on 24 March 1997
Carl E. Schorske has aptly chosen Vienna to explore the development of the birth of modernism. At the turn of the century, Vienna, with its wide lane Ringstrasse and intellectual attracting cafés was a stage; and it is only fitting that people strode across this stage with a sense of purpose and graduer which influences much of what we think of as "modern" whether it be art, music or thought. From Schnitzler to Freud to Klimt, Schorske shows how the stage like facade of Vienna was built during an era of decay; an era where the empire found itself on the brink of destruction and the industrial revolution had cleanly severed peoples' ties to traditions which had given life meaning. And the loam of decay, a well-spring of desperation, caused the great thinkers of Vienna to search for something to hold onto as one century slipped into the next. Schorke, with a clean prose style, captures the search for meaning across a number of intellectual and cultural movements in Vienna. The history of Vienna at the turn of the century reads like the history of modern thought and Schorske does a remarkable job of convincing his readers that, truly, the desperation felt at the end of the Hapsburg empire was not merely an Austrian phenomena, but a cultural wave which swept across the world and which, on stage, in psychology and in art, still carries in its wake the most contemporary of ideas.
To learn more about fin-de-sicle Vienna, try Arthur Schnitler's "The Road into the Open." Frederic Morton's, "A Nervous Splendor" and Hilde Spiel's, "Vienna's Golden autumn."
Schorske's classic work of scholarship is a series of seven essays, reworked into a whole, that discusses the tangled relationship bewteen the glorious flowering of Art in the Habsburg twilight, and the rapidly evolving politics of the era. In the fifty odd years between the abortive revolution of 1848 and the early 1900s the mesning of what art was, and was for, took on every possible complexion. The early years of this period were characterised by the bourgeios-liberal ascendancy, when art was seen as the gateway to self-improvement, both as a path by which the aspiring middle-classes could attain to the culture and refinement of the aristocracy, and to the eventual emancipation of the lower classes into a utopian future. In the later years, the same aesthetic liberal classes had been more or less marginalised from the politics of the Empire, which was by now imploding under the contradictions of a bemused aristocracy and the fragmentatary forces of a variety of antagoistic mass-movements, paradoxically unleashed by liberalism. In this later period, art became a place of narcissistic refuge for a class that had no other purpose than endless leisure. In the very final years radical modernism would surface in the form of the Expressionists led by Kokoschka and Schoenberg, to pour scorn on this dronelike hyper aesthetic elite who had lost all traction with the world of reality.
Personal hilights in the book are; essay III that describes the rise of several demagogues who became adept at stirring up masses by cunning identification and manipulation of their grievances, and the 'politics of the sharper key', where gentlemanly politics was ruthlessly subverted, and parliamentary process was at times at the mercy of enraged mobs on the streets outside. We see vividly the origins of the irrational mass anti-semitism that the Nazis would harness in the coming decades. We also see the origin of the Zionist movement that would ultimately result in the return of the Jews to Palestine, still reverberating today.
In essay IV I discovered that Freud, whom I only know of as a precursor to Jung, was a complex and deeply honourable man, very much moulded by the turmoils of his times. Schorske shows that his classic work 'On the Interpretation of Dreams' is as much about the political issues of his day, as a Jew, denied advancement in his profession for being a Jew, as it is about the structure of the human psyche.
The book is amply illustrated, particularly in those essays dealing with achitectural themes and those of the visual arts. There are also colour plates of key works to illustrate the essays on Klimt and the Vienna Seccession and on Kokoschka. It is a handsome as well as erudite book.
on 12 January 2016
I've no doubt this worthy tome is credited greatly in more refined circles than mine, but I just want a layman's guide to the turmoil of thought in Vienna at the time. So it's probably great for some, but less so for me.
I have a real issue with the Kindle version. The figures are in black and white, of course, with hardly any grey-scale. So they're not very helpful especially when showing some of the works of Klimt. The Plates are even less helpful, especially as there are no links to them when they're mentioned in the text. At first I couldn't find them and thought they'd been omitted. When I did find them, I found they were quite poor. This is largely a problem with Kindle technology, of course. But the Amazon web page really should warn you that the Kindle edition is rather inadequate. I'm going to ask for a refund, and perhaps get myself a paper-back copy.
It is easier to say what this book is not than what it is: not a narrative history, not an analysis of causes, not a basic introduction. It even lacks clear definitions of the movements it is supposed to cover, such as liberalism, modernism, psychoanalysis, and mass politics. That means that readers will either have to be familiar with these movements - it is written at about the graduate level - or have an encyclopedia on hand. Unfortunately, I got the book to get an idea of WHY it was in Vienna that the extraordinary flowering of the ideas that defined much of the 20th C came to fruition. Instead, what I found is a description of the evolution of these ideas, as embodied in architecture, the rise of nationalist demagogues, artistic rebellion, and of course, the invention of depth psychology by Sigmund Freud. The only explanation is a sketchy analysis of the political situation at the time, in which the more cosmopolitan "liberal" era was in decline as its politicians were being pushed out by nationalist demagogues.
The book is broken down by various disciplines. It starts with a 100-page description of the transition from Baroque architecture, which brought the focus of cities onto a palace, to a decentralized kind of "flow" to the advantage of merchants, the rising middle class bourgeois, and other professionals; those who were losing out were the military, discredited by the defeat at the hands of the Prussians, aristocrats, and the monarchy. The new buildings were less and less ornamental, more functional, and better situated to serve a more diverse public. To put it mildly, it moves from very interesting to exhaustively boring by the end of the chapter.
Then there is a long-winded description of the political movements, focusing on 3 pivotal individuals. All of them were nationalists of a sort, in particular George von Schoenerer, upon whom Hitler later modeled his pan-German brand of fascism. But there is also Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, whose reaction according to Schorske to proto-fascism was to give birth to his own brand of ethnic-based nationalistic ideology. These three men led their own movements that destroyed "liberalism" in a 19C sense, which, I believe, refers to market-oriented industrial economy as it was run by a cosmopolitan class of entrepreneurs; they put their faith in rationalism, a constitutional monarchy, and aspired to function as equals to the traditional aristocracy (which never accepted them). I wanted much more context into this than the book offered, which I will have to find elsewhere, which is both stimulating and irritating in that I struggled to understand it.
The chapter on Freud was perhaps the worst in the book. It is full of odd generalizations that employs the qualitative vocabulary of Freud, e.g. a big part of the intellectual "rebellion" was against rigid "father figures", hence Oedipal. Indeed, the entire book is riddled with this kind of outdated reasoning, but then it was written in the 1960s. I was surprised that this spoke so little to me, because my father was a psychiatrist, whose psychoanalyst colleagues talked like this over meals. The book added absolutely nothing to my understanding of them.
The concluding chapters were the most interesting, moving from Klimpt's leadership of the Secession movement to the radical expressionism of Kokoschka and Schoenberg. Taken together, they threw out the conventions they learned at the "academy" - rules that required a rococo excess at the expense of emotion and experimentation - and created a wonderfully free brand of modernism that reflected the darker, subjective impulses of the unconscious mind in freer forms. While I would have liked more on the Jugendstil craft movement, the art is indeed well covered and worth the price of admission. Schorske attempts to explain the energy of their work as a kind of sublimation of the frustrated desire by the bourgeoisie to be accepted by the decadent aristocracy - they put their energy instead into artistic appreciation - but I found that a disappointingly weak explanation.
Unfortunately, Schorske fails to explore or adequately explain the inter-relationships between all these movements. They just appear in a kind of vacuum, without even much comparison to similar movements in France and elsewhere. Throughout the book, the conscientious reader will find many very interesting tidbits, but the overall reading experience is pretty dull. I am glad I read it, but there must be better treatments somewhere.