Sensation and Sensuality: Hans Makart’s Vienna

Twin exhibitions re-examine the legacy of an artistic modernist who once defined the culture of the imperial capital

Hans Makart’s The Five Senses, painted on commission but never sold. | Photo: Belvedere Museum

An intense conversation is going on right now between two of Vienna’s major museums, the Belvedere and the Wien Museum in the Künstlerhaus. The subject: a once celebrated painter, designer, decorator and educator.

This was Hans Makart, whose “Makartstil” is credited with having determined the culture of an entire era in mid-19th century Vienna, yet whose name today has nearly been forgotten.

In the Künstlerhaus, one steps into a world of objects and paintings in the artist’s opulent studio, reconstructed as it stood in 1869. In the Belvedere, one comes face to face with the dramatic force of colour and space in Makart’s painting of Caterina Cornaro, with the word “sensation” suspended from the ceiling. Within the first seconds of crossing the threshold at either venue, you feel your feet slipping from beneath you, as if an unseen force is pulling you into the vivid sensuality of Makart’s Vienna.

In this extraordinary collaboration between the two museums, we see Makart’s twin roles: At the Wien Museum, we encounter how “An Artist Rules the City”; at the Belvedere, a “Painter of the Senses”.

The former situates Makart within the cultural politics of the Vienna of his day, and the latter shows his place as a painter on the international art scene. Altogether, it’s been a long time coming: The last major exhibition of Makart’s work was at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden, Germany in 1972.

On an unusually hot summer day in Vienna, Ralph Gleis, the curator of the exhibition in the Künstlerhaus, ushers me inside.

“Makart defined a complete era in Vienna,” Gleis tells me. “He was involved in everything: painting, theatre, architecture, interior design, photography … a universal designer.” Gleis himself feels a special connection to the artist. “The Künstlerhaus was built one year before Makart came to Vienna, and Makart was one of the first artists who had shows here.” A total of 400 objects are spread over nine rooms in the Künstlerhaus exhibition.

While a student, Makart left Vienna for some years. He was invited back to Vienna in 1869 by Emperor Franz Joseph – in the throes of the fame he had acquired through the scandal his paintings had made in France. At the time, Vienna was just beginning to grow into a world metropolis. Makart requested a studio from the Emperor and settled into Gußhausstraße 25.

“We wanted to re-create his studio,” Gleis says, “his showroom for marketing his paintings.” In the doorway, a viewer feels the vivid sense of Makart’s world as he lived it.

At the Belvedere, the paintings are hung thematically through the rooms. Many of them are massive, covering a whole wall.

“For a Makart exhibition, you need space!” curator Alexander Klee says with a laugh. Their goal was to challenge the forgetfulness of history.

“We wanted to ask the question: Was Makart just a painter of the Wiener Ringstrassen period, or was he more than that?”

As we sit down in front of Bacchus and Ariadne, Klee continues: “Makart was a Phänomen. He had the ability to influence people from all classes through his paintings. In the 20th century, artists became rebels or outcasts, but Makart represented the fin-de-siècle image of an artist who wanted acceptance from his audience. At the same time, however, he only did what he wanted to do.”

What about the grand parties in his studio?

“He had to survive as an artist. Painting was expensive, so he had to create drama in order to keep his audience interested in coming to his exhibitions.

“It was through the introduction of fees that he was able to sustain himself.”

Another tactic of self-promotion was to challenge conventional mores. Makart included faces of famous Viennese personalities in his paintings.

“Part of the scandal came from erotic features in his paintings,” Klee says. “Adults kissing, loose-fitting clothing, an uncovered ankle, monks receiving sexual favours, gold backgrounds inspired by church paintings with nudes in the forefront, depictions of sex and crime – these were all scandalous and sometimes almost blasphemous compositions.”

I stand spellbound before Makart’s The Five Senses, five luscious nudes that were painted on commission, but then remained unsold in his studio. Bold, certainly, but his true innovations were more fundamental.

“Makart’s reputation as a Ringstrassen painter sometimes causes people to forget his incredible modernist tendencies in that time,” Klee says. “He was completely unconcerned with the subject. His interest was in the composition and the colours.”

He didn’t “copy” flowers, for example; when painting them, he explored their expressive range. He was flexible in his techniques and used light wherever he needed it to evoke strong emotion. He also painted very quickly, completing 700 paintings before he died at the age of 44.

The Belvedere exhibition also includes some of Makart’s lesser-known paintings to show the diversity and modernism of his work. Dante and Virgil at the Entrance to Purgatory, for instance, shows an almost aggressive handling of the paint, reminiscent of the French Expressionists. This aspect of his work is also emphasized in the Kunstlerhaus show. His approach was most likely inspired by artists from other places, Gleis notes, but for Vienna they were new, with Makart becoming the trendsetter.

The Belvedere exhibit also includes paintings by Makart contemporaries – such as the transition Classicists Anselm Feuerbach and Thomas Couture, and the Romantic Eugène Delacroix – to show both differences and similarities. Makart was not interested in depicting human anatomy correctly. The commonly held assumption that Makart was dismissed from the Vienna Art Academy for lack of talent or draughting skills is incorrect. In fact, a closer look at historical documents shows that he chose to leave because he had been accepted in Munich into the class of Karl Theodor von Piloty, a leading exponent of German Realism.

The Künstlerhaus has made a particular effort to show the wider impact of Makart. Displayed is a model of the float that Makart designed for the famous 1879 Silver Wedding Anniversary parade for Kaiser Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, a spectacle later known as the “Makart parade”. Costumes created for the event are also being shown.

Was this all self-promotion?

“The Kaiser wanted a parade. Makart was probably the only individual at that time who could organize one at such short notice,” Klee says. “And he did. Quite successfully.”

Makart was clearly a sensation. Nevertheless, in the 1870s, the Wiener Abendpost, over-saturated with Makart designs for the stage, wrote: “We would prefer a little less Makart and a little more Shakespeare.”

The Künstlerhaus has a Hall of Fame, where a series of portraits of famous Viennese men adorn the walls. Currently, however,
these portraits are looking down at Makart’s paintings of famous Viennese women. The men, famous as they may have been, disappear completely in the radiant light of sensuality and seduction that exudes from Makart’s portrayals of women.

In this retrospective, the drama and scandal at times overshadows Makart’s achievements as a painter. However, his courageous innovations in style, his audacious use of colour, and the skill of his compositions make it clear why he glowed so brightly on the firmament of his time.

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