Great and Timeless Paintings from a Realm of Laughter and Light, of Brooding and Darkness

Preface to this Edition
      Wien, Wien, nur Du allein!
      Vienna, Vienna, you alone!
            After a stimulating incubation of fifteen years, this book saw the light of day in 1978. Now, decades later, it beckons to a new audience, one for whom perhaps the two artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele conjure up the most riveting images.
            In America there is excellent reason for this. An extraordinary new museum, the Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art, devoted to early twentieth-century art and design in Germany and Austria, bravely opened its doors exactly two months after 9/11 in 2001. Since then its series of remarkable exhibitions has repeatedly included or featured Klimt and Schiele, and recently this author was honored to curate what became a blockbuster show featuring Schiele’s mesmeric portraits and necessitating a three-month extension. For me this was the climax of my 1963 discovery of the prison cell in which Schiele had been incarcerated in 1912.
            The two Viennese artists have inspired ballets while the movie industry has contributed films and documentaries on both Klimt and Schiele. To name just two movies: Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren and Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment. And a slew of wonderfully illustrated volumes has appeared featuring artists of the major and minor periods covered in this book. Those periods begin with the sixty-nine weird self-portrait heads created by the eccentric sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt during the Age of Enlightenment. This was followed by the Biedermeier epoch of the “little man,” with his insistence on social propriety, but think also Schubert. Then came the bravado burst and detail of Anton Romako and Hans Makart, who had the age named after him. Their colorful bombast (think ahead to Mahler) was followed by the Art nouveau golden glow of Klimt, his allegories, and his femmes fatales (philosophy or pornography?). Paralleling this was the hallucinatory loner, Alfred Kubin (think Franz Kafka), who continued to work in solitude during the very public confessional epoch of Richard Gerstl, Oskar Kokoschka, and Schiele. These Expressionist painters penetrated façades to reveal psyches (think Schönberg). Finally came the inner/outer pandemonium of riches presented by the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism—culmination of the demonic origins of the 1000-year-old Habsburg Empire’s dualisms of reality and escapism, eros and death.
            Of course there were always artists in Vienna who belonged to no particular school or epoch, who simply drew what they saw, in copious detail and reasonably well. Perhaps the most surprising of these is an Austrian who arrived in Vienna at the age of eighteen in February of 1908 for a five-year stay. He was impecunious, intense, and failed the Vienna Academy’s entrance exam. His literal copy of a postcard showing Vienna’s famous Opera House was signed at the lower right. It reads Adolf Hitler:
            Friedrich Hundertwasser, avid environmentalist, was the most beloved and most successful of the sometimes beguiling, sometimes horrific escapism of the fantastic realists. He died, as he perhaps might have liked, in the very first year of the twenty-first-century on the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth II off the coast of his beloved New Zealand. In my pursuit of Klimt and Schiele in the Vienna of the 1960s, I was befriended by this gentle man who shocked audiences by suddenly ripping off his clothes and calmly continuing his lecture in the nude. Our mutual love of historical Vienna united us and he gave me an unforgettable tour of his two-story, glassed-in penthouse studio overlooking Vienna’s Pest Monument. The studio was filled with paintings, but he was eager to show me his latest ecological project. This was a carefully arranged grouping of plants placed on descending levels so that, he explained earnestly, “when I urinate (the word “urinate” was pronounced with a double “oo”) here at the topmost level plant, a Reinigung (purification) takes place as the liquid filters down through the lower plants to the bottom plant.” Compared to the upper level plants this last plant looked amazingly healthy, and right next to it was a display of four liquid-filled drinking glasses and jars along with, to the left, a white bar of soap on a little white stand. Now the liquid was so purified, Friedrich happily explained, that “you can wash your hands with it.” I smiled off his offer and instead conscientiously photographed for history the prize display of soap and purified yellow liquid.
            This book looks back at the extraordinary and extraordinarily diverse artists produced by the City of Dreams (and Nightmares) over five hundred years of war and peace, plague and medical breakthroughs, seismographic political shifts, and shifting personal identities, I am so very happy that the book will now be born again in this new edition.