Decadence: Aspects of Austrian Symbolism
Curated by Alfred Weidinger
Lower Belvedere, Vienna
21 June to 13 October 2013
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:
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:
Decadence, featuring 61 artists, is on show at the Belvedere until 13 October.
Further details can be found here.