Possibly a fair few of us think of fin de siècle Vienna as, in George Steiner’s phrase, ‘a crucible’ – both of creation and of hope, but of darker incendiary forces too. Vienna circa 1900 gave the world Freud and Mahler, Wittgenstein and Popper, Schoenberg and Adolf Loos – not to mention Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. But with good cause would the satirist Karl Kraus label Vienna as ‘the research laboratory for world destruction.’
The National Gallery’s new exhibition of Viennese portraiture from this period (1867 to 1918 is the actual span under review) prompts us to think anew about the city’s pivotal role in our perception of modernity and what befell the civilized world in the twentieth century. Of course, portraiture was by this time well established as an artistic form through which a settled, prosperous bourgeoisie liked to see itself reflected; and the late nineteenth century Vienna of Emperor Franz Joseph, centre of the Hapsburg Empire, saw a brisk trade in this sort of work. But portraiture could not help but be inflected by the times and the make-up of Vienna, energized above all after Franz Joseph’s 1867 Constitution which gave full citizenship and educational access to Vienna’s notably thriving Jewish population. The Expressionism of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka was coming round the corner, poised to change our ways of seeing; but the boldness of this work was by no means to all tastes. Meanwhile Adolf Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1906, sought and failed to win admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and began to turn his stunted, peremptory ambitions elsewhere.
The story of Vienna lends itself easily to legend, and readers looking for a substantive history of the great city could be easily conned. Thus the value of a work described by Arthur Koestler as ‘neither the treacly legend, nor the acid anti-legend, but a delicate and scholarly panorama.’ This is Ilsa Barea’s Vienna, first published in 1966 by Secker and Warburg and now returned to print (and unveiled in ebook) as a Find. Those attending the National Gallery’s exhibition could not want for a finer guide to the true history behind the canvases than this rich mosaic of a book: a masterly and highly personal blend of lightly-worn learning, wit and imagination.
Ilsa Barea was born in Vienna in 1902 and studied political sciences at the university. Come the 1930s political reasons compelled her to emigrate to Czechoslovakia, from whence she went to Spain on the Republican side early in the Civil War. There she met Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Frank Capa and others. She married the Spanish writer Arturo Barea and together they settled in England. During World War II Ilsa worked in the BBC Monitoring Service. She translated over twenty books into English (including Arturo Barea’s great Spanish Civil war trilogy The Forging of a Rebel), edited a paperback series of international classics, and wrote, lectured and broadcast in several languages. In the 1960s she returned to Vienna, where she died in 1972. But it was here that her Vienna: Legend and Reality came to life – a work deemed by the Kirkus Review to be ‘informed by the highly sensible intellect of a true daughter of Wien, history in the European tradition.’
Vienna’s long first chapter describes the landscape of the city, stresses its role as frontier fortress and a melting pot, and shows how historic events – such as a virtually forgotten period of Protestant dominance – had already helped mould the Viennese character by the end of the seventeenth century. The remainder of the book interweaves with great skill the various strands of Viennese civilisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story ends in 1914, but in the last chapter Ilsa Barea glances forward to suggest that much more than legend survived the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire.
Between its covers Barea offers keen-eyed interpretations of significant figures from every sphere (the Emperors Joseph II and Franz Joseph, Schubert and the two Johann Strausses, Hofmannsthal and Freud in their early years, to name but a few); highlights how the great writers, as well as actor-dramatists such as Raimund and Nestroy, reflected their times; notes the gradation of social classes revealed in those ornamental labels ’von’ and ‘K.K.’; charts the changing styles of painting, architecture and interior decorations; analyses the influx of immigrants, the spread of appalling slums, and the rise of the labour movement; charts the origin and growth of anti-semitism; and much else besides.
Vienna, then, is warmly recommended to you. Meanwhile, below is the trailer for the National Gallery exhibition; and below that, a recording of George Steiner’s South Bank Show lecture ‘Vienna 1900’: essential, fruitful viewing for students of the period.