- Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka: Vienna 1900
In Western art history, innovations called "Modernist" are almost exclusively credited to artists working in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Inspired by French Impressionism and the Post-Impressionist work of Cézanne, their efforts coalesced to form fauvism and cubism-whereupon everything spun off from there. At least that is the typical view, so much so that until a few years ago, according to this book, the work of such prominent Austrian artists as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, both world famous, had only once been shown in France. This rich, large format volume (with ample full-color plates throughout) and the exhibition it documents (held at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris in the fall of 2005-2006) were attempts to question the usual view that Modernism emerged solely (or at least primarily) from Impressionism, but instead (according to Serge Lemoine) "to see how other trends-just as important and just as innovative-found outlets in France and other parts of Europe."
Not surprisingly, the leading contender for this crown of historical leadership is turn-of-the-century Vienna, which is ably represented here by four extraordinary Modernists: Klimt, Schiele, Koloman Moser and Oskar Kokoschka. Schiele and Kokoschka were largely painters (with occasional excursions into poster design), while Klimt and, especially, Moser were not only painters but also spent considerable time designing utilitarian forms such as furniture, murals, jewelry and clothing (indeed, they were linked with a famous cooperative called the Wiener Werkstätte). In other words, they were designers (or, disparagingly, "commercial artists"), as distinct from supposedly uncompromising fine artists who made only self-expressive, nonfunctional art, among them those we worship now as the purveyors of Modernism. If Klimt, Schiele and their associates have been snubbed in art history (and that may very well be the case), it may not only be because they were not French, but also, as much or more so, because they dared to step outside the category of fine art. Art, as Gloria Steinem once said, is "what men created," while design and crafts (traditionally known as the decorative arts) were objects "made by women and natives."
One of the virtues of this book (which makes it unusual and worthy as well) is its deliberate emphasis on the embedded geometric plans that appear in the work of these Austrian artists. As is pointed out, for example, there is an uncanny resemblance between certain compositions by Klimt and James A.M. Whistler. Both these artists saw abstractly and, to some extent, they blazed the trail for non-pictorial "abstract art." Yet, Whistler (world famous for his painting of his mother) is taken no more seriously than Klimt or Schiele, in part because he too is seen as having drifted away from "High Art" in order to dawdle in craft and design. Another way this book stands out is that it looks very carefully at the paintings of Koloman Moser. It discusses not his Wiener Werkstätte furniture, jewelry, posters and so on (he was remarkably versatile), but, instead, looks exclusively at his paintings and shows that his work was influenced by the Swiss-born painter Ferdinand Hodler (who is himself a fascinating subject). One last point: Whenever it features a full-page reproduction of a painting, this book includes, on the opposite page, a brief but highly informative text about its historical and biographical contexts, along with helpful notes about how we, the viewers, might look at it.
(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review from Vol. 21, No. 3 [Spring 2006].)