1891 - 1955
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PAUL KIRNIG
A Viennese Painter

1891 - 1955

Paul Kirnig studied and taught graphic art at the ‘Kunstgewerbeschule’ in Vienna, now known as the University of Applied Art. He gained recognition for his teaching and work in the field of commercial art during his lifetime. Until recently, however, his painting remained virtually unknown.

Born in Silesia, a northern province of the Hapsburg empire, he moved to Vienna in 1908. After his period of compulsory military service and 2 years studying chemistry at the ‘Technische Hochschule’ he was called up in 1914. Paul Kirnig enclosed drawings in letters to his wife during the war years but little else is known about his artistic development. Heavily wounded at the battles of Monte San Michele on the Italian front in the summer of 1915, he did not return to front line duties and would have had time to devote to drawing. Perhaps it was then that he decided to become a painter. On returning to Vienna at the end of the war, aged 27, he took a course in painting at the ‘Malschule zu St Anna’, a now forgotten art school.

In the autumn of 1919 he enrolled at the ‘Kunstgewerbeschule’ to study graphic art under Professor Bertold Loeffler. At that time the ‘Kunstgewerbeschule’ was at the centre of artistic life, and was considered one of the leading arts and crafts colleges in Europe. Oskar Kokoschka, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffman, Alfred Roller and Franz Cizek, to name but a few, were teachers there. Bertold Loeffler, a pupil of Koloman Moser, had taught at the school since 1907. He was known for his graphic work with the ‘Wiener Werkstaette’, book illustrations, posters, murals and the Palais Stoclet on which he collaborated with Josef Hoffmann. During his studies Paul Kirnig attended Franz Cizek’s course in Ornamental Morphology. This was the birthplace of the exciting expressionist art form ‘Kinetism’ and in his graphic work Kirnig became for a brief period a prominent representative of this movement. Examples of it can be found in L.W. Rochowanski’s book Formenwille der Zeit, published in 1922, and in the Cizek Archive in Vienna. Most originals, however, have sadly been lost. Paul Kirnig soon turned away from ‘Kinetism’, ‘....from the abstracting and dissecting analyses of form to a clarifying orientation towards the object without however giving up the fundamental principles of Cizek’s teaching...’ *
Paul Kirnig also introduced ‘these fundamental principles of Cizek’s teaching’ into his painting, ‘ ...into a veristic style of painting, subject to the problems of light, reflection, rhythm in the depth of space and its relation to colouring... ‘ *

After completion of his studies at the ‘Kunstgewerbeschule’ in 1922 he spent a period of two years painting and freelancing as a commercial artist. All early paintings, Suzanna and the Elders, the Self-portrait, the Town, Thistles, Christmas roses, Apples stem from this period. There are no known paintings of an earlier date.

In 1924 the director of the ‘ Kunstgewerbeschule’, Alfred Roller, invited Paul Kirnig to join the staff as assistant to Bertold Loeffler, and in 1935, on the retirement of his old teacher, Kirnig took over as head of department. He remained in this post until his own retirement due to ill health in 1953. He died on 24 August 1955.

During his lifetime Paul Kirnig was well known for his work and teaching in the field of commercial art and was regarded as the ‘creator of the modern Austrian poster’. His paintings, however, unknown outside a small circle of friends, have only recently attracted scholarly attention. This is not surprising. He belonged to no artistic groups and only a small number of paintings were sold in the mid twenties. Of these only two are now known to exist. In an essay (‘The art of today and tomorrow’) Paul Kirnig writes the following: ‘The artist who creates, being in close contact with nature, feels the harmony of the entire universe in each of its parts and strives to materialise that feeling by symbolising as it were the rhythm of the universe in his work, thus creating a work of art.....’**

He considered his paintings to be ahead of their time. Certain that his art would be appreciated in the future he asked the family to look after the paintings and keep the collection together as ‘in fifty years time people will want to look at them’.

All paintings are in oil; most are on canvas, some on wood and some on cardboard. The subjects he painted include landscapes, water scenes, flowers, portraits, and industry. Most paintings were conceived in the late twenties and early thirties. The stress of the politically turbulent times in central Europe resulted in no major paintings being conceived after 1938.
In 1994, 40 years after Paul Kirnig’s death, Dozent Christoph Bertsch and Dr. Markus Neuwirth of the Art History department of the University of Innsbruck were made aware of his work and recognised its important position in Austrian art. Dozent Christopher Bertsch’s special interest in Austrian painting of industry lead to a research project on the Paul Kirnig the Artist and an exhibition of the paintings of Industry at the University of Innsbruck, and to the inclusion of paintings at the exhibition ‘New Objectivity Austria 1918 –1938’ at the Kunstforum in Vienna in the spring of 1995. All paintings of industry were again shown at the exhibition ‘Arbeiterbilder’ in Linz in 1998 and several works are to be included in an exhibition ‘Austrian Art of the Inter War Period, to be staged in Pisa in Autumn 2000.


* Dr. Markus Neuwirth, ‘Art History and Controversy - Paul Kirnig and the Inter War years in Austria’ Essay in Catalogue to the exhibition ‘Industrial Images – Paul Kirnig’ in 1995 at the Art History Department of the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

** Paul Kirnig, ‘The art of today and tomorrow’ written in 1930, unpublished.