Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Golden Age without artists - generations of artists in hothouse Vienna

When we talk an artistic Golden Age, we are typically identifying an unusual cluster of great artists.   Periclean Athens, Elizabethan London, Goethe’s Weimar – look at all of these geniuses living and working together, look at this burst of creativity.

The period I am looking at in Vienna was different.  In a culture newly obsessed with creativity and genius, the geniuses themselves were absent.  Herman Broch identifies the period as 1870 to 1890 in part, I think, to make sure the great writers are gone:  Adalbert Stifter died in 1868, and the playwrights Johann Nestroy in 1862 and Franz Grillparzer in 1872.  The latter two are especially important as they had become the core of the Burgtheater repertory, along with Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare, and this was a theater-centered culture.

Johann Strauss and Die Fledermaus (1874) have come to define the period  - “the totally idiotic counterfeit of comic opera,” grumps Hermann Broch (Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, 64).  Anton Bruckner is the other lasting composer of the time.  The novelist Ferdinand von Saar sounds interesting (he was an early critic of Vienna’s turn to aestheticism), but I am obviously reaching a bit.

The period was actually full of geniuses, but they were children.  Here are the years of birth of every major Austrian writer, artist, or composer I could think of (up to a point):

Sigmund Freud
Robert Musil
Peter Altenberg
Stefan Zweig
Gustav Mahler
Anton Webern
Hugo Wolf
Alban Berg
Arthur Schnitzler
Oskar Kokoschka
Gustav Klimt
Hermann Broch
Richard Strauss
Georg Trakl
Arnold Schoenberg
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Egon Schiele
Karl Kraus
Joseph Roth
Rainer Maria Rilke

These men (the ones born into the 1870s, at least) were all raised in the hothouse, breathing the air of aestheticism, their traditional education blended with continual encounters with theater, art, and music of the highest quality, approached with an attitude not just of respect but reverence, interspersed with a series of erudite artistic dinners – “Increasingly, from the age of Grillparzer to the age of Hofmannsthal, poets, professors, and performing artists were valued guests, in fact, prize catches of hosts and hostesses (Schorske, 297)” – all concentrated on

the development of those abilities through which the leisure hours of the burgher class were being transformed to “noble enjoyment,” to the enjoyment of art in winter, nature in summer – or, more precisely, in the “resort months” [Sommerfrischenzeit].  Clearly the burghers of the epoch, with their solid industriousness, were in no way a “leisure class” as the feudal nobility unequivocally was; nevertheless they behaved as if they imagined they were… (Broch, 88)

And as if their children would be.  Although “leisure class” is not the right term, given the artistic productivity of so many of these artists.  The story would be the same if I added scientists, musicians, and actors.

I had always understood the story of Austrian decay as being a political decline, the gradual hollowing out of the Habsburg Empire.  But I now see that the artists beginning their careers in the 1890s or 1900s were reacting to a more recent phenomenon.  A writer like Musil, born in 1880, grew up during but also after the Golden Age.  The decline began not at the Battle of Austerlitz but in his parents’ generation.  Musil is a witness of the collapse.  To a writer like Joseph Roth, ten years old* when a world war erupts, it is all just history and the memories of others.

To me, perversely, there is no collapse, since the really interesting art and music and writing turns out to be a response to the period that cultivated it.  But I did not live in it; I can just enjoy it.  Herman Broch grew up in it, and his ideas are a little different than mine.  Tomorrow for that.

* Ahem. See comments below.


  1. They lose a war, their empire partitioned, their stock market crashes starting the world's first major international economic crisis and a six year worldwide depression. Good time indeed. Seen against that backdrop Fledermaus seems less like a farce and more like a satire.

  2. Yeah, but you always have that stuff. It comes and goes. The aestheticism is a defense against all of that. Hofmannsthal's family got creamed by that stock market crash, but that did nothing to slow his family's devotion to little Hugo's Bildung.

    It is those wars that had tricked me. But it turned out that military defeats for the Emperor led to cultural victories for the middle class.

  3. "To a writer like Joseph Roth, ten years old when a world war erupts, it is all just history and the memories of others"
    Twenty years old, actually- just old enough to have his own memories and...expectations, shall we say?- and Roth served in the army in that war. He was from Galicia too- the borderlands, the most jewish part of Europe, probably with Hungarian rather than German-speaking administrative elite and with the Russian empire and its pogroms next door, which meant a different view of life, upbringing and empire to native Viennese.

  4. Come on, quit kidding me, 1914 minus 1894 is not equal to 20.

    Oh wait.

    Yes, good point! More relevant, then, is that his entire childhood and adolescence is in the "decline" period, and then even that is shattered before he begins his career.

    You are also certainly right that he is more of an outsider than many of the Viennese citizens I have lumped him in with - his perspective must have been enormously different. He fits in, though, with the post-war (and some pre-war) Viennese writers who were also looking at their society with more ironic distance.

    I must make a note. 1914-1894=20. Thanks!

  5. I recently read Stefan Zweig's memoir The World of Yesterday which deals a lot with Viennese culture. His life exactly fits in with the writers you mentioned- born into world class wealth he was able to devote him self to the arts and his writings- he loved Goethe and Rilke-

  6. World-class wealth, you don't say? I did not know that. That actually makes Zweig a little different than most of these children of merchants and shopkeepers. The Wittgensteins were loaded, too, I guess.

    But the fascinating thing is that all of these children from more ordinary families were channeled into the arts (and sciences and medicine), away form their families' own pursuits.

  7. I recently read The Diary of an Anti-Semite by Gregor Von Rezzori, a German writer I greatly admire- he described the between the wars Viennese writers and artists as " a mix of high aristocrat and casino croupier".

  8. Between the wars - now that period is still a mystery to me.

    I doubt Hermann Broch would be too fond of that description, but that does not mean it is wrong.

  9. I cannot help but see Rick's Cafe in Casablanca as full of refugees from Vienna with artistic pretensions.