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Looking for the Exit

Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture

by Carl E. Schorske
Knopf, 378 pp., $15.95

This winter the Royal Academy in London has been holding a large, beautiful, and instructive exhibition, under the loose title “Post-Impressionism,” whose impact seems likely to change many people’s map of the arts. It is an exhibition which suggests the European background Carl Schorske only touches on in his essays on Vienna—and which could have been stronger if it had taken account of the artistic developments traced in Schorske’s book. Organized by Alan Bowness, backed by IBM money, and underwritten for insurance purposes by the last Labour government, it provided a large cross-section of much that was going on in European painting from the emergence of Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, and Van Gogh—those four amazing offspring of the Impressionism of the mid-1870s—to the first awkward stirrings of the Fauves and the German Expressionists around 1905.

This show and its catalogue brought more vividly to our eyes and minds perhaps than it had ever been before the “fin de siècle,” those closing years of the great nineteenth century which have so often been interpreted—according to the interpreter’s particular interest—as a time of decadence and faded aestheticism, or else as an interlude on the heroic road from the Salon des Refusés to fully fledged abstract art, or as a period of growing working-class cultural and political awareness. Richly presented in so unhackneyed a way, the years prove to be all these things and a great deal more, swelling in the mind’s eye till they seem neither an end nor an interlude but a distinctive and coherent stage in European civilization: the missing background to Carl Schorske’s new book.

Above all, it is the internationalism of those years that remains so striking. Thanks to the new exhibiting societies of the 1890s (along with the new techniques of photoengraving) the same pictorial influences could be seen and felt throughout Europe: artists like Whistler, Beardsley, Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, Toorop, Munch, or Segantini might show in Brussels, Venice, or Munich (or be reproduced in The Studio), while competent followers of Bastien-Lepage or the Neo-Impressionists could be found in many countries. In the other arts too a similar universality could be felt. Ibsen, Wagner, and Nietzsche dominated the cultural life of one country after another; Maeterlinck, following Octave Mirbeau’s accolade for his first book of poems in 1893, became a world-wide best seller whose handful of stage works were set by composers like Fauré, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Sibelius and staged by Reinhardt and Stanislavsky.

It was a matter not just of suggestive new techniques (divisionism or the chord of the diminished seventh) or themes (industrial wastelands, returning miners, children on the beach) but of a shift in fundamental attitudes following the Franco-Prussian War and the Impressionist breakthrough. Secularism at this point coexisted with symbolism; anarchism with humanitarianism; high aestheticism with an almost functional, anti-elitist and certainly anti-specialist drive for the popularization and application of the arts. Following the lead given by France and Britain in the mid-century this culture had everywhere been soaked up by an economically rising but often politically restricted middle class. Like theirs, its surface now seems at once serene and purposeful, broken only by the occasional passionately emotional outburst, as in Munch’s lithograph The Scream of 1894, the year of the Dreyfus case.

In this continent-wide movement Austria had an active and influential part—which is what made the absence of such figures as Klimt and Kokoschka from the London show perhaps its most serious single gap. For Vienna and, to a lesser degree, Budapest were at that time the movement’s outposts, pointing east and southeastward into central Europe and the Balkans; Vienna in particular was something unique in Europe, a racially mixed capital of high sophistication from which a creaking autocracy administered its multinational empire. Various special factors combined to produce for the Viennese their pioneering role in the life of the mind and the arts before 1914, as the new emotional and anti-rational pressures everywhere became more intense.

The same symbolic conflict of generations that inspired German Expressionism—the son rebelling against his authoritarian father, representative of a rigid Imperial rule—was felt under the Habsburgs even before it came to its peak under Wilhelm II. Already in the 1870s Carl Schorske detects the signs of what he terms a “collective Oedipal revolt” in the spiritual searchings of an increasingly educated and sensitive bourgeoisie who felt excluded from political power. Viennese society might be less ambitious than that of the Germans, its Gefühlskultur (as Professor Schorske terms it) more delicate than the sharp German Ausbruch that began with the Expressionist poets in 1910. But the very fact that it supplied Freud with those insights into the human unconscious on which our understanding of people now so largely depends suggests that the Viennese “culture of feeling” was no mere superficial aestheticism but reflected an unusually sophisticated sense of unease.

It was in Berlin toward the end of the First World War that George Grosz “felt the ground on which I stood rocking, and this rocking became visible in my paintings and watercolors”: a remark which today seems to explain much of what was distinctive about the new German art of that time. Similarly Brecht, nearly ten years later, was to tell the audience of his play Man Equals Man that

Herr Bertolt Brecht hopes you’ll feel the ground on which you stand
Slither between your toes like shift- ing sand
So that the case of Galy Gay the porter makes you aware
Life on this earth is a hazardous af- fair.

Well before either of them, however, in Vienna the subtle and delicate Hofmannsthal was already commenting on what he called “das Gleitende“—the sliding or gliding principle on which the age’s characteristics of “multiplicity and indeterminacy” reposed. He himself admittedly reacted less violently than did the Germans: whereas they fiercely kicked and mocked at the hideous society around them, Hofmannsthal, in Professor Schorske’s words, “quietly probed the temple walls to find a secret exit.”

But this probing surely helps to explain why Brecht felt an affinity for Hofmannsthal which he never felt for Rilke; and along with the refinement and sophistication of Viennese culture the feeling of menace in Vienna is all too clear. For at the same time it was Austria, with its fluctuating mixture of barely compatible races and religions, that first exploited anti-Semitism as a major political force. So, besides Freud, Kokoschka, Schoenberg, and Adolf Loos—all of whom were to be formative figures in the culture of the Weimar Republic—Vienna’s legacy to her neighbors can be said to have included the disturbed mind of Adolf Hitler too.

This complex and ambiguous debt is at the root of Professor Schorske’s extremely interesting book, which consists of a series of seven connected essays dealing with different aspects of the relations between Viennese culture and politics from about 1860, when the ambitious urban plan for the Viennese Ringstrasse was announced, to the Kunstschau of 1909 in whose “garden theater” Kokoschka’s first erotic-expressionist play was performed. Some of these pieces have already been published in historical journals over the past nineteen years, which perhaps accounts for the slightly fitful nature of the argument. For this is not a comprehensive study, nor does it pretend to be. Each essay, says the introduction, “issued from a separate foray into the terrain…. Only the fundamental motif of interaction between politics and culture runs through them all.” What binds them together, then, is not so much any coherent plan as the author’s alert curiosity about a society that generated so many new ideas, and his vivid awareness of the kind of people and the kind of life that went to make that society up.

Professor Schorske’s picture of Vienna around the turn of the century has three main panels. About a quarter of the book is taken up by a long study of the new Ringstrasse—a vast reconstruction separating the old inner city from the suburbs—and the birth of modern Viennese architecture. A seventy-page account of the development of the now fashionable art of Gustav Klimt traces his checkered relationship with the cultural establishment of his time. Finally (if you take the last two essays together) Schorske makes a slightly forced use of the image of “the garden” in order to measure the change in attitudes first between Adalbert Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (1857) and the plays of Hofmannsthal (himself born seventeen years later), then between these and the much more startling innovations of Schoenberg and Kokoschka right at the end of the period.

In among these three larger explorations can be found a political and ideological study of two prominent anti-Semites and one Zionist, a short account of Arthur Schnitzler and (again) Hofmannsthal as contrasting writers of unusual psychological insight, and a shrewd analysis of Freud’s conscious and unconscious view of Austrian politics while he was waiting for his delayed appointment to a professorship in 1902. The main chapters are well illustrated, with some use of color plates though no indication of size or provenance of the works referred to. A bibliography too might have been useful, though there is plenty of such information scattered through the notes at the end of each chapter.

The main problem for the reader, in a book so constructed, is to keep the order of events clear in his mind. The story begins in effect with the first Ringstrasse buildings going up in the 1870s when the emperor was favoring the so-called “citizens’ ministry” of the German-speaking upper middle class. Vienna itself was the “political bastion” of the Austrian liberals and was governed by a liberal city council. “From the moment of their accession to power,” Schorske writes, “the liberals began to reshape the city in their own image, and by the time they were extruded from power at the century’s close, they had largely succeeded.” The plan was to build on either side of the broad new Ring of Haussmann-like streets that followed the line of the old city fortifications. The great palace-like apartment houses of the new rich would help to pay for showpiece public buildings: the Gothic town hall, the classical parliament house, the Renaissance university, the quasi-baroque Court Theater or Burgtheater, the Opera, the museums, and other noble piles which still stand on what was once a green belt of open space. This use of revivalist styles of architecture to lend historical respectability to the monuments of a relatively new class was not only reminiscent of Victorian England but also anticipated the practice of the Soviet proletariat between 1930 and the mid-1950s.

The Ringstrasse was attacked from two sides: first by the craftsman-cum-teacher Camillo Sitte, who disliked its lack of intimacy and of human scale, then later by the successful speculative architect Otto Wagner, who in due course set aside his early historicism in order to stress the mundane needs of contemporary urban life. With Wagner’s work for the Stadtbahn, or Vienna metropolitan railway, in the 1890s Professor Schorske brings the story of the city’s architecture right up to the Art Nouveau period of Klimt’s Secession.

Meantime however the political events described in the next essay had taken place, and the liberal middle class with its German and Jewish elements had lost such power as had been allowed it. Though the surface glitter of Viennese life remained apparently untouched—Johann Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron being first performed in 1885, for instance, that being the composer’s sixty-first year—underneath it a great deal had changed. The generation of Freud and Schnitzler had come of age. A new assault from below was being mounted against the liberal bourgeoisie; the process of “sliding,” to use Hofmannsthal’s word, had already begun. In 1882 the radical younger liberals met at Linz to work out a common line uniting the future Socialist leader Victor Adler with the vociferous German nationalist Georg von Schönerer who had already begun his campaign against the Jews in the name of “the German farmer and craftsman.”

Though by the end of that decade this alliance had broken up, it nonetheless left its mark on both partners. The newly founded Social Democratic Party leaned toward union with Germany while anti-Semitism fused with what Schorske calls Schönerer’s “national-social program.” Schönerer is the first of the three demagogues Schorske has chosen to study. Just at the same time the second of them, Karl Lueger, was forming his Christian Social Party on the basis once again of anti-Semitism, though of a rather more sober and specifically anti-capitalist kind. Lueger was elected mayor of Vienna in the year following the Dreyfus trial (though the emperor refused to allow him to take office until 1897). Finally came the third, contrasting figure of Schnitzler’s friend, Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Jew who could indulge his theatrical and aristocratic leanings until the realities of anti-Semitism in both Austria and France (where he was the Neue Freie Presse‘s correspondent) forced him to start battling for a Jewish national state. For all three of these men politics had become a deeply irrational business, a matter of trading in blind prejudices and hatreds such as they themselves might or might not share.

This change occurred, so we can now see, between Freud’s youth with its optimistic hopes of the then dominant middle class—“every industrious Jewish schoolboy carried a minister’s portfolio in his knapsack,” he is reported as saying—and his recommendation for a professorship at the late age of forty-one. For with the rise to political prominence of men like Schönerer and Lueger the prospect of promotion for Jewish doctors diminished, and so did Freud’s own political interests. In his account of Freud therefore Professor Schorske separately pursues two intriguing threads. One, to be found midway through the Klimt essay, is the story of the efforts made by Freud’s patient Baroness Marie Ferstel in the winter of 1901-1902 to persuade the then minister of culture to promote him. She promised, in return, to find the Ministry a Böcklin painting for the Modern Gallery which was then being set up, and when this failed she gave them a painting by Emil Orlik instead—an episode that emphasizes the compactness of Viennese society at that time, as well as the incidental significance for medicine of the new state interest in modern art.

The other thread lies in Schorske’s view that with his interpretation of the so-called “Revolutionary” and other “political” dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud was revenging himself on his early political ambitions by reducing politics to a childhood conflict between father and son. As Schorske acutely points out, “Freud pays no attention to the fact that Oedipus was a king.” And so in the end he “gave his fellow liberals an a-historical theory of man and society that could make bearable a political world spun out of orbit and beyond control.” (Not that this stops Professor Schorske from using the Oedipal analogy himself, as the reader will already have observed.)

The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, the same year as Schnitzler’s elegant handling of the sexual whirligig in La Ronde. Three years after Lueger’s installation, in other words, rational man had been revealed with his trousers down: a sight that quickly communicated itself to the rest of the civilized world. This spectacle coincided with other such enlightening glimpses: with the Wilde case, for instance, as well as with Havelock Ellis’s The Psychology of Sex and the plays of Strindberg and Wedekind. But nowhere was a new shift of feeling more clearly under way than in Vienna. Otto Wagner’s Wienzeile houses—radically simple under their Art Nouveau decoration—Mahler’s appointment to the Opera, and the foundation by Klimt and others of the artists’ Secession all date from this time. The shift was at once masked and put into relief by the jubilee of Francis Joseph in 1898, with its suggestion of stable continuity under an amiable and fatherly old gentleman in leather shorts and a Tyrolese hat. Outwardly all was gemütlich—that deceptive word for the cozy boisterousness of the south Germans. Politics was something for specialists—which is perhaps why more conventional-style histories of this period seem so remarkably dull.

What Schorske shows is how much was on the move both in ideas and in the arts. And in more than one way the Secession, with Klimt at its head, was the most extraordinary symptom of this. Right up to the start of the 1890s Klimt’s major works, like Otto Wagner’s buildings, accepted the conventional historicizing academicism which had dominated the whole Ringstrasse development; his murals in the Burg-theater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum could have been painted by any of a dozen other successful artists. However a decade later the controversy over his paintings for the University of Vienna shows him to have gone a long way down a new road, and from 1898 on his pictures are instantly recognizable, echoing Rossetti and Beardsley at times, as well as the symbolism of the Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, but welding these and later influences too into something distinctively his own.

Professor Schorske gives an illuminating account of the argument among the humanists of the philosophical faculty over Klimt’s paintings for the university, and the more public and populist opposition that followed. He also stresses the shock effect of Klimt’s virtually unique awareness of female sensuality, which he expressed far more vividly than did Courbet or the patronizingly masculine Renoir and which emerges not only in paintings like Danae (“the harmony of eros and wealth in coitus,” as Schorske calls it), but in the big decorative schemes too. The link between Klimt’s work and other aspects of the new attitude to sex needs so little emphasizing that in tracing parallels between Klimt and Freud, Schorske does not even bother to mention it. The only surprise is that he overlooks what to the naïve eye must have been the chief factor dragging these pictures down from their high allegorical plane: their recognition that even the most symbolic ladies have public hair.

The really startling thing about the Secession, however, and the one that must have given artists like Klimt their considerable self-confidence in these debates, was its material and practical success. It would be difficult to name an avant-garde exhibiting society today which has flourished anything like so well. For the Vienna Secession built its own gallery (very near the Ringstrasse) to proclaim its own style. It showed seminal new foreign artists like Munch, Toorop, Hodler, and the Glasgow designers around Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It effectively put across the design concepts of Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann through its crafts branch, the Wiener Werkstätte. And above all, it sold its members’ pictures. What is more, the state itself backed it, encouraging the modern movement to an extent unmatched in any other major country, though in places like Weimar and Darmstadt some of the smaller German principalities were soon to follow suit.

In part this was because of the Secession’s internationalism, which was in contrast to the national self-assertiveness of the Czechs, the Hungarians, and others of Austria’s component (or subject) peoples. Thus an official Arts Council was, set up in Vienna in 1899 with the mission “to sustain…the fresh breeze that is blowing in domestic art.” In part it reflected Francis Joseph’s abandonment in 1900 of all constitutional pretense in favor of the Beamtenministerium, or pure government by civil servants under Ernest von Koerber, who appointed the classicist professor Wilhelm von Hartel to be the responsible minister.

Under this consciously forward-looking patronage Otto Wagner built the Postal Savings Office of 1904-1906 (perhaps the most important of Europe’s early modern buildings); Koloman Moser designed the Diamond Jubilee stamps; he, Hoffmann, the art educationist Franz Cizek, and the stage designer Alfred Roller all became teachers at the Kunstgewerbeschule where Kokoschka came from Prague as a student. And so the way was prepared for Kokoschka’s debut (still under Secessionist auspices) with Die Träumenden Knaben and the play Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen in 1909, and thereafter for his entry on the German Expressionist scene via Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm a year later. Among the other Austrian contributors to that key journal were Adolf Loos and Karl Kraus, and it is sometimes forgotten that for the whole of 1910 its place of publication was given as Berlin/Vienna.

All this is traced in some detail in Professor Schorske’s book, which not only brings the period to life as ordinary political history so often fails to do but also shows an unusual sureness and sensitivity in its consideration of works of art. It has its gaps—thus Adolf Loos, Karl Kraus, and Mahler all surely deserve fuller coverage, as well as theater and opera in general—while there are minor eccentricities like the anachronistic use of the term “art deco” for the Secession style or the view that Schoenberg’s arbitrarily equal treatment of his twelve notes is somehow “democratic,” both of which seem potentially misleading. But generally Schorske deals with his chosen topics both thoroughly and intelligently, acknowledging his use of more specialized studies like Peter Vergo’s but supplementing these with much research of his own; the result is a work which should be invaluable to the social and political historian of pre-1914 Austria as well as to those more concerned with the arts; I for one know that I shall often refer back to it.

The only pity is that Professor Schorske could not have found the time to weld the material into a single whole, and perhaps to take the story on into the 1920s. For the great question surely is why the new republican Vienna, with its very advanced composers, its new and original school of philosophy, its highly sophisticated social-democracy, and its pioneering housing schemes, quickly became a cultural backwater instead of sharing the Weimar renaissance which it had helped to inspire. And of course if one looks a little further one finds all the nastier chickens of the 1880s really coming home to roost: Christian Socialism with Dollfuss and Schuschnigg and the destruction of the 1920s democracy; pan-Germanism with the Anschluss of 1938, and anti-Semitism (alas) not just with the undistinguished painter from Braunau but first, last, and all the time. The author could certainly tackle these grim developments: he knows what is relevant to societies like ours as we face not only the end of a century but the end of a millennium too.

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