New York's Best: "Vienna 1900"
Before you climb the museum stairs to see "Vienna 1900: Style and Identity" head for the Neue Museum's Cafe Sabarsky, a dead ringer for an old-world Viennese cafe. With its Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos inspired decor, this cafe is a best bet for great coffee and strudels as well as catching the vibe of the exhibition's, turn-of-the-century Vienna. The museum's 1914 building, an Upper East Side landmark, is steps away from Central Park at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street. (The museum's name means "new gallery.")
"Style and Identity" marks a turning point in Viennese society when everything could be challenged and debated. On view are more than 150 paintings,sculpture, works on paper, fashion, films, and furniture. Basically, it was a time when artists, writers, designers, and musicians were asking questions about how they should live, what their work should look like. Was it time to break with the ironbound traditions of the past? The show brings to life a period of incredible diversity.
Sigmund Freud's theories about the unconscious and sexual desires had a powerful impact on Viennese society in pre- World War I Vienna. In a gallery titled "Unmasking the Inner Man," there's a recreation of Freud's famous couch covered with an Oriental rug and a 1909 portrait of the famous doctor by Max Oppenheimer. You almost feel Freud's presence when looking at paintings and prints of tortured faces, anorexic bodies, tragic images of artists' mental anguish. In a gallery darkened to protect fragile drawings, you see erotic images of nudes in various poses, the direct impact of Freud's theories of sexuality.
Nothing was sacred in Vienna in the 1900s, especially the role of women. As women started developing careers outside the home, their wardrobes had to change dramatically. You couldn't wear a bone-crusher corset that reduced your waist to a mere 16 inches if you planned to hop a trolley and go to work. The curators juxtaposed the criminal corset next to a loose fitting "reform" dress, just what a stylish matron might wear to meet her friends at a cafe -- which until recently never welcomed them.
An Oskar Kokoschka painting of a young Lotte Franzos depicts the new style, perhaps what a young woman might wear to a class at the university.
One show-stopper is an early 1890-92 Klimt, "Two Girls with an Oleander," a romantic, elegant composition and a far cry from his elongated portraits of society women in gilded gowns.
Those innocent young girls have nothing in common with Klimt's later work, in particular, the exquisite "Hope II." This portrait of a pregnant woman with bare breasts, head down staring at her growing belly, wears a gilded gown of Byzantine inspiration.
Each of the galleries has its own theme and decor. One has a blaze of color, beige walls and heavy red molding, reminiscent of the posters promoted by Klimt and his colleagues -- Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser among others -- in the Vienna Secession. Klimt was the Secession's first president. The Secessionist movement did not express one ideal for the painters, architects, and sculptors who joined it. Rather, their goal was to explore art beyond the confines of academic tradition.
You get a sense of how some stylish people lived at that time in a gallery that presents two different approaches to design. On one side is the world of Loos and Kokoschka, restrained and conservative. On the other is the colorful world of the Secessionists and the Wiener Werkstatte. But the main theme of this riveting show is exploring a time when artists set new standards for a new age, one that resulted in great art and design which continues to have strong appeal today. Details at www.neuegalerie.org.