BERLIN — Prismatic crystal palaces emerge from the ground like Technicolor Towers of Babel. These glass structures, envisioned by the artist Wenzel Hablik in the early 1900s, are not fragile; they grandstand with strong architectural finesse, announcing a vision of utopia hinged on the aspirations of a still-emerging industrial age. Hablik’s career as a painter illustrates the rapid shifts of his generation in Germany, from Romanticism to German Expressionism and beyond.
Inside and outside Germany, Hablik is a relatively unfamiliar figure. But now, Berlin’s Marcus-Gropius-Bau is recognizing the quality of his work and reintroducing him to the public with Wenzel Hablik: Expressionist Utopias, an immensely successful survey of the artist’s career from beginning to end.
At the outset of his professional career, Hablik experimented with different color palettes while holding true to an Impressionist style championed by the Berlin Secessionist movement. “The Innkeeper of Schlossberg,” a 1906 portrait completed near the artist’s hometown of Brüx, Bohemia (present-day Most, Czech Republic) is a swirly mishmash of browns and greens. But the innkeeper’s face is an exceptional site of color clashes, mixing bright oranges with teal and yellow. Completed that same year, “Sunset Mont Blanc” spreads those three colors across the canvas while adding deeper blues, purples, and reds. Here, we get a real sense of Hablik’s main passion: the great outdoors. With the sun baking the sky, a single hiker overlooks the blue mountaintops below, purple clouds filling the stratosphere. Compositionally, “Sunset Mont Blanc” owes much to Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic 1818 masterpiece, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” But Hablik combines the setting with an impasto brushstroke à la Vincent van Gogh.
A consummate traveler, Hablik’s frequent journeys across the globe — to South America, the Ottoman Empire, and throughout Europe — opened his eyes to new aesthetics and forms. His trips to Italy, Greece, and Constantinople were especially important, exposing the artist to the squat, hexagonal geometries of old Christian and Eastern Orthodox churches. Synthesizing these ancient forms with his previous fairy tale castle drawings, Hablik’s work became more ambitious and fantastical. He overwhelmed his beloved landscapes and skies with schematic machinery, advanced (if highly unrealistic) air colonies. At a critical moment, Hablik transposed the ideals of German Romanticism to proto-Space Age fetishism for a utopian, technological society. Suddenly, we see the artist explode his style into the cosmos. “Firmament” (1913) zooms through the universe at hyperspeed, combining known and fictitious planets together into a whirlwind of space.
Hablik completely turned his attention to contemporary architecture by the late 1910s, specifically studying the crystal structures that had been erected all over Europe in the mid- to late-1800s. (Think about London’s now-destroyed Crystal Palace in Hyde Park or Madrid’s still-existing Palacio de Cristal.) His tessellated colosseums are borderline biblical in appearance, splitting the difference between an ancient volcano and a stairway to heaven. Arguably his greatest painting, “Self-supporting dome with five mountain peaks as base” (1918/23/24), depicts a pink megalith marked by grand arches and an angelic halo. While beautiful, there are more telling elements of design in the landscape’s mountains and shore. Here, we see that Hablik has abandoned the smooth, naturalistic forms of his earlier paintings in favor of hard, rectilinear lines.
This aesthetic shift may be traced to Italian Futurism’s grip on Hablik, who undoubtedly encountered the group’s work during his travels. The angry, explosive style of the Futurists came just in time for World War I. Adopting their visual vocabulary, Hablik created “Destruction,” a glorification of war that features a dramatic conflagration of colorful boxes and cylinders. Although he initially supported the war, Hablik became a pacifist in its aftermath; he became obsessed with the idea that art could marshal humanity toward universal peace.
In his later years, his utopianism turned to décor, transforming the dining room of his home in Itzehoe, Germany into a mural of interlaced rainbow blocks of color. (Serendipitously, Hablik saved his chromatic dining room from the Nazis when he decided to renovate it with neutral wallpaper. The murals were only discovered in 2013 by chance.) Finally, we see Hablik fully indulge in the gestalt of aesthetic optimism. Art has the ability to overwhelm the viewer and transport them to a future better than their present. Hablik desired such a future, one where art could intervene in people’s lives and lift them up into utopia.
Wenzel Hablik Expressionist Utopias continues at Martin-Gropius-Bau (Niederkirchnerstraße 7, Berlin) through January 14.