1273-15-08
http://legadodeuntitan.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/1273-15-08.jpg [accessed 10.01.2017]
What can still be said about Alma Mahler, born Alma Maria Schindler, considered one of the symbols of Viennese Secession, itself one of the most ‘used and abusedʼ art and culture trends[1]? Indeed, of the much described and discussed Viennese ambiance of fin-de-siècle, a surprisingly significant part refers to Alma. These touch all possible areas of her personality and abilities. Accordingly, many pages were devoted to her marked eroticism, to her depiction as femme fatale, and to praises of her allegedly beauty; similarly, many arguments have been brought to highlight her anti-Semitism as an expression of end -of-the-century Viennese society who elected as a mayor a Jew-hater in the person of Karl Lueger, the president of the Christian-Social Party; in good Freudian fashion she was also discussed in terms of psychoanalysis, as a possibly sexually abused child who, later on in adulthood, by her arresting presence, sought to enslave the male personalities she came close to (e.g. arguably, in relation to this, it was suggested that she chose on purpose unappealing males as the case of the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky conspicuously shows); finally, her musical talent and gifts as a composer were widely debated as well.

All these pages have something in common, namely they either praise her for her beauty, or attack her as a vicious and ill-intended woman, both in her private and public actions. The comments on Alma Schindler are never neutral. It is safe to state that, seemingly, each person who reads her letters and memoirs feels the need to say something about her. Of these opinions and attitudes we mention chapters in almost all books dealing with the biographies of her husbands or longer-term relationships like Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoshka, Walter Gropius or Franz Werfel; articles in The Guardian who attempted to present her to the contemporary audience; even a musical who draws a lot on the spicy features of her life. The admiration for Alma Schindler is mostly based on her being married to famous men, whereas the antipathy is a post Holocaust reflex, more precisely a reading of her anti-Semitism in the light of the 1900s pogroms and of the mass murder of the Jews during World War II. By these, we do not mean that being the wife of the director of the Viennese Opera or of the founder of Bauhaus movement does not amount to much, or that her anti-Semitism does not resonate with the racial theories proposed by Houston S. Chamberlain in his Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Yet, being remembered almost exclusively in terms of male companionship does not do justice to any female individual, much less to one who was related to her epoch in several ways, of which the passion for biking that was a pioneering endeavour at the time deserves a say, while the anti-Semitism of those years and of that environment was a very complicated issue. Let us not forget that Karl Kraus, the chief editor of Die Fackel, the influential satirical publication of the time, collaborated with H. S. Chamberlain and even expressed some similar views. The intricate stance of Kraus, himself a baptized Jew and promoter of a sort of radical assimilation of the Jews (e.g. in order to be socially useful, the Jews need to get rid of the ghetto features [sic]), echoes the blend of cultural and racial criticism addressed to the Jews, which included extreme reactions like the pathological forms of self-hatred developed by intellectuals like Otto Weininger. It goes without saying that this hate speech and worldview addressed to a community that was used as scapegoat for the traumas inflicted by modernity on societies that had difficulties in getting rid of their archaic layers contributed to the foundation of the anti-Semitism as an ideology and, particularly, to its coating in an intellectual layer. Nonetheless, this blend expressed an environment in which religious conversions were something rather ordinary (e.g. Mahler himself was baptized, the same can be said about Zemlinsky, Alma Schindler switched from Catholicism to Protestantism (strangely enough, this aspect is not mentioned much, though). Ultimately, that was a multicultural environment in which the pact between the Church and the Habsburgs, between Catholicism and aristocracy, as established from the moment of Counter-Reformation onward, started, at the end of the nineteenth century, to fade away in front of the bourgeoisie and of their secular views and modes of life.

All in all, despite the extreme opinions and the countless demonstrations of her valuable existence, or, on the opposite, of her threatening influence on the life of the people around her, the funny paradoxical fact about Alma Schindler is that herself did not think much of her, at least according to her own diary comments as a young girl, and that she had controversial/ambiguous remarks, which, in turn, makes difficult her insertion in a category or other. As femme fatale that, as it had been said, had a sweet tooth for unattractive men, she was also in love with good looking fellows like Josef Maria Olbrich, and, like him, some of them did not answer to her infatuation with them, but felt attracted to other socialites of Vienna or, simply, ladies that would make a good marriage in terms of wealth and social prestige. The pages of her diary where she is writing about this, apart from exuding wounded pride, are a touching testimony of the hurt feelings of a teenager (in most of the cases in which Alma Schindler is criticized on account of her evilness, there is scarce mentioning of the fact that she was not by far the most wicked of the women populating Viennese upper society of the moment). Also, concerning the anti-Semitism, it was after all in the house of Berta Zuckerkandl where she met Mahler, and, if this is not necessary an excuse to her comments related to Jews as degenerate and ugly [sic], it may be helpful to mention that her rant against Jews is in many cases situational or even an internalization of the opinions that she heard around her[2] (e.g. sometimes there is no mentioning of ethnic features in the case of those people with whom she develops smooth relations, or this is activated when something happens with the connection or the people disappoint her, etc.). In reference to her as a composer, there are plenty of pages in her diary where, following Labor[3] or Zemlinskyʼs sheer devastating comments[4] on her musical abilities or on her lack of practice, she started to lose confidence and speculate that she would never make something of herself in this domain. In fact, it is the excessive reliance on the social conventions and on the male domination of the epoch that made her really submissive, first intellectually, and afterwards physically, and, in the end, alienated her from future professional attempts. Beyond any selfish attempt and any self-centered attitude, there are pages in her diary that are simply moving like those when, on a summer day, she abstained herself from going to the toilet out of fear that she would make a bad impression on the people around, or when her only student of piano lessons stopped showing up, or when she remarked in a philosophical mood the unhappy condition of her married sister, or when the gossipy environment of those around made her wish to go away and live a life of her own. If it were not for Mahlerʼs crash for her, if it were not for the constant push from her mother, perhaps she could have make through her intensive erotic phase by not marrying and instead following her musical career. Although, surprisingly as it may look, there are few pages related to Almaʼs relation with her mother, the latter, an ex-artist herself, was quite instrumental to what Alma Schindler became at a later time, namely the lush companion-wife of status men; while she made everything to develop the career of her daughter, using her and her husbandʼs (e.g. Carl Moll) close connections with the people in the artistic field[5], she also put Alma in many public embarrassing situations or simply asked her to play the piano in the attempt to draw publicity on Molls themselves than on Alma; indeed, Alma Schindlerʼs mother was very ambitious in which concerns her children, and we find her more than once preaching to her daughter lessons of pragmatism in accordance to the purest Victorian principles (e.g. a woman should sell herself to a man as expensive as possible, meaning in terms of social status, wealth, fame, talent). Ultimately, even if the impression left by Almaʼs diary was that the musical career was yet another of her own social ambitions, a means of showing herself in the best of lights, it was no less vain than the compromises the men of her generation did in the attempt to secure a teaching position at…the University, for instance.

Alma Schindler was a girl of the upper bourgeoisie no better and no worse than the others of her age and of her city. Via Almaʼs vices we see Vienna of the time and its corruption. She might have been snobbish and heartless, but so was the city itself. When one reads her memoirs one gets the cruel impression[6] that in Vienna of the time, in order to survive, one needed to be rich, handsome, talented, and famous at once. The best expression of the fact is the lists of Christmas gifts that she is mentioning in her memoirs: a precise description of who gave her what, and valuing how much.

At the same time, the above comments are not in praise of Alma Schindler, but, let us say, a plea for a better adjustment of Alma to her epoch. Similar to our radical opinions about her as a person, the epoch itself we view in radical colors: either we praise it in the name of aristocratic pedigree, efficient bureaucracy, or simply the good old imperial days, or we reject it as the place where Hitler was formed as a young person. Therefore, let us briefly state, who was Alma Schindler on the background of the Viennese culture of the age and how did staged her womanhood.

The daughter of a famous Austrian landscape painter of the nineteenth century, Emil Schindler, Alma was born in 1879 in Vienna, and, in a way, we can say that she is the embodiment of the last stages of Vienna as a supra-national entity and especially as a bastion of German culture; her Wagnerian worldview, her opinions alluding to the primacy of German culture project her mentally in a time when German ethnic nationalism was not at the forefront of public life, more precisely in a time when the speakers of German, irrespective of nationality (e.g. Bohemian, Czech, Austrian, etc.) saw themselves as the sole bearers of culture and civilization in Central and Eastern Europe. This kindred symbolism (e.g. between her father as representative of a world created long ago by Maria Theresa and her son, and Alma as a supporter of the Biedermeier culture) was translated in everyday life and we can feel it in the pages of her diary as well:    although she did not pay respect to her father in the classic way by going to the cemetery[7], her attachment to his memory proved to be enduring in many respects, and, she considered him a protector from her current family, the only person that, had he been alive, would have understood her. This way, we came to the case of her step-father, Carl Moll, an ex-collaborator of Emil Schindler, with whom Almaʼs mother began an affair while her husband was still alive. Via Moll, Alma added the modernist coat to her nineteenth century bourgeois culture of imperial extraction (e.g. the middle class ethos as embodied by the Austrian bureaucrat), and, more importantly, she learnt to stage herself. Indeed, as the interesting study of Tag Gronberg shows, in Vienna of the 1900, Carl Moll was seminal for the creation of the art collector as mediator between art/aesthetics (seen as a private affair), and the public realm. Even in the design of his now famous house (e.g. Villa Moll), did he show this interplay of the personal and the official. Following in his footsteps, Alma played with her public and private personality.

An example of this phenomenon of staging[8] is the diary of Alma Schindler. Spanning throughout a short period of time (1898-1902), it makes an interesting genre in itself, as, despite what the name might indicate, the writing was conceived with the intention of being read by the public eye. Not only that its author mentions this several times throughout the diary, but she also admits at some point that she sort of ‘beautifiedʼ reality: “In these pages I have often lied and glossed over many of my faults (…)” (p. 115). This way, Alma Schindlerʼs diary makes an interesting dialectics between the past and the present, between reality and memory, between fact and fiction (at a later time, when her notes of the 1900s were considered for publication, she reviewed them and made changes in the text).

Staging her private and public identities meant that she pushed the authorial entity in the center of all happenings. More simply put it, she filtered the events and persons through her ego. Accordingly, we cannot appreciate the degree of reality contained-the events and the persons might very well be echoes of Almaʼs opinions, which in turn were part of the common wisdom of the epoch. This applies perfectly to the circle of Secession members that were frequenting Carl Mollʼs house. Truly, these are reflected via her emotions; sometimes she considers them her blessing (e.g. having the chance to be close to them), sometimes she sees herself as deterred in her artistic endeavours by the presence of so many personalities, and powerful men. In this sort of reasoning intervenes her inverted feminism, if we may call it so: while she believes in the power of women, and in their inborn abilities, it is through the help of men that they can achieve their potential. She comments sarcastically when she sees naïve or uneducated women, but, it is men who ultimately commend her respect, in pure Wagnerian spirit. It may be assumed that she saw herself as a victim of her own environment in the sense that she considered a misfortune the fact that she had free access at the best in the domain (e.g. this way, her abilities, no matter how high and refined, would be pale in comparison to the always gifted ‘mastersʼ).

Indeed, we do not doubt that the case of Alma Schindler and her relation with the Secession members does not echo, not even by far, the one between Virginia Woolf, her sister, and the so-called Bloomsbury circle, on the other hand[9]. Yet, Alma Schindler had her small victories like going out unaccompanied or flirting in public space. We need to take into account that she, her sister and mother were the only female presence among the members of the Secession. Daily, their house was visited by the latter. Even if she would struggle to spend time with the men mainly out of coquetry, Alma Schindler would contribute to the debates, to the exchange of ideas. Then, by reproducing the things heard there, she would become the reflector of a mood, of an age.

Finally, in which concerns her political opinions, apart from, many times, disturbing anti-Semitic reflections, which firstly, started as intolerance against religious people and their lifestyle (e.g. Chasidim)[10], to burst in open rant against degenerate people and money bags [sic], her other opinions like those related to the general political situation of the time (e.g. the Emperorʼs days, the assassination of the Empress) do not exceed the standard level of information as one would encounter in the houses of the upper bourgeoisie during an idle chat at the ‘high teaʼ time. As illustration, we cite her comment related to the death of the Empress Elisabeth, Franz Jozefʼ s wife, by the hands of an Italian anarchist, on 10th September 1898. She showed that she did not understand the political radicalism of the time, and the political mechanism for that matter, but transferred everything to a personal level as if underlying the feebleness of the female fate: “The Empress is dead!! (…) A woman who never harmed a soul, who never got involved in politics, who never got anything out of life but pain and anxiety, which had caused her to grow depressive. Fancy stabbing such a poor, broken woman!” (p. 57).

 

Bibliographical hints

Antony Beaumont (ed.), Alma Mahler-Werfel. Diaries 1898-1902. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

Edward Timms, Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist. Culture and catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989 (this paperback edition), Chapter 13, pp. 237-249.

Jens Matte Fischer, Gustav Mahler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, Chapter 22 (Vienna in 1900: Alma as a Young Woman (1901-1903), pp. 340-384.

Oliver Hilmes, Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler. Boston: Northeastern, 2015

Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire. A New History. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press, 2016, Chapter 7, pp. 333-384.

Steven Bellers, Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938. A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, Chapter 11, pp. 165-187.

Tag Gronberg, ‘The Inner Man: Interiors and Masculinity in Early Twentieth Century Viennaʼ in Oxford Art Journal, vol. 24, no. 1 (2001), pp. 69-88.

[1] As somebody on a blog aptly wrote, the Viennese Jugendstil is so commercialized and, ultimately, trivialized via tea towels [or even bike hooters R.G.], that anybody appears to be at home with its themes and personalities. http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.ro/2010/12/real-problem-with-alma-mahler.html [accessed, 10th January 2017].

[2] Let us not forget that the Viennese Secession, the artistsʼ environment in which she grew up, had notoriously few Jews among them. Hence, she could hear on daily bases anti-Semitic jokes or comments from people like Gustave Klimt or Max Burckhard. According to Steven Bellers, in which concerns the Jewish presence in the fin-de-siècle Viennese aesthetic field, this was rather at the level of art collectors and supporters than at the level of the artists as such.

[3] Josef Labor, 1842-1924, was an organist and composer born in Bohemia, highly esteemed in the Viennese society of the time; he was on close terms with many upper bourgeois families like the Wittgensteins. For six years, from the age of fourteen, Alma Schindler took composition lessons from him (Alma Mahler-Werfel. Diaries 1898-1902, p. xiii). When telling him that she had lessons with Zemlinsky too, Labor made her choose between him and Zemlinsky.

[4] When asking him to send her a composition work of his, Zemlinsky reportedly refused on the account that ‘you wouldnʼt be able to read it anywayʼ (Alma Mahler-Werfel. Diaries 1898-1902, p. xiii). Experts comment that her notations of music shows a surprising lack of knowledge in the field.

[5] Almaʼs mother arranged concerts, facilitated the playing of some of her musical pieces by musicians/sopranos of the time, and gave her daughter the necessary apparel to present herself in the Viennese society as a musician (e.g. even designing for her visit cards, some precursors of the business cards).

[6] In the light of what we stated above, we may easily remark that it was the establishment that was talking through her mouth. A good example of this statement is the fact that, contrary to what it is believed, the members of the Secession movement were not outsiders but they held key positions in the artistic and educational institutions of the fin-de-siècle.

[7] The many comments related to this issue can be viewed as one of her manifestations (e.g. criticism of marriage, of religion) meant to counter the bourgeois-conformist precepts taught in the family.

[8] There is no point in detailing more about staging. Carl Schorske wrote the most memorable pages about the intrusion of the aesthetic sphere in the public one in fin-de-siècle, with the known consequences: the radicalization of the latter.

[9] Not to mention the stronger and stronger Socialist movement in Vienna of the time, and the women involved in it and in the fight against poverty. From this perspective, Alma Schindler remains a bourgeois…

[10] This sort of intolerance was a general mood of the epoch, as the so-called Viennese Jews, the emancipated ones, despised and criticized the ways of what they considered poor Jews, those coming from Galicia.

Photo credits for the cover photo:

http://www.alma-mahler.at/images/photogallerie_historisch/hist_alma_jung_med.jpg [accessed 08.01.2017]

 

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