The Südbahnhotel opened in 1882 and was the largest and, in its historical context, most important palace hotel in Central Europe. In search of the traces of fin-de-siècle Vienna and its celebrated protagonists, the photographer Yvonne Oswald has gone on a subtle and poetic journey into the heart of a lost world.
The Südbahn Hotel opened in 1882 in Semmering, a beautiful Alpine resort village outside Vienna. The elegant hotel was patronized by royalty and celebrities and soon became an important meeting place for artists, writers, philosophers, and scientists of fin de siécle Vienna. Visitors included the writers Stefan Zweig, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Arthur Schnitzler; the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud; the composer Gustav Mahler; and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, all of whose creative energies contributed to the rise of modernist thought in Vienna 1900 and thus to the world we live in today.
Modernist thought began in the mid-nineteenth century, in part as a response to the restrictions and hypocrisies of everyday life but even more as a reaction to the eighteenth century belief that we are created by God as rational creatures, unlike other members of the animal kingdom. This belief led, in turn, to the belief that reason and enlightened thought would ultimately lead to a better world for all humankind. Influenced first by Charles Darwin and later by Freud, the Age of Reason gave way to modernist thinking, which has three main characteristics: a view of human beings as driven not by reason, but by unconscious sexual and aggressive urges; a conviction that the search for the rules that govern the human mind begins with an examination of oneself; and a broad attempt to integrate and unify knowledge, an attempt driven by science.
Yvonne Oswald's extraordinary photographs recall for us not just the beauty of the Südbahn Hotel, but also the greatness of fin de siécle Vienna, which derived in part from the easy social interaction of Christians and Jews. This freedom of interaction was critical to the explosion of artistic, scientific, and intellectual creativity in Vienna 1900.
The groundwork for this creativity was laid by the Habsburg dynasty. Beginning with Empress Maria Theresa in the eighteenth century, the Habsburg monarchs and their courts were strong supporters of science and the arts. Great composers gravitated to Vienna as early as 1750: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, then Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg, Weber. The royal collection of European art— including Brueghels, Holbeins, and Caravaggios—now makes up the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, also supported science, notably the renowned School of Medicine and the Vienna General Hospital, which reached its peak under the leadership of Karl von Rokitansky, the founder of modern scientific medicine. Later, Emperor Franz Joseph conceived a great boulevard in Vienna, the Ringstrasse. The Südbahn Hotel was also built during his reign.
But Franz Joseph's most important contribution to Austrian culture was the 1867Fundamental Law (Staatsgrundgesetz) , which granted political and religious freedom, as well as the freedom to travel, to everyone in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Jews had lived in Vienna since the year 996 and had been instrumental in developing the city's vibrant culture, anti-Semitism was endemic in its social and political life. The small, but remarkably productive Jewish community in fifteenth-century Vienna was annihilated in 1420 by Duke Albert V. It was reconstituted in the sixteenth century, only to be expelled in 1671 by Kaiser Leopold I. Periodic expulsions continued into the eighteenth century, when Maria Theresa became the last ruler of a great European nation to expel Jews from parts of her lands.
The new freedoms inspired many talented, ambitious young Jews from the Eastern countries of the Habsburg Empire to move to Vienna. As a result, the number of Jews in Vienna grew from a few thousand in 1848 , to 175,000, or 8.6 percent of the population in 1910—the largest Jewish population of any city in Western Europe. The interaction of Jews and non-Jews that sprang up during this period was enormously productive.
Viennese Jews were instrumental in the rise of modernism in three ways. First, some Jewish scientists, scholars, and artists contributed directly to modernist thought. Among these were Freud, whose development of psychoanalysis led a new view of the mind; Schnitzler, Roth, , and Werfel, who created new literary forms; Mahler and Schoenberg, who founded modern music, Gerstl and Schoenberg, who pioneered Expressionist and Abstract painting; Herzl, who delineated the concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; and Wittgenstein and Popper, leaders of twentieth-century philosophy.
Second, the Jews of Vienna were patrons, audiences, and supporters of modernism. They developed a strong attachment to modernist culture and supported Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele’s art. Most of Klimt’s patrons were Jews, including Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who commissioned Klimt to paint pictures of his wife, Adele. Jewish patrons enthusiastically supported opera and the theatre as well.
Finally, several Jewish women held regular salons in their homes. Salons promoted, in a somewhat more structured way, the kind of interaction among people from different fields that characterized weekend and holiday visits to the Südbahn Hotel. A notable salon was that of Berta Zuckerkandl, a journalist who wrote about art and who vigorously defended Gustav Klimt against his critics. Berta’s husband, Emil, introduced Klimt to biology. The artist first used biological symbols in Danaë, a painting of the Greek princess who was imprisoned by her father and impregnated by Zeus in the form of a golden shower (Fig. 1). Looking closely at the painting, one can see rectangles in the golden raindrops and ovals on the other side of Danaë. The rectangles are sperm, and the ovals are embryos, fertilized ova. Klimt shows us Danaë, through her generative power, transforming sperm into the earliest stage of life. These biological symbols recur throughout Klimt's work.
Another productive interaction that advanced modernism was that among art historian Alois Riegl, who was Christian, and two of his students, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, both of Jewish origin. Riegl was the first art historian to apply scientific thinking systematically to art criticism. He and his colleagues at the Vienna School of Art History attained international renown at the end of the nineteenth century for their efforts to establish art history as a scientific discipline by grounding it in psychology and sociology.
Riegl discovered a new, psychological aspect of art: namely, that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Based on ideas derived from Riegl and from contemporaneous schools of psychology and psychoanalysis, Kris and Gombrich devised a new approach to the mysteries of visual perception and incorporated that approach into art criticism. Their psychological insights into perception were to serve as a solid footing for a bridge between the visual perception of art and biology.
In 1937 the art historian Hans Tietze, who was both Viennese and Jewish, said of Vienna 1900: "Without the Jews, Vienna would not be what it is, and the Jews without Vienna would lose the brightest era of their existence during recent centuries." The historian Karl Stadler, who was not Jewish, carried this idea further: “The history of Austrian Jewry in the modern age is the history of Austrian scholarship and culture, and of the country’s economic and social progress.”
The creative surge in Vienna 1900 and its contribution to modernist thought owe a great debt to Emperor Franz Joseph. It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the first things the Nazis did in 1938 was to reverse the Fundamental Law and to introduce hundreds of anti-Jewish laws within then next months, among them the prohibition for Jews to enter hotels like the Südbahn Hotel. Without the free interaction that characterized Vienna 1900, both Viennese culture and the Südbahn Hotel began a steep decline.