. 8; ¥1,600. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp/en/.

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