Black and white graphic of silhouettes of dancers in poses

Everything is Moving! Capturing movement with Kinetism in Art

Lokomotive by Erika Giovanna Klien
Lokomotive by Erika Giovanna Klien, 1926 oil on canvas

Compelled by the desire for the renewal of art in the context of the thriving, urban setting of the early 20th century – with burgeoning technologies and a lifestyle faster-paced than ever before experienced – a Viennese group of artists engaged an artistic perspective in the context of European modernism, Kinetismus, “Kinetism” ( not to be confused with kinetic art). The name coming from the Greek word for movement, kinesis, it was not actually regarded as a movement itself; instead it was a classroom centered around ideals and challenges, contemporary issues, and the avant-garde. A stunning exhibition at Vienna’s Lower Belvedere museum showed an array of Kinestismus Kunst alongside early 20th century Cubism and Futurism.

At that time, motorization and urban expansion were well underway and people’s social lives were developing along with these changes, with increasing levels of transportation and communication, avant-garde modern dance and theater, and emerging social liberations. The artists of this time and place visually abstracted these dynamic changes, including visual realizations of the increased urban noise and the Futurists’ glorified beauty of speed.

Sculptural Construction of Noise and Speed by Giacomo Balla
Sculptural Consctruction of Noise and Speed – Giacomo Balla 1914-15, reconstructed 1968 (Hirschhorn Museum, photo: Joe Loong

The Italian Futurists, neighbors to Vienna’s home country of Austria, emphasized concepts of the future, including speed, technology, youth and industry in every medium of art. Their artistic concepts were represented in painting with a “universal dynamism”, which seems at home in this exhibition with its Cubist and Kinetist comrades, and somehow seems at home in many of the spiritually conscious writings and quantum conceptualizations of today. As noted:

Objects in reality were not separate from one another or from their surroundings: “The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten four three; they are motionless and they change places…The motor bus rushes into houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.”

Cubism – the avant-garde artistic movement with Pablo Picasso as a recognizable pioneer – also portrayed alternative perspectives and reflected the changing environment:

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. The background and object planes interpenetrate one another to create the shallow ambiguous space, one of cubism’s distinct characteristics.

The Man at the Café by Juan Gris
The Man at the Café – Juan Gris, 1914 oil and adhesive

The three dynamic perspectives of Cubism, Futurism and Kinetism merge in the exhibition into a distinct purview of modernism and its influence. Pioneering Kinetism was Franz Cizek, professor at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (today’s School of Applied Art), who declared Kinetism as “modern life pulsed through activism.” Rightfully shown in this exhibition alongside the likes of Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky and Pablo Picasso were Cizek’s students, notably Erika Giovanna Klien, Elisabeth Karlinsky, Marianne/My Ullmann and Wolfgang Leopold Rochawanski.

“Everything is, everything is moving” — Cizek declared to his students, reflecting on the dynamic nature of the world with inspiration from the natural sciences and philosophy. Cizek’s teaching concept can be summarized with these steps (Rochowanski 1922):

The awakening of emotions (Expressionism)
The awakening of the brain (Cubism)
The awakening of the eyes (Kinetism)
New feeling, new thinking, new vision

The students were encouraged to utilize a multidisciplinary foundation in their creative processes, seizing influences from art, science, aesthetics and cultural history to form their own artistic language and develop a vibrant creative network within the intellectual climate of Vienna. Embracing modern ideals of progress with the desire for the renewal of art, the students were receptive to the environment they were in and which Cizek created. Instead of recreating a single moment in space or time, they were capturing dimensional movements on the canvas.

Diving Bird by Erika Giovanna Klien
Diving Bird (Tauchender Vogel) – Erika Giovanna Klien 1939, oil on canvas

Also within the contextual thought there at the beginning of the century was a search for the “‘laws of the spirit’, a new spirituality played an important role in Vienna in 1900. After 1918, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical worldview was booming.” [the Belvedere] This inspired the artists, such as the Swiss expressionist painter also included in the exhibition, Johannes Itten. Itten, inspired in part by Cizek and during his years spent in Vienna led his own private art school, was a student himself of Eastern religions and theosophy. His spiritual searchings, which included the practice of meditation, naturally influenced his art, including his color theories and image analyses. Itten’s teaching principles included supporting the creative impulses of his students, even to the point of not correcting their work individually.

Balancing inner and outer movements was characteristic of Kinetism, whether it be dispaying the dinstinctive interpretations of color, the motions of a bird in flight or modern dancer, or musical expressions alighting on the canvas. It was, as Itten suggested, a matter of “wanting to represent concentrations of thought.”

With art, as with our imagination, anything is possible. These personal interpretations of the rhythms of life in our kinetic world produced paintings that at first might seem completely abstract, but then fall into place as the observer falls into their natural rhythms—such as Klien’s Abstraction: a horse and carriage forever caught in multiple moments of time and space.

Abstraction - Erika Giovanna Klien
Abstraction – Erika Giovanna Klien 1926 gouache and watercolor on canvas (Photo ©Yale Univ. Art Gallery, 2010)

From Harald Krejci and Kerstin Jesse of the Belvedere (translated from the German, viele Entschuldigungen für meine Übersetzung):

Within the term Viennese Kinetism today, we combine different artistic positions from the period between 1918 and 1929. The common feature is the search for a synthesis of the inner expression with Cubist and Futurist conceptual forms, in order to take the modern living environment into account. Elementary image forms are rhythmicized through lines of movement and display superimposed dynamic motion sequences.The dynamics of the city, the new expressions of dance, the mechanization of the environment and the reflection on the processes of perception formed the basis for an over ten-year history of abstraction in Vienna. Central to the network of young artists was Franz Cizek’s Department of Ornamental Morphology at the Vienna Arts and Crafts School, whose motto was:

“Not to teach, not to learn — allow growth from one’s own roots”
„Nicht lehren, nicht lernen – wachsen lassen aus dem eigenen Wurzeln“

Cizel school of art, Vienna
Artwork attributed to Cizek’s school


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