23 February 2011

Carl Moll: A Banquet In Vienna

"Those who have attained the heights of civilized refinement in their daily life, even if they have otherwise little time for art, make certain demands on the things which satisfied them, upon their whole environment, demands which can be satisfied only with the art of art." - Ver Sacrum, 1900.

"I liked the atmosphere of the house, although its slightly oriental magnificence was less reminiscent of Schindler's time than of the age of Ingres and Delacroix...Japanese vases, great sprays of peacock feathers, Persian carpets on the walls."

To celebrate the New Year and the success of their association, on January 19, 1900  the Union of Austrian Artists, better known as the Vienna Secession, threw themselves a party. Who better to host the festivities than  Carl Moll (1861-1945), artist, dealer, and enthusiatic party-giver?  His new home, decorated with an extravagant orientalism that was anathema to Secessionist ideals, was conveniently located  at No. 6 Theresianumgasse, just off the Ringstrasse.  A duplex designed by architect Josef Hoffmann, it was also home to Koloman Moser, Moll's cofounder in the Secession.  The Hohe Warte, as the area was called,  was just in the process of becoming an art colony when the Molls moved there.

Thirty-six men and three women were invited.  It was that kind of group, Vienna was that kind of place, and Carl Moll was that kind of man in a world where women were objects of fascination and suspicion, women who seemed bent on exercising free agency, even without legal, social, or economic rights.  No wonder the gaiety often was laced with hysteria. 
Moll had been a student of the artist Emil Schindler, living in Schindler's home and lusting after Schindler's wife.  When the master died in 1892, Moll promptly married the widow Anna and became stepfather to Alma Schindler (later Mahler, then Gropius, then Werfel).   Alma, whose childhood ambition was to "fill her garden with geniuses" was twenty in 1900.   Anna, the prudent mother, mindful of her own history, decreed that Alma and her younger step-sister Gretl remain upstairs during the party.

 But Alma had already been flirting with the painter Klimt, who had no more scruples about seducing his friend's nubile daughter than he did about living in a highly irregular situation with his own sister-in-law. At a previous dinner at the Molls', Klimt had shown Alma how to make a heart shape with  her roll  and he then pierced it with a toothpick, like an arrow.  To make sure she got the point, he poured wine on it and declared it an excellent likeness of "my wounded heart."   Carl and Anna took their daughters on an extended tour of Italy but Klimt followed them from Genoa to Verona, escalating from kisses to outright propositions.  Only a direct appeal from Carl Moll stopped Klimt's pursuit.  Now the two would be under the same roof on the same evening.


To set the stage for the evening, Kolo Moser designed  invitations and place cards, and Josef Hoffmann designed the silverware.  "When they first showed up at the Secession exhibitions, a tremor ran through the eating world.  People maintained it was quite impossible to eat with it, not eat properly, and certainly not in the 'English' manner!"  wrote critic Joseph August Lux.  Even so, the guests managed to spear the geometric-shaped dessert ices and scoop up the whipped cream and fruits stewed in liqueur.
Alma was allowed to help with the preparations and left us this diary entry: "We had girandoles and as a centerpiece, a fruit bowl surrounded with flowers - and garlands, with which they later decked me out.  On the table for the older guests, the centerpiece was Hellmer's water-nymph - also surrounded with flowers and garlands, and all the ladies had larges bouquets of violets.  Attached to each bouquet was a card inscribed with  a little poem, which was passed around and signed by each guest in turn." 
A string quartet from the Vienna Philharmonic was hired to serenade the guests and provide music for dancing.  It was the final straw for Alma, who had studied piano and composition with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, another of her conquests.  The male guests easily located Alma, watching from an upstairs anteroom and the dancing began.  Kolo Moser introduced Alma to another Secessionist, Josef Maria Auchentaller, who said: "I say, she's pretty."  Moser (remember, he lived next door) eventually proposed marriage to Alma on several occasions, unsuccessfully. 

Exactly how the evening ended is unclear but we do know that when Moll discovered  Alma at the party, other revelers picked him up and carried him off.  Two men, identified as Franz Hohenberger and Maximillian Lenz, put lampshades on their heads and did a "mock-Japanese" dance. 

In an extension of this expansive mood, the Eighth Secession Exhibition planned for later in the year, would be organized around the theme "European Arts And Crafts."  Its invited guests Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh would make an impression with their descriptions of arts workshops, introducing the workshop idea that led to  a new secession when Klimt, Moser and others left to organize the Wiener Werkstatte in 1903.  But that is another story. As is the way that Carl Moll 's place in the Vienna Secession has been written out of most histories. (You may also be interested in The Absence of Carl Moll, published here September 21, 2009.).

Founded in the spring of 1897 by a group of young artists, including Max Kurzweil and Josef Engelhart along with those already mentioned, the Secessionists were dissatisfied with the stodginess of the  establishment (a frequent complaint of the young). They  elected Gustav Klimt as their first president. 
Taking note of the success of new  journals promoting the Jugendstil movement (Pan in Berlin - 1895, Jugend in Munich - 1896) the Secessionists published their own journal Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) in January of 1898.  Alfred Roller's cover for the first issue, with its tree bursting from the confines of its pot, foretold the group's expansion in every direction. What bound these disparate artists together was both theory (art should not be limited to creating illusion or verisimilitude) and practice (decorative objects are just as important as painting and sculpture).

The first Secession exhibition opened on March 26, creating an immediate sensation.  And how could it not, when it introduced Vienna to the works of Fernand Khnopff and Constant Meunier (Belgium), Auguste Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes (France), Giovanni Segantini (Italy) and Whistler (United Stated)?  By the time their second exhibition debuted on November 12, it was held in their own Secession Hall designed by Josef Hoffmann.   The place eventually earned the nickname of  'The Golden Cabbage.'



Images:
1. Carl Moll - At The Sideboard, 1903, Verlag Galerie Welz, Salzburg.
2.  unidentified photographer - Alma Schindler, c. 1900, Opera Critique.fr
3. Kolo Moser - Abimelech design, 1899, Backhausen Arvchives, Viennna.
4. Josef Hoffmann - design for flatware, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna.
5 Josef Hoffmann - flatware, 1905, Museum of Modern Art, NYC
6 Josef Maria Auchentaller - Leopold Museum, Vienna.
7 Margaret Macdonald & Charles Rennie Mackintosh - design for Lilybank Terrace, 1901, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
8. Gustav Klimt - Music, 1895, Neue Pinatkotek, Munich.
9. Kolo Moser - Angel design for stained glass window -Secession Hall, 1897, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna
10. Josef Maria Olbrich - poster for the First Secession Exhibition, 1898, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna.
11. Kolo Moser - Furst von Metternichsche, 1899, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
For further reading: Apples of Gold in Settings Of Silver by Carolin C. Young, New York, Simon & Schuster: 2002.
Koloman Moser: Master of Viennese Modernism by Maria Rennhofer, New York, Thames and Hudson: 2002.

18 February 2011

To Paint The Portrait Of A Bird












TO PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF A BIRD

First paint a cage
with an open door
then paint
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
without speaking
without moving...
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he can just as well spend long years
before deciding
Don't get discouraged
wait
wait years if necessary
the swiftness or slowness of the coming
of the bird having no rapport
with the success of the picture
When the bird comes
if he comes
observe the most profound silence
wait till the bird enters the cage
and when he has entered
gently close the door with a brush
then
paint out all the bars one by one
taking care not to touch any of the feathers of the bird
Then paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the wind's freshness
the dust of the sun
and the noise of insects in the summer heat
and then wait for the bird to decide to sing
If the bird doesn't sing
it's a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad
but if he sings it's a good sign
a sign that you can sign
so then so gently you pull out
one of the feathers of the bird
and you write yours name in a corner of the picture

- Jacques Prevert, translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New York, Doubelday & Company: 1971.














Two careers of  Jacques Prevert (1900-1977),  poet and screenwriter, meet in this piece.  But he had others.  Prevert quit school to work at  Le Bon Marche, possibly the first department store in the world and certainly an inspiration for the novel Au Bonheur des Dames  by Emile Zola (1883).  He was drafted into the French army during World War I and afterward he became a Surrealist.  His last project, left unfinished at his death, was for an animated film, The King And the Mockingbird.   His name is not familiar in the English-speaking world, but his words are: Jacques Prevert wrote the lyrics for one of the most popular love songs of all time: Les Feuilles mortes or Autumn Leaves.

Images:
1. China - fragment of silk embroidered cloth, Ming Dynasty, Musee Guimet, Paris.
2. Japan - coffret made with lacquer, Meiji Period, Musee Guimet, Paris.
2. Japan -

15 February 2011

Hammershoi Moves The Furniture

“”He succeeded in granting the most concrete and most commonplace things - a half empty parlor, a chair, a chest of drawers, a sofa, a beautiful book, a wall with a small forlorn picture, a while door, a short hallway, dust dancing in sunbeams – a quality not of this world, a reflection of sublime existence. His highly intense nervous life, his acutely sensitive emotional being, flourished only in this world of extreme simplicity and silence, tones were what he loved and sought – the tones of stillness. He heard…stillness, and that was where he really existed.” – Julius Elias, 1916


Something curious  about the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi is how our responses to them seem like Rorschach tests with art.  We may find a a partial explanation in  the words of  fellow Dane, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):  "We live life forward but understand it backward."    Hammershoi 's interiors  mesmerize the viewer through his consummate sense of organization but there is room for us to bring our interior lives to his paintings or bring his paintings home to our interiors






We also bring  modern preoccupations to bear on his work, finding abstraction in his seeming clarity and precision, and our relative unfamiliarity with Hammershoi's work in the context of Danish art with its considerable history. Most  Danish art of the early 19th century, considered the Danish  Golden Age, remains in Danish museums and has  traveled infrequently.  How we interpret the melancholy for the distance from that charmed period with Hammershoi's personal disposition is  an open question still.












Photographs of Ida Ilsted  and Vilhelm Hammershoi, taken during their courtship, show another, pleasanter mood; no small distinction  when both parties came from artistic families.   Ida's brother Peter Ilsted  also painted quiet interiors like  Hammershoi's  and Vilhelm's younger brother Svend (1879-1916) was both a painter and ceramicist.  Where Hammershoi's self-portrait shows a  serious, inward-focused young man, the photographer caught him with a twinkle in his eye, the kind of look that may have attracted Ida Ilsted.

Some critics have speculated that there were mental difficulties in the Ilsted family to explain representations of Ida in Hammershoi's pictures, putting the onus on the sitter, while overlooking contemporary description of Hammershoi as "the first neurasthenic artist."
The convention of posing a female model with her back to the viewer was  an established formal convention in painting when Hammershoi employed it.  Repose, for instance, painted in 1905 and often reproduced, strikes me as quite lovely, an affectionate rendering of Ida with her soft  hair gathered in a chignon above the delicate skin of her neck .
This photograph taken in 1898 1898  suggests a more sensual side to Ida than the artist usually allowed the viewer to see.  The young boy pictured with them was their foster son Henry Madsen (1881-1921), possibly the son of art critic Karl Madsen, who is one of the guests in the photograph of the party at the Hammershois' Strandgade 30  apartment.
Early in his career, Hammershoi moved beyond realism to a personal heightening of reality by arrangement and omission.  Critics have noted anomalies, such as missing piano legs (in  the painting at right) and Ida's missing foot.   This painting is also unusual in showing us a  view of the building across the street rather than an indeterminate space of reflected light.  Light seems to dissolve the outer world in Hammershoi's otherwise controlled images, so what we get is something more like psychological realism rather than architectural verisimilitude.   



Emil Hannover wrote in 1907 of the successful Hammershoi exhibition at the van Wisselingh Gallery, London that the artist's interiors were "a silent protest against the gaudy and gaping tastelessness of our time."  But the Victorian taste for the overstuffed had never been that popular in Scandinavia.  In the photograph of a party at Strandgade 30 in 1899, the room is both less elaborate than a typical bourgeois parlor and more decorative than what  Hammershoi chose to paint. (In the photo, Vilhelm is seated directly under the lamp at the left and Ida is seated at farthest right.)

To look at photographs is to see what liberties Hammershoi took with furniture arrangements in his paintings.   Modern eyes may have difficulty adjusting to the 19th century floor plans, as well.  We are accustomed to houses and apartments designed as a group of rooms around a hallway, not to mention Freudian and Jungian symbolism with which we have invested  interiors and the doors that separate them.   Apartments in Christianhavn  were typical of a much older arrangement, being a series of rooms that opened  one into another: this made it easy to close off rooms  to conserve heat  in winter. Halls madee an additional expense as heating them was wasteful.

An open  door is often thought  to be symbolic shorthand for hope. Closed doors, as the thinking goes,  are symbolic of refusal, of finality. A closed door may also symbolize a break with the past. Carl Jung was rather heavy-handed in seeing doors as symbolically female, their doors opening one way - inwardly.  Tp ancient Greeks doors often represented the separation of the past from the future.  In a cheeky ripost the Shakespearean scholar Gary Taylor has called death "the one way walk through the door between culture and history."
 Doors have also been seen as symbols of refuge.  In A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot makes an interesting observation about doors:  "There is the same relationship between the temple-door and the altar as between the circumference and the centre; even though in each case the two component elements are the farthest apart, they are nonetheless, in a way, the closest since the one determines and reflects the other."
Throughout their married life the Hammershois  traveled often for extended periods, beginning with their six month honeymoon in Paris.  Another trip to London and the Netherlands lasted from October 1897 to May 1898, with a brief return home for the holidays, and followed on the heels of the sale of two paintings to the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev.  Hammershoi was, in fact, enjoyed an international success never before accorded a Danish artist.

The German painter Emil Nolde lived in Copenhagen for some time around 1900 and he found Hammershoi to be a quiet person.   So did the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who visited in 1904 to collect material for a monograph on the artist that was never completed, unlike his 1903 publication Auguste Rodin.   "Hammershoi is not one of those about whom one must speak quickly. His work is long and slow, and at whichever moment one apprehends it, it will speak of what is important and essential in art." - Rilke
All of which brings me to the portrait of Ida, painted in 1907.  It is hardly flattering, suggesting the losses of middle age - but whose exactly?  The photographic evidence suggests that Ida was a pretty and spirited woman, and we know the couple moved in sophisticated company.   Ida Hammershoi (1869-1949) had more than three decades left to live;  not so Vilhelm, who died on February 13, 1916,  after several months in hospital.  The early signs of throat cancer had appeared around the time his mother Frederikke died in 1914.   Hammershoi had been plagued by neuralgic back pain since 1906 and was periodically confined to bed, unable to paint. 

Images: Photographs from the collection of the Royal Library, Copenhagen.  Paintings from:  Musee d'Orsay, Paris. State Museum of Art, Copenhagen.  Collection of her Royal Highness, Princess Benedickte, Copenhagen.  Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus.  Ordrupgaard Museum, Charlottenlund.

13 February 2011

Daphne Maugham Casorati: White Roses

How strange these white roses are, their curving petals and leaves and pleasingly rounded glass vase  set against a background of lines and squares reminiscent of Mondrian.  And how much bravura it takes to make a white image from shades of lavender blue.
Daphne Maugham (1897-1982) , later Casorati, was an established artist when she married Felice Casorati.  Even so, her work has suffered from the informal 'one to a family' rule for creative couples that has operated to the disadvantage of women.  Contemporaries commented that she was quiet and often overshadowed in Casorati's circle.









Although English, Daphne Maugham was born while her father Charles Maugham was there on diplomatic assignment, probably in Paris.  Several family members distinguished themselves in diplomacy and the arts, most notably Daphne's uncle, the writer W. Somerset Maugham.





Perhaps her self-assurance can be attributed to her cosmopolitan background, but it took some pluck for a seventeen year-old to enroll at the Academie Ranson, where she studied  with Nabis Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis.  Her Paris years 1914-1921 also included study at the Atelier of cubist Andre Lhote from 1918-1921.  She exhibited work at galerie Druet and at the 1921 Salon d'Automne.  She credited Denis for encouraging her  to develop a spiritual dimension in her work.  Whether or not from Lhote's influence, Maugham's work is always inventive in rearranging the traditional picture plane.


Daphne Maugham traveled to Italy cicra 1925 with her sister Cynthia, a dancer at the Teatro Gualino in Turin.  Through her sister's theatrical connections, Daphne  met Felice Casorati, whom she married in 1931.  She made  the first of dozens of presentations at the Venice Biennale of 1928, a showcase where she would receive numerous prizes throughout her career.  The couple had a son Francesco in 1934, but Maugham was soon back at work in her studio.  Her portraits were much admired, notably her portrait of her friend and fellow painter Nella Marchesini (1901-1953).
I find her tactile use of color appealing, its unforced naturalness gives little hint of the mastery it required.  



Images: works by Daphne Maugham Casorati (White Roses, The Breakfast, Toys, and untitled still life) are from Galeria Dell' Incisione, Brescia.

09 February 2011

Sometimes We're Ivy And Sometimes We're Oak: Ladies Home Journal


From a time, shrouded in the mists of antiquity no doubt, when man first discovered the New Woman, it has been a truism that woman needs advice. And legions have fearlessly offered it.
From a modest beginning as a supplement called Women At Home in the now forgotten Tribune And Farmer, the Ladies Home Journal was born in 1883.   The brainchild of Louise Knapp Curtis, wife of magazine publisher Cyrus Curtis, the Jounal became the doyenne of American women's magazines.  Its motto: "Never underestimate the power of a woman."   Its most influential editor was the Dutch immigrant Edward Bok who presided over the magazine for 30 years from 1889 to 1919.


Bok used the pages of the Journal to promote women's suffrage, pacifism, and conservation. He persuaded America's presidents to address his readers through its pages. The rugged Theodore Roosevelt lauded American Women As Mothers, while the scandal-plagued adulterous Grover Cleveland weighed in on The Honest American Marriage, and Herbert Hoover gave instruction on Thrift And The American Woman to combat the rigors of the Great Depression.

Even as the magazine promoted equal rights for women it inevitably reflected the ambivalence of society at large. Women's Chances As Breadwinners by the artist Gleeson White fretted over a "lack of supreme talent" as though men didn't have the same problem.  Remedies For Cooking Disasters was suitably alarmist in tone. And Menus For Entertaining The Bride  includes the deliciously symbolic dish 'Blushing Fluff', a sweet concoction of whipped cream, egg whites, and stewed rhubarb.

Reflecting women's secondary position in the public arena, the magazine framed controversial topics as questions, most notably in their long-running feature Can This Marriage Be Saved? Responding to Prohibition, the Journal wondered  Can The Church Replace The Saloon? A photo expose of the newly popular bathing beaches from the 1920s raised the alarm: How Much Of This Do You Want Your Daughter To Share? And it addressed the perennial parental fear of popular music: Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?  Losing battles all, but saloons, beaches, and dance floors were arenas of potential personal freedom just as the voting booth was.

World War II changed many things, but not the Journal's propensity to worry for its readers. To find out Have You An Inferiority Complex? the reader had to answer questions like "Are you thrown into confusion when your husband makes a social blunder?" Celebrities, including Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Joan Crawford were asked to answer a child's question Why Was I Born?

In the midst of post-war prosperity, there seemed to be plenty to worry about. Dorothy Dix (1861-1951), marriage advice columnist and the most widely read woman journalist post World War II, warned: "In these days when men are loathe to burden themselves with the support of a family, girls are continually assaulted with free love propaganda." Popular historian Will Durant, asked to answer the weighty question 'What is Civilization?", hurled a jeremiad at readers: "(O)ur music is barbarous, our art...is mere groping, our literature has deteriorated since Emerson." And Abraham Stone, M.D., bravely catalogued What Husbands Don't Know About Sex. (It's a long article.)


Even in the doldrums of the 1950s, the Journal found feminist bright spots. An article The Best Kings Have Been Queens suggested that things had been better in other times and might yet be better again.  Profiling two queens, Elizabeth of England and Julianna of the Netherlands, in 1960, the Journal pointed out that The World's Richest Women Are Queens. True as far as it went, but hardly practical career advice.
The Journal also welcomed articles from serious women with serious things to say, from Eleanor Roosevelt to aristocrat-turned-member of the British Parliament, Viscountess Nancy Astor. Lady Astor's words from 1940 on women in politics ring true even today. She acknowledges the arguments for women's participation in the political arena, based on stereotypes of nurturing and peacemaking, but brushes them aside. She is tough, realistic, and straightforward: "(T)here is nothing in women's past that they want to go back to, so of course they want to go forward."

And then came the sit-in of March 18, 1970.  Feminists occupied the Journal's Manhattan editorial offfice for eleven hours.  Among other worthy things, they demanded  an end to Can This Marriage Be Saved?    with its monthly variations on the old joke: "They have a give and take relationship.  She gives and he takes."  Only women weren't laughing anymore. 
For further reading: THE JOURNAL OF THE CENTURY (1883-1976) edited by Bryan Holme, et al,  New York, :Viking Press:  1976

02 February 2011

Peter Altenberg: Dispatches From A Viennese Cafe

"Everything is remarkable if our perception of it is remarkable."

"There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that's already three things, and there are a lot more." - Peter Altenberg

Less well known outside Austria than Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, and Robert Musil, their contemporary Peter Altenberg is well served by a collection of his writings Telegrams of the Soul, translated by Peter Worstman (Archipelago Books: 2005). Alternberg's confections  were originally written on the fly in the cafes of fin-de-siecle Vienna and published in newspapers. They belong to the genre of the feuilleton,  a term  invented by the French to suggest at once sheets of paper and little leaves.  Altenberg's work appeared in popular publications of the day: Ver Sacrum, Simplississmus, Pan, Jugend,Wendingen  and Die Bombe (The Bomb) among them.

In these charming pieces Altenberg reveals himself to be conflicted in ways familiar to us.  A man who praises the pastoral life, yet  never deserts his cafe table and its creature comforts, a Nietschean believer in the primacy of the aesthetic, he champions the rights of  working people and finds beauty in humble things disdained by his peers. Unusually for a man of his time and place, Altenberg displays an empathetic understanding of the lives of women, children and servants.  In The People Don't Always Feel Altogether Social Democratic we find him arguing for equality as his carriage driver upholds class distinctions.

But, like other men of his time, Altenberg elided the contradictions between bourgeois respectability and sexual expression, a choice not available to women.  When a young woman he is wooing protests that his interest in her is only sexual, he replies "What's so only?" Persecution Complex is Altenberg's argument with Sigmund Freud and the new practice of psychoanalysis, praising "within reason the capacity to see coming misfortune and the capacity by force of intelligence, wherever possible, to avoid it." Altenberg  himself had been diagnosed with "over-excitation of the nervous system", resulting in an "incapacity for gainful employment" that left him free to pursue the bohemian life he preferred. This did not prevent him from portraying his psychiatrist as a humorless stuffed shirt in Sanitorium For the Mentally Imbalanced.

Though little known to non-German readers, Altenberg has  been a favorite of other writers. Thomas Mann  recalled reading Altenberg as "love at first sound." His friend, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, dubbed Altenberg a "professional neurotic" but was eager to borrow his ideas. Franz Kafka described Altenberg's talent for  "finding the splendours of the world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses."   Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1914; inexplicably no prize was awarded that year.

Who was Peter Altenberg?  Born in 1859 to a prosperous Jewish family that supported him throughout his life, Altenberg showed no inclination to pursue a career. Motivation was never a strong point with him; he failed his high school composition examinations even though he was a talented writer. Nevertheless, Altenburg published eleven books but never made a living from them; his finances were supplemented through the patronage of admiring friends. Camping out in a series of cheap hotel rooms, Altenberg's real life was lived in the cafes where he spent most of his time, absorbing atmosphere, intuiting the psychic states of those around him, and writing everything down - inimitably. He was a self-described "little pocket mirror" that reflected the world as he found it.

Altenberg also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards being a recent Austrian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg. When the music premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud!

Prone to melancholy as he was, Altenberg became dependent on alcohol and a variety of other drugs. He also suffered from insomnia, having no reason to keep regular hours.  After being committed to mental institutions four times  during the period 1909-13, his pessimism only increased with the outbreak of the Great War. At a time when many regarded Austria as a charming asylum, Altenberg actually ended his days in one, dying there of pneumonia in 1919.

The declining days of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna,  sliding ever closer to political instability, was an ideal place to escape from the exigencies of daily life through art. The educated class had come to regard political activity as futile, with narcissism as a ready escape. The writer Theodore Herzel was only nineteen in 1879 when he identified the predominant personality of his time as one "falling in love with his own spirit, and thus of losing any standard of judgment." If this sounds all too similar to our own preoccupations, then reason enough to pay attention to Altenberg now.















Images:
1. Gustave Jagersparcher - Portrait of Peter Alternberg, 1909, Neue Galerie, NYC.
2. Ludwig von Zumbach - cover for Jugend, 1896, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
3. Fritz Zeymer - Gertrude Bernstein at Cafe Fledermaus, 1907, Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna.
4. Urban Jahnke - Postcard #140  for Wiener Werkstatte, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
5. anonymous - Masked Ball, 1900, Albertina Museum, Vienna.


For further reading : Fin-de-siecle Vienna by Carl Schorske, New York, Alfred A. Khnopf: 1980.