Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe

Gustav Klimt remains undoubtedly the best known artist from Vienna and, along with Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser, largely defined the public image of Vienna as a centre of modern art, design and architecture. Yet his fame has also been a problem, completely overshadowing the many other artists active in the Austrian capital in the early twentieth century. Worse, still, his death in 1918, which coincided with those of Schiele, Wagner and Moser, seemed to symbolise the artistic and political demise of Vienna.

This widely accepted perception is, of course, a highly misleading image, and it is in order to challenge it that the exhibition Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe, was staged in the Belvedere Gallery from March to August 2018. On display were works from throughout the 1920s and 1930s, intended to demonstrate that artistic life continued in the city. Indeed, in order to suggest continuities with Vienna the pre-war capital of a multi-national state, the exhibition included works from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Croatia, all of which had been part of the former Austria-Hungary.

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Interior of the exhibition Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe
Photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Wien

This was a welcome attempt to counter well-established stereotypes, which even touch on the identity of the Belvedere itself; the latter has for so long been known above all for its collection of Klimt works. A number of themes came across strongly: the persistence of artistic networks despite the political disruptions of 1918; the continued fascination with Expressionism; disillusion following the experience of the First World War; the heightened prominence of women artists; the dynamism of Hungarian and Czechoslovak artists; the parallels with modernism across Europe, but with distinctively local accents.

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Helene Funke: Waterfall, ca. 1922
Courtesy Kunsthandel Hieke

Yet some of these insights seem accidental. The number of women artists exhibited was notable, a refreshing contrast to the pre-war artworld, where women appeared primarily as the subjects of images painted by men. A significant number of paintings also explored the changing gender identities of the time: Sándor Bortnyik’s New Adam (1924), for example, is a sexually ambiguous dandy. It would have been helpful if there had been commentary on these topics, especially as changing sexual identities were a central theme for artists between the wars. Political circumstances meant that many of the artists on display spent significant periods in exile, or simply emigrated, and while this was acknowledged, it would have been good for this to have been explored in depth, especially since it explains the fragmented landscape of central European modernism. Much of the exhibition focused on the succession of art historical styles and movements, which offered a useful overview, but it was a pity that as a result, the massive political and social upheavals were relegated to background information. For an exhibition about art after Klimt, there was a puzzlingly large number of works by Klimt on show. An impressive array of artists was represented, many of them unjustly neglected until now, but there were some notable gaps; amongst Austrians alone, for example, it was striking that there was no mention of Carry Hauser and Rudolf Schatz. Such omissions were symptomatic, for the organisers seemed not to have quite settled on the overall narrative of the exhibition as a whole. The handsome exhibition catalogue, in keeping with the usual high standards of Belvedere publications, contained some good essays, with an excellent historical introduction by Arnold Suppan.

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Jenő Barcsay: Red Boys (Workers), ca. 1928
Museum of Fine Arts — Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

It easy to question curatorial choices, and undoubtedly the organisers were facing a massive task. The drawbacks of the exhibition reflected the difficulty of its goal: to offer a history of art after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire that avoided falling into the trap of merely writing accounts of the art of the individual states that emerged out of its ruins. This is the most difficult project of all, and while this particular exhibition did not quite live up to its ambitions, the Belvedere has to be commended for staging it, for it raised important questions not only about art in the aftermath of the First World War, but also about the stories we might wish to tell about it.

Matthew Rampley

Klimt ist nicht das Ende: Aufbruch in Mitteleuropa / Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe (Belvedere Gallery 23 March 2018 – 26 August 2018)

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/VUSYQ

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