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Decadence: Aspects of Austrian Symbolism

Curated by Alfred Weidinger

Lower Belvedere, Vienna

21 June to 13 October 2013

Karl Mediz Red Angel, 1902 Oil on canvas 172 x 185.5 cm © Private collection, Vienna

Karl Mediz
Red Angel, 1902
Oil on canvas
172 x 185.5 cm
© Private collection, Vienna

This intriguing exhibition highlights certain Symbolist strands in Austrian art from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century.

The trusty triumvirate – Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka – are represented, they are however joined by a myriad of other, less well known artists from Austria as well as by artists from further afield.  Among the latter, there are notable works by Moreau and Munch.

Rather a revelation, some of the works of these ‘minor’ artists.  Karl Mediz’s Red Angel (1902) is presented above.  Here is another work, Giovanni Segantini’s The Evil Mothers:

Giovanni Segantini

Giovanni Segantini
The Evil Mothers , 1894
Oil on canvas
105 x 200 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna

There are several sections to the exhibition, with themes including From Allegory to Symbol, Faces- Bodies – Landscapes, Woman as a Symbol, Between Underworld and Universe, and Richard Wagner and the Symbolists.  It has to be said though that the demarcation lines are often quite fuzzy.  Many paintings could, you feel, fit into more than one category.

One could perhaps best sum up the thesis of the exhibition as being something like this: Symbolism and Decadence (described by Agnes Husslein-Arco, director of the Belvedere  as ‘a cryptic aestheticism of decay, mysticism, and enigma’) allowed these artists to go beyond a given, rather banal reality (when was it anything but?) and to create fantastic, mythic spiritual worlds, so presenting deeper, more complex truths about the human condition.  The emphasis of these works is on subjectivity and suggestion, spirituality and sensuality.  Both movements therefore made much that came after (chiefly the Secession and Surrealism) possible.  It makes a kind of sense, at any rate it’s an argument worth making.

When you undertake the journey, entering a maze of images at once beautiful, haunting and provocative, you can engage with the thesis.  The paintings and sculptures themselves make the case, you merely have to compare, contrast and reflect upon them.  It is a rewarding ramble.

One of my thoughts was that these artists were Freud’s contemporaries and that most of the works on display were produced during his lifetime.  Suddenly Psychoanalysis (and Surrealism, the other movement that Freud sparked into life, albeit inadvertantly) became altogether quite sensible and understandable.  This is its natural habitat.

Finally, it would be amiss of me not to give an image of the most famous artwork on show, Klimt’s Judith:

Gustav Klimt Judith, 1901 Oil on canvas 84 x 42 cm © Belvedere, Vienna

Gustav Klimt
Judith, 1901
Oil on canvas
84 x 42 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna

Decadence, featuring 61 artists, is on show at the Belvedere until 13 October. 

Further details can be found here.