Review by David Starkey
When I visited the Leopold Museum in Vienna this past spring, I must admit that I was wowed. I was familiar, of course, with the creepy splendor of Egon Schiele’s self-portraits, and the slightly askew formality of Max Oppenheimer’s paintings, while Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss is nearly as omnipresent in the world of art merchandising as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Then there’s the elongated elegance of Viennese design, the seminal music of Mahler and Schönberg and Berg, the fiction of Arthur Schnitzler and the plays of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, not to mention Freud’s psychoanalysis. It’s all familiar, yet to think of it as gestating in a single place, and to see representations of that period in room after room of the Leopold is to have one’s breath taken away.
Perhaps I should have been more aware of Vienna 1900 as a thing. After all, as far back as the mid-1970s, the BBC produced a TV series called Vienna 1900, based on stories by Schnitzler, and more recently it has given us the murder mystery Vienna Blood. In the catalogue’s opening essay, Bazon Brock declares that “Vienna around 1900 is the emblem of sensual enjoyment in the apocalypse, of the appeal of ruin.” Even more cynically, Ernst Ploil writes: “The expression ‘Vienna around 1900,’ coined some 30 years ago to describe a caesura in mid-European art history, has since become a catchphrase employed for tourist advertising.” And yet catchphrase though it may be, Vienna around 1900 produced some truly astonishing works of art.
The Leopold Museum opened in Vienna’s Museumsquartier in 2001, but, for all practical purposes, it originated much earlier. According to his son, Diethard, Rudolf Leopold “began purchasing Austrian landscape paintings in the late 1940s, when he was 23 years old, and then decided to dedicate his life to collecting in the early 1950s.” No catalog can ever truly recreate the intense experience of walking through a museum exhibition, especially one as well- and cleanly organized as Vienna 1900, but the 560-page, nearly seven-pound doorstopper of a catalogue makes a valiant effort. Vivid colors are printed on thick stock, and, unless I’m mistaken, every piece in the show—from paintings and prints and sculptures to lamps and chairs, tobacco tins, beaded bags and water glasses—is reproduced in the book.
Not surprisingly, the work of Klimt and Schiele is a highwater mark. The former’s landscapes are gloriously modeled, while the latter’s vision of humanity finds surprising beauty in ghoulishness and grotesquerie. We see echoes of their work elsewhere in Vienna 1900. Klimt, for instance, is clearly the inspiration for Carl Moll’s Forest Pond with Water Lilies, while Schiele haunts Anton Romako’s Portrait of Isabella Reisser, which is positively frightening.
Perhaps the most striking revelations are the myriad arts and crafts and furniture. Attention to every aspect of the lived experience is based on the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, which, in Wagner’s words, “is to comprise all genres of art, in order to consume each of these genres to some extent, to obliterate them for the benefit of reaching the universal purpose of all, which is the unconditional, immediate depiction of consummate human nature.” Many of the objects in the Leopold’s collection were created in the Wiener Werkstätte, an association of designers and artisans working in a variety of media. Among the most striking creations of the Werkstätte and similar workshops are an elegant 8-piece cutlery set for the renowned Cabaret Fledermaus, a pumpkin-themed porcelain Turkish coffee service, both designed by Josef Hoffman, and a copper-plated floor clock by Adolf Loos that appears to be floating in its glass case.
A later version of the catalogue has a subtitle appended, Birth of Modernism, and there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Vienna as an important originator of that sprawling, ill-defined movement. However, the real pleasure of Vienna 1900 is less in mining it for examples of artistic transformation and more in simply browsing its pages, marveling, again and again, and the ingenuity of the human imagination.