NEW YORK — Memories of art confound with memories of reality. Once, in ancient student days, I spent two weeks in Vienna. My mind holds smoky souvenirs of splendid museums, of pacing pompous revivalist architecture along the Ringstrasse, of "Die Fledermaus" at the opera, prancing horses at the riding school and a flirty cocktail waitress in some faded gilded bar. Later there was another time when I set off by train from Frankfurt to Venice and somehow wound up back in Vienna in a bahnhof where all trains seemed to be headed for sinister and exotic destinations like Moscow and Istanbul.
For all those presumably authentic memories, hearing "Vienna" still starts a zither playing in the mind and Orson Welles materializes as Harry Lime in "The Third Man," embodying the slimy charms of corrupted sophistication in postwar Vienna.
Lately these images joined specters from the ersatz reality of the news media that reported dark accusations leveled at Kurt Waldheim during his campaign for the Austrian presidency. Had he known more than he told of Nazi atrocities when he was a young officer in the German army?
There must be at least poetic reality in a realization that all these levels of memory point to Vienna as a place that is decidedly haunted, haunted, haunted.
The panoramic exhibition "Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design," at the Museum of Modern Art (to Oct. 21), carries and somehow explains these ghostly vectors. It attempts to treat the often brilliant work of the period before World War I as a freestanding entity quasi-separated from the teeming, fetid, yeasty bed of a dying society that gave it form. This is doubtless the only way to give the art an appearance of sense and independent integrity, but it does not finally quiet resonances of an epoch that plays like dissonant strains of Ravel's "La Valse."
In recent years Vienna has come to be seen as a major cradle of the modernist aesthetic, along with Paris, Berlin, Munich and Moscow. The exhibition, which will not travel, gives that idea every opportunity to prove itself. Architectural innovators like Otto Wagner are accorded full-dress display in environmental installations, such as a re-creation of the entire facade of his office for the news bureau Die Zeit. Its aluminum and glass facade, detailed to the last scintilla, could be called High Tech Art Nouveau.
Wagner, along with colleagues and rivals like Joseph Maria Olbrich, Adolph Loos and Joseph Hoffman, reacted against the stuffy and artificial eclecticism of Ring buildings. They set out to make architecture that integrated the whole environment into a consistent entity, matching everything from furniture to fabrics and even clothing. Viennese designers like Emilie Floge made loose, comfortable garments that were an elegant feminist rebellion against corset and bustle.
In 1903 Hoffman and designer Kolman Moser founded the Wiener Werkstatte, a workshop that was to produce furniture and design objects for sale at reasonable prices. Like the British arts and crafts movement that inspired them, these artists believed that good design ennobles the soul and elevates the society. Unlike the Parisian avant-garde, these were not economic bohemians. They found ready support from rich amateurs and government alike, albeit that support was often enmeshed in traditional Viennese love of complexity and intrigue.
In 1907 the Werkstatte extended its reach into the performing arts by opening a theater-bar, the Kabarett Fledermaus (evoked here in a functioning Viennese coffeehouse that is a popular adjunct to the exhibition). None of the workshop ventures made money, but they pioneered an idea of the arts allied for social betterment that predated the Bauhaus and is echoed in the "public art" movement of the present.
But what is the legacy of all this accomplishment? According to the excellent catalogue text by curator Kirk Varnedoe, "There were innovators in early modern Vienna (Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, etc.) who took enormous leaps of invention and transformed their given fields in ways that reverberated, with profound consequence, throughout the culture of the Western world--but none of the visual artists were among them."
What is this? A curator going out of his way to tell us his subject is not as hot as it is cracked up to be? After a lifetime of masked curatorial hype and scholarly obfuscation, this is a refreshing shock.
But is he right?
The more you look at "Vienna 1900," with its neo-Gothic goblets, nouveau-barbaric jewelry, streamlined inlaid furniture and folksy graphics, the more convinced you are that you're having a heck of a good time but you are not looking at art of advanced theoretical purpose.