Across the whole of Europe and especially in Germany, this period saw a return to a realistic representation of things as a counter movement to the abstract trends of the 1910s. In Austria the greatest exponents of this style known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) included Rudolf Wacker, Herbert Ploberger, Marie-Louise Motesiczky, and Franz Sedlacek.
The majority of Austrian artists tended to paint in a lyrical, predominantly naturalistic style, focusing on traditional subjects in painting such as landscape, portrait, and still life. A center of this representational style was established by a group of artists in Carinthia known as the Nötsch Circle.
Even in the first three decades of the twentieth century, many Austrian artists had emigrated to other countries, for example the USA or France, in anticipation of better working conditions and career prospects. As of 1938, however, the growing powers of the dictatorial Nazi regime forced many artists to flee into exile, among them Max Oppenheimer, Joseph Floch, Franz Lerch, Wolfgang Paalen, Hans Boehler, Fritz Wotruba, and Georg Ehrlich. Others, who could not escape, were persecuted and murdered after having been banned from painting and practicing their profession. Émigré artists encountered fresh inspiration and new networks thus arose.
The Belvedere’s collection includes Village Landscape (1912–13) by Fernand Léger, one of the few examples from the early period of French Cubism. Alfred Wickenburg, from Graz, had studied with Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1906 to 1909 and his work Rinaldo and Armida (1923) is one of the most significant examples of Cubist figure painting in Austria at this time.
Czech artists had already adopted the formal language of Cubism in their compositions prior to 1914. Outstanding representatives of this style include Emil Filla and Antonin Procházka. Works by both of these artists, in addition to numerous other Czech masterpieces, were given to the museum on permanent loan from the Rotter Collection in 2012 and they shed new light on the relationship between Czech artists and their Viennese colleagues. Masterpieces from the Thyssen Collection, also on permanent loan to the Belvedere, round off this representation of links to abstraction in Vienna. Viennese Kineticism, Czech Cubism, and Russian Constructivism are thus presented together for the first time.
From the mid-1920s, Neue Sachlichkeit was one of the few reference points within an art scene made up of somewhat disparate styles. The leading master of this style in Austria was Rudolf Wacker from Vorarlberg. His painting Two Heads (1932) has a matter-of-fact precision that hints at something demonic and menacing, so typical of many works in this style. Similarly, the art of Franz Sedlacek has a fantastical narrative style that often appears bizarre. Comparing these with works by the Czech Surrealists has also presented new perspectives in the appraisal of their mutual influences.
Franz Wiegele, Anton Kolig, Sebastian Isepp, and Anton Mahringer all belonged to the artist group known as the Nötsch Circle in Carinthia, who concentrated mainly on the genres of figure and landscape painting. However, many Austrian painters working between the two world wars cannot be categorized as belonging to one particular style as they found their own individual mode of expression.
The work of Wilhelm Thöny from Graz is a case in point. He worked in an extraordinary, non-academic style, rendering his images with a pared down fragility and often a touch of irony. Oskar Laske adopted a narrative, anecdotal style, sometimes – as in his painting Ship of Fools (1923) – resembling caricature. Other artists, such as Josef Dobrowsky in Vienna or Jean Egger from Carinthia, placed an emphasis on gestural brushwork. Egger’s work in particular pushed the boundaries of representational art.
In addition, the Belvedere houses important examples of post-1918 German painting. Among these highlights are a series of late works by Lovis Corinth. These include The Herzogstand at Walchensee in the Snow (1922), a striking reflection of how the artist’s works were dissolving into a painterly and gestural style. The picture Reclining Woman with Book and Irises (1931) is a masterpiece by Max Beckmann that achieves a balance between expressive line, symbolic content, and harmonious colors.
Fritz Wotruba was, besides Anton Hanak, Austria’s greatest sculptor of the twentieth century. Wotruba’s late work reveals elements of Cubism and a strong tendency toward abstract block-like forms. Yet the human figure always remained at the heart of his art, as his stone sculpture Large Seated Figure (Cathedral) (1945) reveals.
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