How Vienna in 1900 Gave Birth to Modern Style and Identity

The Viennese Waltz differs from other waltzes in the speed of the rotation—a dervish-like dance in which the dancers are spun out of their normal existence. That dizzying disorientation helps turn their world upside down. At the turn of the twentieth century, Vienna stood at the heart of a similar kind of waltzing whirlwind in which artistic and cultural forces acted to disorient a whole generation and set the tone for a new, modern reorientation for all Western society. In Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, which runs at the Neue Galerie through June 27, 2011, we rediscover just how influential that city and time were for all that followed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Caught up in our own dizzying times, we can see much of our own disorientation (and perhaps solutions to problems of style and identity) in the amazing cast of characters assembled in Vienna 1900.


At the end of the nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its capital, Vienna, found itself left behind the pace of the times. A massive stock market crash in 1873 terrorized a generation into conservatism. Conservative taste dominated, resulting in a prevailing architectural style of grand, classically inspired facades turned Vienna into “a self-aggrandizing European Las Vegas,” as described by Philipp Blom in his lively catalog essay covering the historical background. The fine arts suffered similarly, with painter Hans Makart as the “high priest of… stuffy splendor” (Blom, again).

Enslavement to the past denied the individuality of persons of the present. Artists and thinkers of Vienna in 1900 asserted their own ideas and their own individuality through a new style in the arts and seeing the world—both without and within the human mind. We’ve lost sight of that monumental paradigm shift and how important it was in terms of our own struggles with identity and style in the wake of economically induced conservatism. As Ronald S. Lauder, founder and president of the Neue Galerie, explains in his preface, reminding modern, American audiences of this history is central to the museum’s mission to promote German and Austrian art. “[T]he perception of their culture had been distorted by the horrors of the war years,” Lauder believes, and Vienna 1900 hopes to correct that misperception.

What strikes you first when looking at the names involved in that time and place and this exhibition is just how many went on to become giants in their field. In painting, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka fought the influence of Makart. When Richard Wagner’s music strangled new styles, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern broke out of that confinement. The literature of Robert Musil, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Arthur Schnitzler exorcized the ghost of Goethe. A different kind of literature—The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud—also debuted in 1900. Even architecture and furniture found bold new stylists in Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Adolf Loos. When so many great figures exist in one location at the same time, encounters and crossovers are inevitable. Painter Richard Gerstl first painted Schönberg and his family after getting to know them as neighbors. Gerstl taught Schönberg the basics of painting, which the composer used to become an interesting painter in his own right with works such as Gaze (detail shown above). Unfortunately, Gerstl and Schönberg’s wife Mathilde became lovers, which ended tragically in Gerstl’s suicide after her return to Arnold. Great passions breed great drama, and Vienna 1900 literally drips with drama.

Jill Lloyd, an independent scholar and curator, and Christian Witt-Dörring, adjunct curator of decorative arts at the Neue Galerie, organize this massive collection of material around the central theme of identity as reflected in these different styles. Painting, music, and even chairs and fashion take on greater significance as emblems of identity, including gender and religious (specifically Jewish) roles. Lloyd’s catalog essay focuses on the Frauenfrage or “women question” so central to this moment (and every one following). Her spin on Klimt’s approach to the women question sheds new light on that seemingly simple and familiar artist. “In his life, Klimt clearly divided women into those he respected, even exalted, and those he slept with,” Lloyd acknowledges, but also “Klimt’s images of women are acknowledged as complex representations with a symbolic force; as such, they embody allusions to the ‘women question’ that are far from straightforward to read.” Even the Neue Galerie’s golden girl, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, shines brighter with the realization that she’s wearing a variation of the period’s “reform dress” (a real-life example of which also appears in the show). That reform dress liberated women from the corset and bustle and allowed them to move (figuratively and literally) more freely. Lloyd sees even Klimt’s overtly sexual depictions of women not as objectification but more as “allegories [that] embody a belief in the regenerative force of the female sex.” When the world seemed most lifeless, Klimt and others looked to women, that disrespected class, to inject new life and lead the way into the future.

Vienna 1900 exemplifies how modern multimedia is nothing new. Listening to Mahler while looking at Klimt while thinking about Freud seems a daunting task of multitasking, but it’s exactly what you should be doing to get the full experience of what this exhibit is all about. The catalog manages to give a taste of so many of these different ideas without falling into academic drudgery, making it an invaluable complement to seeing the show. (Blom, yet again, on how different Jewish figures dealt with Jewish identity, and Claude Cernuschi on how Schiele and Kokoschka put into paint Schopenhauer’s idea of bodies reflecting a spiritual essence, jump to mind foremost.)

In trying to determine why Vienna has failed to be recognized for its role in shaping the modern world, essayist Jean Clair offered the possibility that the culprit is our “over-optimistic idea of modernity.” Although much of Vienna 1900: Style and Identity is pretty, many of the forces that helped generate that moment weren’t. Anti-Semitism, sexism, economic segregation, and political repression pressured these people to respond, or disappear into history. If we, too, are to move forward and not disappear into history, looking back at the example of Vienna 1900: Style and Identity is a good start.

[Image: Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). Gaze, 1910. Oil on cardboard. Belmont Music Publishers, Pacific Palisades. Courtesy Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna. © 2011 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/VBK, Vienna. Photograph © Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna.]

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for the image above from, press materials for, and a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, which runs through June 27, 2011.]

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.