if this brief book is any indication, Johnston must be one of the most sober, thoughtful, insightful and well-inofrmed cultural critics of his generation. I had expected, from the gaudy cover, and from the fact that most of this coffee table sized book consists of photographs and "albums", that it would be a celebration of Viennese schmaltzing waltzing... nothing less calculated to appeal to my sensibilities can be imagined. But quite to the contrary, this book contains lucid and detached analyses of both the weaknesses and strengths of Viennese culture from 1815 to 1914.
The book falls into three parts. Each is introduced by a portion of texts, and followed by an "album" of photographs or prints accompanied by captions. These parts are the Biedemeier (1815-1848); the Ringstrasse Years (1848-1890); and, most interestingly of all, The Years of Paradox (1890-1914). There is also a detailed set of biographies and an annotated chronology at the back that supplement the text.
There is much of interest here. Johnston understands and does not sugarcoat the falsity of much Vienna's Golden Years. He refers to the way in which tourists visited "without irony" the Roman Ruins, built in 1778, of the Schönbrunn. His account of the smug, idealizing falsity of Karl Lueger's Gemütlichkeit ('cosiness'), during the years of prosperity, recalls nothing so much as the Reagan years of the 1980s (pp. 213 and 223).
(Lueger in a carriage, with Princess Pauline Metternich. Watercolor by Wilhelm Gause, Blumenkorso, 1904)
But the most fascinating section of all, is Johnston's account of Viennese Impressionism (a literary, rather than strictly an artistic movement) of the 'Young Vienna' of Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Hermann Bahr, Altenberg, Richard Schaukal, Beer-Hofmann. Expressed by the aphorism of Hermann Bahr's das unrettbare Ich ('the ego is irrecoverable'), Johnston compares it to a Heraclitean dissolution of both ego and world into a fragmentary collage of impressions.... "The cult of evanescence.... Fascination with change, novelty, uniqueness stimulated the impressionists to insist that no two moments are the same, no two sunsets are the same, no two utterances are the same. Impressionist writers, most notably Beer-Hofmann and Peter Altenberg, focus on the irreplaceability of each fleeting impression, each tremulous moment, each never-to-be-relived instant. Heraclitean flux can be experienced either as a terrifying lack of unifying ego, as in Lord Chandos, or as an immersion in the flow of time, which offers endless opportunities for delectation and evocation..., but these flashes come in iron cycles of repetition and death...." (205)
Against this, arose in reaction men like Adolf Loos, Schönberg (and his pupils Alban Berg and Webern), and most especially Karl Kraus, who "despised the tradition of appliqué ornament that characterized Viennese architecture, Wagnerian music, and the prose of the feuilleton. Instead of celebrating the moment, they strove to articulate a structure which would transcend and outlive all moments. they share with the impressionists a fascination with facts, but they wish to arrange these facts in ever sparser patterns that will have an integrity of their own. The essential facts should speak for themselves, or, as Loos put it, 'The evolution of culture is equivalent to the removal of ornament from articles of everyday use'.... Tools, buildings, clothing should become more and more stripped down in order to disclose their essential function. Ornament needs to be outgrown...." (207). A "revolution in pursuit of the timeless".
This is cultural criticism of a high order, and though the text itself represents only a small portion of the volume, it is to be highly recommended and, along with the photos and captions which are themselves often insightful and original, is well worth the 'price of admission'.