Two questions come quickly to mind: (A) Does Fifth Avenue’s “Museum Mile”—stretching from the Frick Collection at 70th Street to El Museo del Barrio on 104th—need another museum, and (B) What will the new museum, the Neue Galerie New York, at Fifth and 86th, do for its next show? This inaugural exhibit, like a tell-all first novel, seems to hold little in reserve; the museum, as described in its own press release, “is a museum devoted to German and Austrian art, in particular the art created in…the early part of the twentieth century,” and the cream of its collections—a generous splash, but on Museum Mile a drop in the bucket—has been put on view.
In answer to question A, business was booming the rainy Monday of my December visit; a Viennese-style café on the ground floor, called Café Sabarsky, had lines waiting to get in, and the two floors of exhibition space above felt congested. The renovated rooms of even an opulent town house make cramped quarters for a rainy-day museum crowd, and no circulatory flow was established; our bodies became bumper cars, propelled toward their targets by the latent aggressive tendencies New Yorkers share with German tourists. To heighten the congestion, Monday seemed to be Ladies’ Day; the fair sex was disproportionally represented, and immovable gabfests developed in the vicinity of, but facing away from, the works of art.
This six-story corner building was completed in 1914 for the industrialist William Starr Miller; later occupants were Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In 1994 it was purchased by Ronald S. Lauder—chairman of Estée Lauder International and Clinique Laboratories Incorporated, chairman of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Board of the Museum of Modern Art, and a collector of German-Austrian art since the age of thirteen, when he bought an Egon Schiele drawing with money given him for his bar mitzvah—and Serge Sabarsky, a purveyor and promoter of Austrian-German art who operated a Madison Avenue gallery from 1968 on and died in 1996, while he and Lauder were still realizing their dream of a Neue Galerie New York, an institution that would thrust modern art’s Germanic stepchildren into the bosom of the Manhattan museum scene, almost directly across from the Metropolitan, two blocks south of the Guggenheim, and a salubrious northward walk from the Frick and the Whitney.
Older museums have had to find accessory space for their increasingly important dining and shopping facilities; the Neue Galerie leads off with them, on the ground floor. As stated, the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and “design shop.” All these hotbeds of commerce are open six days a week, while the art can be seen during only four, Fridays through Mondays. The second floor, devoted to Austria, is attained by elevator or by climbing the curvaceous grand staircase of white marble and elaborately wrought iron; at the top, the hall landing is paved with black and white marble and the two principal display rooms retain the gilded glamour and fine oak paneling of their heyday as living quarters.
Moving from marble to parquet, one first claps eyes on the large Gustav Klimt Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt (circa 1914); she has a floating entourage of small Oriental figures, most conveniently interpreted as a species of wallpaper. The baroness wears an elongated white outfit, with high collar and pantaloons, behind which hangs a triangular train of Chinese symbols signifying, the catalog tells us in a note, “the typical hopes and dreams of a young woman, which the painter attributes to her.” The formally symmetrical face gazes out with a touching, tentative vitality; away from the face, the painting slopes into the bejeweled flatness that was Klimt’s way of coping with the modernist question of the representational versus the abstract.
No less fashionably elongated than the full-length portraits of Sargent and Whistler, Klimt’s cross over into abstraction while keeping intensely studied semblances of the human face, hands, and feet. The other such portrait in the room, The Dancer (circa 1916–1918), even more boldly turns the space enveloping its subject into decoration; the flowers massed behind the model exist on the same plane as those on a table at her hip, and her robe sustains the pattern with no perspectival concession to the physical body it enwraps. It is customary to speak of Klimt’s flattened pictorial surface as jewel-like—as if he were offering up trays of the patterned brooches and tableware of the Wiener Werkstätte, whose artifacts are on view in the adjacent room—but his brushwork upon inspection is surprisingly rough and free, like the mosaic bits in the later Chuck Close.
Klimt’s surfaces seem uneasy in these portraits; there is not the seductive, barbaric emanation of design out of misty flesh found in his Judith I (1901, in Vienna) or the Byzantine wall of pure gilt and bauble through whose gaps the lovers of The Kiss (circa 1907–1908, also in Vienna) can be glimpsed. The Klimt landscapes on display, whether the early Tall Poplar Tree I (1900) or the pointillist Pond of Schloss Kammer on the Attersee (before 1910), are untroubled by any homage to the human form; they make the portraits look attenuated and schizophrenic. So, too, from another direction, do his drawings, in the next room, of indecorously relaxed nudes caught in a flowing, confident pencil line. His sketches are less contorted than those of the artist with whom he is forever paired, Egon Schiele, and more amiably erotic. Klimt, the leader of the Vienna Secession and the embodiment of Art Nouveau, searched for styles other than his brittle, theatrical one of despatialized appliqué; the minimalist Pale Face (1907–1908) shows him open to Munch’s undulant forms, and Forester House in Weissenbach on the Attersee (1912) suggests, with its decided outlines and flamelike, ominous vegetation, Van Gogh.
Schiele was twenty-eight years younger and pushed Klimt’s Art Nouveau into Expressionism and an exhibitionism that is not just erotic but psychoanalytical. In Freud’s Vienna, everybody was, it appears, neurotic, sex-obsessed, and tense. Schiele’s work is uncompromisingly linear; his more complex groups of figures, such as the large, grayish Man and Woman I (1914), are hard to read into the third dimension. Strange webs of linear subdivision spread across these ambitious nudes and the furrowed earth of River Landscape with Two Trees (1913), cementing their Kafkaesque impression of paralysis, of frustrated effort. But his drawings, and not his drab paintings, are the basis of his fame, both during his tragically short lifetime (he died in 1918 of the Spanish flu, at the age of twenty-eight) and after.
The dozen or so drawings arrayed in the smaller room behind the Klimt salon are as a group one of the museum’s central treasures, though less scandalous and on the whole less beautiful than the Schiele drawings gathered at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997. That show included a number of female nudes with vividly depicted genitals; the most provocative example at the Neue Galerie of Schiele’s fierce, morose voyeurism is Seated Nude, Three-Quarter-Length (Moa) (1911), with her luxuriant spray of black armpit hair echoed by a pubic bush at the other end of a dramatically tapered anatomy. The Kneeling Seminude (1917) is shown fingering her own breasts, and two lean women are engaged in a spoon embrace in Friendship (1913; see illustration on page 28) (“Freundschaft,” a female voice behind me said. “And how!”), but the sexual charge is muted, in part by Schiele’s later manner of stylized faces, thicker outlines, and dry touches of red and green.
The drawings of 1910 are still exploratory, even to their eccentric placement on the paper, and include some hits—a skeletal, angrily glaring Self-Portrait with Arm Twisting Above Head, a blearily leaning Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovsek—and some awkward misses, such as a perversely disaffected Mother and Child, wherein the mother presents a naked backside with a coy gaze over her shoulder while a large bald infant, with very long brown fingers, adheres in suckling position to her back, unsuckled and ignored. Birth and nurture are misbegotten processes, we are led to feel, and the contorted poses and bizarre emaciation of Schiele’s typical male figures imply—and this is 1910, remember, when Vienna was the thriving capital of an intact empire—that all is far from well.
Oscar Kokoschka, whose youthful interim in Vienna, including his art schooling, wins him a place on the Neue Galerie’s Austrian floor, also drew gaunt, angular nudes and dreamy Klimtesque designs, but the architect Adolf Loos, Keith Holz tells us in the catalog, “nudged Kokoschka away from decorative arts and toward painting by arranging numerous portrait sittings.” These youthful portraits remain among the peripatetic Ko- koschka’s best work, and strike here a strong, sensuous note: the portrait of the poet Peter Altenberg (1909) is nervy, crusty painting and captures a moment of agitated gesture with the immediacy of a snapshot. The same year’s portrait of Martha Hirsch, her small red mouth pursed as if in the middle of a word, and her hands self-consciously twisted as if she thought them out of sight, has the same nervous presence, though its huge eyes verge on caricature; a drawing identified as Reclining Seminude Woman (1908–1909) shows that her homely, long-chinned face can coexist with a voluptuous breast. Rudolf Blümner evokes in his portrait (1910) excited painting; Kokoschka digs out white lines with the other end of the brush, daubs on raw red and sweeps of purple, and works the face with so rich a mix of stabbed-on pigments that he leaves his subject looking cross-eyed.
Another Viennese with a wild brush was Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide over a broken love affair at the age of twenty-five. He was precocious but unruly, and consorted less with painters than with musicians, including the young Arnold Schönberg, who also painted, and is said to have studied with Gerstl. Many of Gerstl’s canvases remained rolled up in a warehouse until his family released them in 1931, to acclaim. He is represented here by the dashingly competent but not unconventional Portrait of a Seated Man in the Studio (1907) and, from the same year, the dramatically vague Portrait of a Man on the Lawn, a man virtually without features, gliding diagonally across a field of violently brushed impasto—a kind of ghost in pure paint, anomalous in German Expressionism before, by a route through Surrealism, it arrived at Abstract Expressionism. Possibly, the painting might be simply unfinished, a hasty laying-out that Gerstl’s short and hectic life never went back to; in any case it is a show-stopper. The Austrian paintings and few sculptures, it should be said, are accompanied, in these sumptuous former living quarters, by furniture and household items—clocks, cutlery, glassware—from the Wiener Werkstätte, variously handsome and innovative and no doubt instructive to a craftsman’s eye but affording this viewer the sensation usually engendered by chairs one cannot sit on and eating implements in a sealed case, the sensation of having missed the party.
One ascends to the third floor by means of a backstairs that, though of white marble, is distinctly unornamented. On this floor, where the illusion of a comfortable town house is left behind, the problems involving the museum and its mission more plainly emerge. This is not comfortable art; it is fuller of programmatic intentions than of harmonious resolution. The German monarchy Bismarck had hammered together around Prussia had Berlin as a political capital but was still a land of regions, with no cultural equivalent of London, Paris, or Vienna. The floor’s four rooms are divided among four labels: Die Brücke, founded in Dresden in 1905; the Blaue Reiter group, formed in Munich in 1911; Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a term coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mann-heim, to title a 1925 exhibit of “post-Expressionist” paintings of a relatively naturalistic, conservative style; and the Bauhaus, the art and design school founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius in the Thuringian city of Weimar, where Goethe and Schiller lived and died and the pre-Hitlerian republic was founded.
The Bauhaus, though ostensibly a school for architecture and the practical arts, with painting and sculpture marginal concerns, yet hired instructors in art theory who included such still artists as Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Lyonel Feininger, and László Moholy-Nagy; indeed, American museumgoers will encounter the most names familiar to them in this section, the front room, which also holds steely furniture and household items designed by Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld.
The three-dimensional artifacts are models of clean, witty design; the paintings on the third floor sound a chronic note of protest, anguish, scorn, and unhealth. The usual Expressionist nude, as rendered by Ernst Kirchner or Erich Heckel, is yellow and angular; the customary landscape—see August Macke’s Strollers at the Lake II (1912) or Karl Schmidt-Rotluff’s Landscape with House and Trees (1910)—presents a strident crush of discordant colors taken less from nature than from the palette of overthrown inhibition. The violent colors of Kandinsky and Franz Marc are yet subdued, or sublimated, by a certain vision of the primitive village, with its gentle, almost speaking animals, but there is, in the work of Kirchner, Heckel, Macke, Schmidt-Rotluff, not to mention Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix, no lack of illustration for the dicta of Oskar Pfister’s ground-breaking Expressionism in Art of 1922:
The expressionist artist cannot be merely deduced out of a protest against the artistic or cultural milieu…. Expressionism is a “cry of distress,” like a stream of lava forcing itself forward prompted by the soul’s misery and a ravenous hunger for life…. The chaos of the picture betrays the confusion of the expressionist himself, the brutal color and outlines the brutality of his character.
An enigmatic, caustic mood pervades even a Beckmann still life (called, with presumed irony, Sunrise, 1929) and Kurt Schwitters’s abstract collages; as no less an authority than Joseph Goebbels, who was within the decade to lead the Nazi assault on “degenerate art,” wrote in his 1929 novel Michael, “We are all Expressionists today…. The Expressionist builds in himself a new world. His secret and his power is this ardor.” Within the German-speaking world, the predominantly Protestant north was the province of proper ardor, an emotional fury that considered itself masculine. Reviewing a 1916 Berlin show of Viennese art, the critic Karl Scheffler complained that Viennese painting was “utterly feminine,…charming but not creative,” and claimed it “lacked the spirit of Protestantism. That is to say: the readiness to go into depth.” The notion of a barbarian vigor that scorns feminine niceties and seeks a depth beyond the rational can be found in Expressionism and Nazism both. We go, let’s admit it, to exhibits of pre-1940 German art in a mood of diagnosis, looking for symptoms of the plague to come. Even in the next century we ask ourselves, how did a nation of such advanced civilization come to consign itself, with all its military and industrial might, to a government of thugs and criminal cranks and their atrocious programs?
A dissatisfaction with the status quo underlies revolutions both political and artistic; Pamela Kort’s survey, in the compendious catalog, of American attitudes toward Expressionism, asserts, “Though not politically radical, pre–World War I Expressionists were united by their disdain for the bourgeois culture and imperial politics of Wilhelminian Germany.” After the war, there was the Weimar Republic, ruinous inflation, and the taste of defeat. German art from 1890 to 1940 differs from French art of the same period in its refusal to rest content with visual expression—an exploration of appearances that takes its passion from the process. The subjects of Cézanne’s portraits, and Modigliani’s, and Van Gogh’s, have little psychological presence compared with—all in this exhibit—Otto Dix’s sly, awry, slump-shouldered Jewish lawyer (Portrait of the Lawyer Dr. Fritz Glaser, 1921), or Dix’s shopworn, chalky-faced nudes (1926, 1930), or with George Grosz’s Portrait of John Förste, Man with Glass Eye (1926), glaring into a book with enough force to make the wormy vein at his temple pop, or with Max Beckmann’s truculent self-portraits (1923, 1938), or Paul Klee’s broken, baleful self-portrait of 1909.
These human figures are less objects taking the light than souls in torment; they have the Gothic inwardness of medieval statuary. Northern Europe had its own art tradition, graphic and linear, gaunt and at times gruesome, and visitors to the Neue Galerie expecting the epicurean modernism of the School of Paris will have their sensibilities abraded. The French strategies of refreshed representation take on a new violence from, it seems, the German painters’ seething psyches. The Fauves laid on color in boldly vibrant streaks, but there is a world of difference between some gaudy Derain boats moored in the water and the assaultively unnatural colors and brutal brush attack of Heckel’s Bathers in a Pond (1908). Monet’s haystacks evoked, as the day’s hours changed, some prickly, counterintuitive patches of paint, but nothing like the gory impasto of Emil Nolde’s Sunset (1909). Cubism in the hands of Picasso and Braque was a golden-brown walk around a table and a jug; for George Grosz its diagonal chopped perspective became a scaffolding for caricatural images of whores, fat-necked politicians, monocled mustached Junkers, green-faced and a welter of other human symptoms of something rotten in Deutschland (Panorama (Down with Liebknecht), 1919). The answer to question A, whether Fifth Avenue needs another museum, may depend on how much willful ugliness the public wants to pay ten dollars for (seniors and students only seven).
The posh bulk of the museum’s catalog offers to cushion the shock; it comes to six hundred pages exactly—fifty-three essays more or less, many translated from the German. Ronald Lauder’s preface recounts how, one night in 1968 (a rather expressionist year, come to think of it), he asked Sabarsky if there were any Schiele collectors in America:
He said he knew of two. With that I answered, “You should also count me and my brother.” He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I already counted both of you.”
The several collections the museum can draw upon—its own, plus those of Sabarsky and the Lauder family—are choice, but, as the Getty Museum shows, late-starting museums, however well endowed, have a hard game of catch-up to play; celebrity art not already locked into public collections bears prices that bar extensive acquisition. Paul Klee, who was Swiss by birth and in his final residence, and was marginally Expressionist in temperament, is the one painter in this show who ranks with beloved modernist superstars like Matisse, de Chirico, and Picasso; he is effectively but sparsely represented, compared to the Klees one has seen on the walls of MoMA and, indeed, in the German wing of the Fogg Museum at Harvard, a collection begun in 1902 and for decades separately housed in the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Germanic Culture. Klee, who produced over ten thousand of his modest-sized works, is represented at 1048 Fifth Avenue by paintings, two in oil and three in watercolor and gouache, which hint at the tireless wit of his experimentation. Two are still lifes on a black ground, the larger of which (Gay Repast/Colorful Meal, 1928) holds objects disparate enough to qualify Klee, in the opinion of the critic and gallery owner Alfred Flechtheim, as “the real creator of Surrealism.”
But the multiplicity of Klee’s visual devices suggests a cerebral source somewhat higher than the fluid subconscious dear to Surrealism: not a flooded basement but a dry playroom whence spill puns, doodles, and philosophical jokes. His inventiveness in making marks on paper spins a giant comic footnote to reality. There almost always is in Klee a certain radiance, and an irrevocability as of musical improvisation. In Mystical Ceramic (in the Manner of a Still Life) (1925) he uses a knitwork of dry marks as if with a sponge; in Yellow House (1915) envelope-like rectangles of watercolor; in On the Lawn (1923) ink lines into wet watercolor furrily limn his frolicking, staring bathing beauties.
More surreal in feeling, though thoroughly representational, like a more explicit Balthus, are Christian Schad’s two young masturbating women, with their gleaming eyes lost in a middle distance that includes the uneasy viewer; it is this image, presumably, along with a masturbating nude of Klimt’s, that bars children under twelve, as a stern sign downstairs announces, from attending the show at all. The basically representational Neue Sachlichkeit section includes Schad; Dix’s two remorseless portraits of puckered, sagging, anxious nudes; George Grosz in a variety of styles, including a disheveled apartment (Couple in Interior, 1915) in feeling like a George Bellows, only more pornographic in its squalor; and three sizable Beckmann oils, of which the two self-portraits linger in the mind’s eye longer than most anything else in the exhibit. Among the Neue Galerie’s other bright spots should be listed the Kandinskys, though the later abstraction Black Form (1923) seems cartoon-like, and Lovis Corinth’s windswept still life Fruit Bowls (1923) and penciled self-portrait (1921).
The Beckmanns (Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain, 1923; Self-Portrait with Horn, 1938) are separated by fifteen years. By the time of the latter, Beckmann was already on his way to Amsterdam, where he survived the war before heading to the United States in 1947. From the smooth, blocky style of the earlier work he had evolved the flickering black outlines and poster- sharp colors of his mature style; but the man is the same, round-headed, unsmiling, and determinedly there, a study in Dasein, a distinctly German man whose costumes—tuxedo, red scarf, lit cigar, bowler hat tipped back in the one; in the other a V-necked jersey of red and black stripes, clownish to go with the curved horn he is holding—suggest a potential for mischief and battle, a dangerous density of energy. He will not, his posture implies, go away. So much for A; as to B, we shall see.
February 14, 2002