Artwork of the Month, June 2020: A Walk Through the Metropolis by Erika Giovanna Klien (1923)

The artwork of the month for June 2020 is A Walk Through the Metropolis by Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957). It is perhaps the most ambitious and imposing example of the short-lived Viennese art movement known as ‘Kinetism’ that flourished in the early 1920s. Executed in gouache on paper, it consists of seven one meter-square panels laid alongside each other resulting in a work that is seven meters in length. The city it depicts is a site of thrilling, dynamic encounters, between the spectator and the physical environment, between buildings, and between the spectator and unspecified others on the street. The metropolis is a place of life and energy, and the work communicates, too, a sense of urban noise. Yet who was Klien, and what was Kinetism?

Erika Giovanna Klien: A Walk through the Metropolis, 1923)

Erika Giovanna Klien: A Walk through the Metropolis, 1923, Wien Museum, Vienna – photo: Joy Antoni

Klien has slowly been gaining recognition in the history of Austrian art. Indeed, the renewal of interest in her work reflects a broader, belated, recovery of Austrian women artists, such as Helene Funke (1869–1957), Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944) and Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863–1934), culminating in the large-scale exhibition of 2019 at the Belvedere, City of Women. She was born in Borgo Valsugana, in South Tyrol, which, although now in Italy, was part of the Habsburg Empire at the time of her birth. In 1919 she moved to Vienna to study at the School of Design and Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule) under Franz Čižek (1865–1946); she completed her studies in 1925 and, in 1926, moved to Salzburg to teach at the Elizabeth-Duncan-School (one of a number of private schools set up by the elder sister of the dancer Isadora Duncan), where she taught until 1929, when she emigrated to New York. As with many emigrants to the United States, she struggled to establish herself in her adoptive land, having to teach at several schools simultaneously to make ends meet. Although she was instrumental in the transmission of novel educational ideas across the Atlantic, she never gained recognition there. Equally, having left Vienna in the mid-1920s, she disappeared from the Austrian art historical record. An exhibition of her work held in 2001 at her former school (now the University of Applied Art) as well as in Bozen and Salzburg, began the slow process of rediscovery of her work.[1]

Klien is often seen as a product of the educational programme launched by Čižek, a Bohemian painter and designer from Leitmeritz (now: Litoměřice in the Czech Republic) who had first begun teaching at the School of Design and Applied Arts in 1903. Čižek had been part of the new wave of artists brought into modernize teaching at the School by the new director, Arthur von Scala (1845–1909), from 1897 onwards. However, it was only after 1918 that Čižek’s pedagogic efforts really bore fruit with the so-called Juvenile Art Classes (Jugendkunstklassen) he introduced.[2] Central to his approach was emphasis on free expression and, most importantly for the discussion of Kinetism, the representation of movement. From the late nineteenth century onwards, there was intense interest in movement and rhythm on the part of psychologists, philosophers, and even art historians. Educationalists, too, became interested in movement and rhythm as a pedagogical tool.[3] Interpretation of the significance of movement varied; some, such as the art historians Heinrich Wölfflin and Aby Warburg, were interested in its function as an expression of specific psychological states, while the philosopher Ludwig Klages saw in it a vitalistic metaphysical principle.[4] It was this latter reading towards which Čižek was drawn, and he made it an explicit feature of his teaching.

Abstract Composition by Hansi Reismayer, 1923

Hansi Reismayer: Abstract Composition, 1923, University of Applied Arts Vienna, Collection and Archive, Inv. No. 9503

To see Klien’s work primarily as a ‘product’ of Čižek’s studio, however, is to do her a disservice, for it ignores her agency as an artist. It also runs the risk of misreading important differences between A Walk Through the Metropolis and the original Kinetist programme he envisaged. Čižek encouraged his students to explore abstract forms as ways of expressing movement as a metaphysical, vitalistic, principle. Many works by his students, such as Hansi Reismayer (1900–1963), illustrate this same approach, and Kinetism has also been compared with the abstract compositions of artists such as František Kupka, which evoked a similar sense of movement and rhythm, coupled with a comparable set of philosophical interests.

A Walk Through the Metropolis has an entirely different sensibility, however, for rather than evoking timeless metaphysical forms, it is a depiction of the experience of the city. The foreground is dominated by cranes and other mechanical objects: this is a city in the process of being built, and the letters and numbers scattered across the image suggest the landscape of advertising and contemporary mass media. Amidst the various letters there are also whole words: Magazin (magazine), Fabrik (factory), Bar.

Erika Giovanna Klien: Panel 5 from A Walk through the Metropolis, 1923

Erika Giovanna Klien: Panel 5 from A Walk through the Metropolis, 1923 – photo: © Wien Museum

The chaotic arrangement of objects and forms, in which the relation between foreground and background is often confused and difficult to make out, with no obvious central point of focus for the viewer, conveys, too, the spatial disorientation of the modern city. The scale of Klien’s work suggests this, too; given its size, one has the choice either of standing so far back to view the whole that one misses the details, or, if standing at a more customary distance, of becoming immersed in individual parts of it. In this regard Klien had much in common with the Viennese set designer Friedrich Kiesler (1890–1965), who conceived of theatre as a site of dynamic interaction between actors, audience and the physical set in which they were performing.[5] An exhibition of contemporary theatre design organised by Kiesler in the Vienna Konzerthaus 1924 is commonly held to have been a high point of interwar avant-garde practice in the city, featuring, amongst other things, the first public showing of Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique.

Erika Giovanna Klien, Panel 7 from A Walk through the Metropolis, 1923

Erika Giovanna Klien: Panel 7 from A Walk through the Metropolis, 1923 – photo: © Wien Museum

But if movement is a central theme here, so is the city. The image has similarities to Georg Grosz’s slightly earlier Memories of New York (1916/17), although it is on a much more ambitious scale. Common to both is a preoccupation with the city that bears comparison to the famous essay of 1903 by the sociologist Georg Simmel on ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life.’[6] Simmel described the impact of living in the large city, which was responsible for such an excess of stimuli that city dwellers were prompted to adopt what Simmel referred to as the ‘blasé attitude,’ a form of protective psychological withdrawal. Later, Walter Benjamin would use this idea in his famous essay on Baudelaire, in which the poet’s ‘blasé’ attitude stands metonymically for the experience of modernity in general.[7] Simmel’s essay was widely read in the 1920s, especially by architects, although it is not known if Klien ever read it. Yet if A Walk Through the Metropolis is in certain ways consonant with the experiences described by Simmel, it also differs from his account. For here the city is a site of exhilaration, not one of hypernervous tension, as Simmel and, later, Benjamin, would conceive it. As a result, it is probable that this work is equally informed by Klien’s encounter with the work of the exiled Hungarian Constructivist artist Béla Uitz (1887–1972), who had fled from Budapest to Vienna in 1920. Uitz and other Constructivists were intensely concerned with using abstract forms as political metaphors of revolution and the experience of modernity. This preoccupation suggests that A Walk Through the Metropolis is actually much closer to the Hungarian avant-garde than to the ideas of Čižek. Uitz had been granted a solo exhibition in 1923 at the Museum for Art and Industry in Vienna, and it is well known that Klien admired the work she saw there.[8] Indeed, there is evidence that she was often in contact with Uitz and other Hungarian avant-garde artists who sought shelter in the Austrian capital in the early 1920s.[9]

Arthur Stadler: Front page design of the first edition of Jonny Strikes Up, 1926, by Ernst KrenekErnst Krenek,

Arthur Stadler: Front page design of the first edition of Ernst Křenek, Jonny Strikes Up, 1926 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The question arises, however, as to which metropolis this is. It is certainly not Vienna, the city of baroque churches and palaces, and of neo-baroque apartment blocks. The period when Klien produced her work was one of a dire financial situation and there was very little building in the Austrian capital.  The communal housing blocks, for which Vienna would justly be celebrated later, only began to be built after she completed this work. This is, on the one hand, an imaginary city but, on the other, it is a very specific place, for the skyscrapers in the background evoke New York, revealing a fascination with America. More usually associated with the art and culture of Weimar Germany, Americanism also had a presence in Austria in the 1920s; not only was America seen as the land of freedom, its popular culture, especially jazz, was also a source of fascination. In December 1927, for example, four years after Klien had completed A Walk Through the Metropolis, the Vienna State Opera staged the Austrian première of Ernst Křenek’s opera Jonny Strikes Up, about a black jazz band violinist.[10]

Having long been ignored and marginalised, Kinetism has been rediscovered in recent decades, and much has been invested in that rediscovery, for it counters the traditional perception that post-war Austrian art never recovered after the deaths in 1918 of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The exhibition held at the Wien Museum in 2006, Kinetism: Vienna Discovers the Avant-Garde, seemingly confirmed that post-1918 Austria had its own avant-garde movement, too. Certainly, Klien’s large-scale work stands comparison with other major works produced, internationally, in the early 1920s.

Erika Giovanna Klien, The Train, 1925, Yale University Art Gallery

Erika Giovanna Klien, The Train, 1925, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier

Yet for all its importance as a symbol of Viennese interwar avant-garde culture, a balanced view is needed as to Kinetism’s wider significance. Many of the works produced under its rubric are indebted to the Italian Futurism of the pre-war era. Klien’s 1925 drawing The Train, for example, one of a number of images of trains she produced, is reminiscent of the many paintings and drawing of trains the Futurists produced, such as Gino Severini’s Train in the City (1915). As such, Kinetism was a belated response to the 1912 Futurism exhibition held in Vienna. Even sympathetic commentators were aware of the awkward similarities. Leopold Rochowanski (1885–1961), for example, a notable supporter of Čižek who published the first systematic account of Kinetism, sought to emphasise the difference between the two.[11] In an essay on Klien’s puppet theatre designs he stressed ‘This Kinetism is not the same as the Futurism of the Marinetti group, even though it was prompted by the exhibition of Futurist works staged in Vienna in 1912. Futurism just gives the impression of movement; its source is therefore Impressionism. Kinetism, in contrast, renders the rhythmical process of movement. It renders the movement of an object past other objects that are moving at the same time, it depicts the movement of an object in motion past other objects in motion.’[12]

We might not find this account convincing, mainly due to its simplistic interpretation of Futurism. It therefore does not entirely dispel the suspicion that Austria’s much heralded avant-garde was slightly derivative. Nevertheless, it would be premature to conclude with this, even if some Kinetist works are vulnerable to this criticism. For Kinetism is remarkable for the prominence of women artists. Alongside Klien, its most successful and inventive representatives consisted of Marianne (My) Ullmann (1905–1995) and Elizabeth Karlinsky (1904–1994). As such, considerable importance was rightly attributed to Kinetism in the City of Women exhibition, for it is unique, not merely in Austria but anywhere, for the leading role of women artists.

Emil Stejnar: Kinetist Ornamental Design, 1920

Emil Stejnar: Kinetist Ornamental Design, 1920 – photo: © Wien Museum

Avant-garde visions of cultural and social change seldom included addressing gender inequalities and identities; the avant-garde artist was most often conceived of as the heroic male, and art-making as an exercise in ‘virility and domination.’[13] Futurism is, ironically, one of the most marked examples of this, harbouring fantasies of female subjection and male potency at its very inception. Čižek’s role in the important role played by women artists should not be neglected. This is not only due to the fact that he strongly supported the artistic development of Klien, Karlinsky and Ullmann and others, but also to his institutional position. For, employed by the School of Design and Applied Arts, his interest in movement and rhythm first started as an approach to teaching ornament. Many of the early examples of Kinetist work were consequently decorative and ornamental designs, such as Emil Stejnar’s motif based on the city. This explains, too, the interest of Klien and others in typography; it is visible not only in A Walk Through the Metropolis, but also in other works, such as her poster for the Čižek School (1924).

Erika Giovanna Klien: The Cizek School, Typographic Design, 1924

Erika Giovanna Klien: The Čižek School, Typographic Design, 1924 – photo: © Wien Museum

The applied arts had traditionally been a domain for female students, in contrast to fine art, which was still a male-dominated calling; it was not until 1919 that the first women enrolled to study at the Academy of Fine Art. Yet it would be misleading to conclude that Čižek’s service lay in helping his female design students gain acceptance as artists. For if Kinetism is to be seen as Austria’s involvement in the interwar avant-garde, the designation rests, perhaps, not on its exploration of dynamic abstract forms but, rather, on the fact that it defied easy categorization as either fine art or applied art.

Erika Giovanna Klien: Constructivist Sculptures and Advertising Kiosk, 1914-1934

Erika Giovanna Klien: Constructivist Sculptures and Advertising Kiosk, 1914-1934 – photo: © Wien Museum

We can see an example of this in the kiosk by Klien; it looks half like a constructivist sculpture, half like a piece of advertising design. The letters are sculptural elements, but they are also a medium of visual communication. Few artists active in Vienna at this time were as bold in their exploration of genre boundaries and conventions. We may attribute this, too, to Klien’s gender. For she lacked the traditional cultural and emotional investment in painting, perceived as a quintessentially male calling, that characterised the work of so many of her colleagues. The artworld of interwar Vienna was dominated by painters such that it became the centre of a second, or late, Expressionism. A Walk Through the Metropolis is a reminder of the short moment when the city harboured other possibilities. Not merely immersed in post-imperial trauma, as the historical stereotypes suggest, it was, at its best, a place of inventive and imaginative work comparable with that of any other centre of creative endeavour.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Berhard Leitner, ed., Erika Giovanna Klien: Wien New York 1900–1957 (Ostfildern, 2001).

[2] The details of Čižek’s teaching are explored in Monika Platzer, ‘Kinetismus = Pädagogik, Weltanschaung, Avantgarde,’ in Monika Platzer and Ursula Storch, eds, Kinetismus: Wien entdeckt die Avantgarde (Ostfildern 2006) pp. 8-26.

[3] Notable publications, which were also in Čižek’s library, included: Karl Wyneken, Leitfaden der Rhythmik für den Unterricht und Selbstunterricht in der künstlerischen Komposition (1912); Walter Krötzsch, Rhythmus und Form in der freien Kinderzeichnung (1917); Rolf Bode, Der Rhythmus und seine Bedeutung für die Erziehung (1920).

[4] Klages was the author of, among others, Ausdrucksbewegung und Gestaltungskraft (1913) and Vom Wesen des Rhythmus (1934).

[5] On Kiesler see Gerd Zillner, Peter Bogner, Dieter Bogner, Friedrich Kiesler: Architekt, Künstler, Visionär (Munich, 2017).

[6] Georg Simmel, ‘Die Grossstadt und das Geistesleben,’ in Simmel et al, Die Grossstadt: Vorträge und Aufsätze zur Städteausstellung (Dresden: Zahn & Jaentsch, 1903) pp. 185-206.

[7] Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,’ in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge, MA, 2006) pp. 313-55.

[8] Monika Platzer, ‘Der Wiener Kinetismus: Eine Bilance zwischen den Avantgarden,’ in  Gerald Bast, Agnes Husslein-Arco, Harald Krejci and Patrik Werkner, eds, Wiener Kinetismus: Eine Bewegte Moderne (Vienna,  2011) p. 35.

[9] See Peter Weibel, ‘On the Origins of Hungarian Constructivism in Vienna: MA 1920-1925. The Only Instance of Modernism between the Wars’ in Weibel, ed., Beyond Art: A Third Culture. A Comparative Study of Cultures, Art and Science in 20th Century Austria and Hungary (Munich, 2005) pp. 57-70.

[10] Wolfgang Fichna, ‘ “The Passage Begins.” Black Bodies and Americanism in Ernst Krenek’s Modern Opera Jonny Strikes Up,’ in Charlotte Szilagyi, Sabrina Rahman and Michael Saman, eds, Imagining Blackness in Germany and Austria (Cambridge, 2012) pp. 99-112.

[11] Leopold Rochowanski, Der Formwille der Zeit in der Angewandten Kunst (Vienna, 1922).

[12] Leopold Rochowanski, ‘Das kinetische Marionetten-Theater der E. G. Klien,’ Die neue Schaubühne 5.1 (1925) cited in Bernhard Leitner, ed., Erika Giovanna Klien: Wien New York 1900-1957, p. 60.

[13] See Carol Duncan, ‘Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting,’ Artforum 12.4 (1973) pp. 30-39.


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