Egon Schiele died three days after his wife in 1918 aged 28. Despite that, he deserves a place in any pantheon of 20th century heroes of the visual arts. His line is as fluid as Brett Whiteley’s but more structural. It seems to reflect his own physical angularity, if not some of the twists of his resolutely, unthinkingly, exposed consciousness. He does things with his colour palette that are beyond many more famous artists. (Look at that sheet.) His early work could be seen as derivative — he spent a lot of time with Kokoschka, and Klimt extended a variety of patronage. But whose is not? Sometime around the production of his ‘Death and the Maiden’, the time when he decided to marry ‘advantageously’ and abandon his lover of some years, an unmistakable individuality emerges and the range of his preoccupations expands. The flavour is so strong, however, you wonder what his oeuvre might have become had he lived longer.
What did I learn about Freud from our visit to his rooms? That he was a prodigiously hard worker, reading and writing at a staggering rate. (He had a chair made so he could stick his feet up over the arms when reading. I can confirm the comfort of this position.) That, like anyone beginning a successful movement, he was a manic ‘networker’ and a very fine single issue politician. That he was as preoccupied as Jung with ‘primitivism’ and the objets and art works that seemed to hold clues to its meanings. The photos of his very modest consulting rooms illustrate hundreds of these. That he had a daughter who became a model researcher of child psychology, investigating among other things, the impact of food on concentration and a sense of well being. And that civilisation still has its discontents.
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Take it as given that Vienna is Vienna: comfortable, orderly, easy to get around, great food, excellent transport system. All that. It’s no news either that it is one of the mansions of monumentalism.
This is a statue by Antonio Canova, the early 19th century’s maestro of marble: ‘Theseus fighting the centaur’ (Eurytus, the ‘fiercest of all the fierce centaurs’ according to Ovid). It was commissioned by Napoleon to be placed in Milan’s Corso, but patronage shifted with fortune. It wasn’t finished till 1817 and was purchased by Emperor Franz I. It has found itself in various situations but has come to a standstill on the major landing of the major staircase in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.
There have been many moments in the last two months when I’ve thought about who, if anyone, would be good at fighting in pre-1950s war. How would you get and keep soldiers interested in the task at hand? What would you promise them? (At the fall of Constantinople Fatih Sultan Mehmed II promised his men — with wildly varying stakes in the outcome and from all over the Ottoman empire; a unit from Belgrade was in the van of the assault that did the crucial damage — anything they could get their hands on for three days. Anything left was his.) Could a great soldier possibly be a good bloke, or even an attractive dinner guest? Wouldn’t the qualities required cancel out living well in normal society? Would you want your daughter to marry one? Not just a man in uniform, a VC winner? Muddle, chaos, fury. The blood- and gore-spattered champion surrounded by corpses dead and still quivering. Tolstoy. War and Peace.
Modern warfare has done much to take this distastefulness out of the process and, as I looked at Theseus here, so has Canova. This is what we want our warriors to be. Knee in the belly, hand on the throat and, despite the opponent’s fabulous musculature and, one imagines, the considerable advantage of four legs and a huge back, apparently stronger, Theseus appears implacable, absolutely imperturbable, almost serene. He is dealing out a hiding with no more emotion than a robot or perhaps, even, at a stretch, the blind justice that was supposed to characterise the proceedings of the Austro-Hungarian and other empires. Rather than the gorgeous building in which it is housed (with a Vermeer, a beauty, possibly the best, Raphaels, Caravaggios and Rembrandts filling out the corners) and all the rest of the built Ring, the real remnant of empire may be this notion of conquest as muscular, voluptuous, but also clinical and free of complication. That’s what I thought standing there.
Another monument: the vast sweep of one wing of the Hofburg Palace including the balcony from which Hitler greeted the consummation of the Anschluss to a crowd of delighted Austrians. (100,000? maybe. There would have been enough room. Who knows.)
Vienna is the home of the Strauss family and the warmly perfumed delights of opera’s greatest hits which we heard performed so perfectly in the Grosser Redoutensaal just behind this wing in another part of the same gargantuan palace. But it is also the home of Mahler and Schoenberg. Freud I’ve mentioned. Adler, another giant of psychiatry, Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Martin Buber, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Peter Lorre, Fritz Kreisler, Theodor Herzl (the father of Zionism), Wilhelm Reich, Richard Tauber, Rudolph Bing, Stefan Zweig — some party this would be — all Viennese Jews.
In 1938 a government census indicated that just over 180,000 Jews were permanent residents of Austria of whom about 167,000 lived in Vienna. In 1942 there were somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000, and nearly all of the scores of synagogues had been destroyed. 65,000 Austrian Jews who can be named were killed in the holocaust.
The process by which the Nazis ‘linked up’ with Austria via the Anschluss was … find a word: underhand? criminal? inexorable? bad? But warmly welcomed by at least a portion of the local populace. The constitutions of both the Weimar Republic and the First Austrian Republic included the political goal of unification. This goal was widely supported by democratic parties and labour organisations.
This is not free of complication. Perhaps like any great city, Vienna has its glorious broad avenues. It also has its bent arcades and blind laneways.
Another monument, just near the Albertina.
We walked past this half a dozen times. I didn’t make a note of its name. As I remember it is on the site of an apartment block bombed by the allies during the second World War with many fatalities. It’s preposterously ugly, but I guess it was meant to be. (Raising a larger question: how literal can artistic representations afford to be? Must boredom be portrayed by boredom?) But there is an unresolved ambiguity about it. And I think it is there in the solder’s helmet. Oh, German. (And it probably isn’t of course. Austrian.) But is this, possibly, a memorial to the losers, a criticism of the allied bombing? What sort of memorials to war do you put up when you lose?
Not far from here is a memorial to the Fathers of the Austrian Republic. I think Karl Seitz was one of the three weatherbeaten veterans of endless meetings. It had been removed and restored to its place several times.
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Without complication was the pleasure of seeing Simon’s sister Jo, Robert her husband and the splendid Anna pictured here. We ate, drank and talked. The weather was balmy and we met at whatever the nightly festival was called at the Rathaus (coarsely, ‘town hall’) which offered any imaginable form of food and plenty of beer and aperol. We had a long conversation with Jo and Elaine, another member of her string quartet, about life as a musician in Vienna. That is complicated. Members of the Vienna Philharmonic get paid about 8000 euros a month but are on tour most of the year. To be successful it helps to have been born in Vienna rather than Aberdeen or Adelaide. It was ever thus.
Elaine’s Canadian composer husband and son went off to play ice hockey, Jo took Anna home to bed and we went to the free outdoor film festival. Every night in summer you can watch opera or musical performance for nothing in the blessed open air on the monster screen against the wall of the Rathaus. For our pleasure, Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz as performed in a most lively fashion at the 2006 Salzburg festival. Then we, too, went home. Thinking how splendid Vienna had been, but … east.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have Budapest to examine … (more)