Art in Austria Fast Forward: Art History from Waldmüller to Valie Export

Status Quo

Austrian visual artists are successful in the international exhibition circuit and art market. Contemporary works of art by the painter and media artist Maria Lassnig, by the sculptor Franz West, the media and performance artist Valie Export, the painter Arnulf Rainer or the one-minute sculptor Erwin Wurm are highly appreciated and sell well. This was not always the case. While Austria was always celebrated as a cultural nation, this referred first and foremost to theatre and music. For a long time, the visual arts were not highly regarded in Austria, and Austrian artists were little known abroad. It was partly this situation – besides overwhelming political reasons during the Nazi regime – that motivated many Austrian artists to leave the country and start their careers abroad.

The first exhibition venues to showcase contemporary art were the 20er-Haus (as of 1962) and Palais Liechtenstein (as of 1979). Their combined body of works (the collections Ludwig and Hahn) mostly ended up at the Mumok in the late 1970s. The holdings of the Mumok, which found its new home at the Museumsquartier, include classical modernism, Viennese Actionism, avant-garde art from the 1960s and 70s and cutting-edge contemporary art. Most of the Austrian galleries specialising in contemporary art were established in the 1980s. When the Kunsthalle was inaugurated - in a container designed by Adolf Krischanitz - on Karlsplatz in Vienna and gave rise to angry debates in the early 1990s, most other countries had long since established similar exhibition venues for contemporary art.

Looking Back

Following the Biedermeier (Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller) and Historicism (Hans Makart) periods, painting had a heyday in Austria around 1900: Vienna was the centre of Jugendstil (Art nouveau), a fact that gave rise, inter alia, to the foundation of the Vienna Secession (see Associations). Apart from Gustav Klimt, whose work is still highly coveted today, mention should also be made of Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann, the co-founders of Wiener Werkstätte. Further representatives of Vienna Modernism of unbroken repute are Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, who took up Expressionism, as well as the painter Albin Egger-Lienz, who is in a category all by himself.

After 1945, the visual arts needed to overcome the impact of the repressive cultural policy during the Nazi regime and to catch up with international modernism. The new artist generation graduating from the academy in Vienna mostly looked to teachers such as Herbert Boeckl, Albert Paris Gütersloh and Fritz Wotruba. In 1947, the famous Art Club was founded as a free, anti-fascist organisation of artists representing a range of different styles.

Together with Arik Brauer and Rudolf Hausner, Wolfgang Hutter, Anton Lehmden and Ernst Fuchs founded the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism which took its inspiration from surrealism. The next step was taken in 1959 by Ernst Fuchs, Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Arnulf Rainer when they created the Pintarium; their “utterly disparate styles of painting and thinking” notwithstanding, the members agreed on aspiring to individual autonomy and a divorce from the academic tradition.

Maria Lassnig and Arnulf Rainer, among others, imported the Informel movement from Paris which was to become one of Austria’s prevailing post-war avant-garde trends. Monsignore Otto Mauer, a devoted patron of the arts, supported artists such as Josef Mikl, Markus Prachensky Wolfgang Hollegha and Arnulf Rainer and displayed their works at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan (as of 1954). In the 1960s, the Vienna Actionists radically eradicated all boundaries between genres. The movement developed at the nexus of painting and theatre and gave rise to action performances and rituals that avoided neither scandal nor physical injury. Important Austrian representatives of actionist art: Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler und Hermann Nitsch (Orgien-Mysterien-Theater). A trajectory from Actionist to concept art and today’s pluralist artistic practice can be observed in the biography of Valie Export. Although the media artist had her roots in Actionism, her work distinguishes itself not only because of its feminist underpinnings, but also with a view to its aesthetics, content and form (cf. the Tapp und Tastkino with Peter Weibel). Her early adoption of photography and film and her cross-genre performances made her a seminal influence on subsequent generations of artists. 

Women and Art

Less than 3 percent of the artists in the Metropolitan’s Modern and Contemporary Art Department are women. On the other hand, 83 percent of nudes in paintings are women. This is the result of a census made by the Guerilla Girls at the Venice Biennale in 2004. In Austria, too, art history has been written mainly by men until well into the post-war period. Women were reduced to – painted – Madonnas or temptresses. Art critics were also men. The women to be found within the Vienna Actionists were mostly muses, objects, or, at best, participating actors. Today, confident women artists are no longer a rarity. Names that come to mind are Ona B, Birgit Jürgenssen, Evelyne Egerer and Ingeborg Strobl, who formed the group Die Damen in the late 1980s, or Valie Export, or Elke Krystufek who at the Venice Biennale did not show the usual self-portraits but portraits of naked men, thus turning the tables with an ironic twist. Women have also arrived at the executive floors of museums and galleries. But then there is the money thing. Although women artists are appreciated and exhibited more or less to the same degree as male artists –they still sell at lower prices than their male colleagues on the art market.