So what is it that makes Vienna the capital of sex?
Sex in Vienna at the city’s Wien Museum looks like being the most popular exhibition in the museum’s history.
Vienna makes sex tourists of us all. We flock to the Belvedere Palace to view Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, or head for the Leopold Museum to swarm over Egon Schiele’s nudes, a kind of high-class erotica that is all the more high-brow for being lauded in the art history textbooks.
Of course both Klimt and Schiele were despicable rogues; Klimt filled his studio with models and treated it as a private brothel; Schiele built a large part of his career on drawing under-age girls, aestheticizing the pedophilia that was a leitmotif of Viennese society on the eve of World War I. Deep down we know that they were rogues just by looking at their pictures, but this is rarely something we talk about when we show our gallery-shop postcards to our friends back home.
Neither Klimt nor Schiele play a starring role in the Sex in Vienna exhibition currently on show at the Wien Museum, the municipal history museum on Karsplatz. Maybe they are just too obvious, and the museum has decided to concentrate on other, less frequently told stories. The same museum in any case devoted a whole exhibition to Klimt in 2012; and with over 67,000 paying customers, it remains the museum’s most visited exhibition so far. Clearly, the Viennese are just as enthralled by the fin-de- siècle f*ck-machine as we are.
Capital of Sex
The Sex in Vienna exhibition looks like overtaking Klimt in the popularity stakes. Indeed it’s so popular that they’ve had to put queue-control barriers at the entrance. “We really need them at weekends” says Michaela Lindinger, one of the six-member curatorial team that put the exhibition together. Nearly 40,000 people have seen the exhibition since it opened in mid-September, and another 70,000 are expected before it closes on January 22.
Michaela Lindinger is also the author of new book Die Haupstadt des Sex (The Capital of Sex), its very title a provocative but appealing assertion of Vienna’s status as the historical epicenter of, if not sex itself, then at least something that one might call the culture of sex.
So what is it about Vienna and sex that goes together so well? Few other cities have produced such a flurry of art and literature inspired by bunga-bunga. Indeed the taboo-breaking literature of the turn-of-the-century is now regarded as the Austrian literary canon: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (main themes: submission, whipping; 1870), Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde (promiscuity, prostitution; 1900), Robert Musil’s Young Törless (sadism, homosexuality; 1906); and Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (promiscuity, courtesanship; 1922). The scientific study of sexuality was also a Viennese invention. It was here that neuroscientist Krafft-Ebing published his Psychpathologia Sexualis in 1886, precocious philosopher Otto Weininger wrote Sex and Character in 1903, and Sigmund Freud penned his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905.
The prevailing image of Vienna in the modernist age is of a city that’s edgy, turbulent, morally ambiguous, but also rather seductive. I remember going to an exhibition entitled Wien: Traum und Wirklichkeit (Vienna: Dream and Reality), a blockbusting look at the art and society of the fin-de-siecle that took over Vienna’s Kunsthalle for six months in 1985. It was an important exhibition - not just in forming my interest in Central Europe (and thereby explaining why I ended up living in its southerly margins), but also because it signalled a change in Vienna’s own self-image, in which modernity and unease came to be celebrated just as much as ball-gowns, Lipizzaner horses and Sachertorte. This was the fist time that Viennese curators had put Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka together with the likes of Karl Kraus, Sigmund Feud and the bullet that killed Franz Ferdinand, and said “this is our city, this is who we are”. But the exhibition was still an upbeat look at the Austrian genius rather than a frank admission of how gritty Vienna’s Wirklichkeit actually was. The show’s chief designer, architect Hans Hollein, put a 3-D recreation of one of Klimt’s nymphs on the roof. Not everybody was impressed; German magazine Der Spiegel described it as a “Habsburg Disneyland”, in which everything was covered in a flattering glitter, rather like the silver and gold that Klimt used in his paintings.
The current exhibition Sex in Vienna looks at the same epoch from a radically different angle. Revealing the true history of the city through alternative narratives is something the Wien Museum has been doing for decades. “Even during the Eighties when I was a student, I was aware that we had a museum here that focused on parallel histories” Michaela Lindinger says. “There were exhibitions about the women’s movement, when no one was really interested in this stuff; there was an exhibition about bathrooms, which among other things dealt with regimes of beauty over the last 200 years; and there was an exhibition about poverty in Vienna, which included prostitution as one of its subjects. More recently the 2013 exhibition Viennese Types was oriented towards how lower classes in Vienna earned a living, presenting a different picture to the one we usually get which is about bourgeois society.”
The main focus of Sex in Vienna isn’t so much the social role of sex itself - although there are dutiful sections on contraception, childbirth and STDs, and a droll video which suggests that smoking a cigarette is still the most popular post-coital activity. Its real theme is the question of what is permitted and what is forbidden, and how the tension between the two is central to the biography of the city.
“The concept of the modern city, and Vienna as a model for modernism, is very much the nucleus of this exhibition” Lindinger continues. “And for us modernism starts with Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.”
Tender is the knit
Krafft-Ebing was one of the first to try and establish a scientific definition of what normal sexual activity actually was. The psychiatrist concluded that normal sex took place in the conjugal bedroom and had reproduction as its main motivation. He saw pretty much everything else as a form of perversion. At least he gave perversions clinical names; it’s thanks to Krafft-Ebing that the terms Sadism and Masochism (much to the dismay of Sacher-Masoch himself) entered the modern lexicon.
I went to a launch event for Michaela Lindinger’s Capital of Sex book the day before I spoke to its author. (And it’s strange how the audience for book launches tends to be the same wherever you are, and whatever the subject of the book. It was difficult to spot anyone under the age of 45; one member of the audience listened to the discussion while knitting a scarf. Well it is winter I suppose.) I couldn’t really follow the presentation (it was in rapid-fire Austrian German after all) but it did at least include plenty of pictures. When I spotted a sepia photograph of Empress Elizabeth’s sister Sophie Charlotte crouching beside a large hound, I understandably assumed that there must have been some kind of amorous connection between the duchess and the dog. The truth, as Michaela Lindinger explained to me later, was rather more hum-drum, but no less shocking in its outcome. “Sophie ended up in a lunatic asylum because she ran away with her lover. At that time people believed that a woman who left her husband and children had something wrong with her, so she was put into one of Krafft-Ebing’s sanatoria for sexual deviants.”
One of the things that will have Krafft-Ebing rolling in his grave is the way in which the city museum’s exhibition integrates the experience of Vienna’s LGTB communities into the general social history of the city. We learn about bathhouses that served as gay contact points, and photographers who were pioneers in gay erotica. “We worked together with Qwien (The centre for gay/lesbian culture and history) Lindinger explains. “They have spent twenty years collecting materials on gay and lesbian history, mostly from the memories and correspondence of private individuals. Gay and lesbian history is extremely difficult to research; this is not the kind of stuff you can find in official archives.”
Down in the basement
Prostitution is another major theme; indeed the huge importance of prostitution to the historical fabric of the city initially comes as something of a shock to the modern visitor. As Stefan Zweig wrote in his memoir of Habsburg-era Vienna World of Yesterday, prostitution was the “dark basement” above which fin-de- siècle Viennese society was built. Females from aristocratic or bourgeois families simply weren’t supposed to be aware of their sexuality until it was awakened by marriage; male members of the same classes found succour in a subculture of streetwalkers, brothels and courtesans.
And prostitution is still very visible in Vienna today - brothels are legal, and are a common if discreet sight in downtown areas. Photographs of them in this exhibition (interiors, without the people) radiate an ambiguous, low-intensity glamour, as if we are looking at stills from a new film by David Lynch.
One of the key narratives embedded in both the exhibition and in Lindinger’s book is that of “Josefine Mutzenbacher – The Life Story of Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself”, the fictional tale of a child prostitute published anonymously in 1906. The book contains detailed, profoundly disturbing descriptions of under-age sex and incest, but turns out to have been an international bestseller in the years before World War I – indeed its notoriety helped to promote the city as a destination for sex tourists. The book is an unsettling social document on two levels; firstly, it suggests that working-class children from the periphery of the city were not subject to the same strictures as their bourgeois counterparts and became sexualized at a much earlier age; secondly, it reveals the widespread availability of under-age girls (and boys) to predatory males of all classes. Many people believe that Josefine Mutzenbacher was written by Felix Salten, author of children’s classic Bambi. Lindinger’s book points to a certain symmetry in these outwardly rather different stories. “After all, both Bambi and Josephine had to fight for survival in the forest”.
Child prostitution was one of the keynotes of Viennese culture in the years before World War I. The cult of the young girl was promoted everywhere from popular magazines to literary journals. The exhibition casts a discreet eye over the relationship between writer Peter Altenberg and architect Adolf Loos, men who were united by a common enthusiasm for underage girls. Altenberg thought of himself as some kind of connoisseur, displaying a gallery of underage nudes on the walls of his room at the Hotel Graben. Loos went on trial in 1928 for exposing himself to the children he invited to his studio.
“Altenberg never went to court over his pedophilia” says Michaela Lindinger. “He died in 1919 so escaped the era when the rights of under-age children became such an important focus of the justice system.”
There is a photograph of Albine Ruprich,12 when Altenberg took her under his wing in 1911, beside a much-quoted (but no less startling) extract from a letter she sent to the writer when he abandoned her for another three years later: “I would rather masturbate myself to death than lead the normal lives that others do”.
Elsewhere the tone of the exhibition is rather more celebratory, pointing to Austria’s role as a pioneer of sexual liberation. As we near the exit we are invited to watch excerpts from the 1933 Czech-Austrian film Ecstasy, when Viennese-born Hedy Lamarr (then the 19-year-old Hedy Kiesler) played out what is thought to be the first ever screen portrayal of a female orgasm.
There’s a sense of historical righteousness here too; the tolerant society is the good society, the exhibition seems to be saying: superior to the repressed, deviation-prone world of our forebears, and worth defending against its critics. Neatly juxtaposed with the Hedy Lamarr film is a poster from1925 advertising a Nazi-organized rally in favour of “Our struggle against trash and smutty literature”. “Entry for Jews is forbidden”, it adds at the bottom of the page. The Austrian Nazi party was pretty small in 1925 and was probably widely perceived as a bunch of nutcases with no chance of getting anywhere near the levers of power. Which, with the benefit of hindsight, only makes their crackpot campaigning all the more chilling.
Perhaps the exhibition’s greatest achievement is that leaves you with a whole collection of morally ambiguous after-experiences. It follows you out of the building, taps you on the shoulder and asks ‘which part of this story are you? Which bits of it would you like to look at again?’ The hypocrisy and rot of fin-de- siècle Vienna hasn’t been consigned to history, it has just been outsourced to other countries, or another corner of our minds.
After looking round the Dream and Reality exhibition back in the spring of 1985 I went into what looked like a cosy café-bar somewhere just outside the Ringstrasse. After a while a young woman sat next to me and asked “do you want to come upstairs?” “Why what’s upstairs?” I replied, thinking that maybe the bar had a disco or something on the next floor. I didn’t get round to reading Schnitzler, Zweig or Sacher-Masoch until I was much, much older.
© Jonathan Bousfield
A Croatian version of this article appeared in Globus magazine