The Viennese Waltz differs from other waltzes in the speed of the rotation—a dervish-like dance in which the dancers are spun out of their normal existence. That dizzying disorientation helps turn their world upside down. At the turn of the twentieth century, Vienna stood at the heart of a similar kind of waltzing whirlwind in which artistic and cultural forces acted to disorient a whole generation and set the tone for a new, modern reorientation for all Western society. In Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, which runs at the Neue Galerie through June 27, 2011, we rediscover just how influential that city and time were for all that followed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Caught up in our own dizzying times, we can see much of our own disorientation (and perhaps solutions to problems of style and identity) in the amazing cast of characters assembled in Vienna 1900.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its capital, Vienna, found itself left behind the pace of the times. A massive stock market crash in 1873 terrorized a generation into conservatism. Conservative taste dominated, resulting in a prevailing architectural style of grand, classically inspired facades turned Vienna into “a self-aggrandizing European Las Vegas,” as described by Philipp Blom in his lively catalog essay covering the historical background. The fine arts suffered similarly, with painter Hans Makart as the “high priest of… stuffy splendor” (Blom, again).

Enslavement to the past denied the individuality of persons of the present. Artists and thinkers of Vienna in 1900 asserted their own ideas and their own individuality through a new style in the arts and seeing the world—both without and within the human mind. We’ve lost sight of that monumental paradigm shift and how important it was in terms of our own struggles with identity and style in the wake of economically induced conservatism. As Ronald S. Lauder, founder and president of the Neue Galerie, explains in his preface, reminding modern, American audiences of this history is central to the museum’s mission to promote German and Austrian art. “[T]he perception of their culture had been distorted by the horrors of the war years,” Lauder believes, and Vienna 1900 hopes to correct that misperception.

What strikes you first when looking at the names involved in that time and place and this exhibition is just how many went on to become giants in their field. In painting, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka fought the influence of Makart. When Richard Wagner’s music strangled new styles, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern broke out of that confinement. The literature of Robert Musil, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Arthur Schnitzler exorcized the ghost of Goethe. A different kind of literature—The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud—also debuted in 1900. Even architecture and furniture found bold new stylists in Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Adolf Loos. When so many great figures exist in one location at the same time, encounters and crossovers are inevitable. Painter Richard Gerstl first painted Schönberg and his family after getting to know them as neighbors. Gerstl taught Schönberg the basics of painting, which the composer used to become an interesting painter in his own right with works such as Gaze (detail shown above). Unfortunately, Gerstl and Schönberg’s wife Mathilde became lovers, which ended tragically in Gerstl’s suicide after her return to Arnold. Great passions breed great drama, and Vienna 1900 literally drips with drama.

Jill Lloyd, an independent scholar and curator, and Christian Witt-Dörring, adjunct curator of decorative arts at the Neue Galerie, organize this massive collection of material around the central theme of identity as reflected in these different styles. Painting, music, and even chairs and fashion take on greater significance as emblems of identity, including gender and religious (specifically Jewish) roles. Lloyd’s catalog essay focuses on the Frauenfrage or “women question” so central to this moment (and every one following). Her spin on Klimt’s approach to the women question sheds new light on that seemingly simple and familiar artist. “In his life, Klimt clearly divided women into those he respected, even exalted, and those he slept with,” Lloyd acknowledges, but also “Klimt’s images of women are acknowledged as complex representations with a symbolic force; as such, they embody allusions to the ‘women question’ that are far from straightforward to read.” Even the Neue Galerie’s golden girl, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, shines brighter with the realization that she’s wearing a variation of the period’s “reform dress” (a real-life example of which also appears in the show). That reform dress liberated women from the corset and bustle and allowed them to move (figuratively and literally) more freely. Lloyd sees even Klimt’s overtly sexual depictions of women not as objectification but more as “allegories [that] embody a belief in the regenerative force of the female sex.” When the world seemed most lifeless, Klimt and others looked to women, that disrespected class, to inject new life and lead the way into the future.

Vienna 1900 exemplifies how modern multimedia is nothing new. Listening to Mahler while looking at Klimt while thinking about Freud seems a daunting task of multitasking, but it’s exactly what you should be doing to get the full experience of what this exhibit is all about. The catalog manages to give a taste of so many of these different ideas without falling into academic drudgery, making it an invaluable complement to seeing the show. (Blom, yet again, on how different Jewish figures dealt with Jewish identity, and Claude Cernuschi on how Schiele and Kokoschka put into paint Schopenhauer’s idea of bodies reflecting a spiritual essence, jump to mind foremost.)

In trying to determine why Vienna has failed to be recognized for its role in shaping the modern world, essayist Jean Clair offered the possibility that the culprit is our “over-optimistic idea of modernity.” Although much of Vienna 1900: Style and Identity is pretty, many of the forces that helped generate that moment weren’t. Anti-Semitism, sexism, economic segregation, and political repression pressured these people to respond, or disappear into history. If we, too, are to move forward and not disappear into history, looking back at the example of Vienna 1900: Style and Identity is a good start.

[Image: Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). Gaze, 1910. Oil on cardboard. Belmont Music Publishers, Pacific Palisades. Courtesy Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna. © 2011 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/VBK, Vienna. Photograph © Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna.]

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for the image above from, press materials for, and a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, which runs through June 27, 2011.]