Watch how in this painting the wind from nowhere blows through the flowers. Vienna was a bit like that.
Vienna, Day 2, March 10, 2016.
Beautiful, sparkling sky, blue without any mist.
Took the S-Bahn to the Belvedere Palace. The train had two floors, very fancy and very clean. It was a relief of the familiar to find a Viennese man give me wrong directions to the train and a small, immigrant woman correct him and direct me to the right train.
The Belvedere Palace is a massive Baroque palace that has been turned into a museum. It is set amidst beautiful gardens and faces a shimmering pool. It is fitting that it should house the translucent, golden-magical works of Gustav Klimt.
But more than Klimt, I fell in love today with Egon Schiele, one whom I knew little about.
Apparently Schiele led a dissolute life, married a woman he was not particularly close to and then at twenty-eight died of Spanish influenza along with his wife who was then pregnant with their first child.
There is a vivid and spectral painting by Schiele at the Belvedere—“Mother with two children III” (1915-1917). A grey, grey, gaunt mother is holding two colordrenched children. The eyes of the mother are cast downwards while the children look wide eyed upon you. The mother’s head lies at her shoulders, laden with layers of exhaustion, and her body is draped in a half inclined position between the two children. She can barely sit up. Her body is invisible except for her skeletal face and her shroudlike long dress that melds into her face, blurring all distinction between flesh and flesh-cover, both being of the same texture.
The children wear vividly colored, patterned clothes. They are based on Bohemian peasant clothes, a region of Austria where Schiele’s own mother was from. The bright yellows, oranges and reds of the jackets almost hurt my eyes. Did they drain the colors from their mama? Did they eat her life?
The Mother Again
The second in my Mother series of the day is Giovanni Segantini’s (1858-99) Evil Mothers (1899). The painting apparently was inspired by a poem by a twelfth century monk, Luigi Illica. Some sources say Illica was inspired by an Indian epic poem, Pangiavahli. But I have found nothing on this so called Indian poem, so I am both curious as well as skeptical about this ‘Indian’ connection.
Who is an Evil Mother?
One who did not fulfill her true biological destiny but aborted/destroyed her children. The painting has in its foreground a woman wrapped in a diaphanous material attached to a tree. A baby is at her exposed full breast. But she herself along with the baby seems to be being birthed. The web like mesh around her holding her in its womb. Her hair is caught in the branches of the tree, but gives the impression of waving in water. Again, is she in this dry barren landscape, or is she being born in painful waters?
The woman in the foreground is one of the redeemed. She is birthing her child and hence can be born herself, anew, as a pure soul once more. Thronging her in the distant desert background are her evil sisters. The unredeemed. They writhe in strange bramble woven cocoons, denied a rebirth into purity. These are the women who have committed the terrible crime of making decisions about their own bodies and their own lives.
We are the children of these women that they refused to foreground.
Vienna, Day 3, March 11, 2016.
I am closing my eyes at the Café Central, trying to see Trotsky walking through the doors.
Is he ordering a drink or a coffee or both?
Something is wrong with the way the servers are moving around me as I try to think of 1915-17. I realize that I expect them to move slower in the past, sort of glide around me, rather than keep to this hectic, neoliberal, ready-for-the-tourist pace. Imperial culture is all about gliding, only when you expose the actual culture of work and labor do you see the rush. When you make work invisible, everyone glides.
Anyway, here comes Trotsky. Am going to ask him about poetry and sex. Got to go.
Vienna, Day 4, March 12, 2016.
Just ordered a “Large Viennese Breakfast” at the charming Café at the Leopold Museum. Behind me as I sip tea is the Museum Quartier. A vast expanse with several museums lined with trees. I can imagine what this place looks like during the warm months when the trees are in full bloom. There is a children’s museum here in the quad, I hope I get to bring Lulu here one day.
I love the ceiling lights in the café, old 1950s style lamps and there is a bar lining the back of the room. I just saw a father raise his three year old on to the bar stool and order food and drinks for themselves. The little boy’s head is framed by a line of Sherries and Cointreaus. So beautiful this nonsegregated childhood between children and adults.
Next to me, on my left, a deeply slivered and lined couple just ordered two little cappuccinos and two huge Sacher tortes.
This is a good place, Vienna.
Vienna, Day 5, March 13, 2016.
I came out of the underground metro and right there in front of me, a full kilometer long, is Karl Marx Hof. A full kilometer of 1300 apartments, play area, libraries.
Karl Marx Hof was built between 1927 and 1930 by Karl Ehn, a student of Otto Wagner, during the Red Vienna years, when Social Democrats controlled the City Council without interruption between 1919 and 1934.
It is an astonishing structure, like a little city. The outer perimeter wall has large vaults, arches and heavy, grilled gates which look like medieval castle entrances. Beyond those there are beautiful, wide open, green spaces where the clustering buildings breathe. Looking around it is astonishing to me how utterly modern the early socialist imaginaire was. No sentimental or sly nods to ‘tradition’ or the past here, it is all suffused with a relentless now and new.
Inside the Museum of Red Vienna
Museum is a rather grandiose term for two rooms, in Washhouse 2. I loved the fact that this archive and memory of working class history was in a laundry building, and a still working one.
The social democrats won their first municipal election on May 4, 1919 winning 100 out of the 165 seats, making Vienna the world’s first city of over a million people with a social democratic administration. These were some of the architects of those insurgent times:
Ferdinand Hamisch introduced the 8 hour work day and 48 hour week, social security, unemployment insurance and capping of weekly working hours for women and children.
Julius Tandler, scientist and city councilor said: "What we spend for youth homes we will save on prisons. What we spend for the care of pregnant women and babies we will save in hospitals for mental illnesses." All parents got a "clothes package" for each baby so that "no child in Vienna has to be wrapped in a newspaper."
Money to pay for all these programs came from a socially graduated taxation system instituted by Hugo Breitner. Between 1923-34 over 380 council blocks were constructed with more than 64,000 new homes.
The interwar period saw the consolidation not just of the Left, but also of the Right. Paramilitary groups of the Right called "Heimwehren" or Home Guards, began to form all over Austria to fight the organized Left. In response, workers formed their own militia, the Republikanischer Schutzbund.
The first objects you see when you walk into the museum are a military uniform, rifle, flag and pennant of the Republikanischer Schutzbund. Why start with defense rather than celebratory achievements?
Perhaps because the memory of 1934 is still encoded in the architecture of Karl Marx Hof.
On February 12, 1934 the Heimwehren raided the Social democratic Party offices in Linz. Within hours fighting broke out between the Right and the Left all over the country. Particularly brutal centers of the fighting were working class areas and neighborhoods such as Karl Marx Hof. In a civil war like situation that lasted for days more than 1000 people were killed and members of the Schutzbund arrested and executed. On May 1, 1934, the Austro-fascist state was established along with the banning of all organizations of the Social Democrats. Gentle reforms were not enough against the might of Capital, armed to the teeth.
At the end of the exhibition there is a slightly unreal installation, a modern flat screen television pops out slightly from the wall. It plays old black and white film reels of Social Democratic Party propaganda. Right atop the television screen is a melancholy head of Victor Adler.
Here he is, the television blares, the old 1920s posters crowd the room.
Dear Victor, how shall I remember you? For the social housing? For your support for the war in 1914? For your derision of Socialism from below and your utter, unfailing dedication to Socialism from above? In the age of Jeremy, Bernie and Tsipras, your head looks like it’s made from papier maché.