Category Archives: Vienna

Cornell/Simon Wilson Schiele book

I think that the Taschen Verlag 25th anniversary book on the Expressionist Austrian (sometimes Viennese) painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provides sumptuous reproductions of Schiele paintings and drawings. The smaller (both in page size (8 1.2” x 11”) and in number of pages (80)) volume from Cornell University Press, first published in 1980, provides a better textual introduction, written by Simon Wilson. The Cornell book is also organized topically (by the subject matter of the art) but begins with a solid biographical overview.

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Schiele’s father was pensioned off by the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Rail Company (for mental instability) in 1902 and died in 1905. Egon Schiele was accepted as a student in the Vienna Art Academy in 1906 and was soon influenced by the renegade Secession art, particularly that of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who immediately recognized Schiele’s talent (on being asked to trade drawings, the older and established if avant-garde painter remarked that Schiele was a better draftsman than he was).

Though Schiele’s style diverged from that of Klimt and other Secession artists, the flattening of figures and unconcern about backdrops persisted, and Schiele remained a dutiful quasi-son, who became head of the Secession when Klimt died in 1918, soon followed by Schiele’s 6-month pregnant wife Edith, and three years later (still in advance of the Armistice ending WWI) by his own death, casualties of the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic in which at least a third of the world’s population died (including an estimated twenty million in Europe).

Wilson attempts to distinguish self-portraits expressive of metaphysical Angst (anguish) from self-portraits expressive of sexual Angst. I guess that the paintings (watercolor, gouache, oil) in which Schiele showed caricatures of himself holding his engorged penis or in the throes of orgasm or covering his genitalia to fashion a pseudo-vagina between his hands are “sexual Angst,” but the exaggeration of body hair (and pubic hair, which was always rendered with great care in his female nudes, too) and provocative semi-dress seem to me also to have a sexual charge. Moreover the top of the 1911 “Composition with Three Male Figures” (p. 26/below) strikes me as flirtatious rather than angst-ridden (I’d readily grant that the other two look saddened).

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Neither author provides an explanation of the very recurrent separation between two pairs of fingers (I find spreading fingers easy, as is holding the inner two together or the outer two, but find it impossible to hold two pairs except by arranging them on a flat surface first… so I consider the pose of hands unnatural). Photographs in the Taschen volume show that the artist had long fingers, but do not document the arrangement of them he so often painted.

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In his portraits of others as well as in his self-portraits, Schiele rendered large, prominent hands with long fingers, right up to his not quite finished final large portrait of Albert von Gütertlow, seated and holding up his hands as if they are alien to him. (Being in the collection of the Minneapolis Art Institute, this is the painting by Schiele that first intrigues me, before I got to Vienna, where most of his work still is, particularly in the [Rudolph] Leopold Museum.)

Wilson explains that the young Secessionist painter was introduced to the earlier Expressionist work of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh in 1909 by art critic Arthur Roessler, who admired worked by Schiele displayed at the Vienna Kunstchau. Without breaking with Klimt or mimicking the techniques of Munch or van Gogh, Schiele shifted to more Expressionist work soon thereafter. Schiele also obtained a sexual outlet other than his hands, living in Kumau with his 17-year-old muse/model Wally Neuzil (whom he would later dump and marry Edith Harms in 1915; she had earlier posed for Klimt).

In the last year or so of his short life, Schiele seems to have moved into a third, less angst-ridden stage and even provided some backdrops for his portraits, including the Albert von Gütertlow. Had he lived even to the Anschluss (when he would have been all of 48), who knows what a trove of masterworks he might have produced! (According to Wilson, Schiele’s work was mostly neglected until the 1960s.)

Back to the book, though biographical sources on Schiele seem slim (he was too busy painting? He did write poetry, however…), Wilson provides a good introduction to the life, traumas, and context of Schiele’s art. His text is more informative, less technical than Reinhard Steiner’s in the Taschen Schiele book.

The superiority of the latter is that the plates are all in color. Fortunately, so is the reproduction of the portrait of Albert von Gütertlow that was my introduction to Schiele’s art. But others in which color is prominent are reproduced in black and white. This is particularly regrettable for “Red Nude” (p. 37): not only is a color in the title, but the text discusses what is red in it (Schiele was not Franz Marc, the whole body was not rendered in red!). The portrait of Friedrika Beer (p. 73) is another especially unfortunate instance. Some (the 1915 portrait of a demure Edith, the 1915, poster of Schiele as St. Sebastian, the great 1918 “Family” with the nude artist behind a woman (not Edith) behind a clothed toddler) are reproduced in color in the Taschen book.

I am glad that I have both books (though it took years of owning them to read their texts and compare their contents!). For textual introduction the Wilson/Cornell one is significantly superior, for reproductions of the art the Steiner/Taschen one is. Neither is expensive (nor is either thick…) The Cornell book is also organized topically (by the subject matter of the art) but begins with a solid biographical overview.

2014,2017, Ste0hen O. Murray

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Taschen’s/ Steiner’s Egon Schiele

Long ago  I  was intirgued by a 1918 portrait  Viennese) painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918: he survived army service during WWI and perished in the Spanish flu) painted of his friend Paris von Gütersloh that the Minneapolis Art Institute has (pictured below).

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Having been reading about Vienna and points down the Danube from it, it decided to read the Taschen Verlag 25th anniversary book.. Like most buyers of most art books, I bought the book for the pictures. Taschen has a well-deserved good reputation for the quality of its reproductions of art. Unlike in my other Schiele book, published by Cornell University Press, the Taschen one has no black-and-white reproductions of art done in color. And the pages are 12″x10″ so there are no postage-stamp-sized reproductions.

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There are some not large photographs included in the two-page chronology. Schiele does not look as wild or as tormented in the photographs as in his many self-portraits. From familiarity with his drawings and paintings of himself, I would not recognize him in any but one of the photographs (one with out-of-control hair).

I discovered that a smaller Schiele book that I also had was a 1991 version of the same text with the same illustrations (and promptly gave it away). Though I have no hesitation in recommending the Taschen book as an introduction to Schiele’s art (that is, the illustrations), I thought that the text by Reinhard Steiner was difficult, assuming more familiarity with the art of the late-19th and early-20th century than some readers intrigued by seeing this or that Schiele in a museum might have. The text by Simon Wilson in the university press (Cornell) book is better as an introduction, assuming less knowledge of the context, and is somewhat more biographical (though both books are organized into chapters by topic (kind of painting) rather than chronological).

Steiner begins with a discussion of Schiele’s self-portraits, then picks up the early engagement with Kilt and Viennese symbolism (Schiele became the leading younger painter in the Secessionist group and became its head when Klimt died, which was only a few months before Schiele did). The division between “The Figure as Signifier” (the next chapter) and “The Visionary and Symbolic Work” (the one following that) is strained in that however exaggerated (expressionist) and decorative (Secessionist) Schiele’s compositions were, they were always figurative and very often nude (or semi-nude with uncovered genitalia). The landscapes are less familiar to me, though I find them striking. They are the subject of the final chapter.

The illustrations are referenced in the text (and overwhelm it IMO). I thought Steiner was particularly good in explaining the 1912 jailing of the artist (not for posing children nude, but for allowing children to see his nude drawings and paintings). Schiele was convicted to a three-day sentence (having already been in jail a month awaiting trial) and one of his drawings was burned by the judge. Though outraged that an Artist could be so persecuted by the State, Schiele made a number of drawings and paintings of his martyred imprisoned self and the contents of his cell.

The amount of art Schiele produced in a ten-year career (of rising fame and patronage) is astounding, especially in that he was in the army for nearly three years of it. The shift from Symbolism to Expressionism in 1910 is not as clear in this volume as it might be, but there is a lot of art on display and some things about the life of the artist. A bargain at the list price of $14.99.

©2012, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A dogged old Austrian Jew and her lawyer fighting the Nazi successor Austrian state

Having just rewatched Helen Mirren as “Elizabeth I,” for which she won many awards, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe, “Woman in Gold” showed her range. With a flawless Viennese accent, as Maria Altmann, Mirren was still a somewhat coquettish old woman with hauteur mixed with insecurity. The unlikely success of her legal struggle to regain Klimt’s portrait of her aunt is intercut with the Anschluss and a harrowing escape from Vienna, her father having stayed on after his brother (the widower of Adele) fled before the Nazis (Hitler himself) was welcomed into Vienna. The cinematic chases was an embellishment, but she and her husband did get their guard to accompany them (to a dentist rather than to an apothecary) and two people were taken away before their delayed plane flew them to Köln.

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I’m curious about the diamond necklace in the painting, which Maria’s uncle gave her as a wedding present and which was part of the loot taken by Hermann Goering. His wife wore it in public, but I haven’t been able to find out what happened to it after that, or why Maria did not try to recover it.

The Austrian government fought restitution of the iconic (1903-07) portrait of Adele Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the picture has, since 2006, been on display in NY, (in the Neue Gallerie, having been bought by Ronald Lauder for $135 million. (Klimt’s second (1912) portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, sold for $88 million is on long-term loan to MOMA, so also can be seen in NYC).

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I didn’t recognize Moritz Bleibtreu with a beard as Klimt, but recognized Jonathan Pryce (whom I just saw as Cardinal/Chancellor Wolsley in “Wolf Hall”) as Chief Justice Rehnquist and Maureen McGovern as the first US judge to allow a lawsuit against the Austrian government to go forward. Both had juicy cameos. And I guessed correctly that Max Irons (who plays Maria’s husband, Fritz) was the son of Jeremy (also just seen as Leicster in “Elizabeth I”).

As much as I like Mirren, I thought the parts of the film set in the 1920s and 30s were better than the predictable (for movie contests, the outcome was not at all certain for this David and this Goliath!) recent illumination of the court cases.

 

© 2015, Stephen O. Murray

Stefan Zweig’s memoir of vanished worlds

 

The memoir, The World of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern), completed the day before his suicide by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), does not seem to me to be leading up to suicide (with his younger, second wife, Lotte). Like the (later) memoirs of Paul Bowles, Without Stopping, The World of Yesterday is a startlingly impersonal memoir. It really is about the worlds (in Vienna, Paris, Innsbruck, London) in which Zweig lived and increasingly prospered, not about what he felt. Each of his two wives gets only a cursory mention. The man who achieved great fame and fortune writing about sexual passion does not even hint at any sexual passions of his own. The one passion that is detailed is one for acquiring memorabilia of those he revered, including Beethoven’s desk (and indeed the furnishings of the flat in which he died), a Michelangelo sketch, and the first page of a Mozart aria. These treasures were mostly left behind in London, which Zweig expected to be conquered by the Nazis (these are now in the British Library).

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He did get himself and a lot of his stuff out of Austria in 1934, well before the Anschluss of 12 March 1938. And before being treated as an enemy alien in Britian, he moved on to the New World (Ossington, New York; Pertópolis, Brazil) in 1940. Exile did not agree with him, though there was much of Viennese culture (the backbiting, the educational system) that he also disliked. He seems to have been happiest in Belgium and France before they were engulfed by the First World War. He particularly revered the forgotten Francophone Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916), Bohemian-Austrian lyrical poet Rainer Marie Rilke (1875-1926), and his French brother in pacifism, Romain Rolland (1866-1944; author of the ten-volume Jean-Christophe, Nobel Prize 1915). Both Zweig and Rolland revered Sigmund Freud (1856-1919) , whom Zweig saw more in London than earlier in Vienna.

Zweig praises the early work of Hugo von Hoffmannstahl (1874-1929) without noting the contempt in which Hoffmanstahl held Zweig’s work. Zweig succeeded Hoffmannstahl as librettist of choice of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Strauss insisted on Zweig’s name remaining on the opera Fredenstag premiered in Munich in 1938 (and performed before Hitler in Vienna on 10 June 1939). Zweig recorded his appreciation for Strauss’s support when no work by a Jew was permitted in the Reich.

Zweig had resisted Zionism (though his first patron was the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl [1860-1904] and other –isms other than pacifism. His refusals, including of war with the Nazis, irritated most everyone, including Thomas Mann and Hannah Arendt (who was in a Zionist phase in 1942 and misrepresented what was in his memoir in a vicious review of it). His memoir certainly did not scant the forebodings he felt about the Nazis, even before they gained power in Germany. And he criticized even his own limited involvement in the folly that was the First World War (he had a job in the archives of the Austrian Ministry of War).

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The memoir is remarkably self-effacing, praising many other writers (“If we admire more, and more intensely than others, we shall ourselves grow richer than those timid ones who content themselves with choice morsels of life ,” he wrote. “The more a man admires, the more he possesses”,) and not reveling in his widespread popularity (the most translated of German writers between the war, more than Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, or Sigmund Freud). “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life” he wrote early on in World, and he treats his trajectory primarily as a vantage-point into the vanished Hapsburg world, pre-WWI Paris, and the chaos of inflations, etc. between the world wars (living in Innsbruck).

There is nothing about the process of Zweig’s voluminous writing or the sources of ideas for his fictions.

The end of the book is quite upbeat, not at all despairing (as its author must have been to take his own life and that of his younger wife):

“In the last resort, every shadow is also the child of ight, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their life.”

Though it has an index, the University of Nebraska edition of Anthea Bell’s very limpid, not-at-all Germanic translation irritatingly lack a table of contents.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Stefan Zweig’s chess story

The novella Schachnovelle (which means ”The Royal Game,” a label for chess), the last fiction written by once internationally renowned and best-selling Austrian Jewish biographer and novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) has been reprinted in English as The Chess Game by the New York Review Books. Zweig had gotten out of his beloved Vienna in 1934, shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany and before Austria was annexed in the Third Reich. In 1940 he and his new wife (heretofore secretary) the much younger Lotte Altmann moved on to New York City and then to Petropolis in Brazil, where they committed suicide (by veronal (a barbiturate) overdose) on February 23, 1942.

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The Royal Game/Chess Story is the only fiction by Zweig to include any notice of the Nazi reign of terror. Its victim in the book, Dr. B., is not Jewish but is a banker like Zweig’s mother’s family, and a royalist, though it is not clear to me whether of the Hapsburgs (in Austria) or Hohenzollern (Prussian-German) royal house deposed by defeat in the First World War. His family has also discreetly managed to get many of the assets of Roman Catholic institutions beyond reach of Nazi expropriation.

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Though not physically brutalized by the Gestapo — more interested in finding and seizing wealth than in punishing those loyal to vanished empires, Dr. B. was driven crazy by being kept in solitary confinement when not being interrogated. He managed to steal a book that laid out 150 classic chess matches and honed his chess skills by repeating them over and over and then starting to play himself: a black self and a white self that could not know what the other was thinking in the way of chess strategy (schizogenesis).

Dr. B. does not appear until nearly midway through the book. He tells his story to a curious traveler on the same slow boat to South America as the narrator, who had been trying to meet and assess the reigning world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, a Slavic peasant who was illiterate and slow-witted, but had a talent for chess. (Czentovic is a kind of idiot savant and, perhaps, a metaphor for mindless battling of Hitler’s army, except that he is Slavic rather than “Aryan.)

A rich American chess aficionado named McConnor (a Scottish engineer who had gotten rich in California) wants to see a grand mater in action and for a fee of $250 (that’s 1941 dollars!) engages the master to play multiple simultaneous games. There is only one chessboard on the ship and Czentovic instead plays a committee. He is about to win a second game, when a bystander (Dr. B) starts offering advise that brings the game to a draw.

Dr. B has not physically played chess since he was a schoolboy, decades earlier, and does not know how he will perform in public (though he has impressed. Czentovic and the kibitzers as a sort of chess-playing ventriloquist). Thinking each side’s moves many moves in advance, Czentrovic taking the full allotment of ten minutes before each move (even the first one in the second game) is torture for Dr. B.

Herman Hesse was dismayed that only the pain and suffering of his 1927 novel Steppenwolf seemed to be noticed by readers, not the hope of redemption in the book. It seems to me the same despondent reading of Chess Story has been prevalent, in part in the shadow of the despair with the destruction of his civilization that drove Zweig to suicide after sending off the manuscript. (Why I am reading writers in German of much fame between the world wars now, I don’t know. The times here seemed more analogous to the late-1930s and early-1940s to me during the mid-2000s, when I was reading many stories about collaboration.)

The NYR edition includes an appreciative introduction by the distinguished Yale University historian (born in Berlin in 1923, got out in 1939), Peter Gay (The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Enlightenment; plus Mozart, Weimar Culture, Schnitzler’s Century, My German Question, and many books) I think it reveals too much of the plot of the slender volume and should be read after rather than before Zweig’s text, though the first part about Zweig provides a good introduction to the author, whose works revived by New York Review books so far include Confusion, The Post-Office Girl, Journey into the Past and Beware of Pity.

 

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Stefan Zweig’s Amok

If I did not know that it was Stefan Zweig’s second best-known novella, “Amok” (1922, the title story of a collection subtitled “Novellas of a Passion”), I’d think that it had been written by W. Somerset Maugham. It is set in Maugham territory both in terms of geography (colonial southeast Asia, the Dutch colony of Indonesia) and in terms of its theme of hopelessly doomed love.

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The narration is more Conrad than Maugham, the story of a Leipzig physician who took up an appointment in the sticks and never traveled to Batavia (now Jakarta). One fine (or not so fine, sultry, tropical) day in 1912, a chic woman from the capital (the first white woman he has seen in years) sought him out. She was in need of an abortion before her husband returned from abroad. She offers him enough money to skip out of his colonial service contract and compensate him for his lost pension, but is not willing to ask him to do it FOR her. Or to bed him, when he rashly suggests that.

 She storms out of his clinic, returns to the capital, and has a botched abortion. When the physician gets to see her, she is dying and all he can do is ease her death and provide a death certificate with a false cause of death. He books passage on the ship (Oceania) that is taking the coffin (and the widower husband) back to Europe, determined to keep her secret (from any possible autopsy there). He keeps to his cabin during the day, but tells his story to the narrator sitting smoking on deck some nights.

Both the woman and the physician (neither is named, nor is the narrator) act very extremely, though neither “runs amok” in the original Malay sense of unmotivated attacks by the one “running amok.”

(There was a 1934 French film adaptation and a 1945 Mexican one, neither of which I have seen.)

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I don’t know if Zweig’s style in German is “pedestrian.” In English the revival of his work has been aided by translator Anthea Bell. I don’t know why Bell rendered the halting speech the peasant cook nicknamed “Leporella” in Cockney.

The story strikes me as a variant on the even more famous “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” with another affluent Viennese oblivious to the passionate devotion of a woman, a hardworking unworldly servant who may have removed the irritation of a neurotic wife, making it look like suicide (though he glimpses the possibility, there is no proof).

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Seduced and abandoned twice

Viennese Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (18881-1942) was the most-translated and best-selling author who wrote in German between the world wars (outselling the works by Noble Prize-winners Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse). His 1922 novella Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman) is his best-known work of fiction, not least in that it was brought to the screen in English (by German-born Jewish director Max Ophüls in 1948) and again in Chinese (directed by Xu Jinglei in 2004; and again in Mongolian, a version I have not seen and a 1975 Russian opera I have neither seen nor heard).

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Returning to Vienna from a holiday, a rich 41-year-old writer in Vienna finds a packet that includes a long letter from a woman. She tells him that if he receives her letter, she is dead. She tells him that as a young teenager she lived with her widowed and poor mother across the hall from the writer’s apartment an silently stalked him. Her mother remarried and took her off to Innsbruck, but she returned on her own when she was 18.

Putting herself in his path, he picks her up without recognizing he has ever seen her before. I don’t think one can say he seduces someone so eager to be intimate with him. Of course, she is pregnant and he does not give her any thought when he leaves on another trip.

She loses her job and becomes a courtesan (kept by rich men rather than available like a prostitute is). At a nightclub she sees the writer again, is picked up by him again, spends another night with him. Again, he does not recognize ever having seen her before. And assuming she is a prostitute, he tries to give the woman in love with him money for their night of amour.

The son she had by him dies in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and before she also expires she writes the letter to be sent if she dies.

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I think that Howard Koch’s screenplay improved on Zweig, despite having to tiptoe around the Hollywood Production Code. Turning the writer into a concert pianist of renown (played by the suave Louis Jourdan, and given Zweig’s first name, Stefan) also gives Lisa (Joan Fontaine in her best performance) something to listen to from the hallway, and good reason to leave Vienna frequently to give concerts elsewhere (Milan in the case of leaving after unknowingly impregnating her).

Koch had to give her a job (dress model rather than courtesan) and a husband, but since she dies, I guess it was permissible for her to be knocked up. The melodrama of a duel added to the ending seems unnecessary to me (Stefan is going off to it at the end, results unknown to the viewer).

The perfect casting of the leads and the famed Ophüls fluid camerawork make this, for me, an instance of a movie better than the book on which it is based (other examples include “Gone with the Wing” and Dosteovesky’s “The Double”).

 

©2014, Stephen O. Murray