On this centennial of the deaths of four Viennese masters, the city looks back on the birth of modernism and a vision of the “total work of art,” an enduring impulse of creative excellence.

By Sam Jackson & Dardis McNamee – With additional reporting by Teodora Weyr

By the time Ernst Fuchs and Arik Brauer arrived at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1946, Austrian cultural life had been hollowed out by two world wars, a shell of its former self. The expressionist works of Oskar Kokoschka had been branded “degenerate art” by the Nazis, who had seized hundreds of pieces of art, including works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The age was one of silent disquiet, as Europe reeled from another catastrophe.

Fuchs and his cohorts saw potential for a new artistic beginning, wrote Kurier art critic Johann Muschik in 1974. He christened them The Viennese School of Fantastic Realism.

“It was 1945. A glimmer of hope, a longing for freedom awakened in the people, still surrounded by the smoke and darkness of the ending war.”

Many artists of the inter-war period had emigrated after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, among them Kokoschka – who left for Prague and then London – or had been killed in the fighting. Of the work itself, what had been in Jewish hands was confiscated by the Nazis, and many works deemed “degenerate” were destroyed.

In the artistic vacuum that ensued, Fuchs and Brauer were part of “a small group of painters (who) came together at the bomb-devastated Academy on the Schillerplatz to start a new direction in art.”

In a way, it was déjà vu. At the dawn of the 20th Century, it was Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and others of the Vienna Secession, and later the Wiener Werkstätte, who were starting a new direction in art. That artistic ferment – known as the Wiener Moderne – was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I and the deaths in 1918 of Klimt, Schiele, Moser and architect Otto Wagner.

It is these four Viennese greats who will be celebrated this centennial year across the city they have come to represent. At the same time, exhibitions will give special due to the artists who shaped the post-war era, providing a continuum of artistic ferment in the city.

history art in vienna
Villa Wagner I // © Welleschik

Vienna Modern

Against the stifling conservatism of the 19th century, the art of fin de siècle Vienna reflected an intellectual awakening. It was a cultural rebirth, echoed in the exploration of the human psyche in Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking psychoanalysis and brought to the stage by doctor-turned-writer Arthur Schnitzler. Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg brought new directions in music, Wagner, Hoffmann and the minimalist Adolf Loos to architecture.

In this charged atmosphere, the Secession movement embodied “the confused quest for a new life-orientation in visual form,” Carl Schorske wrote in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna. The philosophy of the Secession and later Wiener Werkstätte was that art should define and beautify every aspect of daily life.

Joseph Maria Olbrich’s Secession building, crowned with a dome of gold-leaf (sneered at in a certain mood as the golden cabbage) was the movement’s own gallery, built in 1897, and the first in Vienna dedicated to international contemporary art. Over its grand portal, the group’s motto in gold letters: Der Zeit ihre Kunst, Der Kunst ihre Freiheit, “To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” In the group’s journal Ver Sacrum, “Sacred Spring,” the artists announced their goal “to awaken the sensitivity to art of our time, to stimulate and to disseminate.” An ambition, as Otto Wagner put it, “to show modern man his true face,” and make visible the character of the age through the free and true expression of its art.

This remarkable institution, of which Klimt was the first president, was the assembly of manifold talents under the belief in the Gesamtkunstwerk, or, total work of art, as artists, architects, designers and craftsmen flourished together, stimulating new ways of seeing. Their union would transform Austrian culture and spark the modernist movement across the Continent and beyond.

Not everything was equally well received, of course. Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze – a 34-meter-long visual representation of the Ninth Symphony, created for a special exhibition in 1902, received mixed reviews, condemned by critics as “obscene art” and “painted pornography,” according to Robert Waissenberger in the 1985 catalogue Traum und Wirklichkeit Wien 1870-1930 (Wien Museum).

The legacy of the Secessionists was their bold break with the past, quitting the stuffy Künstlerhaus, which they found “too conservative,” association President Herwig Kempinger told Metropole enthusiastically. “They were interested in the new art, the Art Nouveau.”

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© Egon Schiele Aktselbstbildnis 1916


In 1907, Klimt took 17-year-old Egon Schiele under his wing, introducing him to the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. For Schiele, this unleashed a decade of astonishing productivity, in a new visual vocabulary of avant-garde Expressionism – portraits and self-portraits that were searing explorations of the psyche and sexuality of their subjects, and alongside Kokoschka’s, are among the most remarkable of the 20th century.

“The human figure in Schiele’s works is a naked vessel, scantily clad only in parchment-thin skin, full of suffering and illness, driven by sexual desire, and condemned to loneliness, the meta-feeling inherited from the nineteenth century,” wrote Martina Pippal, professor of Art History at the University of Vienna in Austria, Past, Present and Future. “In Schiele’s work, death is no longer redemption in the romantic sense, but simply the final end.”

Kokoschka’s work “was also revealing, and his view of his portrait subjects was merciless,” Pippal wrote. “Various critics have spoken of the painter’s X-ray vision or gift of prophesy.”

In Vienna before the Great War, “the populace faced the impending apocalypse with its unique sense of gaiety and hedonistic life-style,” wrote Hermann Broch in Hugo von Hofmansthal and his Time. To journalist Karl Kraus, the city was “the experimental laboratory for the end of the world.”

Something Schiele seemed to foresee in his art.

“Like Kokoschka, Schiele was a hypersensitive personality and a prophet of the imminent European catastrophe,” wrote Reinhard Steiner in Egon Schiele: The Midnight Soul of the Artist. “For him, … life was constantly lived in the face of death. Even Schiele’s mercilessly frank erotic depictions reflect this state of mind.”

Schiele’s gaze increasingly fixed on stillness, sickness and death, Kokoschka’s on the impassioned frenzy of angst, both revolutionary in their projections of the psyche on canvas. The war affected them both: Kokoschka volunteered and was badly wounded, remaining in hospital for months. Schiele was conscripted to Prague guarding Russian prisoners of war. In 1917, he returned to exhibit again in Vienna. He died the following year of the Spanish flu at the age of 28. Shortly thereafter, Kokoschka left Vienna for a teaching position in Dresden.

“As 1918 ended, so too did the fortunate period for art in Vienna. Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Kolo Moser and Otto Wagner died. Kokoschka turned away from Vienna,” Waissenberger concluded. “So Austria’s fateful year 1918 was also one for art.”

history art in vienna
Erin Wurm’s Fat House has been installed at several locations in and around Vienna. Above, it graced the courtyard of Belvedere palace in 2003, while Wurm’s exhibition “Performative Sculptures” was shown in the Belvedere 21 in 2017. // © Erwin Wurm’s Fat House

Vienna in the 1920s

In the shattered economy and society uprooted after the war, fragments of cultural life in Vienna persisted nonetheless. The financial instability meant a shortage of patrons and raw materials to support new work, however, and the Wiener Werkstätte moved from silver or silk, to wood. Elsewhere Franz Cizek, a lecturer at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts), pioneered a new art form he named Kineticism. Combining elements of the then European avant-garde – Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism – it captured a vivid, even frenetic, sense of movement that remains engaging today. Led by artists Elisabeth Karlinsky, Erika Giovana Klien and Mariana Ullmann, the group had some success, although the movement never really spread beyond the city limits. The deaths of so many men had left opportunities for women artists, but perhaps because they were women, the international art world took little note.

With the rise to power of the Austrofascists in 1934, the art scene was stifled. Under the Nazis, it was destroyed.

Art in Vienna Reborn

The Second World War left Vienna devastated yet again, with craters of rubble from Allied bombing and an economy in ruins. But the victors’ better understanding brought investment instead of reparations, and recovery began relatively quickly.

In 1947, says Pippal, a group of young artists in Vienna began meeting in the basement of the [Loos] American Bar where they founded the Art Club. Among them were Ernst Fuchs and Maria Lassnig.

Lassnig had been heavily influenced by Kokoschka. Using an equally combative palette, skin was depicted in near fluorescent blushing pinks beside pallid pond greens, and figures with swollen and distended features represented not simply her psyche but all of her sensations in her portraiture. She called it Körperbewusstsein, or “Body Consciousness.”

“The only true reality is my feelings, played out within the confines of my body,” she said in 1980. At times, parts of the body are transformed into objects, such as an armchair, or a revolver. Leaving Vienna for Paris in 1951, Lassnig returned in 1980 to take up a full professorship at the Angewandte (Academy of Applied Arts) and received the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1988, in both cases, the first woman to do so.

Like Lassnig, it took years for Fuchs, Brauer, Rudolf Hausner and the other artists of Fantastic Realism to gain recognition, particularly in Austria. Then in 1962, following a visit to the Wiener Festwochen, critic Pierre Cabanne gave them badly needed support. “This Austrian painting makes the ‘fantastic’ a living art,” he declared in the Paris Arts Review. Others followed.

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© Günter Brus Belvedere 21

Lights, Camera, Aktionismus

In the paranoid tumult of 1960s Cold-War Vienna, the body increasingly became an instrument of art, in a synthesis of performance and painting that came to be known as Wiener Aktionismus. With artists such as Günter Brus, Valie Export, and particularly Hermann Nitsch, whose use of animal blood and cadavers outraged exhibit goers, the Actionists staged live “actions,” making an art of the spectacle and a spectacle of the body.

“Viennese Actionism is profound, but it is not an easy or decorative art,” said Hubert Klocker, director of the Friedrichshof Collection in Vienna, responsible for the most comprehensive record of Viennese Actionism.

“It poked fingers into the wounds of Austrian society,” he told Vienna Art Week in 2017. In their directness, “the artists offered something psycho-hygienic” – a catharsis, after the 20th century catastrophes of war and disease. As with the Secessionists, they traversed disciplines to help examine the questions of the age, and breathe new potency into art.

More recently, artists like Erwin Wurm invited participation, making the viewer part of the art. In his One Minute Sculptures, he used familiarity to communicate ideas about belonging and belongings, giving everyday objects human traits – Fat Cars bulging like sumo wrestlers – as a critique of consumer culture.

“I insert humor like a weapon, showing the everyday from another perspective,” Wurm told Focus magazine in 2007. “It interests me to turn things on their heads, and in that way bump into new realities.” At the Venice Biennale in 2017, Wurm joined Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz, who used light and reflection to depict the unseen braiding of our digital age.

history art in vienna
© Hermann Nitsch

Secession Then and Now

Today, as the city’s museums pay homage to the artists of cultural reawakening a century ago, the Secession continues as a venue for new art and for established artists not as well known in Austria – something Herwig Kempinger is very proud of. The first gallery devoted to contemporary art in Vienna is now the longest-standing independent contemporary art gallery in the world.

Under Klimt, the Secession welcomed Auguste Rodin and Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Vienna. Even Isadora Duncan, little known at the time, danced there in 1902. Today, Kempinger cites exhibitions of Belgian photographer Francis Alÿs, and Vija Celmins – the latter being “the Grande Dame of fine arts.” For each, these were their first solo show in Austria.

“This thinking about what is meaningful art at a certain moment in time is still our core concern,” Kempinger said. “We think: ‘Who makes sense in this moment?’” And to carry out their aim “to awaken, encourage and propagate the artistic perception of our time.”

The Secession has stayed faithful in its design too, that the interior should be mutable to the needs of each exhibitor. Originally, the entire space would be rebuilt for each of the four annual exhibitions. Today, each artist is invited at least a year in advance, to begin envisioning how the work will be displayed.

“We hand over the space to the artist and say, ‘ok, it’s yours,’” Kempinger said. “We build a lot of things ourselves. We try to make it possible.”

So it’s the art that governs?

“It is the institution that comes first,” Kempinger corrects. “It has survived for 120 years. It’s unique in the world. I think it’s good to serve it.” On the first cover of Ver Sacrum, Koloman Moser drew a blossoming tree bursting through its graceful urn, a resonant symbol from ancient times when the youth of a community would set off to put down new roots elsewhere, and a powerful image for the Secession’s impassioned rallying cry: “We have dedicated ourselves, with our whole power and future hopes, with everything that we are, to the Sacred Spring.”

Leaving the Secession, one is struck again with the drama of the building, reverent and radical, ever at odds with its surroundings between Karlsplatz and the Naschmarkt. Today, it is partially hidden behind the scaffolding that surrounds the great front doors.

If every age is to have its art, there must always be a breaking away from former ideals that inevitably become oppressive, and each artist, in a persistent searching, must create a dialogue between past and present, artist and audience, the work and its surroundings, so that through every new interaction, and abstraction, we might just catch a glimpse of the true face of our time.