Monday, July 30, 2018

TEN: Austria and Russia


As a leading monument in the Austrian capital, the Karlskirche offers instructive material regarding the complex ways a building may communicate meaning. It resulted from a vow made by Emperor Charles VI in 1713 on the occasion of a plague. This showy church is Christian, imperial Roman, and dynastic (viz. the allusions to the empire of Charles V). Impressive as they are, the accumulation of symbolic devices still does not qualify this monument as an architectural precursor of Symbolism.

For that we may turn to 19th-century buildings that rely on the principle of association. Examples were the Red House at Bexley Heath, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the two parliament houses (London and Budapest). Even so, the concept of architectural Symbolism requires refinement and qualification.

Late 19th century Vienna saw the emergence of serious questions about the role of ornament in architecture. Otto Wagner’s Majolica House offered an ingenious solution by distributing the floral motifs over the building surfaces. Josef Hoffmann offered attenuation, together with richness of materials. It was Adolf Loos, in effect branding ornament as crime, who reached the ultimate radical solution, heralding the austerity of the International Style of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Still, Olbrich’s 1898 Sezession Building (nicknamed “the golden cabbage”) remains the representative monument of the epoch.

These architecture and design themes are part of the status of Vienna as a hothouse of modernity. Through it all the citizens of “Vindobona” (Latin for Vienna) retained a sense of their classical heritage. This is seen in the choice of the word Sezession (from an obscure episode in the Roman Republic) for the organization of avant-garde artists.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862-1918).

Gustav Klimt was born in Poechlarn, near Vienna, the second of seven children. His father (Ernst Klimt) was an engraver and was married to Anna Klimt (née Finster). He lived in poverty for most of his childhood. 

Gustav Klimt was educated at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule) in the years 1879–1883 and received training as an architectural decorator. He began his professional career painting interior murals in large public buildings on the Ringstraße. Especially important among these were the decorations for the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In the spandrels of the interior he first experimented in his combination of gold and mosaic with naturalistic forms.

In 1893 Klimt was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall in the University of Vienna. His three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, came under attack for their radical themes and “pornographic” material resulting in their not being displayed on the ceiling of the great Hall. All three paintings were eventually destroyed by retreating SS forces in May 1945. In assessing Klimt it is necessary to go beyond the easel paintings we see in exhibitions, to include the monumental cycles executed in situ.

Much of his work is distinguished by the elegant, sometimes gaudy gold or colored decoration, often erotically suggestive that conceals the more even more erotic positions of the drawings he based many of his paintings on. This feature can be seen in “Judith I“(1901), and in “The Kiss”(1907–1908).

The provocative frontality of his “Nuda Veritas” (Naked Truth) make this one of his most challenging works. Yet it is based on a traditional concetto going back to the emblem books of the 16th and 17th centuries.

While strikingly modern, his art pays tribute to early forms of art that had only recently become known, as seen in the spirals (relating to Minoan-Mycenean art and early Balkan) and the Greek archaic (whence his Nietzschean “Pallas Athena”). In fact, art historians note an eclectic range of influences contributing to Klimt's distinct style, including Egyptian, Minoan, Classical Greek, and Byzantine motifs. Klimt was also inspired by the engravings of Albrecht Dürer, late medieval European painting, and Japanese Ukiyo-e.

Klimt was one of the founding members of the Wiener Sezession (Viennese variant of Art Nouveau) and of the periodical Ver Sacrum. He left the movement in 1908. He also forged a creative partnership with the fashionista Emilie Flöge, whose elegant dresses were one aspect of the flowering of the decorative arts in Vienna.

The Beethoven Frieze of 1902, originally in the great hall of the Sezession Building in Vienna, is the most important of the in-situ works. The centerpiece was Max Klinger’s theatrical statue of Beethoven. It was inaugurated by a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Klimt’s frieze had three main sections. 1) Longing for Happiness (weak appeal to the strong man); 2) The Hostile Forces; 3) Fulfillment (longing for happiness finds its surcease in poetry).

He died in Vienna on February 6, 1918 of a stroke and was interred at the Hietzing Cemetery, Vienna. Numerous paintings were left unfinished.

Seemingly bagatelles, his landscapes have also evoked great interest. In November of 2003, Klimt's Landhaus am Attersee sold for $29,128,000.

Purchased for the Neue Galerie in New York by Ronald Lauder for a reported US $135 million, the 1907 portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" for a time deposed Picasso's 1905 "Boy With a Pipe" (sold May 5, 2004 for $104 million) as the world's most expensive painting (only to be surpassed in turn by the sale of a Pollock). 

Raoul Ruiz has directed a biopic, "Klimt," starring John Malkovich in the title role. It has been reported that the film had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on January 28, 2006


Going back to the time of Peter the Great are the two orientations: the Westernizers and the Slavophils. This contrast has continued to play itself out almost to the present. The Slavophil heritage consisted of two parts: a vernacular tradition going back to pagan times, and a sophisticated Byzantine overlay. However great the attractions of the West, it proved hard to abandon these native elements.

The Silver Age (ca. 1890-1917) was a period of extraordinary creativity in literature and the arts. The portraits of Valeri Bryusov and Andrei Bely represent the two waves of Symbolism.

The poet Valery Bryusov, who succeeded Konstantin Balmont as the leader of the first generation of Russian Symbolists, wrote on a wide variety of topics, from Cleopatra to mushrooms.

Andrei Bely (“Andrew White”) first published a series of prose “symphonies,” heavily influenced by music. His “The Silver Dove” postulates a Russia unable to unite its Western and Eastern halves. His masterpiece is the kaleidoscopic “Petersburg” (1916), perhaps the first truly modernist novel, anticipating Joyce and Proust. It revolves around the conflict between a deeply conservative father, the high official Ableukhov, and his idealist son, Nikolai, who agrees to bomb his father.

Sergei Diaghilev was the mastermind of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) group. He also performed important work in promoting Russian art and music in the West through his Ballet Russes. Bakst, Benois, and Roerich were significant artists in this effort.

MIKHAIL VRUBEL (1856-1910). The son of an officer, his stepmother, a pianist, encouraged his gifts. While at the St. Petersburg Academy he was asked to assist in the restoration of the 12th century church of St. Cyril in Kiev. This experience, which marked him profoundly, would appear to direct him towards a Byzantine-Eastern trajectory. He spent time in Venice and Spain, though, observing how those places transformed their medieval heritage into the Renaissance. Back in Russia, he joined the Abramstevo circle, with its interest in Russian folk art and lore.

His almost obsessive fascination with the poem “The Demon” by Lermontov was expressed in several paintings. The “Demon Downcast” (1902) is the last of these. “The Swan Princess” is based on Russian folklore.


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