There used to be a fort wall that surrounded the city of Vienna. Then in 1850 its municipality incorporated today’s districts 2 and 9, and by 1860 it had torn down the wall to open the door to these new neighbors. By 1890 the wall had been completely transformed into a grand boulevard, the Ringstraße, built to showcase the glory of the Hapsburg Empire. The plan worked wonders. Many people from diverse backgrounds came to Vienna from all parts of Europe. This ushered in a confluence of ideas into the Capital, and Vienna began to ferment developments in both the arts and the sciences. Their great achievements over the next two decades is now referred to as Viennese Modernism.
In his fantastic book, The Age of Insight, Viennese-born Eric Kandel reports that this cultural milieu forged the foundation of our modern understanding of the mind, which insists that humans are “not rational creatures, but people that were importantly driven by unconscious mental drives.” Freud, Schnitzler, and the trio of Viennese Expressionism Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele are the principal contributors to the achievements of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Kandel credits these pioneers’ insights for establishing a culture we still live in today. Indeed, UNESCO cites “The urban and architectural qualities of the Historic Centre of Vienna bear outstanding witness to a continuing interchange of values throughout the second millennium.” in its inscription of the city into its heritage aegis.
Steeped in this rich tradition, it’s no surprise that the cultural patrons of Vienna today require etiquette with a certain degree of austerity. Coughing a little too much at the symphony will probably be considered excessive and so criticized with some grumblings and disapproving glances. Even, talking loudly at dinner will likely invite some looks of caustic shade. The Telegraph writes “Locals love their titles, so if you are meeting someone who has a university degree, not only are you expected to know this fact, but you’re expected to use the title whilst shaking hands e.g “Grüß Gott Herr Doktor”. In cafés and restaurants the waiter will expect to hear a “Herr Ober”(Mr. waiter) from guests seeking attention.” This is in serious contrast to the American way. In Vienna, we would all be reminded to remain on the more civilized side. Surely, some of them will be unreasonably strict, but to dismiss the Viennese categorically as staid and stern would be a serious mistake: it would ignore the rich traditions that they clearly cherish and support.
In fact, I discovered that Vienna is a pretty tolerant city that definitely has a more raucous side to it. I went to a club where clothing was not required…a revealing legacy of Viennese Modernism. Let me explain…the legacy, not the club…with a passage by Robert Musil—Austrian philosophical writer, born 1880, in the early formations of VM. In his epic novel “The Man Without Qualities” he reports that in older times a person “would have regarded a display of nudity as a relapse into the animal state, not because of the nakedness but because of the loss of the civilized aphrodisiac of clothing”. By the time of Musil’s writing, sexuality had already undergone a thorough examination by Freud and consequent reinterpretations as evident in the works of Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. And Musil articulates this newfound sensual expression through a character who reveals that none of his love interest’s proper attire has done anything to temper his erotic longings for her naked body.
Klimt explored women’s sexuality in his nude drawings, Kokoschka brought psychoanalytic insight to bear on his portraits, and Schiele introduced a new kind of figurative iconography in which the artist uses his self portrait to reveal his unconscious aggressions and sexual striving. They and their contemporaries were all in search for what lies underneath the naked skin: our mental life. What could have more immediacy for us today than Kandel’s truthful interpretation of what Schiele had captured: “the anxiety that haunts contemporary humankind–the fear of being overwhelmed psychologically by an influx of external and internal sensory stimuli.” (Kandel, AoI).
The impact that late 19th century Vienna has on our culture today cannot be overstated. Medicine, psychology, neuroscience, and even the relatively new field of behavioral economics are deeply rooted in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Explore around the Ringstraße to find the opera house, the symphony center, art museums, universities, and even the Freud museum. Visit the Belvedere to observe the largest collections of works by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and many others. Tour the the Secession building to absorb the consummation of the Viennese Expressionists’ efforts, from Otto Wagner’s architecture of the building itself, to Klimt’s masterpiece, the Beethoven Frieze. Anyone interested in the intersection of art and science who visits Vienna responsibly will feel the electrifying resonance of Viennese Modernism on our lives today.