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Viennain 1900 was a shimmering fabric composed of contradictions – such as “Dream and Reality” and “Death and Eros” – and some of the most prominent names in the history of European culture.

The creative literary, artistic, architectural and musical talent concentrated in the city at the turn of the 20th century was unmatched.

Urban Growth and Development

By 1900 Vienna had evolved into the cultural focus of Central Europe, not least thanks to its rapid urban development compared to other great European cities – London, Paris and Berlin. With the arrival of new immigrants and two major development projects, Vienna had grown enormously in the 19th century. Between 1870 and 1910 the population more than doubled from 900,000 to more than two million. A major development in the middle of the 19th century saw the construction of the magnificent Ring Boulevard and the monumental buildings along it. Between 1860 and 1890 an area of around 1.6 square kilometers was filled with cultural monuments (State Opera, Burgtheater, museums), huge apartment buildings and political, commercial and academic edifices (City Hall, Parliament, Stock Exchange, University, School of Applied Arts).

At the same time old buildings were renovated, extended or replaced. As a result of this process Viennese architecture gained an international reputation and the construction industry prospered, faltering only for a short time as a result of the stock market crash of 1873. The Ringstrasse architects completed the major public buildings, while their successors turned more to private commissions. One major public and essential infrastructural project, the urban rail transit system (“Stadtbahn”), was nevertheless put off for so long that it was left to Otto Wagner in 1894 to start building the 45 km of track and over 30 stations.

Uneasy Cohabitation

Viennawas the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which consisted of 15 nations and well over 50 million inhabitants. It was held together by Emperor Franz Joseph I, a symbolic figurehead whose long reign lasted from 1848 to 1916, and by a highly efficient administrative apparatus.

Subjects streamed to the capital from all over the Empire, bringing together the most diverse ethnic and religious groups. Their social circumstances also differed considerably and gave rise to conflict, with the immigrants suffering in particular from exploitative laissez-faire working conditions. This all created a fertile breeding ground for workers’ organizations, trade unions and social democratic movements.

The term “Völkerkerker” (prison of nations) illustrates the nationality problem from the point of view of the Slavs, who made up almost 50 per cent of the population. Whereas the Hungarians had become a second nation state following the compromise of 1867, the Slavs (Czechs, Poles, Serbs, Croats, Ukrainians, etc.) did not enjoy the same status. The tensions of this epoch and the fertile interaction between the different nationalities have had a large number of consequences going far beyond the famous Viennese Cuisine with its Hungarian spice and Bohemian versatility.

Architecture: Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos

Otto Wagner (1841-1918) was Viennese, but almost half of the graduates of the “Wagner School” at the Academy of Fine Arts came from the eastern and southern parts of the Empire. Among them were Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) from Moravia (today part of the Czech Republic), and Josef Plečnik (1872-1957) and Max Fabiani (1865-1962) from Slovenia. Other students from Moravia, with its mixed linguistic population, included Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908) and Adolf Loos (1870-1933).

These figures were responsible for much of the building activity around the turn of the century: the stations, railings and bridges of the Stadtbahn (urban railway), the Majolica House and Musenhaus on the Wienzeile, St. Leopold am Steinhof, the first modern church in Europe, and the Post Office Savings Bank were all designed by Otto Wagner between 1894 and 1910. Then there were the villas by Josef Hoffmann, who founded the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903 together with Kolo Moser. One of the Hoffmann villas at Hohe Warte is the semi-detached house for his artist colleagues Kolo Moser and Carl Moll. Two houses on, in Villa Ast, Alma Mahler-Werfel, femme fatale of the 20th century and heroine of Paulus Manker’s theatrical spectacle “Alma”, had a prominent salon in the 1930s. The Secession, designed to give the young artist rebels an exhibition venue, was built by Wagner’s colleague Joseph Maria Olbrich. Wagner’s students Plečnik and Fabiani designed the Zacherl-Haus and Church of the Holy Spirit, and the Artaria-Haus and Urania, respectively.

Adolf Loos was a contentious supporter of classical ornamentation, believing that the invention of new ornaments was a time-wasting and degenerate manifestation. His criticism was directed in particular at the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) ornamentation of Wagner’s students and colleagues and practically everything that came from the Wiener Werkstätte. The apartment and office building on Michaelerplatz designed by Loos for the tailors Goldman & Salatsch makes sparing use of classical ornamentation, but most of his contemporaries, accustomed to elaborate neo-Baroque decoration, found it more difficult to accept than the “new” Art-Nouveau décor and openly denigrated it, sarcastically referring to the building as the “house without eyebrows”.

Literature & Coffeehouses

“Adolf Loos and I, he literally and I linguistically, have done nothing else than to show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamber pot...,” wrote Karl Kraus (1874-1936) – another prominent personality born in Bohemia – regarding the intellectual similarities between himself and his friend Loos. Painters, musicians, architects, poets, journalists and other intellectuals met in Café Griensteidl, Café Central or Café Museum. The Griensteidl was situated on the site of the neo-Baroque Palais Herberstein on Michaelerplatz built in 1899. Its rich ornamentation is in stark contrast to the Goldman & Salatsch building, known today as the Loos House that was erected just ten years later. In the 1890s Café Griensteidl was the meeting place of the “Young Vienna” literary circle headed by Hermann Bahr. Karl Kraus, also a regular at the Griensteidl, was a vociferous opponent of the anti-naturalistic literary modernists with their penchant for “decadence” and was particularly critical of Hermann Bahr. In the “Fackel”, a magazine written for the most part by Kraus himself and published from 1899 to 1936, he satirized just about everything that displeased him. For decades, Hermann Bahr was a regular target of Kraus’ vituperative tongue.

After Kraus switched to Café Central, he pilloried the literati of the “Young Vienna poets’ gallery” he found there in a satire entitled “Die demolirte Literatur”. The title was inspired by the closure and demolition of the first Café Griensteidl in 1897. (A new café by the name of Griensteidl was opened in Palais Herberstein in 1990.) In spite of this, Karl Kraus was a friend and supporter of Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), coffeehouse habitué and pleasure-seeker par excellence. Altenberg in turn was a friend of Alban Berg, a representative of modern music who composed orchestral songs based on lyrics by Altenberg.

Musical Modernism: Atonality and Anti-Semitism

The term “atonality” aptly describes the irritation experienced by audiences accustomed to late Romantic music when they were confronted by the works of Schoenberg and his students (including Berg, Webern and Wellesz), the “Second Vienna School”. Schoenberg, who was later to develop his twelve-tone composition method, conducted a concert in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein on March 31, 1913, which caused a scandal and was to go down in history as the “Watschenkonzert” (ear-boxing concert). The program included works by Webern, Schönberg, Zemlinksy, Berg and Mahler. After the interval, when Berg’s lieder based on the texts of picture postcards by Peter Altenberg were due to be performed, members of the audience attempted to clamber on the stage and box the conductor’s ears, putting an end to the concert and giving rise to legal action.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), also born in Bohemia, was director of the Vienna State Opera from 1897 to 1907 and as such was the crown prince of the European music scene of the time, so to speak. Disputes about his frequent engagements in other cities and anti-Semitic attacks ultimately caused Mahler to resign from this prestigious office. His wife Alma is known well beyond the confines of the music scene on account of her numerous love affairs and marriages. The couple met in Bertha Zuckerkandl’s salon, one of the most prominent meeting places of the Viennese grand bourgeoisie. Mahler’s difficult relationship with Alma may have been one of the reasons for his attempt to consult Sigmund Freud. Until the year before Mahler’s death, however, all the appointments were cancelled. In 1910 the two finally met in Leiden (Netherlands) and for an afternoon Freud analyzed Mahler’s relationship with women.

Sexuality, Morality and Society: Freud and Schnitzler

Analyses normally took place on Freud’s famous couch in Berggasse and lasted much longer than a single afternoon. Freud was born in Moravia in 1856 and his family moved to Vienna in 1860. He studied medicine in his new home and used the term “psychoanalysis” for the first time in 1896. In 1899 (postdated to 1900) he published “The Interpretation of Dreams”. The fact that Freud saw sexuality as the driving force behind many actions and wishes disturbed and troubled a lot of people both then and now. His contemporaries at the turn of the century were all the more uneasy on account of the blatant double standards that prevailed in marital relations and the fact that sexuality was a taboo subject that aroused both trepidation and curiosity.

As with Mahler, Freud became acquainted with Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) very late in his life, although they lived in the same city, belonged to the same circles and dealt with similar themes. It was not until 1922 that they met in person, and Freud wrote in a letter to Schnitzler that he had avoided him precisely because of their similarities, since he saw in Schnitzler’s works the same assumptions, interests and results as his own.

Schnitzler’s family on his father’s side came from Hungary. Arthur Schnitzler was initially a doctor of medicine like his father, specializing in hysteria and hypnosis. As a writer he dealt with sexuality, seduction, adultery and the associated double standards, but also with the growing anti-Semitism of Viennese society. Many of his short stories and plays, “Lieutenant Gustl”, “Professor Bernhardi” or “La Ronde” have become classics of German literature. His “Dream Novella”, incidentally, was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s final movie “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).

Oedipus, Generation Conflicts and Tradition

The story of Oedipus, who killed his father, has been a literary subject since Antiquity. Freud identified the Oedipus complex as an important stage in development. Simplified and referring to cultural processes, it is also an expression of the need felt by artists to question the works of previous generations. At the turn of the 20th century this process took on a much clearer form than it had in previous centuries, possibly because at the end of the “historic” 19th century people recognized more than ever that there were other styles than those imposed by earlier generations, which had been frequently studied and categorized. The new generation rebelled against the established institutions such as the Wiener Künstlerhaus (Association of Austrian Fine Art) and in 1897 formed the Vienna Secessionists. Among the most prominent members of the Secession were Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Kolo Moser (1868-1918), Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908).

To the dismay of many, Otto Wagner, by this time almost 60 years old and since 1864 Ordinary Professor of Architecture at the prestigious Vienna Academy of Art, aligned himself with the young Secessionists. Many of them had been his students and colleagues. Olbrich, architect of the Secession exhibition building constructed in 1898, collaborated with Wagner in the design of the Stadtbahn buildings. Kolo Moser designed the golden ornamentations on Wagner’s house at Wienzeile 38 and the glass windows for the “Kirche am Steinhof (church). Hoffmann studied under Wagner and others. In fact, Wagner’s students were firmly rooted in the old traditions, a fact that was often overlooked in the protest against their “historicist” predecessors. Even the name of the Secessionist association, Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), is a traditional one, referring as it does to the ancient rite of renewal.

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), who was completely familiar with the Sacred Spring of the turn of the century, discovered the gilding and ornamental richness of early Christian and medieval mosaics while in Ravenna and Venice. His reaction to these impressions can be seen in his “golden period”, including one of his most famous works “The Kiss” (1907/08). The sensuousness in many of his portraits of women, nudity, pregnant bodies and daring poses illustrates the themes of death and Eros, the cycle of life that was such a popular notion at the time, dealt with by Freud and Schnitzler in their respective “media”.

In the years before the First World War other new young artists attacked conventional perceptions. Prominent among these artists were Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), the most well known exponents of Austrian Expressionism. Both of them exhibited works in 1908 and 1909 under Klimt’s patronage at the Vienna Art Show. Earlier, in 1907, Picasso had painted the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” in Paris, the first painting in the Cubist style – one of the few modern movements not to have been born in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

Twilight and Habsburg Nostalgia

The Sacred Spring of the Secessionists was followed not by a summer but by the First World War (1914-18). During this time all of the ornamental richness of the turn of the century, be it nouveau or classical, disappeared together with the culture from which it had been born. To the survivors and following generations “Vienna in 1900” may therefore be seen as the glowing twilight of European high culture. Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was also born in one of the outposts of the Empire, Galicia (now Ukraine), shortly before the end of the Habsburg monarchy. Like many of the artists discussed here, Roth was of Jewish ancestry. He wrote “The Radetzky March” (1932) at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant. This novel was and is regarded as a transfiguring nostalgic representation of the decline of the “Imperial and Royal Monarchy”, although subtler interpretations are also present. This exiled Austrian, Catholic Jew and social democratic monarchist was in the best possible position to distinguish between operetta and reality. And he of all people must have experienced the reality of the 1930s as a step backwards for humanity that put even the most blatant shortcomings of the monarchy in a softer light.

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