Arnold Schönberg, Satire (Karl Kraus), 1910. Oil on paper. Belmont Music Publishers, Pacific Palisades, CA.

[Karl Kraus’s] life stands as an example of moral uprightness and courage which should be put before anyone who writes, in no matter what language. … I had the privilege of listening to his conversation and watching his face, lit up by the pale fire of his fanatic love for the miracle of the German language and by his holy hatred for those who used it badly.

— Gregor von Rezzori

Looks like I should have extended my recent outing to Vienna. At the Arnold Schönberg Center, an anniversary exhibition marking the 150th birthdays of Arnold Schönberg and Karl Kraus will be open to the public through May 10. Any student of Viennese Modernism like myself will look forward to this program that features music manuscripts, texts, paintings, and drawings, as well as letters and photographs. The Center says:

Advocating progress in music, Schönberg embodied the courage to break with conventions. In keeping with the interdisciplinary orientation of Viennese Modernism, the composer also expressed himself as a writer and painter. As a censor of language, Kraus fought an unrelenting battle against corrupting newspaper phrases, double standards and esthetic uniformity. The two jubilarians were united by an unspoken understanding of artistic and social matters, and by a shared ethical program which aimed at a claim to truth in all areas of art.

I wrote briefly about Kraus’s Last Days of Mankind here, and I hope to write about Schönberg (one day, one day …). Those of us who can’t be there can comfort ourselves with the English-language catalog of the show, available here. And below is a trailer for the exhibition.

Klimt’s landscapes at the Neue Galerie

Gustav Klimt, Park at Kammer Castle, 1909, oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder.

Opening next week and running through May 6 at New York’s Neue Galerie, Klimt Landscapes examines his nature paintings, a part of his work that has too often taken a back seat to his more well-known paintings and drawings of the human figure. “For the last twenty years of his career,” the Neue Galerie says, “Klimt devoted considerable energy to painting landscapes during his summer vacations on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, known for its tranquil lakes. Created purely for his own pleasure, these bucolic scenes became among his most sought-after pictures and were highly coveted by collectors. Most were made in a square format — a reflection of his fascination with photography.” The exhibition will be situated within a selection of the Neue Galerie’s significant Klimt holdings.

Like the landscapes of Egon Schiele, Klimt’s landscapes are revealing of a rarely seen side of a major Fin de siècle artist — as sensual as his human figures, but within a more holistic view of the physical world. More information can be found at the Neue Galerie web site here.

What can’t be said

The Wiener Staatsoper, from the stage.

I have been slightly revising some earlier posts about opera, and in the process came across the below observation from Kenneth Clark. (My own opera posts can be found here — feel free to scroll down that page to skip this one.)

What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation — a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. “What is too silly to be said may be sung” — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and can only be sung.

— Kenneth Clark
Civilisation (1969)

The triumph of wisdom

Bartholomeus Spranger, The Triumph of Wisdom (c. 1595). 163 x 117 cm. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Reading through Andrew Wheatcroft’s history The Habsburgs recently (one of my souvenirs from Vienna), I came across mention of Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), a court artist for Rudolf II in Prague; before that he had been a court painter for Pope Pius V and Rudolf’s predecessor as Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II. Although there was a major American exhibition of this work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ten years ago, by far the largest collection of his work now resides at Vienna’s Kunsthistorischesmuseum.

That’s where you can find Spranger’s The Triumph of Wisdom, above. To quote from the KHM’s description of the work (lightly edited from Google Translate):

Minerva, the goddess of the arts and science, is at the center of the presentation. The uncovered breasts can be characterized as “Sapientia lactans,” as the nutrient of wisdom. She has conquered the foolish “ignorance.” But their keeping of suffering also reminds us of the risen Christ. It triumphs over dark forces and becomes the embodiment of the highest human ideals. The refined colour and elegant pose are hallmarks of Rudolfinian court art.

Spranger, an examplar of the Northern Mannerist school, was renowned for his remarkable ability to marry an erotic sensuousness to both pagan and Christian themes. “This style stressed sensuality, which was expressed in smoothly modeled, elongated figures arranged in elegant poses, often including a nude woman seen from behind,” says the ol’ Wikipedia. It’s terrific — I never knew wisdom could look so great. And I wonder if Facebook will permit it. (UPDATE: It won’t.)

Credo: Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark.

Over the past six weeks or so, I’ve been reflecting on my recent visit to Vienna. As I’ve been doing so, I’ve also been enjoying music from the region, in a variety of ways: my wife performed the rather sublime piano music of Arnold Schönberg (not to mention the equally sublime The Book of the Hanging Gardens, which she performed with Deborah Norin-Kuehn) here in New York recently, and a bit further off radio klassik Stephansdom has been providing me with other musical entertainment. I especially enjoy their Nacht program, which runs from midnight to 5:00 am there but from 6:00 through 11:00 pm here. Programming during those hours tends to run more to the quiet side of things, which is just fine by me. (I should add that I’ve been doing my bit to keep radio klassik Stephansdom on the air — you can do so yourself here. Spenden Sie jetzt!)

This music has led me to certain considerations that echo somewhat the words of Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation program on the BBC in 1969 covered the history of art in the west. (The series is still available via the Britbox channel on Amazon Prime.) At the end of the series he offered a kind of brief credo with which I feel particular affinity, and this I share here for those who might feel a similar affinity. I will begin to share more here too, but this will get us started. I confess that the optimism that Clark mentions at the end has been harder and harder to keep a hold of, at least for me:

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible. …

I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W. B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it damn nearly destroyed us. Is it true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.