Rethinking Vienna 1900

An exhibition at the MAK lures visitors back to Vienna’s modern past; or to the future?

On The Town | Camilo C. Antonio | Vienna 1900

Studio Cabinet for Koloman Moser by Josef Hoffmann, Vienna, 1898 (Photo: MAK/Georg Mayer)

Last year, Vienna revived its modernist past with a flurry of activities around the iconic painting The Kiss to celebrate the 150th birthday of Gustav Klimt. The buzz portrayed the painter, one of the driving forces behind the Wiener Secession, as foremost among progressive artists who ushered in the period of optimism they dubbed the "Sacred Spring" (Ver Sacrum).

Thus, to many museum-goers, Klimt may appear to stand alone as "prime mover" of Viennese Modernism, a movement that made the imperial city at the turn of the 20th century the uncontested cultural capital of central Europe.

In Vienna 1900 New From Two Perspectives, a special exhibition that opened last November and runs through 17 March at the MAK (Museum für angewandte Kunst), curator and art historian Christian Witt-Dörring tells a different story. "The conceptual framework is crucial," he said in an interview.

He assigns a central role to Otto Wagner as the "leading light of Modernist Vienna", among other architects, notably Adolf Loos. Although it was Loos who said, "uniting art and function was an act of un-culture," it was Wagner who posed the critical question: How do I make something modern?

"Wagner was not alone in facing that burning issue," Witt-Dörring asserts, "but it was he who published a definitive reply."

Artists were trying to overcome Historicism under pressures of industrial mass production and standardisation. In 1896, in a manifesto that affected a paradigmatic shift in Viennese modernism, Wagner provided four "biblical" tenets Witt-Dörring simplified thus: "Function must be defined firstly, which determines the fit of materials, and apt techniques, and finally form that should evolve from all those three."

Witt-Dörring has been Curator of Decorative Arts at the Neue Galerie in New York ever since leaving the MAK in 2004, where he had been custodian of the museum’s furniture department since 1979. He has returned as guest curator with a special challenge: to design the first phase of a work-in-progress as part of a strategic renewal to present the MAK’s permanent collections, unchanged since 1993. The concept focuses less on masterpieces and more on the contextual-scientific dimensions behind the museum’s holdings.

But, there have been many and varied exhibitions on Viennese Modernism, including those in New York and Melbourne, that Witt-Dörring has curated to international acclaim, earning him a global reputation for "must-go-to-see sensibility". What’s new this time?


Still-life storytelling

There’s a rich, cultural sweep spanning 1890-1938 that engages Modernist ideas with an educational focus, to help position the MAK as a centre of research on Viennese Modernism. Architect Michael Embacher framed the installation in three galleries relating the era’s sources and vision with an overlapping timeline.

The first showroom represents the artistic and creative ferment that characterised Western Europe between 1890 and 1900, when identities – bourgeois, female, proletarian and national – found encouragement and individual expression became the key to modernity.

During the second period from 1900 to WWI, a stylistic break occurs in applied arts from the Kunstgewerbeschule and the Wiener Werkstätte. Some products may seem indulgent, hedonistic and clearly provocative, like Dagobert Peche’s architectonic black cabinet that seems draped in a carpet of golden flora. Peche’s creations carried a new credo: to emancipate the arts from utility.

The third Modernist strand represents the period between the wars. After 1918, Modernism flourished in the expansive heterogeneity of tastes, with individual and democratic aspirations. Prominence is given to Austria’s first woman architect Margarete Schütte Lihotzky, whose completely furnished, multi-functional bürgerlicher Raum evokes her work as a "domestic socialist". This stimulating climate was cut short by the Anschluss in 1938 and supressed until 1945, leaving the arts scene in shreds – to be picked up only much later in today’s burgeoning creative industries, when Vienna is again a European hub.


Radicalism in perspective

Visitors with a Post-Modernist or Minimalist sense may feel swamped by a world of objets d’art. Some, like the Slavic folk art, feel out of context and fine crockery and cutlery fights to be seen against Klimt’s sensuous frieze and Josef Frank’s textiles billowing in "window frames". Some seem to have been positioned as "emancipatory acts" from Historicism’s décor-excesses, like Wagner’s Art Nouveau glass cabinet, the pure construction clearly defining its aesthetic. Others express the unity of the arts espoused by Wiener Secessionists Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. Assigning the status of art to designed objects, they launched a characteristic Austrian style that blended native folk art with the clean lines and luscious materials of early 19th-century Biedermeier.

"All that," says the curator, "indicates how Viennese avant-gardes went searching for a modern style, not as radical movers and shakers defying convention, but in response to expressed needs within households of a growing middle class."

The exhibition also juxtaposes a wide range of imports from Great Britain, Belgium and Japan to show influences and enable comparisons. "It is important to see the radicalism," Witt-Dörring stresses, "not as a deliberate and isolated phenomenon but framed within a tradition." As composer Gustav Mahler famously said, "tradition is the passing on of the fire, not the worship of ashes."

Witt-Dörring is pleased with the result. "What really excites me," he said, "is to bring together furnishings that had been separated from their original homes and to understand, even from their dates of purchase, why they were considered worth collecting."


For information on the detailed public programmes and guided tours, visit


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