Culture shock

When I first visited Vienna about 25 years ago, a city gallery was presenting an exhibition of black-and-white photographic nudes of some kind. What particularly struck my American eye were the advertisements for this exhibition pasted on kiosks and the sides of trams around town — advertisements which featured details from these nudes that included both male and female genitalia. I was at the time perhaps much more Philadelphian than I am now; hence my somewhat uncomfortable surprise to see these depictions plastered in various public spaces. As a tourist, though, I was in the minority. The Viennese men, women, and children who passed these advertisements every day seemed particularly comfortable with them, rarely glancing at them a second time. By the end of my stay, I was comfortable with them too, and even pleased. These public displays of the naked human body, I thought, were admirable in a way — far more admirable than the ads for violent movies and cheap consumer goods that surrounded me on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.

Apparently it wasn’t only my Philadelphian blood that gave rise to that original discomfort. In the past few weeks, the Vienna Tourist Board has been buying advertising space in Cologne, Hamburg, and London to promote upcoming Vienna exhibitions of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele (their Viennese Modernism 2018 web site can be found here), but the posters they created have run into some problems in those cities. According to Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times,

According to a Vienna Tourist Board spokeswoman, Helena Hartlauer, Transport for London rejected the original images, citing trepidation about depicting genitals in public space.

Ms. Hartlauer said that modified advertisements with pixelated genitals were also declined. Ultimately approved were versions using the same artworks (Schiele’s “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” 1910, and “Girl With Orange Stockings,” 1914, and other paintings by the artist, all from the Leopold Museum collection), but with certain bits covered by a banner.

The banner reads: “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.” The modified images are now on view on bus shelters in Cologne and building facades in Hamburg, and, since this week, in tube stops in London.

The original ads were also banned from Facebook as obscene, Ms. Bradley reports. Right now the big New York show is the Michelangelo exhibition at the Met, and ads for that are everywhere too, though obviously they don’t generate the same angst.

The Vienna Tourist Board is playing the controversy big, “highlighting images of the public ads with the hashtag #DerKunstihreFreiheit (#ToArtItsFreedom in English) on social media,” Ms. Bradley writes:

The hashtag comes from the slogan “To every age its art, to art its freedom,” still visible in German on the facade of the Viennese Secession, an exhibition venue co-founded by Klimt in 1897 and still operating today as an autonomous artist-run institution. And the controversy certainly echoes discussions that took place in Schiele’s time. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, an era of dramatic shifts in both art and society, many considered the artist’s work to be pornographic. Schiele’s first broader acceptance didn’t come until early 1918 with a major exhibition in the Secession — later that year, the artist succumbed to Spanish flu at age 28.

“We want to show people just how far ahead of their time Vienna and its protagonists really were,” Mr. Kettner said. [Norbert Kettner, that is, chief executive of the Vienna Tourist Board.] “And also encourage the audience to scrutinize how much really has — or hasn’t — changed in terms of openness and attitudes in society over the times.”

Both Klimt and Schiele were products and agents of the sensual revolution in fin de siècle Vienna (though, obviously, to say that they were “ahead of their time” ignores the observation that they were of their own time and apparently no one else’s). This revolution was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s air itself from about 1898 to 1914, and the current controversy underscores the fact that, if the rest of Europe and the United States ever caught up, they’ve retreated from that openness and social attitude since then, regressing into a consumerist puritanism instead. Erotics, gender, and sensuality became central philosophical and aesthetic concerns in Central Europe in the years before World War II, taking on an atonal, irresolvable tone, far more revolutionary than similar thinking in France, for example — a tone evident in its visual art (Klimt and Schiele), literature (Musil and Doderer), and music (Schoenberg and Webern). The dissemination of this art through the Secession — and more recently through posters and tram ads — is an acknowledgement of the extent to which this erotics forms a part of our daily public and private lives, even when we’re just grabbing a subway train from one place to another.

Klimt, Schiele, and Richard Gerstl were all dead by the end of 1918, and as the Viennese coped with being reduced to a provincial capital from the seat of one of Europe’s largest and most powerful empires, the center of this activity moved to Germany, where the Neue Sachlichkeit movement revisited the inner workings of the erotic and sensual self from a more urban perspective. In many ways, though, it was an extension, not a rejection, of Austrian Expressionism and its erotic concerns. And though we tend to look at these artists through the hoary glass of history, their explorations remain ours. The erotic, the sensual, is public too, and the attempts to bury it point to a recidivist authoritarianism that in the past has led to people like Hitler and Stalin. In Cologne, Hamburg, and London — and possibly New York, too — they’re still getting out the shovels. In Vienna, though, you can still breathe it in.