Vienna marks centenary of artistic golden era

Vienna is marking 100 years since the death of a string of luminaries from its fin-de-siecle glory days with an avalanche of exhibitions of modernist art, design and architecture that still inspire and shock today.

Vienna marks centenary of artistic golden era
Visitors walk past a painting titled "Venus in the Grotto" by Austrian artist Koloman Moser during the exhibition at the Leopold Museum titled "Vienna 1900!" Photo: AFP

The year 1918 did not only mark defeat in World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire but also saw artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser and architect Otto Wagner pass away.

Klimt died from a stroke at 55, an infection claimed Wagner's life at 76 and cancer killed Moser aged 50. Schiele survived being conscripted into the war only to die in the Spanish flu pandemic, three days after his pregnant wife Edith. He was just 28.

All were leading lights in the revolutions in art, literature, architecture, psychology, philosophy and music that made the imperial city on the Danube the buzzing intellectual hub of the world at the time.

“It was a unique collision of all forms of art and science — the literature of Hofmannsthal, the atonal music of Schönberg, psychoanalysis with Freud and even economics with Schumpeter,” Hans-Peter Wipplinger, director of the Leopold Museum, told AFP.

“Vienna was not always a trend setter, but always good at making something special out of something which already existed,” said art historian Alexandra Brauner. “We made something really special out of it.”

Stairway to Klimt

The Leopold kicked off the anniversary year this week with the first of its six special exhibitions — in Vienna and around there are around 20 — focusing on Klimt, Moser as well as Richard Gerstl and Oskar Kokoschka.

It also showcases examples of classic 1900-era design such as furniture, artisan craftwork and posters created by Moser and others in the Wiener Werkstätte community of artists that he co-founded.

From February a special Leopold show shines the light on Schiele, whose tortured eroticism still causes blushes to this day — as witnessed by the prudish covering up of genitals on advertising posters in London last year.

The Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) will from December 19 show off some of its Wiener Werkstätte treasures and from May 30 looks at the influence of Wagner's influence on contemporaries, pupils and subsequent generations of
architects and designers.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum will next month erect again its “Stairway to Klimt” allowing visitors to examine up close some of the works painted by the artist between the pillars and arches of the building early in his career.

Nazi looters

The Bank Austria Kunstforum will explore Japanese influences, the Jewish Museum will from May hark back to the artistic salons of the time, while the Klimt Villa will look into the looting of many works by the Nazis and what
happened later.

Vienna's thriving Jewish community were big drivers in the city's flourishing intellectual, scientific and artistic scene, not least in buying up artworks to fill their homes.

In his later years Klimt's studio had “two separate entrances. One for models who would then wait in an antechamber, often with next to no clothes on, and another for his rich customers,” said Baris Alakus, director of the
Klimt Villa.

By 1918, Vienna was already starting to be eclipsed, and 20 years later Hitler — rejected as a young man by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts — annexed his native country, first robbing and then destroying the Jewish population.

The postwar restitution of artworks to their former owners' descendants, now spread around the globe, has been tortuous and in some cases incomplete, with many paintings controversially ending up in state hands.

It took until 1998 for the Austrian parliament to pass a law allowing some 10,000 works to be returned.

In one of the biggest cases, five Klimt masterpieces were returned in 2006 to the descendant of the Jewish family they were stolen from after a legal battle with Austria's Belvedere Museum.


EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?

Vienna's Fiaker - the horse-drawn carriages seen across the city's streets for centuries - are popular with tourists, but animal rights advocates say the practice is cruel, particularly as temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?

The image of two horses carrying a carriage full of tourists mesmerised by beautiful Austrian sights is quite a common one, particularly in Vienna.

The Fiaker, which is the Austrian name (borrowed from French) for the set of two horses, plus a carriage and coachman, are quite popular and represent an important part of Viennese history.

The first license for a Fiaker was granted in the capital around 1700. They rose in popularity before the advent of cars in the 1900s.

“They are just as much a part of Vienna as St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Giant Ferris Wheel: the fiakers”, according to the Vienna Tourist Board.

READ ALSO: One day in Vienna: How to spend 24 hours in the Austrian capital

Now, though, the symbol for the capital has become the target of controversy. For years, animal rights groups have protested against the overworking of the animals, the stressful conditions for the horses on busy Viennese roads and the extreme heat they face in summer. 

What are the main issues raised?

For years now, several animal rights groups have protested against exploiting the animals for touristic purposes.

By Vienna regulations, the horses need to be out of the streets once temperatures reach 35C. Many groups ask for the limit to be at least 30C instead.

Additionally, the temperature base is measured at the stables, in the mostly shaded areas from where the animals leave every morning to work in Vienna’s first district, where the blazing sun and scorching pavements could make temperatures higher by several degrees.

READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them

Another issue raised by groups is that the fiaker no longer fits in a busy 21st-century capital – with its busy roads and loud cars. They claim that walking among the many vehicles and tourists of the first district is unnecessarily stressful for the horses.

A traditional Fiaker in the Viennese first district. (photo: Amanda Previdelli / The Local)

What do the fiaker associations say?

Many representatives of the organisations reiterate that the animals are well-cared for and used to the heat.

A spokeswoman for the carriage companies asks for a round table with politicians as debates heat up, ORF reported. The veterinarian Isabella Copar, who works for two Fiaker farms, says there is no basis for the 30C regulation.

“I don’t understand that politicians make a judgment on animal welfare, even though they have no idea about the animals”, she told the broadcaster.

READ ALSO: How to explore the Austrian mountains in the summer like a local

Copar mentions a 2008 study by the Veterinary school of the University of Vienna saying that after nearly 400 measurements on the animals, not a single case of “heat stress” was found.

As for the infamous cases when horses have collapsed in the streets of Vienna during particularly hot days, she states that the collapses are usually due to a horse disease.

It was never possible to establish a connection with the heat. “If this happens in the stable, no one is interested,” the veterinarian said.

What is next?

The latest news in the controversy is a major one. The Health Minister, who is also Animal Protection Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens), has stated he would “welcome” a debate about a Fiaker ban.

“You should think about it, really for animal welfare reasons, whether you should expose a horse to this stress.

According to the minister, there is a question also as to whether the use of the carriages fits in the context of a large city at all. “I think that’s a bit outdated”, he said.

READ ALSO: Austria bans ‘senseless’ killing of chicks with new animal welfare rules

There is a particular tug of war between the City and the Federal Government regarding whose responsibility it is to act on a possible ban or even tighten the rules.

Both authorities are set to talk about the issue in June. They are set to also speak with the Fiaker associations.

Vienna is unlikely to see a total ban as early as that. Still, a 30C temperature limit after which the horses would need to be sent back to stables could be heading to the capital.