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Biedermeier: one chair is worth 100 paintings

VIENNA'S so-called ``Biedermeier'' era (1815-1848) was a bit of a paradox. On the one hand it was everything that was peaceful (particularly welcome after the disruptions of the Napoleonic period). It was middle-class, comfortable, domestic, private, and in some ways rather jolly. There was a lot of waltzing, pleasant entertainments in the Prater recreation park, and family expeditions into the countryside.

On the other hand it contained the rumblings of a dire social discontent. In 1848, the rumblings burst into revolution, albeit an abortive revolution.

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The huge Biedermeier exhibition now at the Kunstlerhaus tries to define and illustrate this complex time in an amusingly instructive way. The show's title - ``Burgersinn und Aufbegehren: Biedermeier und Vormarz in Wien'' (Bourgeoise and Revolt: Biedermeier and Pre-March in Vienna) - hints at the era's duality. But although this elaborate affair was staged with great fantasy and wit, it doesn't quite carry through.

The problem seems to have been a difficulty in finding material - prints, documents, objects or whatever - that would illustrate the growing impoverishment and desperation of the working class, the discontent of the intelligentsia, and the dawning dismay of the bourgeoise. Instead, the overwhelming concentration is on the art and artifacts of the bourgeoise - their fashions and wallpapers, their dancing and flower painting. Inevitably these, however appealing and nostalgic, suggest a rather shallow smugness. (The term ``Beidermeier was taken from a fictional poet described satirically as ``an artless Philistine.'')

It's the pretty side of the period that has come down to us, rather than the ugliness that lay just below the surface. This dark side is summed up in the phrase ``pre-March'' - March being the moment of revolution in 1848 when the authoritarian Chancellor Metternich met his Waterloo. By that time, Metternich had become a symbol of repression, the tyrant who bolstered his aristocratic world order with all the tricks of repression, including informants, secret police, and censorship. On March 13, 1848, a mob of protesters demanded his resignation, and he became the revolution's first victim. (The show includes a cartoon of him fleeing on a donkey.)

The irony is that the survival of mainly the pretty imagery and the lack of the dark from the period is exactly what Metternich and his compliant, garden-loving Emperor Francis I would have wished.

Though this was the time of Beethoven and Schubert, they were exceptions to the prevailing mediocrity of the day. It was not really an era of distinguished, let alone inspired, achievement in the arts. Music was generally amateur, its only high point being the development of the waltz form by Joseph Lanner and the waltz's showy promotion by the Strausses, elder and younger. There is plenty of painting in the exhibition, but for all its sincerity, there is something maddeningly minor about it all. Competent genre scenes and gentle views of the countryside predominate. They are adaptations of the far more vital but equally bourgeois art of 17th-century Holland.

It's no compliment to Biedermeier painting that it was very popular with the Third Reich. Biedermeier works are the ultimate conventional contrast to the rigors and vigors of the 20th-century modernism that the Nazis despised. Even when artists like Peter Fendi or Ferdinand Waldmuller show a sympathy for the plight of the poor, something about the shine and glow of their paint emphasizes conscious artistry rather than strong, compassionate realism. Like Picasso's Blue Period beggars, they appeal much more to the wealthy collector than to the viewer with a social conscience.

The things, in fact, that stick in the mind from this show are the chairs. One historian has written that ``no previous period had produced such a wealth of different types of seating.'' The sheer delight the craftsmen or factory-designers took in making as many different kinds of chair backs as possible remains exciting today. A similar inventiveness is also found in the wooden spittoons of the period, which underwent an vast variety of shape changes.

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A sober classicism never seems far in the background of all this creativity. But there is still something to be said for the burgeoning of multiple design choices available to the homemakers of Biedermeier Vienna. The same goes for cut glass, painted porcelain, brass and bronze objects, and textiles. Intriguingly, some of the silver objects on show have an elegant simplicity that seems far ahead of its time. A sauce boat of 1821 by Carl Doerffer is grace itself; it has no trace of showiness or frivolity.

The show touches on literature and theater, on architecture and science. But in the end this tribute to Biedermeier seems to remain largely in the amusing but unambitious realm of porcelain chocolate cups and little prints of waltzing couples.

Through June 12.

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