Century City: Vienna 1908–18

City in analysis

I have an indomitable affection for Vienna but I know her abyss
Sigmund Freud

Vienna, in the years leading up to the First World War, was a city with an identity crisis. It was at the crossroads of Europe and the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which had been disintegrating internally for many years.

Between 1880 and 1910 the population of Vienna trebled to more than two million. Social deprivation and a desperate housing shortage were the result, with working-class unrest soon presenting a serious threat to the prosperous bourgeoisie. Jews, the largest minority, accounted for 10 per cent of the population, and played a leading part in the artistic and intellectual life of the capital. Many were migrants from the empire’s distant provinces and anti-semitism was rife – it was here that the young Adolf Hitler spent his formative years.

The decorative extravagance of nineteenth-century Viennese art and architecture seemed increasingly at odds with social reality. The avant-garde culture that developed in Vienna over the first two decades of the twentieth century sought to strip away pretence and to probe beneath society’s ‘acceptable’ surface. Ideas of honesty and naturalness informed the architecture and theories of Adolf Loos, the satirical journalism of Karl Kraus, the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg, and the paintings and graphic work of Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl. The development of a particularly dissonant form of Expressionism, with its emphasis on uncompromising subject matter, unsuppressed sexuality and psychological introspection, can be traced in the visual arts as well as in music, literature and the theatre, echoing the influential psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud. The catastrophic impact of the First World War and consequent disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire mark the end of this section of the exhibition.

Curated by Richard Calvocoressi and Keith Hartley, director and senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Architecture laid bare

The architecture of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos epitomised the new spirit which rejected decorative excess. The functionalism and simplicity of their buildings contrasted strikingly with the highly ornamented façades of nineteenth century Vienna. Loos’s Michaelerplatz Haus was erected opposite Emperor Franz Josef’s ornate residence. So unimpressed was the Emperor by the stark rigour of Loos’s shop building, that he is said to have closed the curtains in the Hofburg to keep it out of sight. Perhaps the most extreme example of this stripped-down approach was the house designed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1929, but informed by ideas developed before the war.

Freud and sexuality

Sigmund Freud’s investigations into psychology and his studies of sexuality - and infant sexuality in particular - shocked bourgeois Vienna but were highly influential. A frank approach to childhood sexuality is evident in drawings by artists such as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as in poet Peter Altenberg’s collection of erotic images. Kokoschka and Schiele painted many portraits of nude children and adolescents, which still have the power to disturb. Child prostitution was common in Vienna at the time, and the age of consent was only 14. In 1912 Schiele was imprisoned for a few days on pornography charges, when the authorities of a small town near Vienna, where he was staying, took exception to his drawings.

Portraiture and café society

In their portraits, Kokoschka, Schiele and Richard Gerstl seemed intent on pushing beyond the public face of the era to expose raw psychological truths. At the same time the portraits provide an intriguing map of the leading artistic and intellectual circles. Vienna was a café society, in which small groups gathered for discussion at their favourite watering holes.

This led to the rapid circulation of ideas and encouraged an interdisciplinary approach. The circle to which the painter Oskar Kokoschka belonged, for instance, formed around Adolf Loos, and included Peter Altenberg and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Loos was the first to recognise Kokoschka’s genius, not only soliciting commissions but paying the artist out of his own pocket when a sitter refused to buy his or her likeness, as was often the case.

The War

The outbreak of war brought the old Vienna crashing down, exposing all its delusions and hypocrisies. Though many held an idealistic conception of war, it began to fade as the death toll mounted. Karl Kraus expressed his disgust in the satirical epic The Last Days of Mankind. Artists such as Albin Egger-Lienz, went to the front, determined to record the grim reality of life in the trenches. Wittgenstein joined the army and continued writing what would become his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As an attack on the false claims of philosophical language and a rigorous insistence on establishing the truth, Wittgenstein’s treatise is a fitting coda to this period.