Dynamics! Cubism/ Futurism/Kineticism, Belvedere, Vienna

“Long Live Futurism! Long Live our great friend Cizek! Long live your brilliant school!” This was the tribute penned in the visitors’ book by the futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Theo van Doesberg when they called at Franz Cizek’s Ornamental Studies department at the Viennese School of Applied Arts.

It was 1924 and Vienna was briefly the hub of the European art scene. As well as Marinetti and Van Doesberg, Kandinsky and Léger were among those who visited, drawn by a panoply of shows and festivals celebrating avant-garde art, theatre and music. As the Austrian-born constructivist theatre designer Friedrich Kiesler put it: “It seemed as though Utopia was about to turn into reality.”

Cizek’s students were at the heart of the action, designing costumes, stage sets, cinema facades and puppet theatres that were often as dazzling and provocative as those by more illustrious talents. Yet today the names of artists such as Erika Giovanna Klien and Elizabeth Karlinsky are forgotten, while the movement Cizek founded, Viennese kineticism, is no more than a footnote in 20th-century art history.

This exhibition should remedy that situation. Through drawings, paintings, sculptures, engravings and photographs by Cizek’s alumni and their Vienna-based contemporaries, it charts a course through an ephemeral yet captivating phenomenon.

Cizek defined kineticism as “the art of breaking up movements in their constant rhythmic elements, which are then used to build the picture”. He coined the term after the first world war, yet his fascination with rhythm and motion had its roots in the culture of free dance that flourished in early 20th-century Vienna, where the theories of Rudolf Laban circulated and Isabella Duncan performed at the Secession.

Cizek soaked up the exotic zeitgeist. After studying painting in the 1890s at the Academy of Fine Arts, he gave up practice and started a children’s art school. Drawn to the secessionist rejection of tradition in favour of art nouveau ornament, he grew close to Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner. When he became head of a decorative drawing course at the Vienna School of Applied Arts in 1902, they must have hoped he would realise their dream of a world in which art, architecture, craft and design were no longer alienated from each other.

Cizek was a true progressive. he described his teaching method as “no leading, no learning – letting things grow from their own roots”. Yet Vienna, the expressionist kingdom of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, was never in the vanguard of modernist abstraction. Not until the end of the first world war would Cizek acquire the vocabulary he needed to help his students give “artistic form to the rhythmic stages of a movement”.

By then, travelling exhibitions had exposed Vienna to cubism and futurism. And from 1920 the arrival of Hungarian artists in exile opened a dialogue with the eastern European avant-garde and its constructivist aesthetic.

These movements’ investigations into form, space and motion gave kineticism its visual alphabet. Its natural subjects were the expressive dance, music and theatre that flourished in postwar Vienna. “Rhythms flow through every hour of the classroom,” wrote one student, Leopold Rochowanski, alluding to the music played in lessons.

In charcoal on paper, “Music Frieze” (1923), by Otto Erich Wagner (not to be confused with the secessionist architect), who later became Cizek’s assistant, captures the sensation of sound building to a crescendo by drawing lines, bars and curves that billow and blast across the surface in shades of black, white and grey. And of a clutch of works devoted to dancers, the gouache and watercolour frieze “Female Dancers” (1923) by Marianne Ullmann stands out for the brittle energy of the marionette-like figures as they jitter across the backdrop’s fractured planes.

Jerky, robotic movement appealed to the kineticists’ celebration of the machine age. Another inspiration was the 20th-century metropolis. This show’s masterpiece is Klien’s 7m frieze, “Walking Through the Big City” (1923). In red, white and blue on brown paper, it is a vertiginous voyage through a dystopian landscape where skyscrapers, car wheels and fire escapes clash and tilt around dislocated letters and stylised faces.

None of these tropes, however, was new to the modernist lexicon. Most original are the explorations of plant growth inspired by Cizek’s conviction that crystalline forms conformed to nature’s inner, spiritual laws. The delicately shaded botanical studies of Wagner and Elizabeth Karlinsky resemble fragile towers constructed from shards and prisms of cut glass.

Kineticism’s failure to innovate is partly to blame for its fall into obscurity. Yet there are other factors. Emerging out of a school of applied arts, the style’s longevity depended on its realisation into three-dimensional objects. One of this exhibition’s most engaging sections is devoted to fabric and wallpaper design. Some are embroidered with signs and script, others are unpredictable patchworks of bouncing, refracted stained-glass colour.

Sadly Austria lacked the infrastructure that, in Germany, translated the Bauhaus ideas into industrial design. By the end of 1924, Ornamental Studies had been absorbed into a general department. Cizek would remain employed until his retirement in 1934, but he had long since ceded control to Otto Wagner. By 1929, both Klien and Karlinsky had emigrated to New York.

As pointed out by Monika Platzer in her catalogue essay, “a persistently reserved attitude towards abstract tendencies in Austria” is also to blame for kineticism’s neglect. Indeed, certain works reveal a yearning for their secessionist roots. Karlinsky, for example, deconstructs three female figures into a spiral of angles and circles and gives them the dry, modernist moniker “Composition with Figures”. Yet when she hems their Dietrich-sharp faces with a gold mosaic border, it’s clear they are the daughters of Klimt’s femme fatales.

Continues at the Belvedere until May 29

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