by Roderick Conway Morris

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Josef Maria Auchentaller: A Vienna Secessionist and his Misfortunes

By Roderick Conway Morris
GORIZIA, Italy 20 June 2008
Vienna Museum
Feburary by Josef Maria Auchentaller, for the Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) Calendar, 1901



Josef Maria Auchentaller was one of the leading artists of the Vienna Secession, the group that rebelled against the conservatism of the Austrian artistic establishment in 1897. Their most celebrated show was the 14th Secession exhibition in 1902, inspired by Beethoven, particularly his Ninth Symphony. But whereas Klimt's 'Beethoven Frieze' is now one of the star attractions of the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, Auchentaller's similarly grand frieze, entitled 'Joy, Fair Spark of the Gods' (from the opening line of Schiller's 'Ode to Joy,' sung in the fourth movement), has been lost without trace.

This misfortune was just one of several twists - including Auchentaller's fateful absence on the day the oft-reproduced group photo of the Secession artists was taken during the mounting of the Beethoven show - in a life that reads like the plot of a Nabokov novel.

Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking Auchentaller a cunningly contrived literary invention, but for the 400 paintings, drawings, illustrations, posters, designs for textiles and jewelry (and actual pieces) now on display at the revelatory and diverting exhibition, 'Josef Maria Auchentaller (1865-1949): A Secessionist on the Borders of the Empire,' curated by Roberto Forti. The show continues at Palazzo Attems-Petzenstein until Sept. 20, before traveling on to Bolzano and to Vienna in 2009.

There are now hardly any works by Auchentaller in Austria's museums. Paintings he did for a Viennese theater in the 1890s are lost, as was a collection of his oils bound for a retrospective in Argentina in the 1920s. Therefore, almost everything in the exhibition comes from the artist's private archive, which was moved after his death by his heirs to the South Tirol where it was carefully conserved but for the most part not on public view. This treasure was tracked down by the Austrian scholar Vera Vogelsberger, who died last year while still in her late forties.

Auchentaller was born in Vienna in 1865 and, as his youthful drawings confirm, was a naturally talented draftsman. In 1885, he met and fell in love with Emma Scheid, the eldest daughter of a well-to-do manufacturer of silverware and jewelry. The struggling artist was judged by Emma's family to be neither socially nor financially suitable as a prospective son-in-law, but their opposition was finally overcome and the couple married in 1891.

After the birth of a daughter, Maria Josepha, they moved to Munich, where Auchentaller studied under Paul Hocker, one of the founders of the Munich Secession in 1892. Auchentaller contributed covers and graphics to the Secession review Jugend, and from 1895 onwards he provided striking art nouveau-style designs for his father-in-law's company A.G. Sheid. Only this spring Raffaella Sgubin, director of Provincial Museums in Gorizia, Italy, managed to purchase in London a fine 1901 gilded-silver and enamel Auchentaller brooch once erroneously credited to the Viennese Secessionist Koloman Moser but now re-assigned to its rightful designer.

The Auchentallers were on an extended art tour of Italy when news of the Vienna Secession reached them. The artist returned to the Austrian capital in the summer of 1897, exhibiting in 10 Secessionist exhibitions between 1898 and 1904.

He contributed to the movement's official organ Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), helping to define its style, and became one of its editors along with Klimt.

In 1898 his father-in-law commissioned him to create the 'Beethhovenzimmer,' a music room for his villa. Auchentaller designed every aspect of it, from the doors, furniture, mirrors, piano and lamps to the stained-glass window and eight painted panels inspired by the Sixth 'Pastoral' Symphony (only a few of these components are known to have survived in private hands). In 1900 he designed the catalogue cover and poster for the 7th Secession exhibition. An entire issue of Ver Sacrum in 1901 was devoted to Auchentaller's work. He was also by then designing commercial posters, among them one for A.G. Sheid.

The lengthy execution of the artist's huge frieze for the Secessonists' 1902 Beethoven extravaganza put a severe strain on his resources, and meanwhile the health of his daughter became a concern. His wife, Emma, suggested that they seek a better climate and some form of financial stability by moving to the Adriatic Coast. Grado, a small fishing village bounded on one side by the Gulf of Trieste and on the other by a lagoon, then still just within the Austro-Hungarian Empire's borders, was chosen as the place to build and run a new pensione. It was constructed on the site of a small, Napoleonic-era fortress - from which it took its name 'Pensione Fortino' - and designed by the art nouveau architect Julius Mayreder, with decorations by Auchentaller. Emma later established a steam laundry for the Fortino and other Grado hotels, and bought an island in the lagoon where fruit and vegetables were grown for the pensione restaurant.

The presence of the Auchentallers, especially the enterprising Emma, did much to publicize Grado, and in 1906 the artist produced one of his most attractive and stylish advertizing posters, 'Seebad Grado.' Along with the nobility and haute bourgeoisie of Mitteleuropa, a steady stream of those involved in the arts, among them the architect Otto Wagner, began to frequent the resort. The flavor of the period is charmingly evoked in the exhibition by pieces from Gorizia's Museum of Fashion, which has an exceptional collection of Belle Epoque clothes, including beachwear and accessories.

Although Auchentaller returned regularly to Vienna during the winter, he found himself increasingly out of the artistic loop of his hometown. In 1903 he was detained in Grado by business connected to the building of the pensione, which cost him the loss of the whole room he had been promised at a Secession exhibition, and he was able to show only two pictures. The decamping of Klimt and his allies from the Secession in 1905, which Auchentaller followed, added to his isolation.

He turned increasingly to portraiture and to sometimes moodily atmospheric land- and seascapes. He exhibited an idiosyncratic mixed-media portrait of his son Peter at the 'Kunstschau,' an exhibition organized by Klimt and his circle in 1909. And his 'Colored Ribbons,' a striking portrait of his daughter Maria Josepha, drew favorable comments from the press and fellow artists at a major show in Dresden in 1912.

According to local lore, Emma Auchentaller fell in love with a handsome local man in Grado and conducted a lengthy affair with him. The emotional life of the family was further shaken by the suicide of Maria Josepha in July 1914. Less than a month later, when war was declared, the Auchentallers hastily left for Austria. In 1915 the Fortino was requisitioned by the Italian authorities. The family returned to Grado in 1919 and took Italian citizenship. But the mysterious mislaying of the prized pictures destined for his show in Argentina during the 1920s was a further blow to artist's morale.

While his artistic powers did not desert Auchentaller as he grew older - as is witnessed by an amusing self-portrait of 1931 and a sketch of Emma in 1945, the year of her death - he became ever more retiring. The migration to Italy had solved the family's financial problems but also proved a fateful move for his artistic career and his long-term reputation.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024