Book Review: Art Against the Odds

Peter Vergo’s re-issued “Art in Vienna, 1898-1918,” recounts the fitful birth of the Modern

In conservative Vienna of the 1890s, culture had ossified, while the world around it was being reinvented through industry and scientific progress.  The writer Hermann Bahr, a driving force of Jung Wien (Young Vienna), argued that life in Vienna had been “transformed down to its very depths” while the prevailing spirit remained “lone and rigid.”

“The future is all around us, but we are still rooted in the past,” he diagnosed. The stagnating art world was dominated by naturalism, and architecture by historicism. In 1896, the architect Otto Wagner declared: “Contemporary art must express the ability, the mode of existence, of modern man, by means of forms created by us.”

Soon however the straitlaced capital of the Danube Monarchy would become a hothouse for the avant-garde. The painter Gustav Klimt, until then part of the cultural establishment, “emerged as leader of the young revolutionaries within the Künstlerhaus.” In 1897 the Secession was born.

Among the founding statutes of the Vienna Secession was freedom of artistic expression. No longer would architecture have to refer to the past, or exhibition paintings be selected for their sale potential: The Secession would showcase works solely on their artistic merit.

An uneasy coexistence

Art in Vienna, 1898-1918 excels at showing the chasm between artistic ambitions and the city’s ingrained hostility to newness – even Otto Wagner, who had been ‘one of the most distinguished pillars of the establishment… had to learn to be an enfant terrible’ at the age of nearly 60. In 1903, another architect and writer, Adolf Loos, founded a journal, Das Andere (The Other) acerbically subtitled “A Newspaper to Introduce Western Culture into Austria.”

One Secessionist aim was to bring the public into contact with work by foremost European artists. But philistinism was rife, author Peter Vergo points out, and Viennese provincialism was the despair of artists whose horizons had been broadened by trips to England or France. Ground-breaking art shocked “the stolid burghers of Vienna,” explains Vergo, and triggered violent antagonism in the press and professional circles. The critic Josef Lux bemoaned Vienna’s “extraordinary gift of banishing its most worthwhile talents, or of humiliating them.”

A consumate use of ornament

Vergo shows that the Secession can’t be equated with one particular style: Naturalists, Impressionists, Symbolists and Modernists rallied in the pursuit of artistic freedom. From the start it was also a melting pot for artistic media, including designers, graphic artists, typographers and architects along with painters and sculptors. Indeed it was the consummate use of ornamental techniques that made Klimt’s work so unique.

Art in Vienna is not just a feast for the eyes, as may be expected of an art book lavishly illustrated with 150 colour images. It also relies on sources of the time: newspaper cuttings, excerpts from memoirs and fascinating anecdotes recounted by eye witnesses.

On its 40th anniversary – thus predating Schorske’s seminal Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1981), Vergo explains that it’s “a young man’s book,” written after a mid- ‘60s visit to Vienna when he fell in love with the city. Then a 1971 exhibition in London on the Vienna Secession led to a commission from Phaidon to write the book. Perhaps the youthful enthusiasm with which the book was composed, and the power of the uncompromising art it presented, explain its enduring success.

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