Hub for Austrian modernism

Of all the cultural jewels in New York, the jewel in the crown may be a new museum, the Neue Galerie.

Housed in a 1914 Beaux-Arts mansion, the museum showcases Austrian and German art from 1890 to 1940. Founded as a nonprofit museum with an educational mandate, the museum fulfills the dream of art dealer Serge Sabarsky (who died in 1996) and art collector Ronald Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder International and former US ambassador to Austria. Their goal: to raise awareness of Central Europe's role in emerging modernism, correcting an alleged bias that awards the school of Paris primary credit.

After attracting 65,000 visitors – many more than anticipated – to its New York location at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street in its first four months, the museum now is moving into its second phase. Determined to become an intellectual and cultural hub, it will offer lectures, films, chamber music, and cabaret performances.

Its first on-loan exhibition (through June 10), "Oskar Kokoschka: Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin, 1909-1914," sets the tone for enticing scholarship. Just as the Vienna of 1900 launched an era of aesthetic appreciation, the Neue Galerie hopes to kick off a new wave of connoisseurship.

The building itself is Exhibit A. Exquisitely restored, it's an homage to the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. In this unified approach, not only art but its elegant display is emphasized. One sees vitrines of decorative art in lavish salons with soaring ceilings, gilt friezes, marble dentil moldings, parquet floors, and marble pilasters. Fine art and design share an elevated footing.

The grandiose second-floor galleries house fine and decorative art from the Wiener Werkstätte, a group devoted to integrating the artist's creativity with craftsman's skills; the Vienna Secession (a breakaway group led by the painter Gustav Klimt); and from Austrian Expressionist painters like Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. "New Worlds: Austrian Art and Design, 1890-1940" are on display through the summer.

Six Klimt oil paintings could not be more alluringly displayed than in a gilt and marble gallery, spacious as a ballroom. Klimt's decorative paintings, like "The Dancer" (c.1916-18), shimmer with jewel-like mosaic shapes and patterns. An avatar of Jugendstil, the Austro-German equivalent of Art Nouveau's sinuous forms, Klimt specialized in extravagant ornament. He founded the Secession movement in 1897 as a protest against sterile realism and, in this sense, was part of the new world of innovation in the arts. "More" was never enough for Klimt, as he piled on rich embellishment, often adding the gleam of gold.

Although Klimt gave Kokoschka his start by exhibiting his first work in 1908, the younger painter soon became known as a "Klimt killer." Kokoschka and his compatriot Expressionist Schiele pushed art away from superficial decoration toward the search for inner truth. Modern art was born when portraits ceased being theatrical representations of external reality and became a vehicle for expressing an artist's subjective perceptions and emotion.

Schiele's portraits express his quest for psychological truth, which he depicted by twisting and distorting his subjects' bodies and applying lurid, evocative color. A watercolor self-portrait renders the artist with glaring eyes and emaciated body, radiating tortured anxiety.

In contrast to Expressionist angst are the vitrines of decorative art from the Wiener Werkstätte and furnishings by leading Austrian architects Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, and Otto Wagner. A 1904 copper-and-glass standing clock by Loos stands out, so sheerly minimalist and angular, that it makes Donald Judd's stark boxes look busy. A schnapps glass by Loos, three inches tall, has a scored bottom that refracts light like a disco ball. In these hands, design lifts the ordinary to an objet d'art.

A 1898-99 walnut buffet Wagner designed for his apartment in Vienna is inlaid with mother-of-pearl pegs, so perfectly suited to the whole, they seem like studs on a tuxedo. Nothing extraneous, everything for aesthetic effect.

Hoffmann proved himself master of all he undertook, from chairs to flatware and jewelry. An openwork silver flower basket, a symphony of squares, resembles a modern skyscraper in its simplicity. A 1904 brooch is a tiny, balanced composition of solids and voids, gems and metal.

The third floor, which originally featured work by German Expressionists and Bauhaus architects, now spotlights an amazing parade of portraits by Kokoschka. Called the Oberwilding, or super savage of Vienna, Kokoschka painted portraits with rapid, aggressive strokes, emphasizing hand gestures and scratching the surface of his paintings to try to make inner life visible, as in the double portrait "Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat" (1909).

A friend said, "Where Klimt picks a flower, Kokoschka pulls up the plant by the roots." The old school adorned the world with beauty, while the new generation excavated dirt-clogged reality. What fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schönberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein were doing at the time in psychology, modern music, and philosophy, Kokoschka and Schiele explored in paint.

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