NEW YORK — Life in Berlin in the early 20th century was a step beyond hedonism, a place where bohemians gathered for a wild ride on the cutting edge of music, art and morality. Black American enchantress Josephine Baker was seducing crowds with her “banana dance,” composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht were mesmerizing theatre-goers with their innovative motifs, and Christopher Isherwood’s vivid account of the demimonde life inspired the dark musical Cabaret.
“Sex,” observed the world-weary American ingenue Louise Brooks, “was the business of the town.”
There was raw passion in the air and expressionism, dadaism, surrealism and the revolutionary architectural ideas of the Bauhaus were flourishing. The art was especially thrilling to a 13-year-old boy, Ronald Lauder, who used gift money from his bar mitzvah to buy a drawing by Egon Schiele in 1957. That sketch, Lauder’s enduring friendship with Viennese-American art dealer Serge Sabarsky, and his considerable resources as chairman of Estee Lauder International were the genesis for the most recent addition to New York’s Museum Mile, the Neue Galerie — a museum devoted to German and Austrian Art of the early 20th century.
The collection, which includes Schiele’s expressionist paintings, Gustav Klimt’s canvasses and Joseph Hoffmann’s jewellery (whose colours are brilliant enough to prompt comparisons to Ravenna’s ancient mosaics), is only part of the Neue Galerie’s appeal. The lavishly restored mansion, once occupied by society doyenne Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, embodies the heady atmosphere of those times. The opulent first and second floors — with their rich gilding, Italian marble floors and deeply carved wooden panels — feel like the home of a wealthy and broad-minded patron of the arts in the old Weimar Republic.
The museum’s mix of decorative and fine art not only demonstrates their influence on one another; it also paints a vivid portrait of early 20th century bourgeois life in Central Europe.
Perhaps not every burgher had a mantelpiece clock shot through with onyx marble, mother-of-pearl and brass, and not all parlours could boast a statuesque ebony drawing cabinet, but even a modest merchant must have at least once raised a cup as boldly designed as the black-and-gold painted Hoffmann tea service, or reclined on a beech-wood armchair as inventive as Hoffmann’s 1908 “sitzmaschine.”
But it’s at Cafe Sabarsky, which is inspired by the Vienna coffeehouses at the centre of that period’s intellectual and artistic ferment, where this exhilarating era comes to life.
Run by Kurt Gutenbrunner, chef at New York’s sophisticated Austrian restaurant Wallse, the cafe is rife with sumptuous details such as marble tables and reproductions of Adolph Loos’s 1899 black-bent-wood chairs — on sale in the design shop for $900 each (all amounts in U.S. dollars).
The menu reinvents such Viennese classics as open-face Trzesniewski-style sandwiches — matjes herring with egg and apple, chestnut soup and cod strudel with riesling sauerkraut. It’s a bit more ambitious than the coffee and a muffin offered at the Met, and far more expensive.
fIndeed, everything associated with the Neue Galerie is atmospheric but pricey, from the cafe’s Viennese Melange, a rich, $5 cappuccino, to the 1917 Joseph Hoffmann Patrician Service glassware in the design shop — $480 for six of any one piece, such as the brilliant, fragile “muslin glass.”
The $10 admission price is top-tier as well, equal to the “suggested price” at the immense Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But the elegant manner in which the museum reawakens the art and culture of this epoch has undeniable charm. It’s also something akin to time travel. Slide across a banquette covered in extravagant 1912 floral textile overlooking the most fashionable part of Fifth Avenue, place a voluptuous $6 Sacher torte to your lips, and for an hour you can be the vamp Sally Bowles or an enigmatic expressionist painter in libertine Berlin of the Golden Twenties.
Neue Galerie: Museum for German and Austrian Art. 1048 Fifth Ave., (212) 628-6200, http://www.neuegalerie.org. Children under 12 are not admitted and children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. The show, Oskar Kokoschka, Early Portraits from Vienna and Berlin, 1909-1914, runs from March 15 to June 10. Hours: Friday, Saturday, Monday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 1-6 p.m.