The Heidi Horten Collection at the Leopold Museum spins recent art history into an aesthetic narrative.

Imagine a greatest hits collection of 20th century Western art, hung in a way that exposes commonalities across genres and deviations within individual artist’s outputs. Now imagine doing all of that in half an afternoon. That, essentially, is what the Leopold’s current showing of the Heidi Horten collection is all about.

Curated by Agnes Husslein-Arco, longtime director of the Belvedere, the showcase presents select pieces from the private collection of German retail magnate and billionaire Helmut Horten and his wife Heidi, who continued to enlarge it after her husband’s death in 1987. While the focus was initially on European expressionists, Heidi expanded its scope to include an impressive range of genres, artists and media, now shown in public for the very first time.

Fittingly titled “ Wow!”, the show starts promisingly with a room of semi-figurative animal paintings and sculptures by artists like Heinrich Campendock and Franz Marc, both prominent members of the Blue Rider group. Right afterwards is Roy Lichtenstein’s Forest Scene, which somehow blends the expressionism of the blue riders with his own full-blown homage to mass production and Americana. Where his predecessors use an almost geometric cubism to depict orientalist themes – think elephants or monkeys in a bazaar – Lichtenstein uses a very similar technique before he deconstructs the image into his well-known Ben-Day dots.

The fact that the exhibit puts these three artists in the same room implies a curatorial vision that seeks a grand narrative in the history of art. Considering the past few decades, when art theory seemed to take a perverse delight in fracturing this unity, this is a refreshing take.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The next room presents a number of Klimts and Schieles, the former’s drawings calling out to the impressionism of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec in their hasty abstraction and louche lines. Particularly striking are the similarities between Schiele’s two water nymphs and Klimt’s precious water snakes (on display at the Belvedere). Both Klimt and Schiele used sinuous curves within parallel lines gold and rich blues to give their subjects an air of enigma. However, while Schiele’s nymphs have his stark, angular lines and hints of decay, Klimt unapologetically revels in an overt aesthetic that celebrates Beauty with a capital B.

A set of charmingly provocative Chagalls (like Prophet with Thora which artfully prefigures Yves Klein’s use of color seen later on) gives way to Leger, Miro and Matisse, whose works dance around a wonderful Calder sculpture: Critter, that in turn references Alfred Kubin’s Creature from Mars in a previous room. Both Critter and Creature have pointed heads and large collars, strangely bulbous eyes and oddly proportioned limbs; together, they hint at an aesthetic continuity in depicting the alien – sometimes playfully like Calder and sometimes ominously, as Kubin did at the beginning of the 20th century.

Without giving away all the secrets in store, let us take a final peek at the shining supernovas of Warhol and Basquiat, barely containable within four walls. This particular selection cleverly picks out the Bouvier sisters (Jackie Onassis and Princess Radziwill) and juxtaposes them with a neon print of Lenin hanging across from them. Arrogant yet vulnerable, Farah Diba, the last empress of Persia, stares at you from a large silkscreen, created two short years before her husband was overthrown and the Islamic republic established.

Intentional or not, curator Agnes Husslein-Arco sidesteps the tired pop art clichés, making it easy to discern the subversive subtext of Warhol: mocking and questioning mid-century mass consumerism and celebrity culture by replicating it to perfection.

Like all well curated shows, this one maintains its own chronology in time, taste and artistic fashions. However, this one also crafts a portrait of a collector who almost instinctively seems to discern these patterns – though she does of course, have an expert team!

Far from a vanity project, Wow! Is a delightful tribute to Horten’s and her curators’ sensibilities, as well as the Leopold’s ingenuity in convincing her to share these works with the general public.

WOW! The Heidi Horten Collection
Through Jun 29, Leopold Museum. 7., Museumsplatz 1
Free Entry on Thursdays, 18-21h


The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.