- Though Austria has a long and rich tradition in painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts, the country’s enormous collections are, on the whole, more notable than individual Austrian artists. There is a fine gallery dedicated to Austrian art in Vienna, but it is not usually what draws art lovers to the city. The Habsburg dynasty, which ruled the area from the end of the 13th century to 1918, was among Europe’s great patrons of painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts. They happily, and often cannily, bought wherever their tastes led them, often from artists who themselves had no connection with Austria whatsoever. For this reason, the Austrian National Museum of Art (Kunsthistorisches Museum) is among the great galleries of the world. Austrian painters and sculptors, however, do not dominate its holdings.As was the case in much of Christian medieval Europe, Austrians produced their share of illuminated manuscripts and wall frescoes, more often than not anonymously. Striking examples of Gothic (13th–15th centuries) sculpture are to be seen in St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Unlike the earlier Romanesque work in the same genre, the figures stand in open spaces rather than against walls. The “servants’ Madonna” is particularly interesting. However, there is little that distinguishes this work from its contemporary counterparts elsewhere in the south German area. The same may be said of painting, even the highly expressive Danube School of the late 15th and 16th centuries.The Austrian Baroque did give rise to an impressive group of painters and sculptors, though they too often came from beyond the confines of Austria itself. The ceiling and wall frescos done for the Austrian National Library, once the imperial court library in Vienna, by Daniel Gran (1694–1757), and those done by Paul Troger (1698–1762) in the cloister of Melk, have an airy brightness and dynamism that distinguishes the visual arts in Austria during this period. The same may be said of the great sculptor George Raphael Donner (1693–1741), even though his preferred medium was lead. At the beginning of the 19th century, Austria produced a small, but highly original, school of artists, somewhat scornfully called the Nazarenes, who hoped to breathe new life into painting by giving it new religious content. The Biedermeier comforts of the age and the quiet pleasures of the local landscape fill the canvasses of local genre painters, among them Ferdinand Waldmüller (1793–1865). However, the artistic movement most closely associated with Austria is the so-called Secession and the artistic handicrafts studio associated with it, the Wiener Werkstätte, which gave Austrian art international prominence. A rebellion against the historicizing conventions that dominated the Vienna Academy of Art and against the pedestrian design of mass manufacture, particularly of household goods, both movements drew heavily upon inspiration from similar movements elsewhere in Europe. However, the intense eroticism, coupled with psychic vulnerability, which haunted the subjects of such painters as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and the general quality and originality of the Wiener Werkstätte’s products, raised esteem for Austria in the world of art. Twentieth-century Expressionism had truly outstanding Austrian representatives as well, such as Oskar Kokoschka.The advent of Nazi-dominated government following the Anschluss of 1938 devastated Austrian artistic life. Artists such as Kokoschka could not have been more politically unacceptable; their work fell easily into a category the Nazis labeled degenerate. Austrian public interest in its fin de siècle artistic heritage, much less modern art generally, rekindled only gradually after World War II.More recent Austrian art has more than made up for its isolation from international movements in the 1930s and 1940s. The idiosyncratic work of Friedrich Hundertwasser is difficult to categorize. Movements such as Fantastic Realism and Vienna Actionism have won much attention abroad for coloristic quality and, in the case of Actionism, sheer provocativeness. Austrian artists have also worked extensively with multimedia techniques.
Historical dictionary of Austria. Paula Sutter Fichtner. 2014.
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