A Complex Alliance Between An Artist and His Atelier

HOW do I imagine an artist's atelier? On one level I guess I imagine it the way I have been told it is - by Franco Zeffirelli, for example, and his stage sets for ``La Boh`eme'' - a garret apartment, the rooftops of Paris, smoke pouring out the chimneys into a December sky, the evening rays of sun (not enough to warm the chilly room) illuminating dirty skylights, a bluish cast to the dingy apartment itself, most of the furniture sold to buy paints. Candle wax dripped everywhere. And too little of everything - food, heat, clothing. Well, maybe. But that's an opera set. And that's Paris. What about Vienna? The ones I've seen here in real life - and now also at the exhibition ``Interiors: Artists' Apartments 1830-1930'' - are different. In fact, not one of them fits the above description at all.

These studios are as varied as the artists must have been themselves; as full of warmth, wit, charm, or as lacking; and suggestive of a broad range of working habits. One artist can't stand clutter, or distractions, another has to have both, can't work without them. One demands utter silence, another finds it unbearable. ``You say tomato, I say ... ''

The alliance between an artist and his space is a complex one. In order to create other worlds, the artist must first create the one that surrounds him. The energy he invests in the room he gets back from it as well. But the essence of the artist is not the space he creates - because he continually shatters that space in order to create anew. The room must be capable of becoming a different place; lest it impede his growth. Herein lies the challenge of the room - the overcoming of it.

An examination of that ``active'' space is like an examination of a living thing: a garden, growing unplanted, untended, unobserved, perfect.

But perhaps the traces left by the artist on his room are best illustrated by a simple example: a head of cabbage. With the pulling back of each successive leaf, one sees the leaf that lay below - waiting to be uncovered, and itself covering others. Its shape is the result of the shapes that enclosed it, and yet it is infinitely different. It is both the marker and the marked - for every other leaf is related to it and independent of it in just this same way.

And so I find the photographs and paintings in the show very emotional. The moment each portrays is a tangible expression of a state of mind, a fragment of a road map to the artist's intellectual growth. Each has a ``just-so'' character all its own. Modest - even when grand, generous - even when sparse. Unpretentious.

Represented in the show are apartments of a variety of artists: painters, sculptors, writers, composers, actors, and dancers. They range from the ateliers and apartments of Peter Altenberg, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wold, and Karl Krauss to those designed by Josef Hoffmann for the likes of Kolo Moser, Hugo Henneberg, and Victor Spitzer. Examples of the working and living spaces of women artists are conspicuously less apparent. But this is more a commentary on attitudes in 19th- and early 20th-century society than a criticism of the exhibition.

One of my favorite items in the show is the photograph reprinted here of the apartment Peter Altenberg kept at the Graben Hotel, a few blocks from St. Stephen's Square. Its modest and graceful air is rife with poignancy. Altenberg, a turn-of-the-century writer and something of a cult figure, brings out a kind of poetry in this small hotel room through his whimsical arrangement. This is the proverbial ``broom closet'' with enough heart to fill a ballroom.

An especially interesting aspect of the exhibition is the number of artists' self-portraits portraying themselves in their own living or working environments. Joseph Ziegler's watercolor/gouache ``Self-Portrait of the Architect'' from 1831 is charming in its appreciation for detail. Everything from the furniture's veneer, to the locking system of the windows, to the ubiquitous architectural renderings on the walls has been duly noted and recorded.

Perhaps this kind of care for detail is the common thread that runs through the exhibition: an important, if not vital, aspect of the artist's nature made evident by his most immediate environment.

``Real life'' artists' apartments, as opposed to opera sets, are more than mere backdrops for action. They display the artist, but they also envelop him. They are at once refuge and battleground. They are, like other tools, an instrument of his craft. They know all the secrets ... and betray only a few.

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