Art in the aftermath of war – a special angle on two current exhibitions at the Belvedere

Last Friday I finally had the chance to attend an expert tour at the Belvedere again.  The Belvedere has an outstanding programme of guided tours by curators and historians, and I try to go as often as I can (which, given my schedule lately, is less often than I would like).

The excellent art history expert Markus Hübl led us on a thematic journey through two current exhibits:  “Beyond Klimt“, and “Klemens Brosch:  a great artist rediscovered“.

With “Klimt is not the end“, the Belvedere presents works of European art between the 1910s and the second World War.  The end of the first World War in 1918 coincided with the death of several well established Viennese artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Koloman Moser, Otto Wagner.  This seminal year marked the end of an era, but by then a thriving new artist scene had already developed in the countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 
A broad spectrum (works by some 80 artists) of painters are represented and show the development of artistic style at the time.  Some of the pieces exhibited here are forward-looking, referencing a modern future (e.g. images of New York City´s skyscrapers), but the shadow of the horrors of war hangs over many  images.  The influence of war on artists was the focus of Markus Hübl´s special thematic tour with relevant readings “The war made us different“.

The exhibit begins with a famous unfinished painting by Gustav Klimt of Amalie Zuckerkandl (unfinished because she couuld not afford payment anymore).  Amalie Zuckerkandl was born a Christian but converted to Judaism in 1895.   She became one of the many victims of  the National Socialist regime.  In 1942 she was deported and murdered at a concentration camp.

Klimt - Amalie Zuckerkandl
The portrait of a murdered woman – Amalie Zuckerkandl (Here art historian Markus Hübl talks about her fate.)
For a short time, Egon Schiele also joined the war effort in an administrative capacity, where he drew this sketch of a Russian prisoner of war.  What is remarkable is the neutrality with which he depicts this enemy soldier – there is no attempt to turn him into a monster, no hint at propaganda.  We only see humanity in this sad face.
Russian soldier
Egon Schiele – Russian Prisoner of War, 1915
I found the the paintings by Albin Egger-Lienz and Robert Angerhofer  that dominate an entire room very impactful.   In his years as a war painter, the Tyrolian painter Egger-Lienz created a multi-faceted work with motifs from the front, including mortars, soldiers, landscape sketches and nature studies and a series of large-scale paintings.  Shown in this exhibition are two of his large post-war paintings that depict the horror of war and the horror of those left behind – the dead, and the wives who become grieving widows.   Finale (1918), which unfortunately must not be photographed –  but can be viewed online –  shows the bodies of soldiers strewn about in a heap, limbs sticking up stiffly, a hand apparently waving at the viewer.   Juxtaposed to it we see see  a scene showing the grieving war wives, equally muted in colors, the centre figure apparently waving back – witnesses of suffering and death.   Between those two hangs the gruesome painting of a dead soldier in barbed wire by Robert Angerhofer.  Both Egger-Lienz and Angerhofer are painters of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) period that developed after 1914.  Under the influence of the war and serious sociopolitical upheavals this movement returned to the everyday object, a clear image concept and an objectifying presentation.
 
Fallen soldier and the war wives
The War Wives (Albin Egger-Lienz, 1918) and Dead Soldier in barbed wire (Robert Angerhofer, 1920) (Ray of light courtesy of Belvedere ceiling light!)

Sculptors too created representations of death and desolation following the disastrous war years.  Anton Hanak was one of the most important Austrian sculptors of the inter-war years.  In the first phase until 1918, he created mostly construction-based sculptures, many of which can be seen throughout Vienna, in the second phase mostly monuments.  Several of his sculptures are on permanent exhibition at the Langenzersdorf Museum.   In Ecce Homo (“behold the man”) he portrays a man so bent and worn that it makes the horrors war inflicted on its survivors palpable.  (A little aside – note how in this photo the shadow seems to point at the museum guard – interesting coincidence for a sculpture titled “here is man”, I think.)

Ecce Homo
Anton Hanak – The Last Human (Ecce Homo), 1917-24, bronze.

 

The painter  Fritz Schwarz-Waldegg  was born in 1889 Vienna and murdered in 1942 at the death camp Maly Trostinec in  Minsk.  Before the “Anschluss” in 1938 Schwarz-Waldegg was an established member of the Austrian art scene. From 1919 he was a member of the liberal artists’ association Hagenbund.  In 1938, the National Socialists abolished the association and destroyed  its archive.  Schwarz-Waldegg initially worked with a tonality in which brown and gray tones dominated.   During the first World War he also drew portraits of soldiersAfter the First World War, his colours brightened, and he created works that sometimes hint at a modified cubism. His transformation to Expressionism around 1923 is marked by intense, bright colors and a dynamic brushstroke.  In this  very strong painting, titled “Confession”, from 1920, the subject appears to be reaching into his own chest to extract – we do not know what.

 

Bekenntnis
Fritz Schwarz-Waldegg – Confession (Bekenntnis), 1920. This painting already belongs to the artist´s expressionist period.

 

The exhibition also foreshadows hints of surrealism, for example in the work of Franz Sedlacek.  Sedlacek was born in 1891 in Poland, but moved to Linz as a child and spent his working life as a chemist and painter in Austria.  He started as a painter of caricatures for magazines and later began to paint in oil.  His works may be categorized somewhere between New Objectivity and Magic Realism.   He was drafted in 1939 and has been missing since 1945, presumed dead.  His body was never found.

This very eerie painting, Ghosts on the Tree, first made me think of vultures, but a closer look revealed these are ghostly figures with skulls sitting on a barren tree.  It conveyed to me a mood of sadness, anxiety, but also wonder.  What did he mean to say?  Is he referencing the dead of war?

 

Ghosts on tree
Franz Sedlacek – Ghosts on the tree, 1933

 

The exhibit ends with a strong criticism of the hateful racism of the NAZI regime that brought the world World War II.  John Heartfield (actually Helmut Herzfeld) is credited with being the first artist to create political montage. The meaning of his toad illustration for the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (workers´illustrated paper) from 1936, printed in exile in Prague, is quite clear with its message:

“Three thousand years of consistent inbreeding prove the superiority of my race.

Lily Steiner, the only female painter exhibited here as far as I could tell, painted this Composition Baroque in 1938, an allusion to war and destruction in her homeland Austria.  By then she had moved to Paris, where she obtained the artistic acclaim she did not get in Austria.

The second exhibition Markus Hübl showed us on this 90 minute tour is dedicated to Klemens Brosch, a contemporary of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Alfred Kubin, and Oskar Kokoschka.  Klemens Brosch was born in 1894 in the Upper Austrian capital of Linz.  He was an extraordinarily talented draughtsman.  In 1913, together with his brother Franz and others, he founded the Linz artist association MAERZ, which he left only four years later.


Klemens Brosch was  initially exempted from military service in 1914, but his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna were interrupted by the mobilization of Austria-Hungary in August 1914.   At the front in Galicia (Poland), Brosch drew restless, realistic, radical, accusatory images of war.  At the time  his lung disease was treated with morphine, which over time led to his downfall.

Klemens Brosch Ausstellung
The special exhibition of Klemens Brosch works at the Belvedere´s Orangerie

Brosch was an outstanding artist, who produced a large number of drawings, watercolours and prints.  His work has aspects of New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) and Surrealism. The difference between his early work and post-war work is quite striking.  The war years made a lasting impression on him, as manifested in his work, but also in his mental state.  He could not get rid of the trauma from this time throughout his life.

Cherry blossoms
Klemens Bloch – Cherry Blossoms, 1912

In his early work Brosch depicted flowers and landscape scenes in great detail, as in the drawing of Cherry Blossoms above.  The drawing below, View through Door Window, was made in 1913.  In it, we see the reflection of the viewer in a glass door, looking at a diseased man on a hospital bed.  On the glass right where the viewer´s left eye should be, sits a black fly – a symbol of death.  I find this a rather extraordinary drawing that shows the full extent of the artist´s skill.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

During World War I, Brosch began painting nightmarish scenes showing the desolation of war.  The Hangmen´s siesta from 1916 is reminiscent of Goya´s epic war scenes.

Siesta der Henker
Klemens Brosch – Hangmen´s Siesta, 1916

 

The dead in the ditches:  Our father (Twilight Hour) and Starving  Refugees, both from 1916, strike a chord today as well.  War, no matter where, no matter when, is a horrible horrible thing.

P4200032-Brosch-Our father.jpg

 

Unfortunately Brosch was heavily mentally affected by World War I.  He became incurably addicted to morphine, and in despair over his inability to overcome the addiction took his own life in 1926.



This special tour is on one more time on 30 May 2018 at the Lower Belvedere.  Very recommendable!  You can reserve tour tickets online.  If you cannot make it, there are other tours of these two exhibitions that you can join, but Markus Hübl is a very interesting guide not to be missed.

By the way, the Belvedere also has a virtual gallery of paintings.  Rather neat, if you want to look up paintings  in their collection.



 

Tip:

The Belvedere Annual Ticket is a pretty good deal at 39 €, considering that a single combination ticket (Upper and Lower Belvedere) costs 15 € (regular adult admission).  With the annual pass you can go as often as you like to any of the Belvedere museums (including the modern art museum Belvedere 21), and expert-led tours are free (for general overview tours, there is a small fee).


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