Friday, October 17, 2008

Vienna and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego

Athena Fountain in front of the Austrian Parliament Building, Theophil Hansen and
Karl Kundmann, 1896 - 1902

Gustav Klimt, Athena, 1898

Gustav Klimt, Justice, from the University Murals, 1903 - 1907, destroyed

The title of this post is adapted from one of my all time favorite essays, "Gustav Klimt and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego" by Carl Schorske in his book Fin de Siecle Vienna.

I think my students were a little disappointed in my concluding lecture on Viennese modernism today in my class on German modernism from 1892 to 1937. I think they wanted to see more Josef Hoffmann and Wiener Werstaette furniture, silver, jewelry, and other tchochkes. I love those things too, but there is another aspect to early modern Vienna that frequently gets lost in all the early modern glamor. There is a whole other side to Klimt beyond those famous gold and ornament carapaced lovers embracing.

It was in Vienna more than any other place where the basic underlying assumptions of bourgeois Enlightenment liberalism were examined and challenged. The Imperial government of Austria-Hungary was depending on its business, professional, and academic class -- the bourgeoisie -- to transform the Empire into a modern industrial state. And, at a time of awakening nationalism (Pan-German and Pan-Slavic movements, Serbian, Hungarian, Czech national movements, among others), the Empire expected this Viennese bourgeois class to create some kind of cosmopolitan culture that transcended nationalism and would somehow hold the Empire together.

The Athena Fountain outside the Parliament building in Vienna shows the ancient goddess of practical wisdom as the embodiment of liberal Enlightenment ideas; rational conscious thought applied to government, and used to chase away the shadows of ignorance, superstition, and poverty.

At about the same time that the Athena Fountain was built, Gustav Klimt painted a very different Athena who is anything but rational conscious social reform. She is a large staring terrible presence who looms out of the darkness, so large that the frame cannot contain her. Klimt deliberately uses forms derived from pre-classical archaic Greek art. He minimizes the sculpting effects of chiaroscuro and flattens the image with pattern and applied gold leaf.
This is the Athena of the new scholarship and archaeology of the period. This is the Greece of Nietzche, not of Goethe. It was Nietzche who famously challenged the Enlightenment conception of Greek civilization as heroically rational in his essay "The Birth of Tragedy" pointing out the many dark taboos, mystery rites, ecstatic rituals, and divinations in ancient Greek religious life.
For Klimt, and his generation, these discoveries were liberating. They were chafing under the stuffy repression and conformism of Vienna in the final years of the Hapsburgs. Though Austria was the last great Catholic empire in Europe, and the Emperor Franz Joseph took his role as the last Catholic Caesar very seriously, I doubt religion played that large a role in the repressive culture of that time and place. Some of the most prudish repressers were not clergy, but educated secular liberals. I tend to agree with the Marxist historians who say that social and sexual repression are the creations of the modern industrial economy. The demands of mass production and the mass market impose a large amount of rationalization and regulation on private individual life.

Klimt made an even bolder challenge in his now destroyed University murals, commissioned to decorate the ceiling of the grand staircase of the University of Vienna. One of those panels was supposed to be an allegory of Justice. The trustees expected some shining allegory of Justice clearing away the dark menace of crime and corruption with her sword. What they got was something very different. Instead of heroic Justice, Klimt shows us a weak passive man about to be devoured by an octopus. The 3 women presiding over this grisly spectacle are the Furies, ancient embodiments of vengeance. Justice is there in this picture, way high up and far removed, flanked by Law and Truth, and the heads of magistrates who seem more like indifferent spectators. The workings and proceedures of the Law are nothing more than a figleaf over raw arbitrary power and the dark passions of revenge, Klimt seems to say, a theme found in the stories of Kafka.
This is not a statement of political protest. Klimt takes no stand on the issue of Justice in the Empire or anywhere. The image is far too disturbingly sexual to work as any kind of protest, or even as a cynical satire. It appears to me that Klimt projected his own powerful castration anxieties onto a public monument.
The reaction to this painting was immediate and intensely hostile. Eighty seven professors of the University petitioned the Ministry of Culture to have the murals removed. Their leader was the philosopher Friedrich Jodl, who was anything but a reactionary troglodyte. Jodl spent his life courageously championing universal education, women's rights and suffrage, civil rights, and against the influence of the Catholic Church on education and cultural institutions. Klimt's work was a challenge to everything Jodl believed, and it could not be ignored. Klimt forced Jodl into the company of the very religous right, monarchist, and populist antiSemite movements that he so long opposed. Klimt was savaged in the press, especially in the right wing populist press.
Klimt was unprepared for, and shocked by, the ferocity of the response. He never painted anything quite like these murals again.

It was up to younger artists to pick up where Klimt left off in the University murals, to explore just how far and in what direction the life of unbounded instinct would lead.
It lead to the work of the young artist Egon Schiele.

Egon Schiele, Nude Self Portrait, drawing, 1910

Schiele was one of the great draftsmen of the 20th century. His hard brittle line is always confident and never hesitates. While there is a lot of expressionist exaggeration, especially in the head and hands, he always drew from life, from hired models, or most often from himself in a mirror. Whatever was on the mind of Narcissus? Are we sure this is love? Schiele shows himself in this drawing and many others like it with an apparently diseased and decaying body that has a disturbing sexuality about it. This is certainly autoeroticism and exhibitionism. But that only partly explains this disturbing image with no background, no setting, only white pigment to set off the hard contour lines and the darkening body.
Perhaps this is Schiele gazing into the mirror and seeing a feral doppelganger, the wild animal just beneath the thin skin of civilized respectability. 

Is this what the life of unbounded instinct looks like?

Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams in Vienna at the same time that these artists worked. That book decisively ended the Enlightenment conception of humans as rational conscious beings, and showed us to be much more strongly tied to our instinctual natures as animals than we had previously supposed.
It was Nietzche and Freud who would put Dionysos and Apollo in conflict with one another.

Freud began his Interpretation of Dreams with this epigram from Virgil's Aeneid:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo 
(If I cannot bend the higher powers, I shall stir up hell).

I think the Greeks were wiser to keep those two gods as half brothers of the same father together in the pantheon.  The feral instincts presided over by Dionysos need Apollo to guide them into paths that are productive.  Likewise, Apollo won't accomplish anything without the goad of passion.  Both gods left to their own devices are prone to madness.  

We are all trying to navigate a path of sanity between the conflicting demands of our public Apollonian roles and our private Dionysiac selves.

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