The art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that "We must not assume that the artist did not see what he did not paint." What about paintings we not see, in particular the ones that were admired in their own time? Carl Moll was an important artist in fin-de-siecle Vienna, an early member of the Vienna Secession along with Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, and Kolo Moser (with whom he shared a duplex at Hohe Warte, as friend, artist, and businessman (he was the director of Galerie Miethke representing several of them). The other names are familiar while Moll's name seems to have a question mark attached to it. Or maybe an asterisk for Moll's long-term support of the Nazis, a man who committed suicide in April 1945 when it became clear that the Nazis would lose the war. The asterisk wail not go away but now two exhibitions, one recently ended at the Pinacotheque in Paris and another currently ongoing at the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, give the public a chance to look at the work itself again.
A rapidly increasing urban population would have required major changes to what remained a largely medieval city anyway. To their credit, the monarchy and the newly empowered bourgeoisie cooperated on unglamorous projects like a municipal water supply, the city's first public hospital, and above all else, channeling the Danube River to limit its frequent and calamitous flooding. Paradoxically, what made the large scale of the Ringstrasse project possible was the city's backwardness; the razing of the massive fortifications of old Vienna opened up a large tract of land for development in the heart of the city.
The Hapsburg monarchy supported new cultural institutions that lined the Ringstrasse like the Burgtheater, the Natural History Museum and the Art History Museum as symbols of their political primacy. At the same time the bourgeoisie, flush with commercial success and eager to assert their right to power, built lavish townhouses on the Ringstrasse near the Parliament and the Stock Exchange.
Klimt began his career as a painter of the old school, who became a leader of the young artists, Die Jungen, one reason among many that he infuriated his public patrons. That he used familiar classical symbols (water, hair, fish, etc.) as metaphors for erotic impulses only unsettled them more. Having commissioned Klimt to paint a series of murals on academic subjects like music (1898) the university fathers found themselves confronted with a larger than life illustration of Zarathustra's “Drunken Song of Midnight” by Friedrich Neitzsche. Klimt's “philosophy” met with an equally hostile reaction; the professors were incensed at having Schopenhauer's ideas shoved in their faces. Klimt's de-sublimation of the irrational was met with a vehement irrational reaction from the authorities; they got what he intended, without comprehending its import.
Carl Moll was the painter who bridged the divide between art nouveau and realistic and impressionistic techniques. He often included broad flat spaces in his landscapes, a trope of modernism at the service of illusion. Klimt's brightly coloured and patterned paintings are far removed from Moll’s delicate landscapes and tranquil well-appointed interiors. Not that Moll avoided bright colors, rather he made them safe for bourgoeiis sensibilities. Nothing in Moll's paintings comes close to Klimt's female subjects wearing dresses decorated with spermatozoa. For the record, Moll was no moralizer or even moral in his conduct but he avoided visual references to his weaknesses. Indeed, he prefers that the viewer’s vantage point be at some remove from the painting's subject
Klimt, Moll, Wagner and their friends, whose works are associated in modern minds with Ringstrasse culture, moved en masse to the periphery, to the new garden suburb of Hohe Warte starting in 1901. In retrospect, this looks like the beginning of decline and defeat for the supporters of culture by the forces of politics.
The exhibition Klimt and the Ringstrasse showcases the works of fin-de-siecle Viennese artists
Klimt and the Ringstrasse is on view at the Lower Belvedere in Vienna (3 July - 11 October 2015)
1. Carl Moll - Full Moon Above Heiligenstadt, c.1906-10, private collection, Austria.
2. Carl Moll - View From The Elizabeth Bridge To The Karntnerstrasse At Dusk, 1897, private collection, Vienna.
3. Carl Moll - View Of The Nussberg Towards Heiligenstadt, 1905, Belvedere Gallery, Vienna.
4.Photograph of Au Temps de Klimt: La Secession A Vienne (12 February- 21 June 2015, Pinacotheque de Paris) ) courtesy of spectacles-selection.com