Early twentieth-century Viennese modernity, obsessed with identity in crisis, was especially preoccupied with the play between external appearances and internal dimensions of the self. How could it not? No doubt, all roads eventually lead to Freud as part of the explanation of artists like Schiele and Kokoschka who were attacking traditional forms as Picasso and Braque were doing in France. He lived in Vienna and, by 1910, when they were emerging, he had already written about hysteria (1895), dreams (1900) and sexuality (1906), all of which are involved in their pictures.
There was a deep and profound pessimism; sexual relationships were invariably tragic, and by extension, human relationships fared no better. The visual arts were depositories, resting places for morbid, fugitive imaginations. Despite the veneer of moral shock and outrage, the gender politics of this new art seems to confirm the old patriarchy, and perhaps even reinforced it. Freud’s reluctance to confront the epidemic of incest seemed to only easperate existing pathologies which simply became more legitimate.
In male art, these contradictory meanings seemed to converge on the vagina, suggesting that, for all, for example Schiele’s and others fascination with woman’s sexuality, they were afraid of it: Women are, for all their seductiveness and charms, a defective, diseased, hysterical animal.
The art reflected the behavioral and cognitive sciences which were tinkering with the explosive issue of identity: Human beings are about the struggle to transform the self — an incomplete process, in which the individual struggles to free themselves from their suffering, that is, to heal themselves,to reconcile, to accept, but, often fail to because they are unable truly to relate to one another, establishing what Michael Balint calls a “harmonious mix-up,” a kind of back to the garden quest where there is no distinction between the self and other. Collectively, and at its marginal level, they envision a world that is the opposite of that of modern science and technology: one that is driven by human irrationality, animal instincts and supernatural forces.
There were too many harsh facts that the pageants of Imperial Vienna could no longer obscure. Three of them combined to destroy the Habsburg monarchy: the poverty of the masses, the demands of a new industrial civilization, and the growing pressures of nationalism. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, for all its panoply and glamour, was little more than a “prison of peoples.” In a hundred different ways life in the imperial city illustrated the conflict between the ancient dynastic order and those new forces of progress and freedom that had been conceived in the eighteenth century. It was a conflict apparent at this time in all the countries of Europe- at least in retrospect.
But the artificiality of Imperial Vienna served to set this conflict in bolder relief than in many other places. It is a pradox that some of the most “modern” trends in European art and thought appear for almost the first time against the painted backdrop of Franz Josef’s city. The explanation may lie in the very artificiality of that city. As the painter Oskar Kokoschka maintained, the old empire was something magnificently concrete to react against.
His career is a perfect illustration: he was forced to leave the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts after the scandal of
Kokoschka, born in 1886 of Czechoslovak and Austrian parents, had been influenced to a certain extent by the French impressionists, whose work was being exhibited in Vienna for the first time at the turn of the century. Like them, Kokoschka wished to emphasize that art was related to everyday life and concerned with its realities. It is also apparent that Kokoschka wished to “startle the old fogies.” And the poster he designed for the 1908 exhibit did just that: it had a religious theme, a brutal “Pieta” depicting a woman “red as a leech with a dead-white Kokoschka on her knee.”
The architect Adolf Loos bought a clay head that Kokoschka had made for the exhibition. It was covered with veins and a network of nerves and was scarcely appealing in any decorative sense. But Loos saw in Kokoschka the expression of a new era. The young painter became notorious overnight: the newspapers objected to his work, and the middle class looked upon him as an illustration of the irresponsibility of modern art. But in a city where lassitude and overrefinement were producing stagnation, Kokoschka was expressing a vital optimism for the twentieth century. In the city of wedding cake formalism Kokoschka was vehemently bent upon destroying traditional forms.
In recent years a growing amount of scholarly writing about Austrian culture and the extraordinary intellectual splendour of Vienna around 1900 has concentrated on the Jewish background of many of Austria’s intellectuals. The Anglo-American historian Steve Beller’s work high-lights the ethical and educational influences of the Jewish enlightenment tradition. He interprets the phenomenon of ‘Vienna 1900′ as a reaction by Jews to partially failed attempts to integrate and to assimilate into Viennese intellectuals, but that the crisis of identity felt during the late Habsburg Monarchy can mainly be traced back to the experience of Jews caught in the dilemmas of assimilation.
Ernst Gombrich challenges this position. His lecture questions the relevance of the concept of Jewish identity to the cultured Jews of the turn of the century. He rejects any kind of collective ‘national’ myth. Born in 1909, in Vienna, Ernst Gombrich grew up in an assimilated Jewish family and educated in the traditional German humanism.
The discussion which followed his lecture brought Gombrich’s insight into contact with contemporary concerns, not to say anxieties, about the issues of identity and difference. It evoked the question of whether it is possible to assume a collective identity (be it Jewish, Austrian or British) without claiming the superiority of that identity over other, and of the role of intellectuals in the ‘invention’ and perpetuation of the ‘national myths’ which have so often in history led to disaster. I think Gombrich is right when he points out that collective identity and the feeling of superiority cannot be separated. But there may be strategies of controlling the negative consequences of ‘national’ myths.
Ernst Gombrich belongs to an intellectual tradition which regards historiography is worth the effort in so far as it is capable of resisting the sway of myth. Argument will no doubt continue as to what that tradition owes to humanist, Jewish or Viennese culture. ( Emil Brix, 1997 )
Kuspit: Schiele’s drawings of the female nude are about his profound ambivalence toward woman. His attitude is typically male: He is drawn to her outer appearance, but disappointed by her “inner” reality. To glimpse the vaginal slit that is hidden under her skirt, indeed, to boldly stare at it, is to become deeply disillusioned. To penetrate the mystery is to discover there is none — it’s all in man’s fantasy. Freud writes that sustained fascination with the vagina is perverse, but while Schiele is perverse, he is also coldly realistic and descriptive — a detached observer. His infantile sexual curiosity has been satisfied — a kind of peeping Tom looking underneath woman’s skirts, he has satisfied himself that what women have between their legs is very different from what men have, and inferior to it (they are, after all, “castrated,” and the 1911 nude may be about his own castration anxiety) — but the revelation is not as exciting as it is supposed to be. So much for woman’s beauty and mystery. Schiele’s images debunk these idea, showing that woman is ugly and dangerous, physically and emotionally, underneath.
Kuspit:The Tietzes have trouble relating — establishing empathic intimacy — as do Kokoschka and Alma Mahler. Both couples are physically together, but emotionally separate, indeed, at odds. Their highly developed individuality — each portrait amounts to a credo of individualism — keeps them inwardly isolated and apart even as their sexual and social needs and shared interests bring them together. Schiele makes this brilliantly clear in several of his drawings of lesbian couples, who embrace but remain emotionally neutral and unrelated. The people Kokoschka and Schiele portray are too civilized to acknowledge their need for intimacy and love, which is why they seem narcissistic, however morbidly exhibitionistic, that is, however much they show their emotions and bodies to hide their lack of commitment to one another.