Gems of the Central European Interbellum at Bozar

"Beyond Klimt" is the name of a fascinating exhibition at the Bozar arts centre in Brussels.  It explores the art produced in central Europe from the implosion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1938, when the first signs of the gathering storm became clearly visible in the works produced in this theatre.

Exhibition co-ordinator Ann Geeraerts: "1918 signalled a major break in the lands that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  For two decades the artists of the Vienna Secession had dominated the stage.  Apart from the disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire greats like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Otto Wagner all died.  New countries were born and art took on new forms.  This exhibition explores what happened to art after the golden era of the Austrian Jugendstil in the countries that formerly made up this empire."

"The demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire threw up new questions about identity.  Artists kept on working.  Vienna lost out to Budapest and Prague, but artists continued to travel between the new nation states.  Influences in art were not hindered by borders."

The exhibition opens with Klimt's world famous portrait of "Johanna Staude".  She wears a coat with a design from the Viennese Workshops movement, but it is also clear that the master is already undergoing the influence of his follower Oscar Kokoschka.  From here onwards in the Bozar greats and followers, members of the younger generation, eye each other from opposite walls.

"Beyond Klimt" includes up to 160 works.  Thirty are on loan from the Belvedere in Vienna.  A further 15 hail from the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.    Ann Geeraerts: "It's a corpus of works we in the West are not naturally familiar with.  Many of the names are new to us.  It's really a unique opportunity to see these works together here in Brussels.  There is great demand for many of them and there's a limit to the amount they can travel."

Admire Koloman Moser's haunting "Self Portrait" (above).  The impact of the cancer that is killing him is already visible as are the psychological effects of the war.  "Squatting Men", a double self-portrait (below) is Egon Schiele's last work.  He didn't manage to complete it.  This was a task for another artist.   

"Beyond Klimt" reveals that the avant-garde wasn't limited to Paris, Berlin or Vienna, but that new centres, in Budapest, Croatia and Slovenia, were gaining in importance at the expense of the Austrian capital.  Hungary's Jozef Rippl Ronai built post impressionism as is evident from his "Place de l'Observatoire" (below).  Czech surrealism flourished, while the Slovenes embraced the New Objectivity. The younger generation underwent the influence of cubism.

A landmark work by Oscar Kokoschka concludes the first part of the exhibition.  Unhappy in love, in "The Power of Music" (photo top) the Austrian painter of colours manages to create a domestic scene dripping with anxiety, which also conjures up the general feeling of malaise in this day.

Klimt was too old to go to war in 1914, though Kokoschka did serve.  There was no escape from the war.  Many artists served as pictorial journalists producing works charting the events of the war.  In one room devoted to their production we see soldiers freezing in the snow.  As in the West, there was initial enthusiasm for the conflict, but as it dragged into 1915 and the horrors became all too clear, the mood on canvas changed.  In Central Europe the Carpathian Winter War stands as a symbol just like Verdun.  Much of the horror is summed up in Robert Angerhofer's "Dead Soldier in Barbed Wire".

We see how during the Interbellum some artists prefer to continue in the old styles rethinking cubism and abstract art, while others explore constructivism.  Artists become activists, take sides, show the effects of war or share their political views.  The exhibition explores the wealth of art magazines that sprung up in Central Europe at this time, all trying to provide an answer to the big question: what should the world look like after the war.

The German Bauhaus gets a look in too revealing the significance of Hungarian artists in what is usually seen as a German movement. 

Exhibition co-ordinator Ann Geeraerts: "In Paris André Breton's surrealists held sway.  This triggered the creation of a group called Abstraction Création that stuck up for abstract art and opposed the surrealists."

Lajos Tihanyi was a key figure.  Some artists were influenced by futurism, while others preferred natural, lyrical forms.  The exhibition also includes several works by Czech surrealists bearing witness to the flourishing of this movement in Prague.

Others like Rudolf Wacker embraced the clean style of New Objectivity.  Wacker's works are childlike, innocent scenes, but look closely and you will discover they are not so innocent at all.  "Cracked Doll's Head" (above) reveals how society is disintegrating in the run up to the Second World War.  We see starving people looking at goods through a window.  Others portray passers-by admiring luxuries in a shop window.  It was a turbulent period in which artists like Slovenia's Tone Kralj explored new styles creating their own, very particular vocabulary.

Oscar Kokoschka's "Prague Harbour" epitomises the haven that the Czechoslovak capital had become.  Prague welcomed refugee artists from the dictatorships around it as it became the very last outpost of democracy in central Europe.  From Lilly Steiner's 1938 work "Composition Baroque" it's clear that many knew the bombs were about to fall.  Several of the artists whose works are displayed in the final section ended their days in Nazi death camps, though the works of at least one Nazi advocate are also included.

Today John Heartfield's work "Voice of the Swamp" has lost none of its impact.  This German critic of the Nazi regime had to seek refuge in the UK where he worked for magazines like Picture Post.  Under a toad we read in German: "3000 years of consistent incest prove the superiority of my race".

"Beyond Klimt' is on show at the Bozar in Brussels until 20 January.

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