07 December 2012

Tales From the Vienna Woods

The pose has a history: human interest, female display as decoration, availability to the (male) viewer.  Make of it what you will, as art critics have.  But look at that couch.  There's a story worth pondering.

The artist Max Kurzweil (1867-1916), one of the foundesr of the Vienna Secession, edited Ver Sacrum, their influential journal .  On a visit to Brittany in 1893 Kurzweil met a woman in Concarneau.  He and  Martha Guyot were married in 1895.  The young coupled summered in Brittany and wintered in Vienna where,  in 1899, they bought a house.  They commissioned their friend Josef Hoffmann  to design  new interiors for them in the Secessionist style.
Which brings us to that couch.  Now we are in a frame of mind to notice its sleekness, the crispness that defines the overstuffed 19th century aesthetic of the comfortable home by opposition.  The pattern of stylized flowers (possibly tulips) pinned to an unending arabesque yet another  manifestation of the continuing curve in art.  Five years later Hoffmann would design the geometric black and white  chairs for the Purkersdorf Sanitarium,  an opening salvo in 20th century design.
Between the monochromatic version that appeared in Ver Sacrum (1902) and the colorful version that Kurzweil made the next year, I prefer the former.  The design elements are presented succinctly and the woman is posed more mellifluously, where the latter pose appears somewhat awkward.  Since Kurzweil made sketches of various poses for Der Polster, the picture was apparently the result of an idea but one that remains unclear.
Flash forward to 1916.    Kurzweil was in Vienna on leave from the Austrian Army where he served as a combat artist when he committed suicide. The motive was murky until years later when researchers discovered that he died together with his  student and lover Helene Heger.

Like Kurrzweil, Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) studied under Christian  Griepenkerl at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.  Gerstl, though, was attracted to the circle of musicians  and composers that included Alexander von Zemlinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.   When Gerstl began an affair with Mathilde Schoenberg, both men were devastated.  Mathilde eventually renounced her lover and returned to her husband.  Schoenberg's musical palette darkened as a result while Gerstl, after patining the couple with their two children,  committed suicide.
Call it the Mayerling syndrome, for the Imperial hunting lodge of the Habsburgs where  Crown Prince Rudolph (age 30, married) and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera (age 17, nubile)  died under mysterious circumstances in 1889.  Was it a murder-suicide or a suicide-murder?  The family obscured the circumstances, even from themselves, to protect the royal reputation and line of succession.  All in vain, as we now know.   Conspiracy theories attach to political events and Marie Vetsera's remains have been exhumed and examined more than once.   A small pleasure like a peaceful nap on the couch turned out to be beyond reach.
Images: by Max Kurzweil
1. Der Polster (The Pillow) a/k/a Martha Kurzweil Sitting on A Couch, 1903, Vienna Historical Museum.
2. for Ver Scarum, 1902, University of Heidelberg Archive.