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Cultural Hothouse

The Sacred Spring: The Arts in Vienna 1898-1918

by Nicolas Powell, with an introduction by Adolf Opel
New York Graphic Society, 224, 24 color plates, 92 black and white illustrations pp., $25.00

Art in Vienna, 1898-1918: Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele and Their Contemporaries

by Peter Vergo
Phaidon, 256, 166 illustrations (16 in color) pp., $27.50

Gustav Klimt

by Werner Hofmann
New York Graphic Society, 182, 42 color plates, 55 black and white illustrations pp., $32.50

Gustav Klimt illustrations

by Alessandra Comini
Braziller, 112, 48 color plates, 32 black and white plates, 44 comparative pp., $8.95 (paper)

Egon Schiele’s Portraits

by Alessandra Comini
University of California Press, 271, 24 color plates, 340 half tones pp., $65.00

The Art of Egon Schiele

by Erwin Mitsch, translated by W. Keith Haughan
Phaidon, 268, 192 pp. of illustrations (64 pp. in color) pp., $45.00

Egon Schiele: Paintings, Watercolours, Drawings

by Rudolf Leopold, translated by Alexander Lieven
Phaidon, 687, 220 plates (84 in color), 390 illustrations pp., $175.00


Change, Hegel once observed, while it imports dissolution, implies at the same time the rise of a new life; for while death is the issue of life, life is also the issue of death. To Austria at the turn of the century, Hegel’s observation is particularly appropriate. Precisely when the liberal social order of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was beginning to dissolve and the political constitution showed signs of rigor mortis, an almost unprecedented creativity and vigor began to show itself in the intellectual and artistic life of the middle class.

Since World War II, the dimly sensed affinity of one age for another which so often stimulates historical inquiry has been at work with respect to fin de siècle Vienna—especially in America and England. To be sure, American intellectuals have long been aware of the importance of some Austrian pioneers in the making of twentieth-century forms of thought—in economic theory, music, psychology, philosophy of science, etc. Yet the assessment of such pioneers until very recently has been confined mainly to their contributions to one particular field, while the larger social and cultural setting in which the innovators lived and worked has claimed little interest.

During the past two decades, this specialized perspective has begun to broaden into a historical one. Ernest Jones’s path-breaking biography of Freud revealed almost unintentionally the complex social and cultural milieu which shaped his mentality. To a generation reared to understand Wittgenstein as a figure in English philosophy, Allan Janik’s and Stephen Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna, despite its frequent historical superficialities, provided new insight into what we must now see as Vienna’s Wittgenstein. The French review Critique, in its special issue of August-September, 1975, “Vienne, Début d’un siècle,” shows how far the growing literature on salient Austrian intellectuals has already progressed. William McGrath’s Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria transcends the emphasis on single figures and analyzes the new culture-makers from Victor Adler to Gustav Mahler as participants in a common social experience.

These studies of the creators of twentieth-century higher culture have begun to create an awareness of Austria—and especially Vienna—as a kind of cultural hothouse, and they reflect a striking shift in the direction of contemporary interest in Austrian history. From World War I to the 1950s the Habsburg monarchy engaged the interest of both scholars and public essentially as a political phenomenon, a multinational society in the frame of a single state. In the era of nationalism, the League of Nations, and minority problems, Austria fascinated as “the little world in which the big one holds its try-outs.” But as those issues, with the advent of the cold war, lost their primacy in the European world, and as our own elite culture began to enter its own crisis of extreme subjectivism and abstract rationalism, another field of past Austrian experience was opened up. Thus Clio seems to be treading the same path today that Vienna’s intelligentsia did in 1900: from politics to culture.


The seven books under review bear witness to the prominent place of the visual arts in the surge of interest in Austrian culture in the last two decades of the Empire. Two of the works—Nicolas Powell’s colorful but elementary The Sacred Spring and Peter Vergo’s well-organized but rather unanalytical Art in Vienna—provide a general survey of the period’s visual production as a whole. Both embrace and generously illustrate applied art and architecture as well as the fine arts. The other studies—those of Comini and Hofmann on Klimt; those of Leopold, Mitsch, and Comini on Schiele—are more closely focused on these two major painters of the age. Since Klimt and Schiele embody in their own development the two great phases of the modern movement in Austria—the aesthetic (c. 1898-1908) and the expressionist (c. 1908-1918)—the monographs on these artists tell us much about the trajectory of Viennese higher culture as the Empire lurched toward its end.

The art revival began with the founding of the Secession movement in 1897. The Secession differed in its origins from other European movements of artistic rebellion. Most followed the classic pattern of the French salon des refusés: first came artistic innovation, then its rejection by the traditionalist arbiters of the art world, and finally the establishment of a new movement outside the frame of academic institutions. Not so in Vienna. Here the ideological demand for a new art preceded its actual development. Critics and patrons, often with an active past in radical bourgeois political reform (Max Burckhard, Hermann Bahr, Bertha Szeps) played as large a part in the foundation of the Secession as artists themselves. They provided the ideology and the finances, and created the intellectual ambiance in which the younger artists conceived their function.

The Secession manifestoes are full of statements reflecting a self-critical pre-occupation with the failures of the liberal culture in which their authors were themselves brought up. One catches echoes of the earlier French avant-garde, of Flaubert and Baudelaire pillorying bourgeois hypocrisy four decades before. The aspiring modernists blamed patrons and artists equally for the falsity and corruption of art in the liberal era. Adolf Loos, the architect, branded proud Beaux Arts Vienna as the Potemkin city of the nineteenth century, in which modern, commercial rulers screened their true identity behind pretentious Renaissance or Baroque façades. The artists too were embraced in the indictment: having sold themselves to their patrons, they were complicit in the corruption.

Business or art,” cried Hermann Bahr, critic and co-editor of the Secession magazine, “that is the question.” In their indictment of materialistic liberalism as the source of the degeneration of art, the artistic rebels showed an affinity to the explicitly political “secessionists” from the liberal camp who led the new mass movements: Karl Lueger of the Christian Socials, Georg von Schönerer of the Pan Germans, Victor Adler of the Social Democrats, and Theodor Herzl of the Zionists.

Materialism, bourgeois hypocrisy, and loyalty to moribund tradition: all these the Secession opposed. What were its positive aims? The architect Otto Wagner demanded that art be liberated from Mammon and false historicism in order to “show us at last our own face,” the face of modern man. Gustav Klimt stated the same idea in an allegorical drawing of Nuda veritas: his young woman holds up a radiant but still empty mirror to the beholder. (See illustration on this page.)

If truth about modern man was to be the first duty of the new art, the regeneration of modern life through beauty was the second. The magazine of the Secession reflected the regenerative impulse in its very name: Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring). The social optimism which was fading from political life thus reappeared in the aesthetic sphere. The artists and their allies planned to re-educate the people, to produce a “Kunstvolk.” No political ideology was attached to this program, as was often the case in other countries where the arts and the crafts movement became specifically allied to socialism, anarchism, or progressivism. The Secessionists expected that the creed of art would be spread through education alone; but it would serve as an antidote to social ossification and decadence. The involvement of architects in the Secession strengthened its initial redemptive impulse. Following the English and Belgian arts and crafts movements, the Viennese artists proclaimed the end of the distinction between pure and applied art. It was their task to transform man’s environment—especially his home environment and the objects used within it.

The art produced by the Secession in its first three years showed the strain implicit in the attempt to speak the truth and at the same time to beautify modern life. For only as long as the truth it spoke expressed the will to regeneration, the enthusiasm of the “sacred spring,” was there any comforting beauty in the truth. Soon the mirror of Nuda veritas began to reflect the lineaments of the threatened post-political bourgeois: psychological man, the world of the dissolving ego, of nightmare or of unrealized fantasy. Without a politics to sustain the Secession’s cultural aims, its hopes for a Promethean reshaping of man became transformed into an Orphic quest for identity.

Gustav Klimt was the universally recognized leader of the entire movement, and his work reflects the metamorphosis of the socially redemptive and liberating into the psychologically introspective. In his finely reasoned monograph Werner Hofmann traces Klimt’s stylistic evolution as he abandoned the solid naturalism in which he was reared in an attempt to convey a new, still unformed, sense of life. In his drawings, one can watch the energetic curvilinear style borrowed from the German Jugendstil dissolve into the short-fibered nervous contour of his tense and febrile figures. His search for sexual liberation brought forth lubricous playgirls who were as threatening as they were seductive—nineteenth-century repressions died hard.

In Klimt’s landscapes, the luminous color of French impressionism became transformed during the last years of the waning century into a somber pleinairiame of the fog. Whereas previous generations of painters studied anatomy, Klimt attended lectures in psychopathology as well. He gave clear expression to the new concept of “truth” in his paintings representing the faculties for the great hall of the University of Vienna. In his Nietzschean vision of philosophy, Enlightenment rationality disappeared before the riddle of a universe of suffering, with only Zarathustra’s midnight courage able to transform chaos into beauty. A painting representing medicine, inspired by Schopenhauer’s pessimism, showed the procession of the suffering generations drifting aimlessly in a viscous void. The painter’s veritas proved to be that of the psyche’s imprisonment and frustration in the meaningless flow of life.

Finally, in a third panel symbolizing jurisprudence, the charming allegorical figures of civilized justice are only the deceptive surface of law. Its deeper reality is not a just order but punishment at the hands of naked, sunken-eyed femmes fatales. Perched in a deep yet spaceless world, they watch the victim of justice consumed by a womb-like polyp. Law is unmasked as instinctual vengeance, and judgment, as in the words of Blake, is in the loins. Small wonder that university professors and anti-Semitic politicians joined in condemning Klimt’s subversive vision, so akin to Freud’s!

Simultaneously with the painters, the architects developed their own approach to relating truth and beauty. Peter Vergo, in his collage-like general survey of the arts (characterized by the author, with justified modesty, as “a source book”), is at his best in showing how the architects divided as they too tried to transcend their inherited historical tradition to find “the modern.” In domestic building, the aim of beautifying life maintained its primacy. But some of the first experiments in the new architecture showed signs of narcissism. Here a critic suggests how, as a connoisseur-client, he would approach his architect:

I should first have to tell an architect of my inner beauty—[through my favorite color, poet, song, hour of the day]. Then he would know me, he would feel my very essence. He would now have to express this through a line…. Over the gate a verse would be inscribed: the verse of my essence; and what that verse is in words, all colors and all lines must also be; and every table, every wallpaper, every lamp would again be that same verse. In such a house I should see my own soul everywhere as in a mirror…. Here I could live of myself [Hier könnte ich von mir leben], looking at my own features and hearing my own music.1

  1. 1

    Hermann Bahr, The Secession, Vienna 1900, p. 37.

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