Vienna is a wonderful city at almost any time, but at present it is particularly inviting. In addition to its superb permanent collections, such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum, there are several temporary exhibitions of outstanding quality and interest.
Top of these must come the magnificent exhibition of the work of Koloman Moser (1868-1918) at the Leopold Museum, which continues until 10 September 2007. Moser was one of the leading artists of the Secession and a close associate of Gustav Klimt. He trained and practised as a painter of great power and sensitivity, influenced at first by Klimt and later by the Swiss painter Hodler. Moser went on to become one of the driving forces behind the Wiener Werstätte, an industrial design organisation which set out to apply the highest artistic ideals to the design and manufacture of artefacts.
Moser was 25 when The Studio was founded in 1893, and the British journal became a seminal influence upon the development of art and design in Vienna, as it did elsewhere. Moser's own work was, in turn, illustrated in early issues of The Studio.
Moser's paintings are remarkably good. I say 'remarkably', because so many designers with a background in the fine arts do not achieve a great deal before they become full-time designers. His paintings are rich and vibrant in colour and powerful in design. They also capture the thrusting energy of life in Vienna at that time in a most vivid way. If Moser had never designed a single artefact, he would have been a painter of outstanding quality.
His design work ranged through almost every medium, including graphics, stained glass, furniture and interiors. The principal characteristics of his work as a designer are a simple elegance of form combined with surfaces rich in both texture and colour. Unlike so much of the design of the period, his work draws you in and invites you to touch, feel, and use.
In stark contrast to the hedonistic joy of Moser, the Albertina presents a fine collection of work by the painters of 'Die Brücke' (until 2 September 2007), which flourished 1905-1913, and whose principal members were Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel. Drawing upon kindred spirits in early Expressionism, such as late Van Gogh and the 'Fauves', the artists of 'Die Brücke' practised what was seen at the time as a kind of calculated savagery with paint. Harsh saturated colours jangle and clash. Forms are enclosed with roughly slashed profiles. Niceties of both anatomy and taste are gloriously ignored. Seeing this exhibition, one can fully understand why their work evoked such puzzlement and even revulsion. In addition to an excellent collection of paintings, the show features much of the group's graphic work, tracing the way in which it led to a revival of the woodcut, hitherto abandoned for several centuries.
For deep-seated historical reasons, British permanent collections are relatively poor in regard to their holdings of German art, particularly that of the 20th century. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see work of a kind that is generally unavailable in the UK.
The Moser and Die Brücke exhibitions present us with two contrasted cultures, closely located in time. At the Liechtenstein Museum they are complemented by a fine exhibition from a quite different historical period, namely Biedermeier; German domestic art and design in the period 1815-1848 (until 20 August 2007). Biedermeier was, in essence, a celebration of the domestic and the ordinary, of good manners and good taste. Falling between the turbulence of the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and the revolution of 1848 it depicts a culture that yearned for stability and calm. It celebrated clean, neatly furnished interiors, well-behaved children and the pleasures of bourgeois polite society.
For the visitor with some time to spare, there is also at the moment an excellent show at the Kunstforum entitled 'Eros', representing different aspects of sexuality (ends 22 July 2007). The general quality of the work assembled is impressive, including as it does Klimt, Schiele, Cézanne, Degas, Bonnard and many other artists of distinction. I felt that some of the work, although featuring nudes, had a doubtful connection to sexuality, which is the theme of the show, but that does not detract from the exhibition's intrinsic interest.
To encourage a reader to spend their time and money to go and see an exhibition is in itself a responsibility not to be taken lightly. To encourage someone to get on a plane and go to another country is even more serious. However, I would have no hesitation in encouraging the reader to get to Vienna as soon as possible and see these wonderful shows. You will enjoy it, or I'll eat my hat.