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From the October, 2008
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Viennese Faults by Peter J. Leithart

Viennese Faults

Sacred Spring: God and the Birth of Modernism in Fin de Siècle Vienna
by Robert Weldon Whalen
Eerdmans, 2007
(339 pages, $25.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

Part travelogue, part intellectual history, part art and music criticism, Sacred Spring argues that Viennese modernism, the source of so much of the intellectual history of the contemporary West, cannot be understood as a secular movement. Its writers and artists were not materialists, nor did they think the world consists only of what can be known by the senses.

On the contrary, early modernism makes sense only when we acknowledge its religious inspiration and aspirations. Most of the figures Robert Whalen examines in the book, he admits, were not conventionally religious, though some worked their way to Judaism or Christianity. To make his case, Whalen, a professor of history at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, defines religion in broad terms as “the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit.”

Artists, composers, and writers in Vienna sought to produce art that responded to the intrusion of the “depth,” of the “real,” into everyday reality. This sacralization of art went hand in hand with the sacralization of the artist, who was conceived by many artists and theorists as a prophetic and sometimes a Christic figure.

Nervous Modernism

Modernism took shape in a well-defined group in specific political and cultural circumstances. According to Whalen, a vertiginous sense of reality’s depths began at a specific moment, on the night of January 29–30, 1889, when Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, shot his mistress, Mary Vetsera, and then killed himself at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling on the outskirts of Vienna.

The empire had been declining throughout Franz Josef’s blood-bathed reign, which had begun in 1848. Vienna was the suicide capital of Europe, yet simultaneously a city of remarkable vibrancy. A simultaneous feeling of vitality and decay, of death-in-life, imprinted a particular character on the fin de siècle. Avant-garde artists and composers were keen on the irrational, the bizarre and macabre, the uncanny world of omens and signs, and especially the unpredictable power of sex, particularly in combination with death.

Rudolf’s suicide capped it, and filled the capital city with a sense of nervous foreboding that defined the modernist mood.

Modernism’s impulses were channeled by various artistic groups and institutions. During the late 1890s, Vienna’s Künstlerhaus was riven by battles between progressives and conservatives. Though both wanted to sell their art, the progressives, clustered around the painter Gustav Klimt, were also intent on using art for the prophetic purpose of challenging bourgeois sensibilities and values.

When the progressives failed to elect one of their own number to a chair at the Künstlerhaus, they seceded, forming their own school and setting up their own exhibits. Whalen takes his title, Sacred Spring, from the name of the journal they founded, Ver Sacrum.

The Secession included most of the important avant-garde artists of the time: Klimt, the painter Oskar Kokoschka, and the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius among them. A “very tight, incestuous, intimate circle,” all were men, all young, all middle class, and most transplants from the sticks to the big city. At their first exhibition, the Secessionists presented not only their own work but that of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, van Gogh, and others.

The Sexual Key

Many concluded that sexual passion was the key to human existence, and that truth would be known through a religious devotion to the mysteries of femininity. Only a particular sort of the feminine counted, though.

The avant garde challenged what they saw as the confined femininity of the mid-nineteenth century in favor of a new image of woman. In contrast to her heavily encumbered Victorian forebears, the Viennese new woman eschewed ornament. She was willowy and billowy and boyish.

The modern woman was not only desirable, but desirably dangerous. Twice Whalen refers to Klimt’s Judith paintings. Judith shows a bejeweled and bare-breasted woman against a stylized golden landscape, her eyes closed in ecstasy, holding the bearded head of Holophernes, emblematic of the frightening eroticism that exemplified the intellectual life of Vienna and came to its most famous and lasting theoretical expression in Freud.

Violence and sex burst the shallow surfaces of bourgeois existence and for the avant garde infused Vienna with “decadence.” Whalen describes decadence variously as the celebration of the decay of traditional standards, as the quest for ever-new sensations, as the desire to taste the bitter and sweet in every mouthful of life, and as the celebration of decay as such. What left the stench of death wafting through Vienna was, many intellectuals thought, the death of the bourgeois, autonomous, rationally choosing individual of liberalism.

Bourgeois art was as artificial and false as bourgeois politics, and the avant garde, led by architect Adolf Loos, launched an attack against ornamentation and artifice. Paint was a lie, obscuring the beauties of wood. Artists should aim at making the natural qualities of their materials emerge, refusing the temptation to pretty up nature with Victorian baubles. Kokoschka’s paintings seem to strip away the ornamentation of bodies themselves, exposing the agonized and disturbed souls beneath. While his paintings are not “religious” in the normal sense, they do attempt to unveil a reality beyond the visible.

The religious element in the avant-garde outlook is not always overt, but Whalen shows that the interest in the irrational often came close to an interest in religion. Artists, moreover, frequently saw themselves as redemptive figures. In a poster for Der Sturm, Kokoschka painted his face and bare torso. Lips stretched in a grotesque smile, he points, with a hand held in an attitude of benediction, at a wound in his side. He is altogether the crucified artist, despised and rejected of men.

Modernism Translated

Among other things, Whalen’s study illuminates both the history and the sources of what today is known as postmodernism. He shows that many of the obsessions of postmodern theory—the dissolution of the self, violence, the fluidity of human life, the “temporality of tradition,” uncertainties about language—were equally characteristic of Viennese modernism.

Postmodernism is modernism translated from Vienna to Paris. If Whalen is right, postmodernism’s distinctive obsessions flow from the religious impulses of Viennese modernism.

Whalen’s study of the religious devotion to art among Viennese artists helps make the case put forward by an increasing number of sociologists, historians, and theologians that, as he puts it, “the whole ‘modernization as secularization’ thesis may well be quite wrong. . . . Not God but secularism has been the great myth of the modern age.”


Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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