Standpoint Magazine: Viennese rooms with a point of view

“Austria comes alive on my divan,” said Berta Zuckerkandl, and this was an understatement. An influential journalist and art critic, Zuckerkandl welcomed everybody from Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt to Arthur Schnitzler at her home. There, she promoted their work, found them buyers and introduced them to the luminaries of the day. “Hail to the most marvellous and witty woman in Vienna,” Johann Strauss is said to have exclaimed, falling to his knees before her. From the turn of the 20th century, hers was the most important salon in the city.

“Her red hair glowed with colourfully embroidered fabrics  . . .  her dark brown eyes sparkled with inner fire,” noted the German writer Helene von Nostitz, who was a guest at Zuckerkandl’s salon. “Most of the time she was found sitting on her long divan, surrounded by young painters, poets and musicians, who always felt comfortable with her, because a releasing, vibrant air wafted here.”

The first salon originated in 17th-century France, when the Marquise de Rambouillet broke with the tradition of the court and invited guests to gather at her home. From then on, salons were run all over Europe, as key places where intellectuals, writers, musicians and artists mingled and talked for hours, sometimes days. They would form alliances, think up works of art, and engage in free thinking and proto-political debates. An excellent recent exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum, The Place to Be, showed that salons were also “spaces of emancipation”. Each space of the exhibition introduced an influential woman who ran a salon, charting her interests, her guests and her legacy.

The woman who interested me the most was Berta Zuckerkandl, as soon as I saw a photograph of her sitting at her desk, writing. She glances at the camera with the look of one who is inspired and inspires others. Zuckerkandl was born in 1864, the daughter of an influential publisher. Her father ran the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, one of Austria’s leading liberal daily newspapers. He was a friend of Crown Prince Rudolf, whose political articles he published without naming the author. Only Berta was privy to the secret, as she was her father’s right hand by the age of 16, and she became a journalist and cultural critic in her own right.

The Viennese culture we know today flourished in her salon. She had a poignant way of telling stories and the ability to portray characters deftly in a few words. She ran her salon from 1888 to 1938. The gatherings, which took place on Sundays, had up to 200 guests. The food was known to be meagre, consisting of sandwiches with coffee and tea, as Zuckerkandl focused on nourishing the intellect instead. It is said that the art movement the Vienna Secession was founded at her salon, as were the influential design group the Wiener Werkstaette (Vienna Workshop) and the Salzburg Festival.

Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon in the 1930s. “Austria comes alive on my divan”, she said (© Bel Etage, Wolfgang Bauer, Wien)

Zuckerkandl also had the courage to take a stand. When national chauvinism was running high during the First World War, she declared her pacifism by publishing a letter from young French authors calling for peace. After the war, she acted as an unofficial Austrian diplomat, arranging informal contacts with French politicians. Zuckerkandl was the last grande dame of the salon era, which ended with the Second World War.

The first woman to bring the salon culture to Austria was Fanny von Arnstein at the end of the 18th century. At the time, Jews had been granted permission to live in Vienna, but had to pay very hefty taxes for this privilege, so only the most successful businessmen managed to settle there. Originally from Berlin, Arnstein was highly educated and inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment. She moved to Vienna when she got married, and decided to bring salon culture with her around 1780.

Back then, women could not participate in public life, and Jewish women were doubly marginalised for their gender and ethnicity. So they chose to invite the public into their homes instead. The spaces they created in their living-rooms consequently promoted both the integration of Jews in society as well as the emancipation of women.

Her biographer, Hilde Spiel, describes her “ephemeral figure, her intangible charm”. A miniature medallion from the family estate shows Arnstein as an elegant and confident young woman, with a shock of brown locks, and large wise dark eyes. There were no grand invitations to Arnstein’s salon, and the atmosphere was informal. The purpose was to promote non-hierarchical, free-flowing conversation, reflected in the scattered furniture. Everybody participated and ego-fuelled boasting was not welcome.

With her salon, Arnstein created “an institution that became a major meeting place of intellectuals, artists, scholars and especially the proponents of political liberalism,” notes Danielle Spera, director of the Jewish Museum. “In the intellectual wasteland of Vienna, Fanny von Arnstein managed to open a door into the world — and she did all of this at a time of political and social repression.” She was the trailblazer for many Viennese Jewish women who followed in her footsteps.

Salons were often a place of contact for travellers or new arrivals to Vienna. Hilde Spiel cites a letter from a Bavarian guest: “Towards every stranger [Arnstein] is almost equally civil, and knows how to create a pleasant relationship . . . Her elegant house is open to any traveller recommended to her. From midday about twelve until well after midnight one  meets the most select company here . . . One comes without great ceremony and goes without taking formal leave.” What’s more, “the tiresome etiquette of the higher circles is banned, the spirit, freed from the restraining fetters of propriety, breathes more freely here.”

How many women attended Arnstein’s salon? The exhibition featured a unique collection of 30 small portraits of her guests,  five of them women. This could indicate that her salon was more open to women than the 20th century (or even the 21st, judging by the fact that fewer than one-sixth of works displayed at New York’s  Museum of Modern Art are by women, and fewer than   one-sixth of CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women).

Franziska von Wertheimstein: “The vegetative existence I led could have also been led by a plant or a starfish” (© Jüdisches Museum Wien)

Arnstein’s salon gained such notoriety that the secret police kept an eye on it. An undercover police officer noted: “At Arnstein’s the day before yesterday, there was a very ornate Christmas tree.” It was Vienna’s first. He went on to list the guests, who included State Chancellor Hardenberg, Prince Radziwill, Herr Bartholdy, “and all baptised and circumcised relatives of the family”. All the guests were given presents or souvenirs from the Christmas tree. “Following the Berlin tradition, funny songs were sung. Frau von Münch sang songs from Kasperle [the equivalent of Punch and Judy]. The guests paraded through all the rooms with the objects they had received from the Christmas tree. Prince Hardenberg amused himself infinitely; Herr von Humboldt was not present.”

Arnstein promoted Mozart and was herself a highly-regarded pianist. Many salonnières were gifted poets, artists and writers. But sadly, they could rarely claim those professional descriptions for themselves. “Their lives can be described as a tightrope walk between the dazzling recognition for their achievements and the suffering that they experienced, which was above all suffering from rigid gender conventions,” argues Astrid Peterle, chief curator at the Jewish Museum.

The exhibition also introduced the salonnière Josephine von Wertheimstein. She carried out representational duties for Rothschild bank, where her husband was Vienna’s authorised representative. The 19th-century writer Felicie Ewart described the salon of the Villa Wertheimstein: “Comfortable yellow silk furniture stood around, apparently grouped randomly, every form of association, the tête-à-tête, as well as the conversation in a larger circle, fitting in casually, and beautiful flowers everywhere, at every time of the year.”

Salon guests played the piano, sang love songs together and, according to Ewart, “Ernst von Fleischl demonstrated the most striking experiments . . .  speaking in a manner far removed from all learned pedantry.” The novelist Ferdinand van Saar, a regular salon guest, wrote: “The magnificent hall, the richly adorned women, the sounds of the music, all of this set me into a rapture that was both pleasant and solemn.” He added: “A great many senior military men, bureaucrats, [and] financial bigwigs were present and I, with my threadbare 11-year old tailcoat, felt peculiar among the bemedalled gentlemen.” One admirer described Wertheimstein as a “queen” surrounded by dozens of drooling knights.  She was a talented poet and artist; in another age that is what we would know her for. But in her era, Wertheimstein despondently said: “The vegetative existence I led could have also been led by a plant or a starfish.” Like many of the intellectual women of her day, she largely lived vicariously through the men in their drawing-rooms. Whenever the novelist Ferdinand van Saar frequented Josephine’s daughter Franziska’s salon, his favourite question to her was: “Fräulein Franzi, wissen Sie mir keinen Stoff?” (Don’t you have any material for me?)

Similarly, one wonders what Proust would have written about without the salonnières of France. A large portion of In Search of Lost Time chronicles salon conversations. He frequented the Paris salon of Geneviève Straus, who supported his work, introduced him to the right people and provided him with stories. At her salon, Proust met Charles Haas who was the model for his character Charles Swann, while Straus herself inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

There were many other extraordinary salonnières, some of whom made names for themselves as writers and artists but most of whom sublimated their own ambitions in those of their male protégés. A new movie implies that little has changed by the mid-20th century. In The Wife, Glenn Close plays the wife of a Nobel literary laureate. Both are writers but she is the one with the “golden touch”. Early on in her career, she is told that she will never gain the attention of “the men — who review books, own publishers and edit magazines”, so she makes a life-changing decision. Another new film, Colette, starring Keira Knightley, tells the story of the French novelist, whose husband took the credit for her early work, but who was eventually recognised as one of France’s finest writers.

The composers Alma Schindler and Gustav Mahler met at Zuckerkandl’s salon. After their wedding, Gustav told Alma that there couldn’t be two composers in the family. “The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner.” Their marriage didn’t last.

Many salonnières faced rigid gender expectations. Those who did not want to get married were quickly given a misogynistic diagnosis of hysteria. One woman who couldn’t flourish herself although she was a talented writer was Anna von Lieben. She fell into depression and ended up as one of Freud’s first patients (known as Cäcilie M). Freud said she helped him develop his therapeutic methods: “Frau Cäcilie, who was a highly intelligent woman, to whom I am indebted, for much help in gaining an understanding of hysterical symptoms.” And so, psychoanalysis too is indebted to the salonnières of Vienna.

There is one other space that is associated with the cultured world of Europe in the 19th century: the coffee house. How were the cafés of Vienna different from the salons? As Stefan Zweig famously wrote in the World of Yesterday, the Viennese coffee house was an institution unlike any other: “It is really a sort of democratic club, and anyone can join it for the price of a cheap cup of coffee. Every guest, in return for that small expenditure, can sit there for hours on end, talking, writing, playing cards, receiving post, and above all reading an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.”

Looking back with deep sentimentality to the Austria of his childhood he was forced to flee, Zweig captures the intellectual exchanges and the cosmopolitan nature of the coffee house: “Perhaps nothing contributed so much to the intellectual mobility and international orientation of Austrians as the fact that they could inform themselves so exclusively at the coffee house of all that was going on in the world, and at the same time discuss it with a circle of their friends.” The literary café in the district of Leopoldstadt was an emancipatory force for the intellectual middle class.

In her book The Viennese Cafe and Fin-de-siècle Culture, Charlotte Ashby estimates that at the turn of the century, around one-fifth of all Viennese cafés were listed under the names of female owners. But on the whole, women were less likely to frequent cafés than salons. That’s because a woman who was seen in a public, smoke-filled place would still risk her reputation.  Coffee houses had heavy curtains and were meant to seclude their visitors from the outside. So women chose more public spaces instead. Alma Mahler, for instance, preferred to meet her friends at patisseries, replacing smoke with pastries.

Fanny von Arnstein (left), and her biographer Hilde Spiel (right), painted by Liesel Salzer in 1934 (©Jüdisches Museum Wien. Photo of Hilde Spiel portrait: Sebastian Gansrigler)

Women became visible at coffee houses in the interwar years, as they began to enter the workforce. Previously, when coffee houses were still the “WeWork” spaces of their day, women weren’t welcome. It is no wonder that the salonnières of that time focused on educating women so that they could participate in public life. The exhibition presented Eugenie Schwarzwald and Yella Hertzka, who founded schools for the education of young women in addition to running their salons. Others used their salons to pioneer environmentalism, modern music, schooling for children that did not involve disciplinary beatings, even bikinis — all novel and revolutionary ideas at the time.

Salon culture in Vienna ended with the Second World War, when those Jews who managed to escape the Holocaust took their culture with them. The Third Reich brought the death of the Enlightenment ideals from which the early Jewish salonnières like Fanny von Arnstein had drawn their inspiration. In 1938, Berta Zuckerkandl was forced to flee Vienna, first to Paris with the help of her brother-in-law Paul Clemenceau, and then to Algiers. There, she continued to run her salon into old age. Many did not manage to escape, including Freud’s sisters and Zuckerkandl’s sister-in-law Amalie, who was murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp.

The salonnière Adele Bloch-Bauer’s portrait by Klimt was famously depicted in the film Woman in Gold.  It tells the story of how her portrait (like many works of art that are still exhibited at Vienna’s Belvedere Museum) was looted by the Nazis and eventually won back by her descendants.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a biography of Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the early salonnière from Berlin. When Arendt was fleeing Europe to save her life, she almost lost the unpublished manuscript. In the exhibition a video showed an interview with Arendt. The interviewer asks if her profession as a philosopher isn’t quite “special” for a woman. Arendt, unfazed, says she’s not a philosopher. “My job — if you can describe it as such — is in political theory.” And besides, she adds: “It doesn’t have to be a male profession. Why wouldn’t a woman be a philosopher?” The interviewer says: “I consider you a philosopher,” to which Arendt quips: “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that.”

In reality, women have always been involved. It’s just that the discourse has not always reflected it. Ancient philosophy had Hypatia and Hipparchia, for example. Even in the male-dominated world of investment, half of Britain’s government bond investors in the 19th century were women. Now the discourse is slowly beginning to reflect reality. A graphic novel illustrates Hannah Arendt’s escapes. A new book tells the History of Women in 100 Objects. The lives of the Brontë sisters have been beautifully portrayed in the musical Wasted at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

In the 20th century, salons received renewed attention when Jürgen Habermas based his concept of the “public sphere” on them. Salons became fabled spaces in our imagination. They also show us how women have shaped the culture of Europe by creating havens where liberal political conversation could thrive and the arts could flourish.

This feature was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Standpoint Magazine:

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