The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body

In The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body Alys George, a specialist in German culture at New York University, applies an interdisciplinary approach to the thesis that conceptions of the body were central to the up swelling of avant-garde culture during the period of Viennese Modernism.

George defines the Viennese fin de siècle as 1870-1938, contrasting with the usual definition as 1870/80 to 1914. Nominating the Anschluss as the cut-off of the beaux-arts period implies a level of continuity between pre-war and post-war periods in Vienna that diverges from the way other countries are assessed. The classification suggests Viennese society had not adjusted to its loss of empire and was still strongly attached to its pre-war culture, something reflecting Austria’s naturally conservative culture. It is paradoxical, of course, that the Vienna that was so critical of Modernism, clung to pre-war Jugendstil, Symbolism and Expressionism when much of Europe sought new styles and new political paradigms. Defeat shattered German society, yet that same defeat seemed to entrench and isolate Vienna in its pre-war culture, almost a rejection of defeat. However, Vienna’s reputation as the cockpit of Modernism (especially in Jugendstil and Expressionism) decreased dramatically, with attention increasingly focused on Paris during the inter-war period.  

The central concern of Viennese modernism is, according to Werner Hofmann and Hilde Spiel, “to recognize the flesh, to apprehend the human being in its creatureliness”. George claims the materialism of contemporary Viennese science centres culture of that location on the body. Vienna was a centre of medicine and the nascent science of psychology/psychotherapy, as well as anthropological criminology. One of the leading criminolgists was Italian Cesare Lombroso. Criminology was intimately associated with physiological and psychological research that ranged from the soundly evidence led to the crank pseudo-science such as physiognomy and racial classification. Sexology developed in Vienna in this period specifically so that normative sexual behaviour could be classed as legal and deviant behaviour classed as illegal. Study of disease, hygiene, exercise and naturism were interlinked, mixing science with fad, frequently crossed into areas of law-making, public policy and discussion of sex (both sexual activity and the innate characteristics of the two sexes).

Anthropometry and phsysiognomy flourished. Reproduced in the book is a page of head types drawn by Egon Schiele for a scientific textbook in 1917. Ethnography and anthropology were used to advance knowledge and to categorise races. George discusses the 1896 public presentation of an Ashanti village – transported from the Gold Coast, complete with wood-and-thatch huts and natives in traditional garb – set up in the Prater, the zoological park, in Vienna. It did booming business, with 15,000 visitors on the opening afternoon. Berlin took up the model by setting up an Abyssinian village in 1905. While George presents the range of responses to the event – more public spectacle than scientific demonstration – and inferences that can be drawn, she is rather too forward with her contemporary moral position than some readers will wish.

A comparative display was the 1906 General Hygienic Exhibition, also held in Vienna, one of many held in European cities. “Such large-scale exhibits aimed to reach the broadest possible audience by combining medical science about the body and hygiene, targeted at laypeople, with concrete directives about how to best improve one’s physical constitution.” This was a widespread drive for self-improvement through science and pseudo-science. “The notion of reforming the body included several branches: personal hygiene; naturopathy, nutrition reform, abstinence, and drug prevention; physical education and sports movements, including gymnastics, alpinism, and dance; clothing reform; spa and bathhouse culture; and nudism (the latter often subsumed under the rubric of Freikörperkultur, literally, “free body culture”).” It included not only advice, information and models, its exhibits acted as a trade fair for commercial wares in the expanding health-improvement-device market. Scientism and fads mingle easily – and sometimes indistinguishably – with science and technological advances.

There is a chapter on bodies in Viennese literature, centring on Arthur Schnitzler, Marie Pappenheim, Joseph Roth, Carry Hauser and Ödön von Horváth. (The first two were medical doctors as well as authors.) Robert Musil saw himself as a vivisector. Sigmund Freud, the most influential of Viennese Modernist writer, analysed the overlap between culture and body and the constant struggle between restraint and expression and the resultant dysfunction. Schnitzler’s depictions of dissecting rooms were from personal experience and his attempt to lay bare the malaises at the heart of modern life was akin to a medical diagnosis. Pappenheim also wrote a poem about a dissecting room. Journalist Joseph Roth wrote of the plight of the underclass – including the Kriegsbeschädigte (“the war damaged”) – in his articles in the years of deprivation. Horváth’s 1932 play is set in the Anatomical Institute, Vienna. George neatly summarises the bodily-focus of the texts but does not draw an overarching conclusion.

George discusses the position of working-class women as the subjects of medical institutions and research in Viennese medicine. She mentions Klimt’s murals for the university, including one for the discipline of medicine, which featured a pregnant woman nude. She also discusses controversies over abortion in the inter-war period.

George writes well of Schiele’s drawings made at the Women’s Clinic. “His drawings of mothers-to-be exude a candid, radical corporeality, an unaesetheticized physicality that sets them apart from even Klimt’s paintings of the same theme […] Schiele’s drawings call attention to questions regarding women’s sexuality, social marginality, and the more general problem of scopic power in fin-de-siècle Vienna.” George notes that these privileges for artists tells us about the thinking of physicians and senior hospital administrators. “[…] the access of artists to patients in Viennese clinical settings must be read together with concurrent efforts to put the clinics themselves and their modernity on display to the public. A modern type of medical architecture that emerged around the fin de siècle blurred the boundaries between private and public, while facilitating the production of images that could later be deployed in nonclinical settings.”

However, this seems too clear cut. For instance, the people who granted access for Schiele and Mime van Osen probably did not expect that art to become public – after all, there was no appetite at the time for public display of such images. How official was their access? Was it not a case of senior staff sympathetic to artists (who would be undertaking private research not expected to be shown directly to the public) offering access in return for a drawing or a portrait? To what degree was the institution itself sanctioning artist access? George assumes that the access was known and approved by authorities but this may not be the case. For example, John Richardson states that Picasso probably gained access to confined prostitutes in Paris during his Blue Period due to the ministrations of a doctor who had treated one of Picasso’s mistresses. Favours or payment in kind may have played more of a part than official policy, especially if it were tacitly understood that the artists would not display their art or mention where they met the subjects.

A chapter discusses the role of gesture in theatre, mime, dance and silent film. This is framed through the theories of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Long, flowing clothing was used to emphasise movement; some dancers were photographed nude, taking the expressiveness to new heights by abandoning the conventions of modesty. This relates to naturism and the advent of art photography. The New School for Movement Art operated in Vienna, covering “rhythmic gymnastics and calisthenics, dance, ballet technique, and acrobatics, [also] anatomy and physiology, pedagogy and psychology, instruction in form and harmony, the history of art, music, dance, and gymnastics, costume art, and figural and ornamental drawing.” Expressionism in Austria and Germany involved cinema, theatre and dance, which involved a lot attention to communication through form, gesture and movement.

Overall, The Naked Truth provides a thoughtful and intelligent overview of the role of the body in Viennese science and culture of the fin-de-siècle and modern periods.

Alys X. George, The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body, Chicago University Press, 2020, hardback, 322pp + xi, 43 mono illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 226 669984

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Publication: On Art II

This new collection gathers 10 poems and 1 essay by Alexander Adams related to art. On Art II covers subjects such as memory, history, imagination, travel and art including that by Bruegel, Magritte, Dutch painters and others. A short essay discusses the author’s life drawings, with images. On Art II is illustrated with 10 drawings, none previously published, and it follows the format of On Art (2018). Printed on cream paper, paperback, double-stapled spine, A5 size, 41pp, 128 copies in cream covers.

Alexander Adams, On Art II, Golconda Fine Art Books, 15 May 2020, paperback, 41pp, 10 mono illus., £8, ISBN 978-1-9999614-1-1

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There are plans to make it available worldwide via a distributor. This information will be posted here. Copies of On Art are also available via Amazon.