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Vienna Art & Design: Klimt, Schiele, Hoffmann, Loos, by Christian Witt-Dörring and Paul Asenbaum, curators. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2011.  302 pp.  $49.50 (Australian).


This is the lavishly illustrated official catalogue of a wonderful and grandiose exhibit held recently at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia in 2011. The book is divided into two main sections: the first contains three chapters—an introductory overview by Christian Witt-Dörring, “Vienna: Art and Design”; an historical overview of the topic by William M. Johnston, “The Political and Cultural Background of Vienna 1900: A Golden Age of Cultural Exchange”; and a description of the family whose collection was rescued from the Nazis in 1938 and brought to Melbourne by Tim Bonyhardy, “The Gallias: A Modern Viennese Family.” The second section contains six chapters dealing with the different aspects of the artistic and architectural achievements during this key period: Christian Witt-Dörring, “Otto Wagner’s Vienna”; Marian Bisanz-Prakken, “The Origins and Early years of the Vienna Secession”; Christian Witt-Dörring, “The Encouragement of Individuality as a Key to Modernity”; Elisabeth Schmuttermeier, “The Wiener Werkstätte”; Christian Witt-Dörring, “Two Ways to Modernism”; Elizabeth Cross, “Zenith and Decline 1908–18.” Between these chapters a series of brief one- and two-page notices by a variety of hands, some from Austria and some from Australia, accompany the representative photographs of the paintings, sculptures, furniture, and other objects on display in this major exhibition.

To a certain extent, these chapters and essays reproduce the explanatory signs and posted information accompanying the exhibition; but the exhibition contained more than is shown in this book, and the opinions expressed in the catalogue do not match precisely what was available in the museum. Above all, as with any photographic representation of works of art, the real things—in size, texture, impact of relationship to the visitor walking through the well-lit rooms—can only give a vague hint at the experience of observing brush strokes, application of colors and materials.

The two main contributing Viennese museums, the Belvedere and the Wiener Museums, decided to allow many of their valuable works of art and historical objects—above all the surviving sections of the Beethoven Frieze by Klimt—to be loaned to the NGV because there already was in Melbourne one of the most complete collections of turn-of-the-century Viennese furniture, household items, and books to survive the destruction and displacement by the Nazis, both the German troops and the local Austrian collaborators. Because of the Gallia Family materials, the exhibition has a specific, not quite muted character that distinguishes it from other shows put on in Europe and America over the years to celebrate the four key figures noted in the sub-title to this book and the exhibition: Gustav Klimt, Adolf Schiele, Josef Hoffmann, and Adolf Loos. One aspect of this character is the fact that a few members of an Austrian-Jewish (albeit converted) family were able to escape from persecution and certain death and bring what they could of their family treasures to Australia, thus emphasizing that all the efforts by particular elements within the Vienna art world who continue to prevaricate and block proper restitution of art stolen from individuals in the long run have not succeeded—the truth of who the artists were, where their patrons came from, and what the achievements of the creators and collectors mean in the world patrimony cannot be totally obfuscated. Second, related to this, the display here of the great art and architecture is shown as arising from precisely that innovative, far-seeing, and aesthetically sensitive population of Jews in Vienna whom the antisemites attempted to murder and the culture the Nazis attempted to destroy or claim as their own through plundering, dispersal, and misattribution. Though the museum displays only hint at in a perfunctory way, to the point of effacing, the deep-seated antisemitism in Viennese culture, the catalogue’s authors make a more honest attempt to suggest the vicious undercurrents at work even during the Golden Days of Viennese art and design. It is important to read closely and to pick up the allusions, as when the reader is told that this artist or that collector had to leave Austria during the 1930s, and not to take as a mere casual remark that Hitler in Mein Kampf praised Karl Leuger, Vienna’s antisemitic mayor in the fin-de-siècle.

As the exhibition draws to its climax and the catalogue completes its series of chapters and essays, the violent intensity and disturbing psychological aspects of the art and design become indicative of something that the authors mostly avoid speaking about. Take, for example, these few sentences in Tod Gott’s discussion of Karl Duldig’s Mask of 1921.

Duldig was born in 1902 into a middle-class Jewish family in the city of Przemœl of Poland then under Austrian rule. He moved to Vienna . . . he quickly established himself as a talent to watch . . . in 1933 [h]e established a private sculptural practice in Vienna which was abruptly terminated when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Duldig and his family fled to Singapore via Switzerland and eventually, in 1940, arrived in Australia where he became a leading art teacher and re-established his sculptural career. (p. 260).

Why should a Jewish sculptor and his family have to depart suddenly and race around to the other side of the world? How and why did the Germans integrate Austria into their Third Reich? The answers are all too obvious, and it would be invidious, wouldn’t it, to say the author was hiding something or softening the blow? Other writers suggest that the whole art movement of the Secessionists and the Wiener Werkstätte “collapsed” after the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, the shrinking of Vienna to a provincial city of a tiny country, the change in styles, fashions, and psychological outlook on the world.  Looking at the illustrations in the last fifty to sixty pages of this catalogue, however, something far more sinister and “degenerate” appears, and what would be truly invidious would be to blame the victims—the Jewish artists, patrons, collectors, and teachers of art—and accept that the Austrians were the victims of Hitler’s aggression.

Nevertheless, we are reviewing a catalogue and the museum exhibition it celebrates. The major and the minor essays offer pertinent and insightful definitions and descriptions of the key topics displayed in the exhibition: the Vienna Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte, the Gesamtkunstwerk as an ideal, the integration of fine and applied arts, the centrality of architecture and furniture design, the revolutionary revaluation of colors, textures and spatial dimensions. The interrelatedness of painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, craftsmen, designers, photographers, city planners, and their rich patrons all are explored in this compendium of analysis and description. Yet this is finally only a museum catalogue for the general public and not a scholarly collection of articles for specialists, so that as you slow down to read the words and meditate on the accompanying illustrations you realize that detailed explanations and historical circumstances are not fully given. In a sense, the book is a reminder of what was experienced in the museum—and, if time permitted for visitors to Melbourne, a guide to return visits, and, thanks to the Bibliography, a pointer towards more in-depth research.

Norman Simms

University of Waikato