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A Golden Age Revived

`COUNT BOBBY,'' a fictitious, bumbling, but extremely affable turn-of-the-century aristocrat, is the butt of many a Viennese joke. I like the one in which Bobby enters a downtown store that sells globes. After looking around a bit, he approaches the manager. ``These are all very pretty,'' he says, slowly shaking his head; ``but tell me: haven't you got a globe of Austria-Hungary?'' His question accurately depicts the inbred eccentricity and self-centeredness of a culture that observed itself to death - and finally fell under its own weight in 1918. But not before it had produced some of the century's most inspired painting, music, architecture, and design.

The subject ``Vienna in 1900'' dominated this spring's symposium ``Austrian Art in America,'' sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Institute and the Galerie St. Etienne in New York.

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Why the clamor? To put it simply, Vienna is in vogue. These days, anyone who reads travel magazines knows what gem"utlich means, not to mention mit Schlag, the ubiquitous suffix that affixes itself to a host of baroque desserts and beverages. Caf'e life is more than a concept - it's a clich'e. People pronounce once-obscure names like Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos correctly and with a degree of reverence. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, for years so thoroughly ignored in the States, have taken their places as the standard-bearers of a movement.

I attended the symposium on Austrian art for The Home Forum, and prepared today's and tomorrow's essays on Klimt and Schiele, their work and the mark they left on the Austrian artists who followed.

Readers familiar with biographies of Klimt and Schiele have likely heard time and again about their so-called analysis (with all its Freudian implications) of the Viennese ``world'' - Klimt's, supposedly more superficial and decorative, Schiele's, supposedly more raw and deeper-cutting. Be that as it may. It is in my view, however, paradoxical that the same introspection that produced the crashing political failure of the Austrian-Hungarian double monarchy also exerted a positive, tempering influence in the works of these Viennese painters. The ornamental and sensually stylized works of Klimt and the lean but troubled paintings of Schiele did indeed testify to a culture of contradictions. In doing so, especially in Schiele's case, the result was purification by the maelstrom, not absorption into it.

Many of the symposium speakers addressed this phenomenon. Museum curators, gallery directors, and university professors together built one of the most informed groups on this topic that could be assembled. They ranged from Alessandra Comini, who has written several books on Schiele, to Thomas Messer, who orchestrated the Guggenheim's breakthrough exhibit of Klimt and Schiele works in 1965.

``Austrian Art in America'' is part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne, the foremost ambassador of Austrian Expressionism in the United States. The gallery is, arguably, more responsible than any other institution for the current interest in Vienna and its artists. Dr. Otto Kallir founded it in New York, having left Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss. In those days, works by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Gerstl, and others left Austria in the hands of many an 'emigr'e - export of these paintings was allowed, owing to the fact that they had been branded ``degenerate'' and ``undesirable'' by Hitler. Kallir brought them, bought them, traded them, sold them, and donated them. A recent prospectus reads, ``The `firsts' achieved by the Galerie St. Etienne are historic: the first American Oskar Kokoschka exhibition in 1940, the first Egon Schiele and Alfred Kubin exhibitions in 1941, the first Gustav Klimt exhibition in 1959, and the first comprehensive Wiener Werkst"atte exhibition in 1966.''

A very interesting part of the symposium was a lecture delivered by the current co-directors of the Galerie St. Etienne, Hildegard Bachert and Jane Kallir (the granddaughter of Otto Kallir), who detailed that man's lifelong effort to gain recognition for the artists he championed.

Next year is the 100th anniversary of Schiele's birth, and awareness of his work has never been higher here. Ms. Bachert, who has been with the gallery since its beginning, remembers darker days. She says that Schiele watercolors used to sell for about $60, while drawings went for as little as $20, if at all. ``In the '40s, we couldn't give them away,'' she recalls.

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But in the meantime more has changed than just the prices: early 20th-century Vienna, a world that once collapsed in upon itself, again radiates its wisdom and its warning.

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