First it was Weimar, then Vienna. There is something bizarre about the way certain periods of modern cultural history are suddenly transformed into objects of contemporary yearning and nostalgia. Think of the romance that has been made of Weimar Germany in recent decades. Weimar was the prelude and handmaiden of the greatest disasters of the 20th century, yet it has been turned into a cultural entertainment for the very class-the philistine bourgeoisie-that became the principal object of ridicule and contempt in Weimar culture. It is almost enough to make one believe in Sigmund Freud’s theory of the death wish.
No sooner did the romance of Weimar in the 1920′s seem to run its course, with The Threepenny Opera off the boards and the movie version of Cabaret relegated to the video-cassette market, then it was quickly supplanted by an emerging cult of fin de siècle Vienna. After the delectations of Weimar-style cynicism and immoralism, what was wanted, apparently, was a taste of Vienna-style repression and hypocrisy made all the more glamorous by the elegant end-of-empire décor and fin de siècle pathos that are the inevitable accompaniment of such a revival.
And so, as our own revolution in sexuality and morals continues on its merry course of disaster and disarray, there is a certain piquancy in pondering the repressions of Altwien , the old Vienna whose most enduring legacy has proved to be the mystagogy of Freudian psychoanalysis. Cultural life at the end of this century does indeed move in mysterious ways, offering up the sufferings and failures of the past as compensation for the ruin we have brought upon ourselves.
In this calendar of compensatory cultural revivals, the exhibition now devoted to the art of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) at the Museum of Modern Art must be regarded as somewhat belated. Upon the young, Schiele’s erotic art may still have an impact out of all proportion to its intrinsic esthetic merit, for the younger generations-to judge, at least, from the movies and pop music they consume in such gigantic quantities-seem to have acquired a taste for the kind of brutalized sentimentality that Schiele brought to the depiction of his own erotic obsessions. Yet whether, even among the young, Schiele’s drawings and paintings are any longer capable of eliciting their intended frisson , remains a question. And stripped of the voyeuristic shudder that was so much a part of the artist’s vision, Schiele’s art tends now to look more historical-a document of its era-and a good deal less artistically compelling.
It is, of course, the art of a young artist, dead at the age of 28-and an artist, moreover, who didn’t live long enough to acquire any real mastery of the art of painting. Schiele’s art is that of a gifted draftsman who, in appropriating some of the formal devices of Jugendstil design, the central European version of Art Nouveau, moved quickly to place them at the service of his own unruly erotic passions. There had always been an element of sentimental eroticism in Jugendstil decorative art, but in keeping with the hypocrisies of the society it adorned, Jugendstil eroticism remained, for the most part, elegant, artificial and discreet.
It was Schiele’s distinction to have made a specialty of explicitly depicting the rebellious sexuality that the genteel decorative art of the Jugendstil era lavished such elaborate artifice on concealing. In that endeavor, which remained the ruling passion of his explosive, short-lived artistic career, he made the young naked body-his own and those of the girls he persuaded to pose for him-the iconic focus of a remorseless sexual polemic. The ferocity that Schiele brought to this project, the unforgiving quality of the emotions he invested in its realization and the unrelieved tension that sustained it, resulted in a graphic style that is in some respects almost as artificial as that of the Jugendstil subterfuge it was meant to supplant. That is the great irony of Schiele’s art: that its punishing account of a rebellious eroticism remains locked in the restrictive stylistic mannerism of the era he was determined to subvert and escape.
Even his deliberately provocative concentration on depicting the genitalia of his subjects-his own included-never quite escapes that mannerism. It simply inverts the artificial beauty of Jugendstil into the artificial ugliness of his own iconography.
The exhibition that Magdalena Dabrowski has organized in Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna has the merit of bringing us many of the artist’s most accomplished drawings and watercolors. All of the work is drawn from the collection of Dr. Rudolf Leopold, an Austrian ophthalmologist, which will become part of the Leopold Museum, scheduled to open in Vienna in the year 2002. But an exhibition of this scale for an artist who died so young-some 150 works-inevitably leaves us with a vivid sense of Schiele’s shortcomings as well.
As for where the exhibition fits into the larger revival of fin de siècle Vienna we have been witnessing in recent years, it is my own impression that it doesn’t add a lot to what we already know about that brilliant and deeply corrupt era. In this respect, it is worth recalling something that the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig wrote about the period that is so vividly documented in Schiele’s work. In the memoir called The World of Yesterday , which Zweig completed just before his suicide in 1942, he wrote: “We should not permit ourselves to be misled by sentimental novels and stories of that epoch. It was a bad time for youth. The young girls were hermetically locked up under the control of the family, hindered in their free bodily as well as intellectual development. The young men were forced to secrecy and reticence by a morality which fundamentally no one believed or obeyed.” That we have now turned that epoch into an object of yearning and nostalgia says more about us than about fin de siècle Vienna.
The exhibition remains on view at MoMA through Jan. 4.