Many of the artists teaching at our academy from an integral part of the contemporary Fantastic and Visionary Art movements, which have their roots in The Vienna School of Fantastic Realism.
The Vienna School of Fantastic Realism
An abridged version of an essay by Otto Rapp
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The Early Years of the Fantastic Realists in Vienna
In Vienna, shortly after World War II, at a time when the terrors of the war years were still fresh in every ones memory, and the senseless destruction of this culturally rich city was still evident wherever one cast his eyes, the Akademie der bildenden Künste, partially ruined, opened it’s doors again.
Ernst Fuchs remembers vividly the atmosphere of these days:
“It was 1945. A glimmer of hope, a longing for freedom awakened in the people, still surrounded by the smoke and darkness of the ending war. Now that the war has ended in Europe, a small group of painters came together at the bomb-devastated Academy on the Schillerplatz to start a new direction in art. They were only vaguely oriented: there was nothing to see of this new, modern art, only tales one could hear from the Mecca of Painting, Paris.” (1)
The then 15 year old Fuchs and Erich (later Arik) Brauer who was 16, started taking classes from Professor Robin C. Andersen, but found that their excursions into Expressionism did not fit into his class. With the appointment of Professor Albert Paris Gütersloh, Fuchs and Brauer as well as Kurt Steinwendner whom they met in Andersen’s class, found a teacher more to their liking.
There they met Wolfgang Hutter, which at that time painted in a curious cubist-derived style. Anton Lehmden, a Czechoslovakian refugee, soon joined the little group , and the older Fritz Janschka, returning wounded from the war, rounded out the circle.
Outside the Academy, the friends met at the atelier of Rudolf Hausner, many years their senior. Hausner had studied at the Academy between 1931 and 1936, and returned after the war to occupy Professor Sergius Pauser’s atelier until his return from exile, to keep it safe from plundering and squatters.(2)
Another meeting place was the studio of the Saarlandish artist Edgar Jené, who lived during and after the war in Vienna. A member of the surrealist group around Andre Breton, with whom he re-established contact after the war. Jené was the link to Paris, and through him, the young Viennese Artists became acquainted with the works of the Surrealists and their ideology.(3)
Jené’s presence in Vienna, though as a painter he was not that well known, was nevertheless important to the development of modern art in this city. Aside from his influence on the group of artists and students which later emerged as the leading artists in Vienna, his contribution to Viennese cultural activity through his review PLAN (between 1945 and 1948) cannot be underestimated (Jené returned to Paris in 1950).(4) In 1948, he organized (with Paul Celan and Arnulf Neuwirth) the first Surrealist Exhibition in Vienna.
The link to the past, and brief moment of glory of Viennese Art shortly after the turn of the century is provided by Albert Paris Gütersloh, foremost a poet as well as a painter, who was very well acquainted with Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele (who painted his portrait in 1918). Gütersloh’s own flair for the fantastic found a receptive audience in his students. As a poet he painted, as a painter he spoke of, eloquently, the language of the Inner Continent (Innerer Erdteil, which is better translated as: Inner Universe), a language not separated by barriers between Poetry and Painting, but both existing as an inseparable whole. (5)
From these early days at Gütersloh’s class, five leading artists emerged from the initial seven. Fritz Janschka emigrated to the US in 1949, accepting a position as artist in residence, and later taught, at Bryn-Mawr-College near Philadelphia. Kurt Steinwendner (later known as Curt Stenvert) switched his metier to motion pictures in 1951. (6) Remaining as the nucleus of a movement known today as The Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism we find Arik Brauer, Ernst Fuchs, Rudolf Hausner, Wolfgang Hutter and Anton Lehmden.
It took a long time for the group to gain recognition. It seemed that critics – and the public – in Vienna were especially hostile. At a show in the foyer of the Vienna Concert Hall in 1946, featuring Fuchs, Hausner and Janschka, the works were removed three times after public outrage. (7) Rudolf Hausner was of course used to such treatment – being the oldest he had already experienced such rejection in 1938, when the Nazi regime labeled his work degenerate, and forbade him to exhibit.
From the Fifties to the Seventies
Johann Muschik followed the development of the movement from it’s early years. Muschik eventually coined the term Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism, under which these artists became known world wide. He explains the term as such: “These Painters are Realists for their attention to detail, fantastic is the juxtaposition, the scene. One cannot call them Surrealists, though they evolved out of Surrealism, because missing is the absurd, the preference for paranoia, trance and hallucination.” (8)
In 1958 Fuchs founded his own gallery in which he exhibited fledgling young artists, and thus kept the movement alive by introducing fresh blood. In the years between 1958 and 1962 the circle around the principal artists of the Vienna School expanded radically (9) and continues to do so until this day. The success of the 1959 show in the Belvedere (the former residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy) was, in spite of the squabble over what to call it, as well as adverse criticism, phenomenal. Muschik relates that the (for the standards of these days) very expensive catalogue was sold out in no time at all, and only one previous show, Van Gogh, had a higher attendance figure. (10)
The breakthrough for Fantastic Realism eventually came in 1962 during an exhibition of 23 artists representing the Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism at the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Exposition). Being part of a show called Surrealism – Fantastic Painting Of The Present, the Vienna School was confronted with the elite of International Surrealism, and came out with flying colors.
The Parisian Art Review Arts (article by Pierre Cabbane, July 1962) wrote that: “The Austrian Painting makes the Fantastic a living art.” Earlier that year, the Vienna School was praised at an exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris by Cabbane and the critic Raymond Charmet (Arts, March 1962) (11). The following year Gustav René Hocke wrote the foreword for a catalogue for an exhibition in Rome. In 1964 Wieland Schmied, a renown German critic and historian, wrote a book titled Malerei des Phantastischen Realismus / Die Wiener Schule. The disputed name Fantastic Realism was thus officially accepted. (12)
A show organized by Wieland Schmied in 1965, after being shown in Hannover at the Kestner Gesellschaft, where Schmied was director, traveled throughout Germany. The art critic H.Th. Fleming of the Hamburg daily newspaper Die Welt wrote:
“This exhibition, organized by Wieland Schmied, is a first-class event. The show opens a hithero overlooked, strangely fascinating and magic world, and at the same time provides a stimulus to take a fresh look at the problems and possibilities of painting, and to re-examine its present day established criterion. … Above all, they (Vienna School) are breaking with the (since Cezanne) dominating demand for a ‘peinture pure’, which should be free of literary, symbolic and psychologic content. For them, there is no opposition between categories. They do not believe that ‘formal art’ reaches a higher rank when it lacks literary content. … as much as we can easily detect their influences, from the old Masters to the classics of Surrealism, they are in no way backwards or eclectic, their provoking stillness is exciting and their clarity breathtaking…” (13)
Similar enthusiastic reviews appeared throughout Germany. Thus, the Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism established a name for itself on a broader basis in Europe, eventually internationally.