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

I

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.

II

The seven books under review bear witness…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.