Twentieth Century Vienna Fruits

In the wake of such influential studies as Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973) and Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1979), scholars from diverse fields have come to recognize that in the years from about 1890 to 1918 the imperial city of Vienna comprised a unique historico-cultural nexus. The fact that so much scholarship since the 1960s has centered on turn-of-the-century Vienna is a symptom of its relevance for the turn of the century we are currently experiencing. Many of the fundamental intellectual and artistic impulses that have decisively shaped the thought and influenced the cultural environment of the modern Western world emerged from the Vienna of this [time]. In art and architecture, central developments of the “Modernist” movement, which re-mapped the landscape of Western culture, took root in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The architectural work of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, for example, but also of Maks Fabiani, Josef Hoffmann, Friedrich Ohmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Josef Plecznik would culminate only decades later in the German Bauhaus, whose goal was to liberate architecture from a concern with style. In painting, the Viennese Secessionist school produced, in the works of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, radical departures from artistic tradition in its unabashed exploration of erotic themes. This obsession with the dynamics and the power of sexuality also informed the ideas of Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytical theories represent a radical revolution in conceptions of the nature and constitution of the human psyche. Another set of revolutionary impulses emerged in the realm of music with the invention of the twelve-tone system, conceived by Arnold Schönberg and developed further by his students Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. In the realm of philosophy, turn-of-the-century Vienna also produced or furthered major schools of thought, from the antimetaphysical “sensualism” of Ernst Mach, to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the logical positivism of Rudolf Carnap, the philosophy of Franz Bentano, and the Austrian school of economics including the theories of Menger, Wieser, and Boehm-Bawerk. In creative literature, finally, such writers as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, and Arthur Schnitzler, who helped define the high-modernist literary style of German-speaking Europe, called Vienna their home.

The Aristipposian Poet
Twentieth Century Vienna Fruits
Inspired by the birthday of Ludwig Wittgenstein
April 26 at 10:30pm EST
on Clubhouse

This uncommon cultural productivity is just one distinctive dimension of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Another is the multi-ethnic complexion of the city itself and of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire whose capital it was. As the major metropolis of the Empire, the seat of government, and the center of commerce, Vienna acted like a magnet that drew people from throughout Central Europe, with the result that by the 1870s it was already one of the first truly multi-ethnic cities. Austro-Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovenians, Ruthenians, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians: these ethnic and national identities are just a small cross-section of the diverse groups present in Vienna and in the Habsburg Empire, which was situated at the interface of Western and Eastern European cultures. However, this diversity gave rise not only to immense cultural and intellectual productivity, but also created tremendous social and political tensions–tensions that expressed themselves perhaps most vehemently in the rabid anti-Semitism that marred the sociopolitical landscape of Vienna. Thus Vienna1900 is marked by the apparent paradox that it was the birthplace not only of psychoanalysis, twelve-tone music, and Modernist architecture, but also of modern political anti-Semitism: Adolf Hitler learned the vocabulary, rhetoric, and virulence of his anti-Semitism during the years he spent in Vienna, whose mayor, Karl Lueger, was elected on an openly anti-Semitic political platform.

It has often been noted that the cultural blossoming of Vienna took place at a time in which the political power of the Empire was waning and its internal stability was threatened by ethnic conflicts. These struggles culminated in the assassination in 1914 of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by Serbian nationalists. This event, as is well known, gave rise to the cataclysm of World War One, which ultimately put an end to the Empire itself. Vienna1900 thus was a crucible of modernism not merely in terms of the artistic, cultural, and intellectual movements it spawned, but also because it functioned as a political and sociological harbinger of the problems attendant upon the modern multi-ethnic state. As such, Vienna1900 is uniquely suited as a historical case study with which one can initiate discussion about the intellectual and sociopolitical roots of our present-day world.

Vienna1900 presents a striking instance of disciplinary cross-fertilization, since its cultural elite literally constituted a kind of intellectual village within the metropolitan life of the city itself. A diagram of the personal contacts among the major figures of Viennese intellectual life would demonstrate a set of broad but tightly knit interactions. For example, Gustav Mahler had himself psychoanalyzed by Freud; Hugo von Hofmannsthal heard Ernst Mach’s university lectures on philosophy; Arnold Schönberg took painting lessons from the lesser known Secessionist painter Richard Gerstl (who then had an affair with Schönberg’s wife); Karl Kraus, one of the most visible writers and journalists of the period, was a mentor of the young philosopher Otto Weininger; and Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sister on the occasion of her wedding. The forum for these interpersonal relations was provided by the institution of the Viennese coffeehouse, that public space in which people met to voice opinions, debate ideas, and form schools of thought. In the sense that it facilitated and managed these interactions, the Viennese coffeehouse was a pre-electronic form of the Internet.

Source: Washington Education

Café Sperl in Vienna is one of several Viennese coffeehouses where some of the city’s greatest intellectuals used to meet. It was founded by Jacob Ronacher in 1880 / Photo: Kotomi_/Flickr

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