The goal in uniting these various paintings and sketches is in some ways obvious and in other ways calls for great searching from the viewer. But first, some context: this collection spans most of the great painters that took part in the Vienna Secession, dating roughly from 1897-1905. Each of the works in this collection were made after the Secession broke up, which ensures that each work seen today was influenced by the Secession and by its founders. One of the main critiques of this movement is that there is no recognizable style that emerged from it. The slogan of the group was said to be “To every age its art. To art its freedom.” which seems to encapsulate the then-infuriating idea that art did not have to stem from history. If for no other reason, this collection – a groups of paintings and sketches whose common theme is simply subject matter, unknown male figure as expressed by the post-Vienna Secession Vienna Secessionists– has been brought together to represent the age of “art its freedom” and to explore what possibilities that brought to the artists. As they grappled with art-making in an ever changing world, they sought to let their art change on its own time. Regardless of their success in asserting art over culture, it is important to let a snapshot of the unique work of these men shine out of the now obsolete Vienna Secession into postmodern America. The goal of these men was in many ways to owe nothing to history. Be challenged to look for history in these paintings. Search for yourself. The purpose of visiting today is not to prove the success or failure of the artists, it is to search. Look for similarities, look for history, look for something you have never seen before. Go home and do some research. This gallery is not for consuming, it is for propelling.
Egon Schiele, Portrait of Herbert Rainer, 1910
Graphite, Met Museum, 1984.433.287ab
Cuno Amiet, Portrait d'Alberto, 1910
The near-chiseled look of this youth is possibly the most defining part of this piece. Upon closer inspection, however, the color blocking and heavy brushstrokes point to the monotony of Portrait d’Alberto. Monotony, because this could be any boy. Unlike young Herbert, he looks off into the distance and in that glance he seals the fate that he may never be known. What does it mean to be known?
Egon Schiele, Two Boys, 1910
Herbert Rainer, seen for the second time, flanked by a baby doll little boy is still almost as mysterious as when he was first seen, bodiless. There are some more clues to his personhood, however, as the color of his hair is filled in, his eyes shines on, and his hair rings with a bit more life. His hands are gone from this picture. Is Schiele asking his viewer to forget, or is he asking them to remember the gnarled hands seen first in his sketch. In striking likeness to Portrait d’Alberto the background boy simply stares – not as an invitation to look closer, but in a dull and lifeless way.
Oskar Kokoschka, The So-Called Savoyard Boy, 1913
Sketch and Study
Unlike the style of the other pieces in this collection, The so-called Savoyard boy portrays an emaciated boy with his body on the ground. At the time when this was made, work like this was very new and very uncomfortable. As the Vienna Secession was a departure from familiar art, this style of painting and sketching was a departure from the normative nude figure. Erotic yet repulsively unhealthy, the body of this boy brings a seemingly new and uncomfortable view of the unknown nude to light.
Koloman Moser, Standing Youth, c. 1915
The use of color in this piece is an immediate indicator of His body is beautiful, and yet it is reminiscent of an archetype, not a real human. The title declares his youth, but his shadowed face suggests more than adolescence. This is a portrait yet it could be anyone. Knowing that these paintings were done by contemporaries there is an off-chance that the boys in these paintings knew each other. To be known yesterday, but unknown today – that is a common, human fear. Is the unknown man simply a self-portrait of humanity?
Egon Schiele, The Rainer Boy (Portrait of Herbert Rainer at the Age of About Six), 1910
Oil on Canvas, Belvedere Museum
Seen for the third time in this gallery, Herbert Rainer is finally complete, yet from three paintings it is hard to know much more about him. His eyes again, look forward, but this time declare nothing. How can it be that these “windows to the soul” shine but do not give understanding? While the body is finally complete, though tangled at best, there seems to be less to gain from this colorful caricature than from the original sketch to which this painting owes its origin. Herbert Rainer, it seems, will always remain a mystery.
Richard Gerstl, Arnold Schönberg, 1906
Oil on Canvas
Unlike many of the subjects, Schönberg is a well-known music composer. The intrigue of the unknown is not present in the subject and yet he is reminiscent of young Herbert in an inescapable but curious way. He is the only adult subject, and perhaps for that reason it is appropriate to end with him. Maybe it is because he, like young Herbert, looks to you. Or maybe it is because he brings closure to a group of unknowns. He was known, and is known. His painter was not known, yet is now known. He is a possible projection of the future, and he, like everyone, has been shaped by history.