Gavin Plumley

The Art and Culture of fin-de-siecle Vienna

Review of the talk by Gavin Plumley
on April 25th 2018



At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna was the seat of the Hapsburgs, and the head of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, but by 1918 it had changed to being just the capital of a land-locked country, and had lost its power and its influence as a political force.  However, it remained a hot-bed of artistic and cultural influence.  Hitler, Trotsky and Stalin were all present in Vienna that year, as were Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler.

Earlier in the mid to late 19th century, the city has been redesigned and partly re-built, the cost being covered by the sale of land, principally to Jewish families.  Ironically, one of the early buildings funded by Jewish finance, was the Catholic Cathedral!  A multitude of new buildings sprang up, but built on credit which failed to be repaid.  In 1873 a financial crash ensued, which stoked social resentment.  However, there was no democracy, and no elections as Parliament was a closed shop, and so any middle class opposition to the political situation was ineffective.  When Strauss produced Die Fledermaus one year after the crash, he portrayed the glamour of Vienna as a sham – nothing had changed.

Gavin moved on to discuss the work of Gustav Klimt, who attended the University of Applied Arts, where he studied architectural drawing.  Although he was employed by a firm of architects, he also painted portraits in a conventional manner, but subsequently undertook murals and ceilings for public buildings in the Ringstrasse.  In 1897 he became a founder member of the Vienna Secession, where he remained until 1908.  The goal of the movement was to exhibit new and foreign artists, to which end the government offered support by providing public land on which to erect an exhibition hall.  This became the centre of art in Vienna.

The painter Ricard Gerstl became known for his psychologically insightful portraits, notably his own self-portrait, depicting a troubled soul.  His best friend was the composer Arnold Schoenberg, with whose wife he had an affair, although she later returned to her husband.  Gerstl later committed suicide by both hanging and stabbing himself.

Klimt mentored an artist of a similar vein to Gerstl, one Egon Schiele, whose work he exhibited.  The raw sexuality and twisted form of his portraits (particularly his self-portraits) mark him as an early exponent of Impressionism, although his early work was influenced by Klimt and Kokoschka.

A further member of the Vienna Secession was the architect and urban planner, Otto Wagner, whose work has a significant effect on the design of new buildings in Vienna.  He was concerned to produce a more decorative function, and lightness within.  His apartment building with equally spaced windows could have been a 1960’s design, and his design of a psychiatric hospital introduced 64 buildings of equal style, similar to a village, in a democratic manner.  He even designed a train system, with lines and stations, all connected – all classes were able to use it, even the Emperor, who was not keen on this modernity and preferred a laissez faire approach.

Sigmund Freud was practising his psychiatry in rooms behind the Ringstrasse, notably his view that our sub-conscious controlled our lives.  Society tended to dismiss him and his philosophy, but the artists loved him.

As far as the music scene was concerned, the significant arrival in Vienna in 1897 was Gustav Mahler.  Although Jewish, he converted to Christianity in order to gain acceptance.  His compositions were democratic, incorporating many sorts of themes, including children’s songs.  Gavin played an excerpt from Mahler’s 3rd symphony, which the audience jeered at its first performance – but Schoenberg was entranced.  His first piece was composed in 1897, and was compared by critics to Brahms – not what Schoenberg intended.  Therefore his next work was discordant, and as he was then called mad, he knew that he had succeeded!

Gavin had also played part of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, which was banned by the then Lord Chamberlain as containing too many sexual shenanigans – he would not have it located in Vienna!  He considered the Austro-Hungarian border far more appropriate!

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed the talk by Gavin Plumley, who was knowledgeable and eloquent.  If anything, there might have been too much information, to fully assimilate.

Philip Akroyd


Related link

Gavin Plumley's website