The permanent exhibition at the Leopold Museum provides insight into the explosion of creativity as the Austro-Hungarian empire neared its disintegration in the late-19th and early-20th century.
- A chronology of Vienna modernism
- Illustrated with masterpieces of art and design
- Special galleries dedicated to Schiele, Klimt, Gerstl, Kokoschka, Schoenberg, Hoffmann, Loos, Moser, and more
- Includes a reconstruction of Klimt’s studio
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(Exhibition view © Leopold Museum, Wien; photo: Lisa Rastl)
As the very first room in the Leopold Museum’s permanent collection reminds us, Vienna around 1900 was a city of contrasts where conservative nobles rubbed shoulders with progressive intellectuals.
A city of palaces and slums. A melting pot of nationalities and philosophies. A metropolis of some two million people at the cusp of momentous social, political, economic, scientific, and intellectual change.
In short, Vienna provided fertile ground for the emergence of a group of exceptional artists, architects and designers.
Those individuals ushered in a period of almost unparalleled creativity in European artistic and intellectual endeavour: Vienna modernism.
Three floors of the museum draw you through this period, with a strong emphasis on the personalities who left their mark on (art) history.
Each gallery has a focus, whether one or more themes (e.g. art in the first world war) or one or more artists (e.g. Egon Schiele).
Schiele gets the largest section, reflecting the Leopold Museum’s world-beating collection of his works. In fact, his elevated status in the art world owes much to the efforts of Rudolf und Elisabeth Leopold, whose collection led to the establishment of the museum.
But Schiele does not grab all the glory.
The exhibition includes Klimts galore, portraits by Gerstl, manuscripts by Schoenberg, tableware and furniture by Wagner, Loos, Moser, and Hoffmann. And much more.
The Vienna 1900 highlights
Although paintings dominate, furniture and fittings, tableware and glassware, and other items add a further dimension to the exhibition (both literally and figuratively).
The eclectic mix reflects the way various artists and artistic movements escaped the confines of one medium or genre.
I’m not sure if you’d consider it all a history exhibition with art or an art exhibition with history. Or an art history exhibition. Make your own choice.
While summary texts introduce each theme or artist, the displays provide the real depth. (I found the language in those summaries sometimes goes over the head of the casual visitor.)
(Wien um 1900 exhibition © Leopold Museum, Wien; Photo: Lisa Rastl)
Experts rightly consider the museum’s Egon Schiele collection world-leading. The Leopold owns over 40 paintings and almost 200 works on paper.
While those works on paper are too vulnerable for regular display, many of the paintings grace the walls of the Egon Schiele rooms.
If you’re not averse to darker themes or nudity, some of the exhibits certainly hold the attention of even the untrained eye.
The one painting that sticks most in my memory is Seated Male Nude (self-portrait) with its glowing red eyes and brazen angularity.
Schiele was seemingly quite into self-portrayals and once you’ve done a round of the galleries you start to recognize his face or mannerisms in pictures that were not strictly self-portraits.
Other paintings to look for include Transfiguration, an allegory on death, and the 1912 portrait of his model, muse and long-time companion Wally Neuzil (a piece stolen by the Nazis before it ended up – legitimately – in the Leopold collection).
(Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910/11, reworked in 1912/13 and 1915/16; © Leopold Museum, Vienna; photo: Leopold Museum, Wien)
The Leopold Museum also has a remarkable number of Klimts. The exhibition includes a large room dedicated to his genius and filled with his landscapes and other paintings.
- A reconstruction of Klimt’s 1912 studio, complete with its unique “Malkästchen” for storing his painting utensils
- Klimt’s 1910 Death and Life (perhaps the stand-out work among many)
- Early Klimt oil paintings from the 1880s. These offer just a hint of his future style and fascinate with their relative conventionality compared to later works like The Kiss
- A small room dedicated to the Flöges, which highlights Emilie Flöge’s role as Klimt’s muse. This adds a fashion element to the collection, reinforcing the broader nature of the changes associated with Vienna 1900
- The Secession group of artists played a big role in Vienna at the turn of the century, and the giant 1902 staged photo of some of its members holds a peculiar fascination
Two characters stand out from the group, thanks to the particular aura they seem to project: Klimt and Koloman Moser. Coincidence?
- The work of the Wiener Werskstätte creates a beautifully-lit collection of colours and forms from the likes of Moser and Josef Hoffmann: tableware, jewellery, glassware and similar
- The furniture of Moser and Hoffman, but also Wagner, Loos and others gives that extra dimension I spoke of earlier. This includes a complete bedroom of the daughter of an industrial magnate from 1902 that features mainly original furniture with the odd reconstruction
- Among many portraits by Arnold Schoenberg is a piece of sheet music from his piano piece op 11/2 from 1909, influenced by the death of Richard Gerstl
Gerstl and Schoenberg were close. At least until the former ran off with Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde. Gerstl then took his own life when she returned to her husband. The various works by both men on display achieve an additional poignancy in the context of the relationship between the two.
The above highlights merely skim the surface of what’s on offer. And when you’re done, you can experience another dose or two of Vienna modernism at the MAK and Belvedere museums. After all, as Klimt once said:
Whoever wants to know something about me, they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognise what I am and what I want.
(Belvedere in particular has a stunning Klimt collection and a fair few works by Schiele, too.)