Book Review: Robert Whalen’s Sacred Spring

An alluring read, historian Robert Whalen’s inquiry into the role of religion in the Wiener Moderne is almost convincing

On the wall of the Secession, the title of the group’s influential journal | Photo: Thomas Ledl

wall of the Secession

On the wall of the Secession, the title of the group’s influential journal | Photo: Thomas Ledl

The ‘Sacred’ in Ver Sacrum

The role of religion in fin de siècle Vienna would seem a closed case. As society escaped the grasp of the Church and the political landscape turned increasingly secular, one could safely assume that artists – the intellectual prophets of the changing times – had renounced God as an authority or even an influence.

In Sacred Spring: God and the Birth of Modernism in Fin de Siècle Vienna, American historian Robert Whalen makes a decisive attempt to reject this assumption. On the contrary, according the book’s thesis, the essence of God and religion permeated every aspect of the Wiener Moderne movement, from visual arts and literature to music and theatre. This makes for an alluring read, if for nothing more than the novelty of the subject and the sheer ambition of the author. Still, it’s easy to open the first pages convinced that the author’s efforts will be in vain – and much more comforting than accepting the possibility of the theory’s success.

Whalen initially offers a brief history of 19th century Vienna – the ethnic tensions, contradictions and tumult of a dying empire, as well as a useful depiction of the heterogeneous and conflicted nature of the Wiener Moderne – the term used by the author for the group of artists, writers, intellectuals and musicians who fronted Vienna’s avant-garde movement.

Unfortunately, this initial coherence and insight is sadly lost for most of the pages that follow. The early chapters dwell on the movement’s focus on Christian themes of death and resurrection, utopia and apocalypse, what the author calls “a fascination with the divine”. Gustav Klimt, perhaps the movement’s best-known figure, becomes a common thread tying together an otherwise disjointed narrative.

A fascination with death is easy enough to find in Klimt’s paintings, which are satiated with visions of the frail, the dying and the dead. But other examples are less convincing, such as the paintings of Egon Schiele, more obsessed with the pain of living than fear of death. Whalen conjures examples from literature to further demonstrate this initial theory, though finding death in playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s recurring theme of failed romance (“death of love”) seems questionable, as does seeing critic Karl Krauss’ fixation on the collapse of the empire as an obsession with apocalypse. The author’s insistence on images of death and resurrection as synonymous with religiosity seems simplistic at times; death, after all, is an integral part of life, whether secular or religious. To be concerned, or even obsessed, with death is no more symptomatic of a belief in God than love of horror movies is of a violent nature.

Although the book is often unpersuasive, Whalen manages to cover an impressive array of themes, all supported a wide range of examples. He covers substantial ground in chapters on death and resurrection, but also tackles the much more abstract realms of dreams and visions.

Here, the author’s examples paint a more overarching, if vague, picture: Sigmund Freud, who sought truth by way of dreams, becomes an easy target. Hugo von Hofmannthal’s dreamy writings, along with fellow writer Richard Beer-Hofmann’s obsession with truth in dreams, indeed reveal an accented interest in the subconscious. Composer Gustav Mahler comes into focus with his Third Symphony, a work Whalen considers “hallucinatory”, an adjective that could be used to describe any number of Mahler’s works. And the importance of mystery in Klimt’s works – which consistently interlace vision, truth and the unknown – seems self-explanatory.

Discussion of the symbolic divinity of women is more convincing. This theme is a must in such a book; from the seductive figures in Klimt’s paintings to Freud’s obsession with sex as the driving subconscious force, the presence of the feminine in fin de siècle Vienna is constant. The reader is left hanging, however, by Whalen’s half-hearted attempt to link the unveiling of a more dominant female figure with the divine. The closest he comes is quoting Italian professor, Paul Mantegazza, describing a woman in love as “more angel than human”.

Whalen does manage to paint a revealing picture of Vienna’s unique, if contradictory, approach to feminism with a vivid summary of Otto Weininger’s groundbreaking work Geschlecht und Charakter (Sexuality and Character). The simultaneously harsh, confident and paradoxical theory on the role of woman, which can be briefly summarized as “nothing” next to man’s all-encompassing “something,” is a fascinating, if infuriating, indicator of what women were fighting against. But again, it does little to prove women’s divinity.

Sacred SpringKlimt returns to prove the author’s point. The painter’s portrayal of women as powerfully erotic, sensual and dominant beings permanently at the centre of his works is certainly effective in signifying women’s increasingly powerful, if not divine, role in fin de siècle Vienna. However Whalen then takes the reader on a careful journey through Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, confirming the female as a means to salvation; women are not seen as creative or divine forces, but as beings that can show the path to deliverance. One thing, however, seems clear: the role of the “feminine divine” during fin de siècle Vienna could be a book unto itself.

What the author does manage to illustrate – both in his own words and borrowing from those of his contemporaries – is the conflicted mood of the turn of the century. Wrought with class tensions, rampant xenophobia and destructive populism – all masked in the ‘nervous splendour’ of balls and parties, kitsch and consumerism – Vienna was mired in anxiety.

A look behind the curtain of Vienna’s modern-day façade, and a question jumps from the pages: has anything changed? Austria, for all its transformation, still straddles the border of an established West and a mysterious East, still battles with pockets of unbridled xenophobia, and still falls prey to populists – all the while clinging to its long-lost glory.

One can only hope that the inspirational force that transformed Vienna from the seat of a dying empire, imprisoned by tradition, to a bastion of creativity, barrelling headfirst into a new century, might rise again. If the author’s theory proves, true, perhaps living God will again find a place in the creative life of a great city.

Sacred Spring: God and the Birth of Modernism in Fin de Siècle Vienna
by Robert Whalen,
William B. Eerdmans (2007)  pp. 339

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