Secessionist Art Exhibition Is An Intriguing Breed Apart

August 30, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

By 1897, a group of Austrian artists had had it. They were disgustedwith the fuddy duddiness of Vienna's conservative Society of Artistsand frustrated by their country's slowness to react and respond to the cataclysmic changes that were wrenching the art world on the cusp of the new century.

Under the leadership of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), this coterie of artists broke ranks with their complacent colleagues and founded the movement that would aptly become known as Secessionism.

The Secessionists were quick to seek out and exhibit the works ofadventurous foreign artists (America's James McNeill Whistler was a favorite of theirs) and eager to tap new sources of influence -- Freudian psychology, Asian art, Modernism -- and see where they all wouldlead. "To the age of art," they said. "To art its freedom."

A remarkable collection representing the efforts of 26 Secessionists is ondisplay at the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St.John's College in Annapolis. On loan from Austria's Neue Galerie derStadt Linz and presented under the auspices of the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, these works combine to create a fascinating show that, while often challenging and unsettling, provides a unique,distinctive look at artistic freedom in action.

Avoiding the larger-scale painted styles of the old school, the Secessionists gravitated toward the intimacy of the graphic arts. Thus lithographs, etchings, ink-and-charcoal drawings and woodcuts dominate the exhibit.

Stylistically, these artists played the field. Eclecticism definitely ruled the roost in Secessionism.

A compositional delicacy reminiscent of Japanese art seems evident in Broncia Koller-Pinnell's woodcut "Sleeping Girl" and in the lovely landscapes of Hans Franta. Franta'sdepiction of the Siberianwinter at Tomsk is eloquent in its rustic simplicity.

While so much of the exhibit reveals the unmistakable restlessness of the age, the Secessionist portrayal of nature seems tohave inspired a more lyrical, restrained approach. Von Zulow's landscapes are almost childlike in their simplicity, while Jungnickel's apes and tigers seem to exude a contemplative sense of melancholy.

Gustav Klimt's pencil drawings of women are striking in their linear understatement. With but a few lines to suggest it, humanity nonetheless appears in these faces, traveling downward through the squiggly lines of the garments and the body.

But the Freudian pre-eminence ofthe subconscious is never far off. Oskar Kokoschka's lithograph "MaxReinhardt" barely nods to the subject's external being before zooming inward for a deeper look. In Koller-Pinell's woodcut "The Mother ofthe Artist," the mother's head seems to have been fitted together aspieces of a puzzle.

Eerie distortions abound. From a distance, Alfred Kubin's "Department Store" exudes an elegant gaiety. But, on closer analysis, the bizarre faces are devoid of humanity.

In Kubin's"Power" (from the Weber Series), an extraordinary cross-eyed seal sits atop a small mountain of human skeletons, while in his "The Pendulum," an emaciated figure swings perilously over an abyss while desperately grabbing a serpent's tail. It's but a short jaunt from the subconscious to the surrealistic nightmare, I guess.

Of course this was also a generation that lived its nightmares "up close and personal"; witness Albin Egger-Lienz's evocation of the thuggish brutality of World War I in his lithograph "1915." These were artists who knew anguish from the inside.

In sum, the 77 pieces that make up "Secession and Austrian Graphic Art 1900-1920" yield a striking, jarring, intriguing exhibition that should not be missed. It is clearly not a walkon the lighter side, but progress seldom is.

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