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More Than Coffee was Served
Café Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Weimar Germany

September 19, 2006 to November 25, 2006

The café and its evening offshoot, the cabaret, have come to assume near-legendary status in the history of European modernism, While the first European cafés date back to the mid-seventeenth century, industrialization and the growth of bourgeois capitalism in the nineteenth century transformed these once humble institutions into grand establishments in which members of an increasingly diverse society could meet, not just to drink coffee, but to read, write, play cards, chess or billiards and to discuss the burning issues of the day. The café thus helped establish the public face of “bohemia”: that self-selected cadre of intellectuals whose mission in life was to oppose and undermine the philistine values of their elders. Paris, which gave us the word “café,” was in some respects the birthplace of café and cabaret society, but the Viennese paradigm of the Kaffeehaus was equally important, especially in Central Europe.

To this day, Viennese identity is inextricably linked to that city’s Kaffeehäuser, and the Viennese contend, with some justification, that their coffee houses are different from all others. Viennese coffee houses did adopt some elements, such as mirrors and marble-topped tables, from their Parisian counterparts, but Austria, in turn, introduced the bentwood chair (invented by the Thonet Brothers in 1849) to cafés across the continent. Mid-nineteenth-century Viennese Kaffeehäuser were often quite imposing, comprising several stories and multiple dark-paneled rooms devoted to activities such as billiards and reading. Plush curtains and wall hangings, paintings and plaster statues completed the look, with potted palms adding an exotic touch. One café—the Silbernes Kaffeehaus--boasted a “silver room” with real Sterling cutlery and fixtures. The dominant style of the day, historicism, permeated the Kaffeehaus, and Austria’s leading architects, such as Theophil Hansen and Heinrich Ferstel, did not disdain such commissions.

While the Kaffeehaus of the Viennese Gründerzeit (late nineteenth-century-boom-period) could be vast, it nonetheless maintained the atmosphere of a home-away-from-home. As Vienna became a metropolis, people streamed into the capital from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, creating an acute housing shortage. Cafés functioned as natural annexes to cramped Viennese apartments, communal parlors of a sort. Some café habitués in fact did not have apartments at all, but rather lived in rented rooms, hotels or pensions. In the days before telephones were commonplace, cafés also served as ad-hoc offices. Waiters took phone messages and received mail for regulars, and readily extended credit to those they knew. Clients, greeted personally after just a few visits, were encouraged to linger. A single order of coffee entitled one to sut for hours, and some people spent large portions of the day at the café.

Of course there were café customers—businessmen, bankers, civil servants and the like—who came and went with relative alacrity, but the regulars who gave the fin-de-siècle Kaffeehaus its reputation fit a decidedly different profile. The café had an obvious appeal as a hang-out for those, like writers, performers and artists, who did not hold ordinary nine-to-five jobs. Many Kaffeehaus habitués were relatively young and comfortably middle class: that is to say, they were compelled neither by poverty nor by overwhelming adult responsibilities to work very much. Cafés often acquired distinctive identitied based on their clientele. It was natural that writers would frequent cafés located near publishing houses; actors, cafés near theaters; artists, cafés near the Academy of Fine Arts. Cafés became associated with the particular creative groups that gathered at Stammtische (regular tables) or met more formally in the establishments’ back rooms. Two seminal artists’ groups, the Siebenerklub (Club of Seven) and the Hagengesellschaft (Hagen Society, named after the café’s proprietor), met at the Café Sperl, which offered art supplies in addition to coffee. Until it was razed in 1897, the most famous literary café in Vienna was without a doubt the Griensteidl. It was here that the Jung Wien (Young Vienna) movement, revolving around the writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, Felix Salten and their champion, the critic Hermann Bahr, took shape. And not far away, glowering at them from a neighboring table, sat their nemesis, the satirist Karl Kraus.

If camaraderie was one key element of the Viennese Kaffeehaus formula, the acrimony borne of too-close quarters was another. To some extent, the allure of the Parisian café rested on the experience of being alone in a crowd, partaking anonymously of the glamour and buzz of urban life. The Viennese café gave this quintessential modern experience of alienation an idiosyncratic twist. In his “Theory of the Café Central” (which after 1897 replaces the Griensteidl as Vienna’s top literary hangout), the writer Alfred Polgar noted, “Its inhabitants are for the most part those whose hatred of humankind is as strong as their need to socialize with people who want to be alone.” Far from being anonymous, the denizens of Vienna’s Kaffeehäuser seemed to be frequently at one another’s throats. Bitterness, jealousy and the competitive claustrophobia of the Viennese intelligentsia took their toll. As a result, by 1900 the cultural elite has divided into two camps. And although these caps sometimes differed more in style than in substance, they set two very distinct agendas for the Viennese art scene.

All forward-thinking Viennese artists were fundamentally opposed to the historicist aping of past styles and the self-serving commercial conservatism of Vienna’s single contemporary exhibition hall, the Künsterhaus. To further their goals, the Siebenerklub (Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Olbrich, Kolomon Moser, Max Kurzweil, Friedrich Pilz, Leo Kainradl and Adolf Kapellus) and some colleagues from the Hagengesellschaft (Josef Engelhart, Friedrich König and Alfred Roller) launched an alternative exhibition space, the Vienna Secession, which opened its doors in 1898. With the painter Gustav Klimt as its first President, the Secession united elder statesmen like the architect Otto Wagner and young mavericks like Adolf Loos in pursuit of an art suitable “to the age.” Belief in freedom of expression, originality of conception and the superior taste of a self-chosen creative elite bound this loose group, which shared no fixed stylistic program. Look and his Kaffeehaus mate Karl Kraus ultimately came to reject not the Secession’s underlying principles, but rather the Secessionists’ execution of their mandate.

Kraus’s adversarial stance was rooted in a profound dislike of modernity in each of its manifold dimensions: a dislike not just of bourgeois pretensions, but of the bourgeoisie itself, of industrial capitalism, high finance, science and technology. (Kraus, a Jew, was also anti-Semitic, and he associated Jews with all the aforementioned evils.) In short, Kraus detested both the people and the economic system that supported the Secession and, later, its applied-arts offshoot, the Wiener Werkstätte. He saw therein a fine-arts equivalent to the aesthetics of Jung Wien writers. All these groups were, in his eyes, artistically and morally corrupt. Krais’s attacks on the Secession and Klimt reveal a considerable amount of irrational vindictiveness, but one must remember that Kraus was primarily a social and literary critic, out of his depth when it came to art.

The architect Adolf Loos was more to the point i his criticism of Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte. Loos loathed the whole idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work), which Hoffmann had introduced to the Secession and carried forth at the Werkstätte. Rather than subordinating all the elements of an environment to an inherently superficial overriding design, Loos felt that function should dictate form. Like Kraus, he idealized the early nineteenth-century Biedermeier period, and he sought a return to such simplicity in the austere interior and furnishings he designed for the Café Museum in 1899. Ornament, Loos said, was criminal, not only because it often defied practical utility, but because it squandered labor and materials. Furthermore, the purpose of fine art was not to coddle or flatter, in the manner of Klimt’s lavish society portraits, but rather to shake viewers out of their complacency: to shock and to reveal deeper truths.

Thus two start alternatives were laid down: one could, like the Secessionists and the Wiener Werkstätte, seek an accommodation with bourgeois modernity for the sake of commercial success, or one could reject the bourgeoisie categorically and remain an outcast. Kraus and Loos drew into their circle all the leading outcasts, often due not to any deeper kinship, but simply because they were iconoclasts. Thus the nearly deaf Loos supported the “atonal” composer Arnold Schoenberg and championed the painter Oskar Kokoschka after he was declared Oberwildling (top beast) at the 1908 “Kunstschau.” Another fixture at Kraus’s Stammtisch inthe Café Central was the bohemian poet Peter Altenberg, who resided at the Graben Hotel and sported sandals all year long. Notably absent from this group was Egon Schiele, who maintained a lifelong admiration for Klimt, recognizing that the older artist’s Symbolist explorations of death and sexuality in fact had laid the groundwork for Expressionism’s bolder ventures into that territory. Nevertheless, Schiele, like Kokoschka, pioneered an approach to art that fulfilled Loos’s requirements by shaking viewers out of their complacency.

The incestuous nature of Viennese café society may have sparked petty infighting, but tight quarters fostered intellectual cross-fertilization as well. Indeed, Vienna’s incredible fin-de-siècle creative renaissance has been partly ascribed to the interdisciplinary encounters that occurred in the city’s Kaffeehäuser. For example, Kokoschka knew and painted just about everyone at Kraus’s Stammtisch, including Schoenberg and Schoenberg’s disciple, the composer Anton von Webern. The atmosphere of the café, with its large mirrors, stimulated both exhibitionism and voyeurism. The melding of private introspection and public display—typical Kaffeehaus preoccupations—is a hallmark of Egon Schiele’s work, particularly evident in his self-portraits and his studies of the cabaret performers Erwin van Osen and Moa. Cabaret was itself a natural outgrowth of the café, which encouraged social satire and caricature. For writers, inventing jokes and pithy aphorisms was a Kaffeehaus game, the equivalent of chess or billiards; for artists, caricature served the same function. Brevity and incisiveness—of word or line—distinguish much fin-de-siècle writing in art. If speed was a guarantor of authenticity, Schiele again can be considered one of the grand masters, for his drawings often took just minutes to complete. The taste for exquisite miniatures is further reflected in the Wiener Werkstätte’s postcard series (including many café scenes) and in the work of Peter Altenberg, who specialized in expressive verbal sketches, often written on photographs or postcards. The combining of material from multiple inputs—word and image, or fragmentary bits of information—also owes something to the Kaffeehaus, with its broad array of written and visual diversions.

German Kaffeehäuser in the early twentieth-century were in many respects modeled on the Austrian prototype, and the most famous of them was the Café des Westens in Berlin. Like Griensteidl in Vienna and the Café Stefanie in Munich, the Café des Westens was known by the nickname Café Grössenwahn (Café Megalomania): a snide reference to the inflated egos of its patrons. Both the Café des Westens ad the Café Stefanie were located in neighborhoods that appealed to literary and artistic types. The Stefanie was in Munich’s Schwabing district, home to many publishers as well as to the popular journals Jugend and Simplicissimus. The Café des Westens was at the western edge of Berlin, a newly developed area that attracted relatively adventuresome settlers. Renowned for its “newspaper waiter,” who catered to clients’ reading preferences, the Café des Westens sheltered the emergent Expressionist generation in the years before World War I. Herwarth Walden, founder of the journal and gallery Der Sturm hung out there with his wife, the poet Else Lasker-Schüler. The dealer Paul Cassirer and his wife, the actress Tilla Durieux, were also regulars. Look and Kraus frequented the Café des Westens when in Berlin, and they arranged for Kokoschka to show with Cassirer and to publish his work in Der Sturm. A number of writers, including Lasker-Schüler, eulogized the Café des Westens after it closed in 1915. This café in particular was considered emblematic of a magical moment: Germany before the Great War, a place inhabited by creative young idealists.

Cafés figured prominently in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, but the subject is surprisingly uncommon in early Austrian modernism. Despite the centrality of the Kaffeehaus to Viennese cultural life, Austrian artists were less interested in figural compositional groupings than in painting straight portraits and landscapes. Cafés and cabarets appear more often in German Expressionist paintings and prints, possibly because the German modernists were more directly in touch with their French colleagues. However, the café as an artistic subject really came into its own in the Weimar period, following World War I.

Whereas people idealized the prewar café, the postwar café became a conflicted locale, the nexus for all the seething social tensions in the Weimar Republic. Kraus’s tirades against the bourgeoisie were taken up by a new generation of artist who included George Grosz and Otto Dix. In a highly politicized era characterized by military defeat and massive unemployment, Expressionist soul-searching seemed self-indulgent and dangerously narcissistic. Idle hours at the café were a luxury that only the bourgeoisie could afford, and the pre-war bohemians had clearly belonged to that class, their antibourgeois posturing notwithstanding. Grosz brought this point home in his many depictions of bloated war profiteers and smug café guests, who feast in comfort while the proletariat starves. The café, particularly the Nacht-Café (night café), was also the scene of illicit encounters. Berlin after dark was a place where leering men groped buxom prostitutes. For artist like Grosz and Dix, the city was not crucible for glamorous modernity, but rather a cesspool filled with vice and human decay. Theirs was a vision born at least in part of misogyny and fear of the ostensibly liberated “New Women.”

As might be expected, female artists had a rather different point of view. Käthe Kollwitz, whose career spans the prewar and postwar period, ventured into proletarian cafés and taverns that few of her male colleagues (for all their leftwing pieties) regularly visited. These spots were naturally less grand than the Café des Westens or the Café Central, and their patrons did not have time to sit around all day writing and sketching. Nevertheless, working-class cafés played an important role in fostering class consciousness and worker solidarity. Younger female artist, such as Grethe Jürgens and Jeanne Mammen, tackled the subject of the “New Women,” who in the 1920s was granted unprecedented access to the public realm, both at work and at play. “Liberation” was a double-edged sword, for many women in Weimar Germany worked not because they wanted to, but because they had to; they did not, after all, enjoy being prodded and poked by those leering men. Yet occasionally in the work of Jürgens and Mammen, one catches a glimpse of happy women out on the town, enjoying a freedom that would have been unimaginable before World War I.

The financial upheavals of the 1920s took their toll on café society. Deluxe two-story Kaffeehäuser were no longer practical. The pampered children of the bourgeoisie had to work for a living, and waiters could not afford to indulge patrons who say around ordering nothing or, worse still, were unable to pay for what they had ordered. Typewriters made it inconvenient to write at the Kaffeehaus, and telephones were not readily available at the office; where one had to be, in order to answer them. So coffee houses dwindled in size, number and importance, but they did not disappear. If the Starbucks chain reflects the slick standardization of American mass marketing, it also recalls the living-room ambiance of the classic Viennese Kaffeehaus. Moreover, laptop computers and cell phones have made it practical, once again, to write and conduct business at the café. Who knows? We may be entering a new era of café culture.

The present exhibition was the inspiration of Elizabeth Marcus, who suggested revisiting a proposal prepared some years ago by Leo Lensing at Wesleyan University. While Professor Lensing’s exhibition, which would have focused on café culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, has this far not taken place, it may be hoped that our project will lead to its revival. We would like express our thanks, not just to Professor Lensing for his original concept, but also to the many lenders whose generous cooperation made our presentation possibly, including Ellen R. Aisenberg, Merrill C. Berman, Leonard A. Lauder, the Neue Galerie New York, the Wien Museum, Vienna, and a number of anonymous private collectors. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.