Celebrating Vienna’s Modernist Masters

In the centennial year of their death, Austria’s capital pays tribute to four stalwarts of Viennese modernism.

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The floral tiles of Majolikahaus, one of Otto Wagner’s Wienzeile apartments, are weather-resistant and easy to clean. Photo courtesy: WienTourismus-Christian Stemper

“To every age its art. To every art its freedom.” The gilt lettering on the white Vienna Secession building in Karlsplatz proclaims its raison d’être. In 1897, a handful of Viennese artists resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists to start their own movement with Gustav Klimt as president. The society included painters, sculptors, and architects such as Koloman Moser, Otto Wagner, and Joseph Maria Olbrich. They rejected the conservative leanings of Vienese art at the time, eschewed historicism, and created a new style—Viennese Modernism, or Viennese art nouveau. Olbrich designed the Secession building with a golden cupola to house exhibitions of this breakaway group.

The turn of the century was a hotbed of creativity in the city; the coffee house culture enabled exchange of ideas. Immigrants flocked to the city, and in this multicultural milieu Viennese Modernism thrived until the First World War brought everything to a halt. In 1918, the city lost four of the Secession artists—Klimt, Wagner, Moser, and Schiele died within a few months of each other. A century later, Vienna pays tribute to these four master artists with a series of events and exhibitions.

EGON SCHIELE (1890-1918)

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Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Photo by: Imagno/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Egon Schiele was the youngest, and perhaps the most progressive (and most controversial) of the four artists. A sketch artist par excellence, his expressionist drawings and paintings were an unflinching depiction of the human body at its best and worst. “If you see some of his paintings it’s hard to believe that they were made by a 20-year-old boy,” says Markus Schön from the Art Education department of the Leopold Museum who is showing me around the museum. Case in point is the 1910 painting “Seated Male Nude,” a dramatic self-portrait. Schiele’s explicit portrayal of the human form was shocking in the early 20th century, and even today continues to unsettle people. I notice few people cast furtive glances at his self-nude, barely stopping by to take in the angular body and the detailed musculature. More than a hundred years later, his work is still too daring for our supposedly ‘enlightened’ society.

If gaunt nudes are not your cup of tea, Schiele also painted a series of abstract but evocative cityscapes of stacked houses with colourful laundry. These illustrate his mother’s birthplace Česky Krumlov (in present-day Czech Republic), where Schiele briefly moved along with his lover Wally to escape Vienna.

Schiele was a protégé of Klimt’s and they had an almost father-and-son sort of relationship. The artist paid tribute to Klimt by painting “The Hermits,” two life-size figures melding into one and at the same time supporting each other; “it arose from pure ardency,” he wrote in a letter.

Apart from the Leopold Museum, the Belvedere Museum too has an extensive Schiele collection. It includes “The Embrace,” “Death and the Maiden,” which depicts his anguish at parting from Wally; and the strangely optimistic, “The Family,” painted after he found out that his wife Edith was pregnant, which shows nude crouching figures of Schiele and Edith, with an infant. The painting was nearly finished in October 1918 when Edith and then Schiele both died of Spanish influenza, four days apart.

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“The Embrace” (1917) is considered to be one of Schiele’s more sedate works. Painted after his marriage to Edith, it shows a tenderness and harmony among the lovers that is often said to be absent from his earlier works, which are characterised by harsher lines. Photo courtesy: Belvedere Vienna

The Enfant Terrible

Schiele led a risqué life—models and lovers overlapped even as he lived with Wally, his red-haired companion and muse (who formerly modelled for Klimt and was possibly his lover). In 1912, Schiele and Wally moved to Neulengbach and in April 1912, he was imprisoned for seducing a girl below the age of consent. Eventually, the charges were dropped but Schiele was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings to minors. He spent 24 days in prison.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

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Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Photo by: Imagno/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Have you ever watched a painting come alive? At the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), you can walk within one of Klimt’s paintings. “Klimt’s Magic Garden” is an almost cinematic virtual reality (VR) experience of the artist’s nine-part mosaic frieze in the Stoclet House in Brussels. Filmmaker and VR artist Frederick Baker has used high-resolution photography to create a surreal way of experiencing a painting. VR headset on, you can walk amidst blooming flowers as the golden spirals of the tree of life come alive and the sky changes from an orange sunrise to a midnight blue, complete with an aurora unfurling across it.

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Klimt’s “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” (1901) or “Judith I” is said to depict Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was Klimt’s friend, patron and (perhaps) lover. Photo courtesy: Belvedere Vienna

The stunning baroque palace Belvedere is home to the largest Klimt collection with 24 paintings on display. “The Kiss” occupies pride of place, considering it’s the most famous of Klimt’s paintings (and probably Austria’s most famous artwork). Painted in 1908-1909, it purportedly depicts Klimt and his lifelong partner Emilie Flöge. “Art nouveau was all about symbolism, and ‘The Kiss’ is an allegorical representation of love. It is classic Klimt style—a naturalistic portrait with abstract ornamentation,” explains Dr. Franz Smola, curator (20th Century Collection) at the Belvedere, who is showing me around. He also points out how the ornamentation—rectangular shapes for the male figure and circular ones for the female—show not too subtle gender differentiation. The other highlight is “Judith and the Head of Holofernes,” commonly known as “Judith I”. The signature gold paint is actually real gold leaf applied on the painting to give it a low relief effect.

Over at Kunsthistoriches Museum, the city’s premier fine arts museum, you can get a closer look at the 13 portraits depicting important periods of European art, including Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek and Roman art, that Klimt painted between the pillars and arcades on the wall above the museum’s enormous staircase. “Stairway to Klimt,” a bridge suspended at a height of 40 feet, lets you get up-close to his early oil paintings, which draw from Roman, Greek, and Egyptian Antiquity, yet are done in the inimitable photographic style of Klimt. Also on display in the Greek & Antiquity wing is Klimt’s “Nuda Veritas,” a large-scale painting of a naked woman holding up a mirror to the viewer. It caused a stir in 1899 when it was first exhibited, and even now forces us to question whether perceptions of female nudity have changed much (if at all).

And finally, do not miss visiting the Secession building where it all began. Its basement is given over to the “Beethoven Frieze,” an over 100-foot-long wall painting by Klimt. He painted it for the 14th Secession exhibition held in 1902, dedicated to the 75th death anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Through the viewfinder

Klimt may be famous for his vivid, gold-flecked symbolic paintings, but he also produced a large number of unique landscapes. While he was inspired by Monet and van Gogh, Klimt’s landscapes had a narrower focus, an almost cropped quality to it. Many were painted during his summers spent at Lake Attersee with Emilie Flöge. He went about with his ‘viewfinder,’ a simple piece of cardboard with a square cut into it. He looked for motifs in the panorama—part of the shoreline, a single poplar tree, a garden path with hens—and painted these landscapes as seen through his viewfinder.

Otto Wagner (1841-1918)

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Otto Wagner (1841-1918). Photo by: Imagno/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Otto Wagner was an architect but had the vision of an urban designer. He moved away from historicist architecture and sought to build Vienna into a modern metropolis. The Wien Museum is hosting the Wagner Jubilee Exhibition—a first in 50 years—which will present his drawings, building models, furniture, and personal effects, many on display for the first time. Interestingly, the Wien Museum stands at the very location on Karlsplatz where Wagner envisioned a City Museum but his design remained unrealised since it was considered too progressive. However, the designs are only part of the story; Wagner’s impact on the city is best understood by seeing his creations in person.

“Wagner was a visionary city planner. He wrote a book (Modern Architecture) on how a modern metropolis should be designed,” says my guide Ilse Heigerth who takes me around Vienna to show me some of Wagner’s masterpieces. We begin at the massive Austrian Post Savings Bank, considered one of the most important architectural works of the modernist age. It’s a utilitarian building, minus the heavy stucco and ornamentation prevalent in early 1900s. “Wagner designed big windows to let in natural light. There’s also a lot of aluminium (a new material at that time) used in the columns and the balconies,” explains Heigerth. We continue to the Wienzeile apartment buildings at Naschmarkt. A photographer’s delight, one is clad in painted floral tiles while the other has golden ornamentation.

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Wagner designed the Church of St. Leopold, an erstwhile psychiatry hospital, in consultation with doctors and nurses to make it suitable for patients. Photo courtesy: WienTourismus-Christian Stemper

But perhaps the most remarkable of Wagner’s works is the Otto Wagner Sanatorium in Baumgartner. Designed by Wagner, the psychiatric hospital that opened in 1907 is today a Social Medicine Centre with psychiatry, pulmonology, nursing, and neurology departments. The sprawling premises have 60 pavilions housing wards, a theatre, and the hilltop Church of St. Leopold. The cuboid church building with a decorated cupola, and a light-filled altar and pew is designed in Wagner’s modernistic style. “Inside, Wagner included interesting details considering the psychiatric patients who would use the church—no sharp edges on the pew benches, a doctor’s office and emergency exits, and a holy pool with a continuously running water stream to prevent infections,” elaborates Heigerth.

An artist’s city

Wagner believed that a modern metropolis must have an excellent public transport system. He designed the Stadtbahn, and gave the mundane subway system aesthetic white cubic station buildings with decorative entrance pavilions, clean-cut signs and inscriptions, and mosaic floorings. In the 1960s, the Stadtbahn lines were absorbed into the city’s subway system. However, you can still see some of Wagner’s designs: Karlsplatz Stadtbahn with its gilded ornamentation and verdigris dome, the ornate Court Pavilion at Hietzing, designed exclusively for Emperor Franz Joseph I, the elegant Stadtpark and Schönbrunn stations, and more.

Koloman Moser (1868-1918)

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Koloman Moser (1868-1918). Photo by: Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning ‘total work of art’ in German, was the central idea when Koloman Moser (along with architect Josef Hoffmann and industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer) set up Wiener Werkstätte in 1903. Moser saw design as the unification of art and crafts, and the company’s objective was to propagate artistic products into everyday life. Wiener Werkstätte dabbled in everything from furniture and architecture to glass, porcelain, and fashion. Moser, an accomplished painter, graphic artist, product designer and interior designer, designed logos, furniture, wallpaper, and upholstery patterns. He even designed entire houses, from the architecture and interiors, to the cutlery and even owners’ clothing. Moser’s pared down designs were a clear departure from the historicist approach—geometric shapes, black and white colour schemes, and repetitive patterns.

At the Leopold Museum you can see a curated selection of Moser’s works, such as the inlaid armoire for the Eisler von Terramare apartment designed by Moser, the Angel Window he created for the Otto Wagner Church at Steinhof, and an armchair for the Purkersdorf Sanatorium. I’m struck by how contemporary his products look, even more than a hundred years later. It’s a testament to just how ahead of his time Moser’s gesamtkunstwerk was. The MAK owns the Wiener Werkstätte archive and will showcase Moser’s designs towards the end of this year.

 Shop for “total art”

From tableware to fine fabrics, many of Moser’s designs created over 100 years ago still endure. You can shop for Moser’s designs at Viennese institutions such as Lobmeyr, who are sixth-generation glass and lighting producers; Augarten, have introduced a five-piece porcelain tea service “Bird Colony” in an original Moser design; and textile manufacturer Backhausen who have six new fabric patterns based on original Moser designs. Stop by at the Wolfrum art bookstore and gallery where alongside original engravings, lithographs, and reproductions of many artworks from Viennese Modernism, you will find Moser’s original sketches and designs. The “Shopping with Lucie” guided tours will help you find the best of Viennese design (www.shoppingwithlucie.com).

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Koloman Moser’s furniture designs, though more than 100 years old, are still contemporary enough to fit into a modern home. Photo courtesy: WienTourismus-Peter Rigaud




  • Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.


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