Joseph Koerner’s Vienna

I hope to write a few words about Ilsa Barea’s excellent 1966 book Vienna: Legend and Reality in a few days, but in the meantime I repost here Joseph Koerner‘s Vienna: City of Dreams, a BBC documentary that was first televised in 2007. Koerner’s film is not so much a history of the city as a series of meditations on its place in modernity. It’s beautifully shot, however, and Koerner is a pensive, thoughtful guide. The Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, he is the creative director of the Vienna Project at Harvard University, also worth a look.

My Vienna

Originally published here in 2004.

Earlier iterations of the journal featured Vienna’s Burgtheater in their banners; it disappeared for a while, now it reappears again. I can’t say that Vienna is the city in which I feel most at home; that Vienna is long gone. (Besides, my German language skills are, if not non-existent, laughable.) But I appreciate the reminders that it was, for a brief moment, a place in which I would have enjoyed spending some time.

Uneasy obsessions with sensuality, elegance, and manners; a growing sense of its own decay, mortality, and irrelevance; a recognition of the power of irrationality — all of these characterize fin de siècle Vienna. Vienna in 1900 was both symptom and landmark of modernity. The self-conscious and ironic grace of Viennese culture both obscured the role of the irrational and made it possible for that same irrationality to spring forth in the novels and plays of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, the psychiatric work of Freud on dreams and neurosis, the paintings and drawings of Klimt and Schiele, the atonal music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. All of these figures were reviled to some greater or lesser extent by the traditionalists among the Viennese, but from nowhere else, and at no other time, could these figures have emerged. By 1918, the Habsburg monarchy and this same Vienna were dead, though its phosphorescent decay would glow in both Austria and in Germany until 1933.

Freud recognized Schnitzler (also a medical doctor) as a colleague and observer, and along with Schiele and Klimt perceived eroticism within this Old World elegance as inescapable but, unlike our own time, fully cognizant of the body’s own mortality. Klimt’s serpent-women rendered eroticism a part of sensualized nature; Schiele’s crabbed but vulnerable and provocative bodies stared out at the viewer, daring that viewer to look away rather than enter the perspective of the subject. That the suppression of this eroticism would give rise to hypocrisy was obvious; but there was a special appeal, erotic itself, to bearing in mind constantly and simultaneously the activities that went on in the ballroom and behind the closed doors of the bedroom. Social elegance suggested sexual and erotic elegance — but this was the culture of the shared secret, not the exploitation of the erotic and sexual for public titillation. Perhaps there was greater sensual freedom as a result. And, contrary to the arrogant assumptions of our contemporary cult of youth, the more an individual matured, the greater his or her ability to appreciate the possibilities of sensuality, which could be said to mature as well.

Design and style were central obsessions to the Viennese of the turn of the century; the care taken with simple household objects by the Wiener Werkstätte paralleled the care taken with the self-conscious design and style of the human bodies that inhabited those households: the body (both male and female) as aestheticized display object, adorned and unadorned. Few of Klimt’s and Schiele’s figures are wholly nude; they are draped in gold, or wear stockings, though the unadorned figures are easily imagined, even suggested by their apparel. No wonder either then that theatre was, of all the arts except music, of the greatest importance to the Viennese — it was there that styles were set, that self-presentation achieved its greatest mastery and mystery. The Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most theatrical architectual feature, is itself a masterpiece of duplicity — the Baroque to Classical to Gothic to Jugenstil buildings were all constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Vienna was, simultaneously, dream and nightmare. Perhaps that is its dangerous attraction.

Fin de siècle Vienna, c’est moi? No, that’s foolish. It is of both greater and lesser comfort, though, to recognize something of oneself in a dead historical era. It explains affinities, intellectual and emotional, even if ultimately I can come to no final conclusions.

Richard Gerstl at the Neue Galerie

Richard Gerstl, Selbstbildnis (Akt in ganzer Figur), 12 September 1908. Oil on canvas, 140.5 x 119.5 cms. Leopold Museum.

Opening this Thursday, June 29, and running through September 25, the Neue Galerie‘s exhibition Richard Gerstl will throw a spotlight on the career of the Austrian painter with the display of approximately 55 paintings and works on paper. Gerstl (1883-1908) was not well known in his lifetime, but he is increasingly recognized as one of the central artists of Austrian Expressionism. This earlier neglect may be, perhaps, because of his scandalous private life and the circumstances of his death (he apparently managed to both hang and stab himself at the same time), which may have overshadowed the work itself, disturbing as that is as well. One gallery of the exhibition will be dedicated to his relationship with Arnold and Mathilde Schönberg, a relationship that was instrumental in leading him to his suicide.

The exhibition was organized by Jill Lloyd and will be accompanied by the publication of a new catalog published by Hirmer. I’ll be there for the unveiling tomorrow night (following a bracing dinner at Heidelberg with my lovely wife, who will be making her own contribution to the effort in July with a members-only concert); if you plan on going yourself once the exhibition opens to the public, Alex Ross’s essay “The Final, Shocking Self-Portrait of Richard Gerstl” — the one you’ll find above, which Facebook and Twitter both reject, for some unfathomable reason — in the June 22 New Yorker will get you up to speed.