The highlight of a weekend trip to Vienna was the triple-header of the Christian Schad, Vienna 1900 and Egon Schiele exhibitions at the Leopold Museum.
Christian Schad has been one of my favorite painters ever since I ran across his work in a book about Berlin art through the 20th century. He came to fame in the years of the Weimar Republic, painting portraits of society slummers and amusement park entertainers with an uncommon intensity.
His career paralleled that of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and George Grosz - the "New Objectivity" school of German artists. While he fits comfortably in this group of savage social critics of post-WWI German life, Schad's work lacked the harsh cartoonish mockery of traditional painting that these painters reveled in.
Indeed, the precision brushwork and immaculate finish of Schad's work seem more attuned to the detail-obsessed painting of the middle ages than of Berlin's café underground in the 1920s. But this aspect of his work, and the often bizarre symbolism rendered in the backgrounds of his portraits, serve to keep viewers off-balance and burn an unforgettable image into their heads.
The exhibition was excellent. The amount of major works from the 20s didn't disappoint (despite the absence of many that are currently on loan to the New York Metropolitan for their Glitter and Doom show). There was a lot of attention paid to Schad's post-WWII work in abstract forms and a kind of avant-garde photography of his invention called "Schadography". Add to all that many works from others in the New Objectivity school and you have a show that shouldn't be missed.
After the Schad show we bailed to the Café Leopold to let it all sink in and discuss over coffee. Sitting in a sterile mid-century modern structure that was cold, overcrowded and full of cigarette smoke was not much fun though.
I wish there was a first-class museum on planet Earth that had a really comfortable café with decent eat and drink, but that runs against the mercenary grain of your average world-class museum which is geared only to get you into the cattle chute of the gift shop as soon as soon as possible.
Anyway... after coffee the Secessionist orgy awaited. A comprehensive collection of paintings, sculpture, panels, decor, posters and objets d'art from the Vienna Secession. Some important Gustav Klimt works, graphic design artifacts and a room full of interior decor exhibits were the highlights of this well-organized show.
In a couple of rooms there were glass cases filled with early 20th artifacts showing off the vast influence this art movement had (and still has to some degree) on graphic design and typography. Interesting to see that even the fonts used in the body text of books got an overhaul in this time.
I was pleased that they even made a modest reference to the heavy influence that the secessionists had on 1960s San Francisco artists with their psychedelic poster and album covers.
As a third attraction there was an Egon Schiele 90th "death day" retrospective commemorating the artist's untimely demise from Spanish flu in 1918. Couldn't help but take a spin around a few rooms to see what was on display.
I remember a quip about Egon Schiele I once heard at a San Francisco party. Someone was asking an artist friend of mine if he was going to the see Schiele paintings that were showing at some SF gallery or other, and he answered: "Oh you mean that kid who played with crayons? Shit, I'd pay cover charge at Burger King before I'd buy a ticket to see that stuff."
Well, on my first extensive viewing of a room full of squirming, pouting Schiele characters, I have to say - it looks like the kid DO play with crayons. But it's amazing "stuff" nonetheless. Even after 90 years his originality of form and color leap off the canvas. Any artist's influence can be traced, but to my eyes the figures populating Schiele's canvases are notable for looking like nothing in art before or since.
Some of my favorite works on display were the landscapes - or, more accurately, townscapes. The paintings of houses in rows that look suspiciously like the small, close knit houses of Cesky Krumlov were a surprise delight.
I came away from this all-day visit impressed with the Leopold - the wild museum that lets naked people in free during the dog days of summer. Very uncharacteristic of the typical straight-laced Austrian mentality I must say.