The following article was written by Franziska Nebehay, as part of the Writing for the Art World online course.
A group of passionate artists ruffled the feathers of Austria’s arts scene at the turn of the twentieth century: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Josef Hoffmann and more than a dozen of their less renowned colleagues. Last year's exhibition, "Vienna 1900," at the Leopold Museum showcased their work and presented paintings, pieces of furniture, and art objects from this fascinating time period.
The year 1897 marked the beginning of modern art in Austria. Nineteen artists led by Gustav Klimt founded the Association of Visual Artists Austria. They opened the Vienna Secession, a meeting place as well as an exhibition site for like-minded artists. They published the journal Ver Sacrum (“Sacred Spring”), a far-reaching voice for modern art. They also brought the Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”) into being, a production community of painters and architects who proved themselves capable as designers and creators of everyday objects and furniture pieces. Their shared intention was to beautify life and to subsequently reach an artistic synthesis.
Most objects on display are ascribed to Jugendstil or Vienna art nouveau, the style of art at the turn of the twentieth century known for repeating geometric patterns, strong lines, and the intense use of symbolism. An outstandingly unique Jugendstil piece presented at the exhibition is the Chess Table with Spherical Castors. The white furniture item with an integrated chessboard pattern on its top and lattice-like carrying elements was designed by Josef Hoffmann in 1903 and constructed by the Wiener Werkstätte production community. It captivates with sophisticated details, such as the small front drawer with a golden square and striking golden spherical castors.
The Girl with Necklace by Koloman Moser (pictured above), an oil on canvas portrait created around 1910, represents the typical style of many of the visual art works on display at the exhibition. It depicts a girl embodying the beauty ideal of this time (as seen in numerous paintings created around 1900). Moser used muted colors and set value on details—for instance, he precisely accentuated the shadows on the young lady’s shoulders. Girl with Necklace is probably one of the most significant works presented at the show.
But the exhibition’s highlight is undoubtedly the reproduction of the antechamber to Gustav Klimt’s workroom. All furniture items were designed by Hoffmann, who created the pieces especially for his friend and fellow artist Klimt in 1903. Particularly spectacular pieces include the Malkästchen, an original invention for storing painting utensils, as well as the ceiling light created in a purist style. The largest furniture item is a mighty wall cabinet, which held parts of Klimt’s personal art collection.
The objects presented at the "Vienna 1900" exhibition convey a comprehensive impression of everyday life in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century—visitors get a broad overview of the full diversity of this lively chapter of Austrian art history. In addition, an original film of a tram ride through Vienna in 1906 gives valuable insights into the spirit of the city at that time. The museum’s panorama window—with a view of Vienna’s ring road (the “Ringstraße”), which was likewise created around 1900 and is lined with famous buildings such as the Vienna State Opera—perfectly rounds off the overall picture of this fascinating time.
The turn of the twentieth century was undoubtedly a rousing epoch that generated many exceptional artists who significantly contributed to Austria’s culture—their strong influence lasts until today. Visitors are taken on an exciting journey to a time period which is often referred to as the most fertile era in history of Austrian art. After the visit to the show one secretly longs for a time machine to travel back to 1900 and to meet Klimt and his fellow artists in one of Vienna’s beautiful coffeehouses on the historical ring road.