28 March 2012

Perpetual Excitement

 "They did not look,
They envisioned.
They did not photograph,
They had visions.
Instead of the rocket they created the perpetual state of excitement."
 -  Kasimir Edschmid, quoted in The Writer In Etremis by Walter H. Sokel, Stanford University Press: 1959.

"They" were the fin-de-siecle generation of Vienna.  For  five brief years their magazine  Ver Sacrum, was the official voice of the Vienna Secession.  Their motto: "To arouse, sharpen, and spread the artistic feeling of our time." If any publication can claim to offer perpetual excitement, it would be Ver Sacrum.  The writers were a formidable group, including Rainer Maria Rilke, the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal and (future) Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck.  But it was the graphic artwork that became  influential  beyond the wildest imaginings of its creators.

Graphic design lends itself to subversion, being relatively inexpensive and easy to reproduce.  The artists of Ver Sacrum added elements of the bizarre, the erotic and the abstract, incubating modernism in its pages.  Artists have worked variations on its basic themes ever since.

The first issue, appearing in January 1898,  did go off like a rocket. Hermann Bahr denounced "actionless routine and ossified Byzantianism" in the visual arts while Adolf Loos castigated the bourgeois culture of the Rigstrasse for hiding its modernity, commercialism, and poverty behind a facade of pseudo-historic architecture.  Koloman Moser contributed such strong works to the magazine that his images converted the adjective decorative into the highest compliment (see Impudent Weather, for example).

The Viennese perplex has always been about adjectives.  Was this a vibrant  culture breaking out or  a nervous illness?  All the discussions about lack of civic engagement by the middle classes and exploitation of the poor cannot put that question to rest because the artists weren't trying to answer it.

As the first president of the Vienna Secession, Gustav Klimt was hardly an unknown artist when he was commissioned to produce a series of murals for the University of Vienna.  Eros, androgyny, and homosexuality were not new either, but their heady mixture ias filtered through Klimt's provocative style was disquieting - even as sketches that appeared in Ver Sacrum in 1902.  The issue was confiscated by the Viennese authorities on the charge of "offending public morals".

You have only to look at the pictorial style used by Wilhlem Laage or the Wiener Werkstatte to see what offended the public prosecutor.  Perversion, guilt, disease and unwanted pregnancies ruined lives and poisoned relations between the sexes.   Even the most talented artists had trouble looking their great inconsistency in the face. It is no accident that the women whose works made it into print avoided the subject altogether.

Adolf Loos, who found allusiveness intolerable, said: "All art is erotic.  The first known ornament, the cross, is erotic in origin.  The first work of art, the first act by which the first artist gave free rein to his exuberance by scribbling on a wall, was erotic.  A horizontal line is a woman reclining, a vertical line is a man penetrating her..."
To Loos, drives existed to be repressed.  By contrast,  Karl Kraus thought it was a crime was that the authorities tried to suppress sex.   Kraus would have appreciated the wisdom in the idea that a society that is preoccupied with transgression will not be stable for long.

 Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), as we know, believed that a society onthe brink might just as well go over the edge.  Unfortunately, by the time the new generation of bright young things began to publish Ver Sacrum, Nietzsche himself had gone over the edge and was no  longer able to throw thunderbolts.  Like Ver Sacrum itself, his influence is everywhere and not sufficiently acknowledged.

 Images from Ver Sacrum
1. Max Behmer "Mt. Pele", 1903.
 2. Nora Exner - fish, 1903.  
3. Jutta Sika - owls, 1903. 
4. Koloman Moser "Impudent Weather", 1903. 
5. Victor Schufinsky - poor mother and children, 1903.
6. Gustav Klimt -  sketch for Beethoven frieze , November 1902. 
7. Wilhlem Laage,  1901.
8. Koloman Moser - Muse, 1901.  
9. Marcus Behmer - skeleton perched in a tree,  1902.
9.  Leopold Stolba - little man, 1903.
10. Fanny Zakucka - Puss in boots, 1902.
11.  Irma von Dutczynska - sailing ship, 1903.

Ver Sacrum is available online, in its entirety, at the websites of the Austrian National Library. and the University of Heidelberg Digital Archive.

For further reading: Fin-de-siecle Vienna by Carl Schorske, New Tork, Random House: 1979. remains the best single book you can read.


Neil said...

Beautiful post, Jane, especially valuable because alongside your own interesting commentary you also give your readers the references to go see for themselves. What a fascinating moment in art history this was.

Jane said...

Thanks, Neil. You'll notice that I found more female artists than the usual (male) suspects. Minka Podjeska was another.
The quote from Kasimir Edschmid stuck in my head for a long time. I liked his allusion to Werner von Braun and the V-2 rocket. Edschmid was a Francophile German who was persecuted by the Nazis.