Monday, June 20, 2011

Artists as vanguard vs artists as liberators

When I left off on a Thursday morning some eleven days ago, moaning about the heat wave roiling New York City, where I was visiting at the time, I had in mind that I'd "hang out in art museums [to] enjoy the benefits of protections extended to the paintings." You know, like air conditioning. And that's what I did -- hung out in air-conditioned buildings, including galleries and museums.

In reverse order, I saw a Philharmonic performance at Avery Fisher Hall; edited a short-story-in-progress in the ever-magnificent Rose Reading Room, at the main branch of the New York Public Library; visited Galerie St. Etienne to see an exhibition of drawings by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz, Decadence & Decay; hung out in a climate-controlled atrium at 590 Madison Ave.; and made my second pilgrimage to the Neue Galerie, a museum that inspired two posts on this blog last Fall, on the topic of Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Neue Galerie hit another bull's-eye with their current exhibit, Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, on offer only until June 27th -- if you're in Manhattan & haven't seen it, now's your chance.

From the museum's own description of the show:

"The Neue Galerie is pleased to present an exhibition entitled Vienna 1900: Style and Identity. The show, curated by Christian Witt-Dörring and Jill Lloyd, aims to reveal a common thread running through the fine and decorative arts in turn-of-the-century Vienna: the redefinition of individual identity in the modern age. Major works by fine artists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele are on view, as well as furniture by architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, and decorative artists Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. A special emphasis is placed on fashion, with loans of key clothing and accessories from the period. The exhibition also explores the overlap with new attitudes towards gender and sexuality that surface in Viennese literature and psychology at the time."

The Neue Galerie is a small museum, and seems even smaller if you happen to stumble around the corner onto 5th Ave and run smack into the Gormenghast that is The Met. The curators nonetheless presented a rich, coherent, and intellectually stimulating body of work.

Klimt's ornamented portraits of wealthy patrons, which dominate the central room on the museum's second floor, set up a viewer for shock and wonder on encountering his nude sketches of women fingering themselves erotically, displayed in a dimly lit 'back room.' On the other end of the second floor, Max Oppenheimer's portrait of Sigmund Freud stares out from a corner over the only item of furniture in the museum galleries that visitors are encouraged to test-drive: a replica of Freud's psychoanalytic couch covered by a thick Persian rug. The point this progression of rooms makes is almost too didactic, but at least no one is going to miss it. As Roberta Smith wrote in her NY Times review of the exhibition, "There’s no modernism like Viennese modernism, that amazingly fraught, conflicted efflorescence of art and thought that flared up around the turn of the 20th century. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire sank into paralysis in the decades before World War I, Freud discovered the unconscious lurking, unsurprisingly, behind the city’s repressive social codes."

I climbed the stairs, and the juxtaposed sensibilities presented in a room on the museum's third floor really caught my interest. Ornate, highly stylized cabinets, tables, and chairs designed by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser were arranged on one side of the room; while a restrained sampling of far plainer furniture from the apartment of Adolf Loos filled the other. The curators posited that these divergent approaches to interior decorating reflected sharp differences in conception of the role of art and artists in the modernity to which Vienna was slowly waking.

In Hoffmann's and Moser's conception, it seemed to me, the role of the artist was to form a vanguard, leading the masses (well, perhaps the wealthy bourgeoisie) to a new consciousness: to provide an aesthetic context in which individuals could be modern. For Loos, the role of an artist and architect was to clear away the confining, backward-looking constraints of historicist style in order to offer modern individuals a blank canvas, as it were, on which to express conceptions of self freely from individual-consciousness outward: the artist as liberator.

Here's how the curators framed the contrast at the entrance to the museum's third-floor:

"The redefinition of the concept of individual identity, whether based on class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, or sexuality, was the prerequisite for the birth of an autonomous modern individual in the multinational environment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early twentieth century. This inevitably raised difficult questions: did establishing a modern style contribute to the self-confidence of the individual, or did it create a new conformity? Was the concept of style inherently backward-looking and incompatible with the modern, international cosmopolite?"

To me, no one object at Neue Galerie more fully embodied Viennese uncertainty in groping toward modernity than an armchair designed by Kolomon Moser circa 1903, pictured here. A highly stylized piece of furniture whose function is to support an individual in solitary or social activity in her own dwelling, the rigid, cubical chair resembles a barred prison cell if it resembles anything. The chair expresses in a nutshell the confining effect of "total design" even as it purports to break with tradition ... meet the new cage, same as the old cage, as Pete Townsend might put it?

Because the special exhibition took up the whole of available space, I once again missed a chance to see Max Beckmann's Self-Portrait With Horn, for the second time in nine months. But that only means that Neue Galerie hasn't seen the last of me.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga
Art bliss at MOMA

Thanks to Michelle Thompson for the image of the NYPL's Rose Reading Room, via Flickr.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience. Fin-de-siecle Vienna was in a class of its own. Wish I saw the same exhibit.

    Matthew Felix Sun