Strange Flowers guide to Vienna, part 2

Part one here.

Cultural history aside, Vienna is most likely to enter your consciousness these days when it tops yet another quality-of-living survey. And while yes, those lists seem to be oriented exclusively to the concerns of boring, entitled yet anxious white ex-pats, even as a visitor you sense that the Austrian capital has its priorities well aligned. Leaving the old town you find just as many bicycles and trams along the Ringstrasse as cars. Even after Berlin the bike paths and public transport system across the city are impressive, development is retained at a human scale, forested hills are within easy reach and there is so much on offer by way of culture it’s ba-na-nas.

The Musikverein concert hall from the top of the Karlskirche

At the Musikverein, for example. You know the Musikverein. Even if you’ve never been there you probably recognise it from hungover viewings of the concert of crowd-pleasing classics they hold here every New Year’s Day. It is home to the Vienna Phil, high temple of the Mitteleuropa symphonic tradition. And it is a tradition that is jealously guarded and resistant to renewal, as an incident in March 1913 showed. Arnold Schönberg (later Schoenberg) was conducting a new work by Anton Webern, a setting of “postcard texts” written by – yes, it’s our unshakable tour mascot, Peter Altenberg. The orchestra struck up the first, unsettling chord of a piece entitled “Beyond the Limits of the Universe”; it was certainly beyond the limits of the audience, who completely lost their Scheisse and mounted an actual riot. Incensed concertgoers suggested that both composer and conductor should avail themselves of the facilities at Steinhof, Vienna’s best-known mental hospital; had they taken up this helpful counsel they might have encountered Altenberg himself, who was suffering one of his periodic episodes of instability. And as we leave there is a further reminder; we see the stately Karlskirche, where Altenberg, born Jewish, was baptised in 1910. It is presently filled with an installation by artist Tomás Saraceno, in which a huge reflective sphere makes the church look like an illusion in a Renaissance painting.

Peter Altenberg

The nearby Konzerthaus first opened for business later in 1913, with a concert attended by Emperor Franz Joseph. The programming had certainly loosened up by 1922, when Weimar Berlin’s most notorious performer Anita Berber turned up with her dance partner-in-crime Sebastian Droste for the first evening of their “Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy”. This was actually – to use a crass contemporary term – a multi-platform project. It was a stage performance, a film (tragically lost), a book of text and images. Not to mention a lifestyle. The partnership of Berber and Droste was of the utmost combustibility, compelling on stage but utterly dysfunctional in the unforgiving light of day. Droste stole to fund his drug consumption; Berber openly shot up in cafes and was quick to violence. The pair’s tumultuous Vienna residency marked not only a peak but also a close to their chaotic co-dependency. Both were charged with stealing and expelled from Austria (Berber confronted the police naked when they turned up to her hotel room). Back in Berlin Droste helped himself to Berber’s jewels and fled to the US and Hell’s own Fred and Ginger never saw each other again. Neither of them made it out of the ’20s alive.

A double-exposure portrait of Archduke Ludwig Viktor

Archduke Ludwig Viktor, as we saw, was banished from Vienna after his sweaty disgrace in the nearby Centralbad. In a more formal context he could be found in his Renaissance-style palace which was built in a new-money part of town that was developed around the time that his brother Franz Joseph ordered the construction of the Ringstrasse to create more opportunities for architectural exhibitionism. But the remarkable thing about Ludwig Viktor is that his queerness wasn’t at all confined to covert fumbles in the steam baths; his public persona was scarcely butch either. He spent huge sums on antiques and appeared in theatrical productions, sometimes in drag. He held lavish balls in his residence which gave him valuable opportunities to gather and disseminate gossip about the court and the moneyed bourgeoisie that partied in their wake (the building now hosts a TGI Friday’s. FFS.). Empress Sissi, initially favourably disposed to her brother-in-law, was turned off by his duplicity and committed her uncharitable thoughts to verse.

Sissi’s cosmic destiny as consort of tragedy was sealed around 1888 when her son Rudolf, the Crown Prince, met an attractive young woman by the name of Mary Vetsera. We cross now to nearby Salesianergasse, to a site that once hosted a palace which in 1880 became home to the Vetsera family. The Vetseras – newly ennobled, cashed-up and ravenously ambitious – were eager to pair their daughter Mary off with a high-placed scion. And Rudolf was as high-placed a scion as they came. But there was the small matter that he was already married. And he already had a lover, an actress to whom the troubled prince had proposed a suicide pact. Finding this generous invitation rebuffed yet still wishing to up the body count of his self-authored exit and noticing Mary’s star-struck devotion, he enrolled her in his plan (imagine being someone’s second pick for a suicide pact …). The two died in 1889 in not-entirely clarified circumstances at a Habsburg hunting lodge, the infamous “Mayerling” incident. Sissi was still dressing in black almost a decade later when she fell to an anarchist’s dagger. In 1991 poor Mary’s tomb was raided by a furniture salesman convinced that he could solve the enigma of her death.

On balance, probably not the outcome that Ma and Pa Vetsera had in mind.

Hermann Bahr

Still on Salesianergasse, we pass a handsome, four-storey yellow building. So, you remember Stefan George cruising Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the Café Griensteidl in part one? HvH was still living here with his parents when all that was going on, in fact this is the house in which he was born. This august association lasted until 1892 and is marked with a plaque and flags; less celebrated is the fact that Hermann Bahr moved into the building in 1894. This is of particular interest to me because Bahr was living here when his book Antisemitism – my last major translation project – was published. As that book showed, Bahr was intensely well-connected; not only was he the prime mover in the café-dwelling movement of progressive writers and artists known as “Young Vienna” (Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Stefan Zweig, Felix Salten … Peter Altenberg), he met and corresponded with their equivalents across the continent – reflecting his belief in a “United States of Europe” – and was a highly perceptive forecaster of cultural movements and nurturer of new talent.

Emilie Flöge

Taking a route that Bahr himself most certainly took more than once in his time, we transport ourselves to a corner building with an elaborate turret at the bottom of Mariahlifer Strasse, the (now largely pedestrianised) main shopping street of central Vienna. Bahr would have been heading to the café on the ground floor of the building, but before we join him we are going to briefly sneak upstairs and visit the Flöge sisters.

Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt

You may not know the name Emilie Flöge, but you will almost certainly recognise her face from some of the most famous artworks of the era, painted by Gustav Klimt. The exact nature of the pair’s relationship is uncertain (on balance they were probably lovers), and Emilie may or may not be the model for the female figure in Klimt’s most beloved work, The Kiss (on balance she probably was). There is no doubt, however, that Emilie was far more than just a muse supplying mute, decorative inspiration to a male artist; she was a vital, radical creative force in her own right. We find her in the upstairs salon apparently designed by Secession and Wiener Werkstätte architect Josef Hoffmann (although the plaque outside claims that it was designed by Klimt and Kolo Moser, Hoffmann’s creative partner in the Wiener Werkstätte). Emilie ran a fashion company here with sisters Pauline and Helene (the widow of Gustav Klimt’s brother Ernst), jettisoning the corset entirely and expanding on Reform Dress concepts to arrive at a completely new form of clothing. And in an era when vanishingly few women ran their own businesses, they represented a new era of creative entrepreneurship. Emilie Flöge was an avid collaborator, with Klimt contributing to the geometric patterns of her flowing, liberating, caftan-like pieces, variations of which he then included in his own canvasses. There was also extensive cross-over between the Flöges’ clientele and Klimt’s wealthy portrait subjects, such as Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Back downstairs we find Bahr again in a familiar environment – a café. This is the Café Casa Piccola, now gone but once one of the grandest of the institutions that are so central to our understanding of fin-de-siècle Viennese literary communities as to constitute a cliché. But from a present-day perspective, it is also remarkable the extent to which cafés, busy conduits for knowledge and sentiment, resembled later digitally connected systems. The larger establishments offered not just a huge selection of newspapers, domestic and foreign, but also reference material – maps, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, language lexicons, address books – for writers struggling with their research, or merely trying to settle an argument. The combination of hard facts and caffeinated opinion firing through the steamy analogue ether constituted a local area network of extraordinary reach. In the pre-digital era, the Viennese café offered the greatest possible concentration of current knowledge – for the price of a mélange.

Lina Loos

Do I even need to mention that Peter Altenberg is here? It is partly the presence of the owners’ daughter Lina that attracts him. At 19 she married the renowned architect Adolf Loos, 12 years her senior. It wasn’t a happy marriage, and Lina took up with a younger man (as in younger than her; he was still in school). This was Heinz Lang, son of a feminist theosophist. Adolf confronted Lina about the affair but she had already tired of the earnest young man and wrote him a farewell letter; as Hugo von Hofmannsthal tells it, a despairing Heinz turned to (this is getting ridiculous) Peter Altenberg and asked his advice. Peter Altenberg flippantly suggested he kill himself and the young man, his time on earth too brief to have equipped him with a sense of irony and waiting in vain for Lina to join him in England, did just that. A year later the Looses divorced and Lina went on to become a writer and acclaimed stage actor (that was her launching the Fledermaus back in part one); a 2017 Austrian film tells the whole story.

Georg Trakl

Fast forward. In August of the fabled year of 1913, we find her now remarried ex-husband Adolf Loos on a Venetian holiday in curious company. It’s moody, maudit poet Georg Trakl, who has just published the only volume of verse he would issue in his lifetime. Now the Marquis de Sad is in La Serenissima with the Looses, Karl Kraus and – yes, Peter Altenberg. Trakl is trying and – if the photo of him on the Lido scowling in a black swimming costume is any indication – failing to have a good time. Back in Vienna, we find him on our next stop, an apartment overlooking a narrow street which was the young poet’s residence when he enjoyed the impressive title of Landwehrmedikamentenakzessist – army pill-pusher, more or less. Not a few of those pills he pushed in his own direction. Not that it improved his opinion of the capital, or its inhabitants. “I don’t like the Viennese at all. As people they conceal a bunch of dumb, stupid, mean qualities behind a distasteful bonhomie. There is nothing more disgusting to me than a forced emphasis on conviviality.”

Trakl was one of a number of struggling artists and writers to benefit from the generosity of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was born into one of Vienna’s wealthiest families. In the early stages of World War One Trakl served as a field doctor and suffered a breakdown when confronted by the horror of modern warfare; Wittgenstein set out to save him but Trakl had OD’d on coke by the time he got there. Meanwhile, on a quiet street we find one of the more unusual products of the philosophical mind – the house that Wittgenstein designed for his sister. He drew up the first designs (with architect Paul Engelmann, a student of Adolf Loos) in 1926. After the frothy confections of much of central Vienna (and I am not saying that like it’s a bad thing), the stringent lines and utter absence of ornament in Haus Wittgenstein are like a glass of bracingly iced water. With the same rigour he brought to the Tractatus and other philosophical works, Wittgenstein had everything down to the door knobs made to his exacting specifications. The inhabitants never truly warmed to the house, and it was almost demolished in the 1970s, but now serves as a cultural centre for the Bulgarian Embassy.

A long-running story places a precocious 14-year-old Ludwig Wittgenstein at the funeral of the man who died at our next stop, Otto Weininger. Certainly the adult Wittgenstein expressed his admiration for Weininger, a man so fiercely antisemitic that he was later approvingly, if selectively quoted by the Nazis; never mind that Weininger himself (like Wittgenstein) was Jewish. He was also one of the more aggressively misogynistic of modern philosophers, his nihilism informed by a depression that rarely lifted in his brief life; Stefan Zweig remembers him as “looking like he’d got off a 30-hour train journey, dirty, tired, wrinkled…”. Weininger’s reputation rests on the book Sex and Character, published in 1903. A few months after its disappointing release he was apparently brought to the precipice of despair upon reading a book by the Polish-German author Stanisław Przybyszewski entitled Totenmesse (Requiem), which begins with the words “In the beginning there was sex…”. This, in any case, is the account of (seriously?) Peter Altenberg. Whatever the immediate cause, in October 1903, Weininger took himself to the house in which his hero Beethoven had died in 1827, and shot himself in the heart. The building was demolished shortly after, because apparently the fact that Ludwig van actual Beethoven had died there wasn’t of sufficient moment to save it. Weininger’s demise at least boosted sales of his book.

We find Stefan Zweig again as a subject for photographer Trude Fleischmann, who opened her studio near the imposing Rathaus 100 years ago (should I mention that the Rathaus contains another full-sized statue of Peter Altenberg to match the one we saw back in Café Central? No? OK). By that time Fleischmann had served an apprenticeship under Madame d’Ora (Dora Kallmus) and already met and photographed – would you believe? – Peter Altenberg. It was 1918; she was just starting her career, Altenberg was at the end of his life. “Be yourself, no more and no less,” he told her, “but be whole.” Three months later he was dead. Like Kallmus, who had left in 1927, Fleischmann was Jewish and left in 1938 when Austria was annexed by Germany. Like Zweig she headed for the Americas, setting up in New York where she re-established herself as a portraitist of the creative class, with subjects including her compatriot Alma Mahler – most memorably laid out in her coffin after her death in 1964.

In her more animated years, Alma Mahler occupied a house built in 1911 by Josef Hoffmann (who designed the Flöge sisters’ salon) in reinforced concrete, the stock-in-trade of its first owner, Eduard Ast. Villa Ast, or Haus Ast, was intended to form part of an artists’ colony that never came to be. In 1931, when Alma moved in, she was Mrs Franz Werfel, wife of the Austrian writer who was the last of numerous prominent male cultural figures with whom she was associated starting with the man who shared her first kiss – Gustav Klimt. Alma was a highly complex individual; she was extremely strong-willed, yet she set aside her own promising career as a lieder composer when she married Gustav Mahler. With the exception of Walter Gropius, the men in her life were generally Jewish, yet with a few drinks in her she could be as antisemitic as Otto Weininger. She inspired strong emotions, charmed and alienated in equal measure. She was the addressee of the greatest musical love letter of the age (the Adagietto of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony) and the creepiest tribute imaginable (the life-sized doll that Oskar Kokoschka commissioned in her “likeness”). Meanwhile the house, which was a centre for Vienna’s interwar cultural life until she went into exile in 1938, is now empty, owned by the Saudi government and in an alarming state of dilapidation.

Villa Ast sits atop a hill at the bottom of which you find the most prestigious of Vienna’s early 20th-century social housing developments that earned it the title of “Red Vienna” – Karl-Marx-Hof. It’s an extraordinarily long building; going past it on the tram you have the same surreal sensation you get cycling around the former Berlin Tempelhof airport terminal for actual minutes on end – “how can I possibly still be going past the same building?”

We are off to another Hof, our last destination. It is the court of heaven, or Himmelhof. The hillside site at the exact point where Vienna gives way to the Vienna Woods is now a boarding school but this is where we would once have found one of the most idiosyncratic and controversial of fin-de-siècle visions: artist Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, who – like Stefan George, like Anita Berber – came from Germany trailing scandal. Casting himself out of society, a pacifist, vegetarian and self-proclaimed prophet stalking the cobbles of 1880s Munich in a long beard, tunic and sandals and warning of the finitude of natural resources, he is justifiably regarded as the first hippie. His artistic achievements were almost secondary to the revolutionary social change he represented, but it was in Vienna in 1892 that he had his breakthrough exhibition. Crowds flocked to the long-running show of Diefenbach’s quasi-Symbolist canvases, the recurring subjects being ‘Christ and Diefenbach’ as one critic said; the resemblance between the two did not go unnoticed. But his success was short-lived; Diefenbach had been cheated out of his earnings by the exhibitors.

Diefenbach was back in Vienna in 1894, moving into a villa in the Hütteldorf district where he penned a bitter 600-page account of his career to that point, quoting more or less everything ever written about himself, concentrating on the catastrophe of his first Viennese exhibition. As with his paintings, to which uncredited collaborators like František Kupka contributed, Diefenbach delegated much of the work. He returned to Vienna for the last time in 1897, and in the outlying district of Ober St. Veit established the Himmelhof, one of the very first communes. Gusto Gräser was here for a while, but he was repelled by Diefenbach, who insisted on being addressed as “Homo” (to emphasise his humanity; Diefenbach was prodigiously heterosexual). The tyrannical master controlled incoming and outgoing mail, ordered children to be raised communally, demanded celibacy (for others), ensured mandatory attendance for his readings from Nietzsche. In 1899 the whole exercise descended into chaos and Diefenbach turned his back on mainland Europe, seeing in the new century on Capri where he ended his days in 1913.

We descend from the court of Heaven and look out over the valley. Our time is done, and we appear to have shaken off our constant companion at last. Or have we? For away in the distance we see the magnificent hilltop Kirche am Steinhof, the church designed by Otto Wagner which served the inmates of the Steinhof institution. Who included … Peter Altenberg.



  1. Such a sense of wonder, fascination…as well as sadness over the losses & stunted possibilities.

  2. “lost their Scheisse” LOL!!

    Wonderful post, as always!

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