The Vienna School of Fantastic Realism

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. Foreign troops, war machinery, barricades and ID-checkpoints at the borders of the occupation zones of this divided city were a fact of daily life, and such things as food stamps, line-ups for the most essential things and black market prices preoccupied every one's mind.

The state of the visual arts in Vienna had deteriorated ever since the start of World War I. Both Gustav Klimt and the younger Egon Schiele died in 1918, and the career of Oskar Kokoschka was interrupted at first by the war, and later by the Nazi occupation and their relentless campaign against degenerate art. The collapse of the Austrian Empire and the political turmoil in the years between the wars prevented any continuity of the initially promising development of a distinctive Viennese style. This period was marked by provincialism, due to the political insecurity and resultant ultra-conservatism, and most gifted artists, like Kokoschka, departed for greener pastures.

It is therefore not strange, with Austria being virtually isolated from 1918 onwards as far as cultural activities are concerned, that news of the Surrealist Movement, already in it's decline internationally, filtered into Vienna only after the birth of the Second Republic in 1945.

When the Vienna Academy opened it's doors again in the Summer of 1945, the students at the Academy had to adapt and repair the heavily damaged building and clear the debris. Regular classes did not start until late in the Fall that year.1

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.2

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.3

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.4

The inner growth of these artists, much later known as Fantastic Realists was influenced by the Gothic Masters, the early Italian and Northern Renaissance (particularly Bosch, Brueghel, Dürer and Grünewald), and amongst Modern Artists de Chirico and Dali. The ideology and methods of orthodox Surrealism was acknowledged, but as painters they were less influenced by the Breton group, which Jené belonged to. What they had in common with Jené was the value they put on the refined skills of traditional painting, rejecting such trends as Fauvism as the ultimate loss of the great tradition of the Old Masters.

It is in this combination of traditional skill and the development of an ideology which transcends that of the Surrealists inasmuch as the Viennese Artists became concerned not only with the recording of the inner psyche of man, less dependent on automatism - be it as an end in itself (a development which was taken to its ultimate extreme by Abstract Expressionism) or, as in Surrealism, a departure for further fantasies, but rather with the analysis and conscious manipulation of such paranoiac critical activity.

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).5 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 6 (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 (with this I believe he came to a conclusion which at first eluded surrealist writers).

In this respect, Kokoschka's contribution to Fantastic Art, which easily is overlooked by many historians concentrating on his expressionistic style, should be highlighted. Amongst his writings, his exploration into The Nature Of Visions is especially remarkable. 7

Another artist who's (at first indirect) influence on the Vienna School cannot be discounted, is Alfred Kubin. His interest in the world of dreams, the Inner Universe, easily predates Surrealism, and had considerable influence on the art of the metaphysicist Giorgio de Chirico. 8

At the1968 exhibition The Development Of The Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism in the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, homage was paid to such forerunners of Fantastic Art in Austria as Rudolf Wacker, Franz Sedlacek and Stefan Eggeler, which, at the time our scenario began to develop, were largely forgotten and only much later regained some recognition. 9

From these early days at Gütersloh's class, five leading artists emerged from the initial seven. Fritz Jantschka 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. 10 remaining as the nucleus of a movement known today as The Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism we find Arik (Erich) Brauer, Ernst Fuchs, Rudolf Hausner, Wolfgang Hutter and Anton Lehmden. By the Seventies, they in turn influenced a following of well over 90 exhibiting artists in Vienna. 11 It took however 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. 12 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.


IRU 1961-69

Johann Muschik 13 followed the development of the Vienna School Of Fantastic Realism since it's early years. Already in 1947 he recognized the significance of these artists and spoke of a Vienna School in one of his reviews. At first it was thought of as a branch of Surrealism, but Muschik felt uncomfortable with this label. He wrote in 1950: "Fuchs and Lehmden are labeled Surrealists. Unfathomable; at least as far as Lehmden is concerned. What he wants to show us is clear and obvious, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the confusions of Breton and his group."14

Muschik praises Hausner in 1951: "The Ark Of Odysseus ..... is free of irrationality and filled to the brim with rational observations ....." 15 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." 16

But the term Fantastic Realism did not find universal acceptance, nor did the artwork described as such. The director of the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna denounced the term as contradictory: an exhibition organized for that gallery in 1959 had to do without this description. Critical reviews misinterpreted the Vienna School on many occasions, describing them and their work as narcissistic, egocentric neighbor-scarers, a waste of talent, etc. 17

The artists of the Vienna School did not form a tightly structured movement, but retained their individuality. Friends since the days at the Vienna Academy, their relationship did not exclude occasional disagreements. It was just such a disagreement between friends that prompted Ernst Fuchs, together with Arnulf Rainer, to form a counter movement in 1951, called Hundsgruppe which, after one exhibition, was disbanded the same year. In 1959 Fuchs, Rainer and Fritz Hundertwasser published the Pintorarium Manifesto, reminiscent of dadaism in their proclamations against the public school system (should be abolished), the Academy and similar non-conformist ideology, as well as zany ideas such as imposition of a public dress code (only brightly colored clothing may be worn). 18

The rebellious nature of Fuchs provided the needed adrenalin to keep the group from complacency. In 1958 he 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 19 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. 20

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) 21. 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. 22

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 Cecanne) 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 ..... 23

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; their artists being represented in established galleries throughout Europe, assuring financial success as well.

In 1972 a monumental exhibition, containing 100 paintings by the five artists of the Vienna School was organized by the Museum for Modern Art in Hyogo, Japan, with the generous help of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper conglomerate 24. This followed in the wake of several international exhibitions such as in Los Angeles in 1966, New York, Boston and San Francisco in 1968, and a big retrospective show, Die Entwickling der Wiener Schule in Vienna, also in 1968. 25

From the catalogue text of the exhibition I learn that the Vienna School had considerable success at a previous show in Japan in 1965, and that there were already a number of Japanese artists which were heavily influenced by the Austrians. The Japanese art critic Itsuro Sakazaki in his contribution to the catalogue observes the considerable influence of Klimt and Schiele, and remarked that Klimt studied Ukiyo-e painting; he also likens Schiele to the Japanese painter Sharaku 26 . With this 1972 show in Hyogo it seems the Vienna School comes full circle, and no doubt their success in Japan was at least partially due to the recognition of their traditional craftsmanship, which retained some of the oriental elegance, so much in vogue during Klimt's time.


Ernst Fuchs


Rudolf Hausner

Mixed Media