Sunday, May 1, 2011

Erika Giovanna Klien: Kinetism (1/2)

Erika Giovanna Klien: Lokomotive, 1926
In an extensive exhibition in Vienna I have encountered Kinetismus (kinetism), a Viennese variation of expressionism established by Franz Cizek who synthesized cubism, futurism and ornamental arts. It struck me that the rhythmic approach of capturing movement in space made Kinetismus a natural kin to animation. The pictures that especially appealed to me were all painted by Erika Giovanna Klien, probably the most important exponent of this particular style.

Erika Giovanna Klien was born in Italy in 1900. When she was 19 and her father wouldn’t allow her to become an actress, she went to the applied arts school in Vienna, later known as the School of Decorative Art. The teaching artists of the European avant-garde “attempted to erase the distinction between fine art and the decorative arts” (

Under her mentor Franz Cizek Klien discovered a holistic approach to self-expression.
“She wrote poems and reworked them as typographical pictures and comic-book style drawings; she formed her handwriting into an artistic gesture and consistently replaced the punctuation marks she found annoying with dashes in her personal correspondence. In her own way she remained true to the theater.” (
Her special love for the theater finally led her to the Vienna Drama School in 1922/23 and she created a “marionette theater with a novel stage, backdrop and figures and wrote a play for it” ( This marionette theater is worth mentioning for its use of unnaturally moving characters within equally moving stages. Unfortunately, these dynamics don’t come through in the sketches of the theater I’ve seen.

After a career as a commercial artist and art teacher Erika Giovanna Klien moved to New York in 1929 and became a U.S. citizen in 1938. She died of a heart attack in 1957 after an emotionally and economically troubled life of trying to survive as a single mother. During her lifetime she was more popular as an encouraging modern art teacher in America than as an artist. Re-evaluation of her work has only begun almost twenty years after her death.

Abstract and representational at the same time
Klien’s pictures may be unique but they were conceived in an extraordinary avant-garde environment that was fuelled by analytical, structural and positivistic thinking. The 1920s in Vienna were the time of twelve-tone music, psycho analysis, constructivism and gestalt theory to name but a few.

Some historians assume that the Swiss painter Johannes Itten (most well-known for his theoretical works on color) might have been a key influence to Cizek and Klien who is even said to have elaborated on Itten’s Vienna period while he himself has returned to representational depictions for many years. I would have liked to compare Itten’s Häuserrhythmen II (1917) with Klien’s Reitschule in Salzburg (around 1922) but couldn’t find either of them online.

Johannes Itten: Die Begegnung (the encounter), 1916
In my opinion, Klien’s examination of movement and dynamics is evident in two different ways: On the one hand, she painted moving objects and creatures with multiple outlines like an animated scene seen on a light table. On the other hand, she interwove geometric shapes with abstract and representational forms and elements to a structure that seems to be in constant motion.

Erika Giovanna Klien: Diving Bird (1939)
In Diving Bird (1939), my favorite of all her bird-flight pictures, we see multiple “snapshot” outlines overlapping as well as a new overarching shape. The resulting splinters of forms are colored like an abstract pattern that works against the bird shape as well as supporting it. The near symmetrical composition as a whole seems perfectly balanced like a piece of ornamental art. In its original size, this painting is a real eyecatcher despite its muted, almost monochrome colors.

As we will see in the second post, flying birds have never ceased to inspire her. Below we see one of her later motion studies using the same techniques twelve years later.
Klien: Flight Rhythm, 1951
Klien's fascinating and – as some feel – threatening New York subway and city pictures are even more monochromous and technical rather than emotional. 
Klien: Turbine, 1930
Klien: New York St. Marks Place, 1930
Klien: Times Square Subway Station, 1931

"In these works Klien seems to have taken the Kinetism and made it a part of the staccato experience of New York. These works are at once both hauntingly beautiful but also strangely lonely. In both images the viewer is apart from the scene as voyeur and observer. Klien the immigrant from Austria was looking at this strange landscape with an astute eye and she managed to capture something about New York that few other artists could relay about that time and place. The ever present hustle and bustle, the despair, the haunting beauty are all there in Klien’s depictions of these New York scenes." (Rob Meredith)
I will further examine the structure and color of Klien's paintings in a second post.

You can still see the exhibition DYNAMIK! (Kubismus / Futurismus / KINETISMUS) in the Lower Belvedere in Vienna until May 29, 2011.

Further reading online:

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