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Carl Moll’s paintings for a perfect life

How the Austrian artist's conception of the ideal existence was muddied by Nazism.

By Michael Prodger

In the last decades of the 19th century, Paris was the acknowledged spiritual home of avant-garde art. But as the fin-de-siècle inched closer, Vienna emerged as a rival in vibrancy – and at the heart of it was Carl Moll. If Gustav Klimt is the most celebrated painter of the Viennese efflorescence, then Moll was its great proselytiser.

He was also one of its most notable painters, even though his work – largely showing interior scenes, landscapes and still-lifes – seems sedate when compared to peers such as Klimt, Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser. While his fellows created new styles in which graphic innovation, symbolism, eroticism and expressiveness fused, Moll painted in the French-derived manner of “mood impressionism” – Stimmungsimpressionismus. He built up feeling in his modest pictures through rich colour, careful attention to light and defined brushstrokes. It was a style – of stillness and calm – inherited from his teacher Emil Jakob Schindler, but it went back through the impressionists to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot in the middle years of the 19th century.

[See also: Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy: visceral visions of man and beast]

Moll worked with Schindler for 11 years, as his student and then collaborator. Their closeness meant he lived with the family and this intimacy eventually led to an affair with Schindler’s wife, Anna. Three years after Schindler’s death in 1892 the couple married; this, however, was not enough to appease Anna’s daughter Alma – the future composer and wife of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius – who, despite her own lively love life, remained resentful of her interloper stepfather.

Moll’s charged home life was mirrored by his professional environment. In 1897 he was one of a group of artists, architects and designers who rebelled against the prevailing academic and traditional ethos and founded the Vienna Secession. The group’s aim was not stylistic uniformity but an openness to contemporary foreign art and a belief in the gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art that married art, architecture and music.

Moll’s friendship with Klimt was put under strain in 1899 when Klimt made advances towards Alma: she was 19 and he was 17 years older. The priapic painter kissed the girl, telling her, “Nothing else is possible but to come together completely…” Alma recorded being left “reeling and had to lean against the banister of the staircase”. When Anna read the confessions in her daughter’s diary, she and Moll were put on their guard.

Nevertheless, in 1905 Moll joined Klimt in seceding from the Secession group, and in his role as director of the Miethke Gallery put on various shows promoting Klimt and their previous confrères. By then he was advancing the claims of Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery as a home for contemporary Austrian art as well as holding the first exhibition of Van Gogh’s work in the city (a Moll self-portrait of 1906 shows Van Gogh’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother hanging on the wall nearby).

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[See also: The flickering landscapes of Alessandro Magnasco]

Moll’s landscape paintings, such as the one here, Birchwood in Evening Light (circa 1902), now in the Belvedere Gallery, clearly show the influence of Klimt. Klimt brought the decorative skills he usually applied to his de luxe portraits of society women to nature too. He adopted close-cropped compositions, high horizons (or no horizon at all), and a heightened two-dimensionality that flattened the picture space so that beech trees, flowers and lakes became almost abstract.

Moll was less radical in his depictions of nature but also ensured that his paintings were works of design rather than adhering to the landscape tradition of framed trees and receding horizons. Here, his impressionist dabs – the “tache” – make grass, trees and patches of bare earth parts of a pattern and simultaneously representational, leaving the eye slightly unsure as to how to enter the painting or, once inside, read it.

Moll’s landscapes were, however, tranches of nature less to be walked through than to be lived with. They were meant to interact with their surroundings in the modern, coherent homes designed by the Secessionists and filled with the ceramics, silver and furniture produced by the new Wiener Werkstätte designers. Moll himself lived in just such a home, a villa designed by his friend Josef Hoffmann as one of a group of Jugendstil – Germanic art nouveau – houses in the fashionable suburb of Hohe Warte. In such a setting, his pictures were signals of the harmonious, forward-thinking life.

Nevertheless, in Moll’s opinion, this refined milieu was not for everyone. Although the great events of his lifetime – two world wars, the crumpling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, financial collapse, rapid technological advances – find no place in his pictures, he was a man of his times. Like Klimt, he had many Jewish clients and came to be deeply fond of his Jewish son-in-law Mahler, to the extent that it was Moll who sat with him as the composer lay dying, and made his death mask. If he felt an incipient anti-Semitism, it remained hidden until the rise of National Socialism brought it out.

Moll was never a Nazi party member but his daughter Maria married Richard Eberstaller, a committed fascist (and president of the Austrian Football Association) who became vice-president of the Nazi Court in Vienna. Some of their enthusiasm for Hitler seems to have infected Moll too. Despite this he arguably remained more committed to art and in 1937 organised an exhibition to mark Oskar Kokoschka’s 50th birthday even though the Nazis deemed his work “degenerate”.

As the Red Army took Vienna in April 1945, Moll knew the end had come and wrote a letter declaring: “I fall asleep unrepentant, I have had all beautiful things life had to offer.” Two days later, he was injured by shrapnel when Soviet troops broke into his house. That evening Moll and Maria held a small party marking Eberstaller’s birthday – Maria made a pie – before father, daughter and son-in-law took poison. In order to receive a Catholic burial, Moll’s cause of death was recorded as “grenade injury and blood loss” rather than suicide.

The posthumous coda would have horrified him. Moll’s villa was occupied by Soviet troops and his pictures, such an essential element of his ideal aesthetic life, looked down instead on these Untermenschen from the east.

[See also: The sinister art of Victor Hugo]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game