Northern Arts Revisited

Sweden arrives in Vienna with a retrospective of paintings by Arnold Schönberg, August Strindberg and Edward Munch

On The Town | Matthias Wurz | October 2008

“Stürmische See” by August Strindberg (Photos courtesy of the Arnold Schönberg Center)

For those intimately acquainted with the music of renowned Austrian composer of the atonal, the newly opened exhibition at the Arnold Schönberg Center is a revelation. This 10th anniversary exhibition – ‘Longing for the North: the Northern Modern Movement in Schönberg’s Vienna of 1900’ – provides a rare but nevertheless spectacular retrospective of paintings by multi-talented Schönberg (1874 – 1951), as well as of playwright August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) and Norwegian painter Edward Munch (1863 – 1944).

At the Sept. 24 opening, the Arnold Schönberg Center in the Diplomatic Quarter in Vienna’s 3rd District was packed, with ambassadors and staff from nearby embassies, members of the board, and city VIP’s like Vienna’s Deputy Mayor Renate Brauner. And among them were also a number of the private Swedish collectors, who had donated their paintings to this event.

While a late coming guest was ushered into the small concert venue of the Center, Nuria Schönberg-Nono, the composer’s 76-year-old daughter, welcomed the gathering, but admitted she was nervous speaking in public. So it was left to the institute’s Managing Director Christian Meyer, to explain the concept of the exhibition.

The paintings of August Strindberg – who like Schönberg had not had a career as a painter – were until recently unknown even in his native Sweden, the ambassador said.

"Only in the last 20 years have we discovered Strindberg as a painter," he admitted.

Although, hugely influential as an Expressionist playwright with strong influence on Second Viennese School, little is known about Strindberg influences as a painter.  Some of the best of the approximate 130 Strindberg paintings, however, were exhibited at the important second Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) exhibition in 1912, along with Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) and other German Expressionist artists, including Schönberg. While this is not the most extensive retrospective of either of the artists presented, the exhibition, at least in the case of Strindberg, is the most extensive retrospective since the Tate Modern exhibit in London of spring 2005 where over 60 works of art were shown.


"A substantial number of the paintings were contributed by those private collectors," Meyer said, "people who literally took their Strindbergs off from over their mantelpieces and put them up here." Most have never before been shown in public.

While some audience members make their way to enjoy the Swedish delights at the buffet, sample the champagne and mingle with like-minded, others took a tour of the exhibition. In the meantime, the performers arrived, unpacked and warmed up, and a final hectic rehearsing leaked around closed doors.

The two exhibition halls are impressive by the simplicity of the layout, not crowded with too many pieces, but rather with enough space to absorb a presentation that can only be called magnificent. The walls are decorated with specially ordered, fine 19th century English tapestries, which – together with the dimmed lightning – provide the intimacy of a friend’s living room rather than an exhibition hall. The paintings are spaced as you might hang them for your own pleasure, to be enjoyed both one at a time and in relation to each other.

A few display cabinets, manuscripts, and other written sources enrich and provide additional biographical information, but it is the grouping that makes a fascinating comparison between the three artists. Certainly for Strindberg’s work, the landscape and sea paintings are among the most impressive artworks displayed: Breathtaking sea storms give the feeling of being caught right in the middle of weather changes and hit by splashes of spindrift bring these Scandinavian landscapes alive.

Among Schönberg’s most striking paintings on display are titled Hass (Hate), created before 1910 (see image above) and is displayed in the collection of ‘State of Mind.’ The bizarre shape of a human corpse without legs catches immediate attention, also because of the unusual colors. The blue face with bright eyes shows no expression, but the chest in dark red shows that the hatred comes right from the heart.

With a budget of about a € 250,000 and an insurance value of over €100 million, this was the Center’s most complex and ambitious exhibit to date, exceeding even the first comprehensive retrospective of Schönberg’s own art in 2005. The labeling is in both German and English, and an additional audio guide is also available. Guided tours are also available.


Exhibition is open until Jan. 18, 2009

Mon, Tue, Thur and Fri, 12 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Wed, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Weekend, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

3., Schwarzenbergplatz 6

(01) 712 18 88


See website also for the Symposium:

‘Nordic Expressionism and the Viennese School’

Oct. 10 – 11, 2008, all day

Admission is Free, except for the concerts

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    the vienna review October 2008