“Modernism seen now”

“The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection…”

To read the full review free on The Brazen Head click here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/06/03/modernism-seen-now/

The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body

In The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body Alys George, a specialist in German culture at New York University, applies an interdisciplinary approach to the thesis that conceptions of the body were central to the up swelling of avant-garde culture during the period of Viennese Modernism.

George defines the Viennese fin de siècle as 1870-1938, contrasting with the usual definition as 1870/80 to 1914. Nominating the Anschluss as the cut-off of the beaux-arts period implies a level of continuity between pre-war and post-war periods in Vienna that diverges from the way other countries are assessed. The classification suggests Viennese society had not adjusted to its loss of empire and was still strongly attached to its pre-war culture, something reflecting Austria’s naturally conservative culture. It is paradoxical, of course, that the Vienna that was so critical of Modernism, clung to pre-war Jugendstil, Symbolism and Expressionism when much of Europe sought new styles and new political paradigms. Defeat shattered German society, yet that same defeat seemed to entrench and isolate Vienna in its pre-war culture, almost a rejection of defeat. However, Vienna’s reputation as the cockpit of Modernism (especially in Jugendstil and Expressionism) decreased dramatically, with attention increasingly focused on Paris during the inter-war period.  

The central concern of Viennese modernism is, according to Werner Hofmann and Hilde Spiel, “to recognize the flesh, to apprehend the human being in its creatureliness”. George claims the materialism of contemporary Viennese science centres culture of that location on the body. Vienna was a centre of medicine and the nascent science of psychology/psychotherapy, as well as anthropological criminology. One of the leading criminolgists was Italian Cesare Lombroso. Criminology was intimately associated with physiological and psychological research that ranged from the soundly evidence led to the crank pseudo-science such as physiognomy and racial classification. Sexology developed in Vienna in this period specifically so that normative sexual behaviour could be classed as legal and deviant behaviour classed as illegal. Study of disease, hygiene, exercise and naturism were interlinked, mixing science with fad, frequently crossed into areas of law-making, public policy and discussion of sex (both sexual activity and the innate characteristics of the two sexes).

Anthropometry and phsysiognomy flourished. Reproduced in the book is a page of head types drawn by Egon Schiele for a scientific textbook in 1917. Ethnography and anthropology were used to advance knowledge and to categorise races. George discusses the 1896 public presentation of an Ashanti village – transported from the Gold Coast, complete with wood-and-thatch huts and natives in traditional garb – set up in the Prater, the zoological park, in Vienna. It did booming business, with 15,000 visitors on the opening afternoon. Berlin took up the model by setting up an Abyssinian village in 1905. While George presents the range of responses to the event – more public spectacle than scientific demonstration – and inferences that can be drawn, she is rather too forward with her contemporary moral position than some readers will wish.

A comparative display was the 1906 General Hygienic Exhibition, also held in Vienna, one of many held in European cities. “Such large-scale exhibits aimed to reach the broadest possible audience by combining medical science about the body and hygiene, targeted at laypeople, with concrete directives about how to best improve one’s physical constitution.” This was a widespread drive for self-improvement through science and pseudo-science. “The notion of reforming the body included several branches: personal hygiene; naturopathy, nutrition reform, abstinence, and drug prevention; physical education and sports movements, including gymnastics, alpinism, and dance; clothing reform; spa and bathhouse culture; and nudism (the latter often subsumed under the rubric of Freikörperkultur, literally, “free body culture”).” It included not only advice, information and models, its exhibits acted as a trade fair for commercial wares in the expanding health-improvement-device market. Scientism and fads mingle easily – and sometimes indistinguishably – with science and technological advances.

There is a chapter on bodies in Viennese literature, centring on Arthur Schnitzler, Marie Pappenheim, Joseph Roth, Carry Hauser and Ödön von Horváth. (The first two were medical doctors as well as authors.) Robert Musil saw himself as a vivisector. Sigmund Freud, the most influential of Viennese Modernist writer, analysed the overlap between culture and body and the constant struggle between restraint and expression and the resultant dysfunction. Schnitzler’s depictions of dissecting rooms were from personal experience and his attempt to lay bare the malaises at the heart of modern life was akin to a medical diagnosis. Pappenheim also wrote a poem about a dissecting room. Journalist Joseph Roth wrote of the plight of the underclass – including the Kriegsbeschädigte (“the war damaged”) – in his articles in the years of deprivation. Horváth’s 1932 play is set in the Anatomical Institute, Vienna. George neatly summarises the bodily-focus of the texts but does not draw an overarching conclusion.

George discusses the position of working-class women as the subjects of medical institutions and research in Viennese medicine. She mentions Klimt’s murals for the university, including one for the discipline of medicine, which featured a pregnant woman nude. She also discusses controversies over abortion in the inter-war period.

George writes well of Schiele’s drawings made at the Women’s Clinic. “His drawings of mothers-to-be exude a candid, radical corporeality, an unaesetheticized physicality that sets them apart from even Klimt’s paintings of the same theme […] Schiele’s drawings call attention to questions regarding women’s sexuality, social marginality, and the more general problem of scopic power in fin-de-siècle Vienna.” George notes that these privileges for artists tells us about the thinking of physicians and senior hospital administrators. “[…] the access of artists to patients in Viennese clinical settings must be read together with concurrent efforts to put the clinics themselves and their modernity on display to the public. A modern type of medical architecture that emerged around the fin de siècle blurred the boundaries between private and public, while facilitating the production of images that could later be deployed in nonclinical settings.”

However, this seems too clear cut. For instance, the people who granted access for Schiele and Mime van Osen probably did not expect that art to become public – after all, there was no appetite at the time for public display of such images. How official was their access? Was it not a case of senior staff sympathetic to artists (who would be undertaking private research not expected to be shown directly to the public) offering access in return for a drawing or a portrait? To what degree was the institution itself sanctioning artist access? George assumes that the access was known and approved by authorities but this may not be the case. For example, John Richardson states that Picasso probably gained access to confined prostitutes in Paris during his Blue Period due to the ministrations of a doctor who had treated one of Picasso’s mistresses. Favours or payment in kind may have played more of a part than official policy, especially if it were tacitly understood that the artists would not display their art or mention where they met the subjects.

A chapter discusses the role of gesture in theatre, mime, dance and silent film. This is framed through the theories of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Long, flowing clothing was used to emphasise movement; some dancers were photographed nude, taking the expressiveness to new heights by abandoning the conventions of modesty. This relates to naturism and the advent of art photography. The New School for Movement Art operated in Vienna, covering “rhythmic gymnastics and calisthenics, dance, ballet technique, and acrobatics, [also] anatomy and physiology, pedagogy and psychology, instruction in form and harmony, the history of art, music, dance, and gymnastics, costume art, and figural and ornamental drawing.” Expressionism in Austria and Germany involved cinema, theatre and dance, which involved a lot attention to communication through form, gesture and movement.

Overall, The Naked Truth provides a thoughtful and intelligent overview of the role of the body in Viennese science and culture of the fin-de-siècle and modern periods.

Alys X. George, The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body, Chicago University Press, 2020, hardback, 322pp + xi, 43 mono illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 226 669984

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Interview with Rowan Metzner


Professional photographer and author of Erotic Masters, Rowan Metzner. © 2018 Rowan Metzner


Rowan Metzner, a native of New Orleans, is an award-winning photographer. Her photographs have been exhibited in the USA and Europe and are in the permanent collections of the Aaron Siskind Center at the RISD Museum and the American History Museum at the Smithsonian. She is currently based in Los Angeles.

Her new book Erotic Masters: A photographic exploration of the provocative works by Rodin, Schiele and Picasso presents a series of photographs of models in poses taken from the art of these artists. I spoke to her about this project and her thoughts about the crossover between erotica and pornography and the status of nude photography.


Alexander Adams: Are there particular challenges a photographer of nudes faces?

Rowan Metzner: It depends on the type of nude imagery, but potential lawsuits are a risk. For this project, before every shoot, I sent example images of every scene to each person coming to set so there were no surprises and to make sure everyone was comfortable. As a nude photographer documentation is key. Every nude photographer must have a record of identification of the models. STD testing is not required but if a model picks something up they can sue you. Not fun.

AA: How do you draw a distinction between erotic art and pornography? Is the distinction especially difficult in the field of photography?

RM: That is the question and purpose behind my book. Is there a difference and if so what is it? I asked a lot of people this question as I was working on the project and the overwhelming answer was intention, intention of the artist and the viewer.  What was the artist thinking when they created the work, what do they want the audience to feel, what do they feel? I don’t answer these questions in the book as I want to leave it up to the viewer to decide.

As far as is the distinction particularly difficult in photography, perhaps. People have a tendency to view works done by hand differently than photography. It often does not register that a living model posed for the drawing/painting/etc. and quite possible for a very long time. There is no room for denial in a photograph. The model is right there. In Erotic Masters I give the audience an opportunity to experience the same imagery as they might have seen in museums but without that separation. This amplifies the question is it erotic art or pornography?

AA: Do you think there is degree of snobbery regarding critical evaluations of erotic art between painted/drawn art and photography?

RM: Absolutely. Largely I think because of the reasons I just mentioned. Photography in general often gets overlooked. With the event of the smartphone there is the attitude that photography is easy and anyone can do it. Photography has become a dirty word. Erotic photography might as well be a synonym for pornography.

AA: Why did you choose Picasso, Schiele and Rodin for your book Erotic Masters?

RM: I started with a long list of artists and the more I researched instead of shrinking it only got larger. I wanted to show that erotic images are not unique to one time period or style. There was no way I could include everyone I wanted; I had to make hard choices.

Rodin was on my short list from the beginning. Years ago, while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, I visited the Rodin Museum in Paris. Impressions of the exhibit of Rodin’s erotic works have stayed with me. Schiele’s work is so different from Rodin. Where Rodin has a fluidity and playful nature, Schiele’s is controlled. Picasso is something else entirely. Each one pushed me to work in different ways, which was fantastic.

AA: Will you do more work in this series focusing on different artists?

RM: I go back on forth on this one. I would love to but I am not sure if the point has been made. I might need some distance to get the perspective need to decide.

AA: One of your models – Stoya – is a well-known pornographic actress. Why did you choose to work with her and was it your intention for viewers to recognise her?

RM: About half of my models are in the pornography industry and half not. I thought about it for a long time and made a very conscience, deliberate decision. I did not want anyone to be able to say either “these are not porn actors so it is not porn” or “these are all porn performers so it is porn.” This way there is no easy way out. I chose Stoya because she was the perfect fit for Schiele. I tried to cast as close to the drawing as possible. She is well known and I knew that there would be people that would recognize her but just as many that wouldn’t. I think it works just as well either way.

AA: Were there poses that you photographed but found were too explicit or strange?

RM: Strange yes, explicit no. I didn’t want to put any limits on that. There are also several I did not get to that I would love to have been able to photograph. It was difficult to find the right models for each scene. I was limited on space in the book so there are several images I love that didn’t make it. As far as too strange, that would be Picasso. I did attempt some of his more abstract work but that became about something else. It no longer asked the question of erotic vs porn so it got the axe.

AA: What lessons have you learned for your future photography?

RM: Patience! That is a big one for me. Every step of the way with this project I had to exercise patience. I was also working with a team, models, hair and makeup, I had to learn what was important to fight for in executing my vision and what I could let go. It was a great experience and I am better photographer for it.

AA: Do you have any forthcoming projects or events you would like to mention?

RM: I am working on more gallery showings of Erotic Masters as well as opening my own studio in Los Angeles. Currently I am working on photographing athletes, particularly aerialists, highlighting their bodies and movement.

AA: Thank you for your time, Rowan.

Rowan’s art can be viewed on her website: www.rowanmetzner.com

© September 2018 Rowan Metzner & Alexander Adams

Obsession: Nudes collected by Scofield Thayer


[Image: Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918), Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918)
Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The sudden rise to prominence – and subsequent descent into obscurity – of Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. A young American playboy tours Europe then returns to the USA to marry. When he returns to Europe after the Great War, the young man is an editor of a literary journal and uses his fortune to support the literary lions of London, Vienna and Paris. He undergoes analysis with Dr Freud in Vienna. Now divorced from his wife, he is a dedicated libertine and decadent, his life devoted to the compulsive pursuit of novelty: principally promoting avant-garde writing, collecting erotic art and engaging in sexual conquests (both women and men). He amasses a great collection of art, some of it striking erotic art. On his return to the New York, he slowly descends into insanity and lives out the largest part of his long life in obscurity, spending periods in various institutions. By the time of his death, he has long outlived his notoriety and his death goes almost unnoticed.

Thayer edited Dial, one of the most important literary journals of the 1920s. It published ground-breaking prose and verse by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and many others, famous and unknown. Dial also brought advanced European art to American readers. Thayer bought large quantities of art, mostly because he liked it but also a few pieces he intended to trade at a profit. In Vienna, he encountered the art if the recently deceased Klimt and Schiele. In war-impoverished Vienna, excellent drawings were cheap and Thayer could amass a fine collection of graphics, especially erotic drawings by the pair, some priced as low as $6 each. His collection of almost 600 pieces of art, ranging from German Renaissance prints and Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs to paintings by the Expressionists, Braque, Bonnard and Matisse, was bought before Thayer’s mental instability sent him into seclusion at the end of the 1920s. Some of collection was erotic in character. This uneven and partly salacious collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum on his death in 1982. One can only imagine the mingled pleasure and embarrassment among museum administrators and curators discovering the unabashed sexual nature of much of the art received into the collection. This catalogue documents the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection of 52 nudes by three prominent Modernist artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition will be held at the Met Breuer (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York from 3 July to 7 October 2018.

Klimt drew thousands of studies – mainly figures – during pauses between painting sessions. He drew as preparation for his Symbolist paintings (including public commissions, such as the murals for Vienna university) and also as a general exercise to keep his skills sharp. Visitors to his studio recalled nude models lounging around, ready to inspire the artist with a gesture or position. Klimt had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready models. The drawings of nudes in the Thayer collection are typical of the late period of Klimt. Slender young women with bountiful tresses drape themselves over undepicted beds, sometimes pleasuring themselves. The style is dreamy, with the often undifferentiated subjects drawn lightly, with little shading, most executed in pencil. Outlines – which are almost all there is to Klimt’s figures – are sometimes uncertain and repeatedly reworked to build up solid but insubstantial forms.


[Image: Gustav Klimt, (Austrian, 1862–1918), Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–1918), Graphite, 14 5/8 x 22 3/8 in. (37.1 x 56.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The best of the drawings is a standing figure of 1906-7. The unusual rounded hairstyle, striking pose (with hip jutting) and evidence of a revised pose all make this piece stand out as memorable. The other pictures by Klimt are fair examples of their type but not very engaging.

Egon Schiele’s interests were even more frankly sexual. Unlike the more expensive and public oil paintings that he made, Schiele could use drawing on paper as medium in which to be more adventurous and explicit in imagery and subject matter. Thayer’s 32 drawings and prints (29 of which are reproduced in the catalogue) cover the whole of Schiele’s short career, starting in 1911 and ending the year of his death, 1918. The earliest drawings are sketchy, with simple lines picking out aspects, those lines sometimes floating as if detached from the motif.

Observed in a Dream (1911) is an unusual showpiece from Schiele’s early years. The fanciful title (prominently inscribed on the front), thorough colouring with watercolour paint and coquettishly sexual pose all indicate the artist aping the pornographic photographs and drawings easily to be found in Vienna in that period.  Ultimately, Schiele’s art became more sophisticated and personal without losing its sexual edge. One gets the impression that a more confident and independent Schiele would later collaborate with his models to explore expressions of sexuality that were less clichéd.

The drawings and drypoints of 1914 include the button eyes and doll faces typical of that phase. There are a few of Schiele’s typical line drawings coloured by broken patches of gouache diluted with gum arabic. By 1918, Schiele’s lines were fatter (conté crayon or black chalk replacing pencil) and the curves more emphatic. The models were no longer the scrawny adolescent waifs of the early years but adult women bursting with health, some of them buxom. There are drawings of a child model, who was apparently the child of a female model, as evidenced by a drawing showing the mother and child together.

The art by Picasso is less explicit in general. Although Picasso was often driven by erotic impulses, it came out in playful, indirect and witty ways rather than straightforward realistic depictions of nude figures. One exception is Erotic Scene (1902), showing a woman with long hair performing oral sex on the artist. The work is from the Blue Period. It is poorly painted, with little feeling or care. Picasso later disavowed the painting and refused to authenticate it. However, there is no doubt about its authenticity. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson had a dim opinion of the painting, suggesting that the artist painted it hastily for money.

11. Pablo Picasso. Youth in an Archway, 1906

[Image: Pablo Picasso, (Spanish, 1881–1973), Youth in an Archway (1906), Conté crayon on paper, 23 1/4 x 16 3/4 in. (59.1 x 42.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Other drawings by Picasso are of standing nudes executed in Gosol and Paris in 1906 and bathers executed in the artist’s Neo-Classical period of the early 1920s. The gap is not accidental. Thayer disliked Cubism and abstract art, so had no desire to collect any art made by Picasso during the 1907-1917 period. There is a 1922 pastel portrait of an idealised woman (probably a composite of Sara Murphy and the artist’s wife Olga) which is more tender than erotic. Picasso’s art seems distinctly public; the art of Klimt and Schiele is definitely of a private character. Picasso seems to be engaged in dialogue with artists of the past; Klimt and Schiele were more concerned with depicting reality and establishing connections between artist and subject. Picasso deals with ideals; Klimt and Schiele deal with actual subjects. Picasso worked from memory; Klimt and Schiele worked from life.

The selection of works tells us about Thayer’s priorities. It is notable that despite his sexual preference for men (though Thayer was apparently bisexual), the majority of subjects of the art he purchased were female. This is partly due to the fact that erotic depictions of nudes by the most prominent artists of the period were female ones, made by heterosexual male artists, which meant that the majority of erotic art of the time featured female subjects. Thus most of the nudes available were of female subjects. It also tells us that the quality of the art was more important to Thayer than its erotic potency. There was plenty of homosexual erotica for sale but none of the artistic quality of the art that entered Thayer’s collection. Thayer’s collection of non-erotic art was excellent, including some fine pieces by Matisse, Bonnard, Chagall and Demuth.

The catalogue is a useful addition to the body of literature on erotic art. The exhibition promises to be a celebration of erotic desire, the urge to present the beautiful in art and the lasting appeal of this art for viewers.


Sabine Rewald and James Dempsey, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, paperback, 132pp, 110 col. illus., $25, ISBN 978 1 588 39 65 25

[Revised on 21 June 2018 to correct factual inaccuracy]

© 2018 Alexander Adams