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  • Constructing the Viennese Modern Body: Art, Hysteria, and the Puppet by Nathan J. Timpano
  • Javier Samper Vendrell
Constructing the Viennese Modern Body: Art, Hysteria, and the Puppet. By Nathan J. Timpano. New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. viii + 209. Cloth $149.95. ISBN 978-1138220188.

Gustav Klimt's paintings have been sold at auction for millions in recent years. The auction prices of pieces such as Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) certainly rival those painted by Picasso or Kandinsky. However, this appreciation is new. Art critics have usually ranked Klimt and other contemporary Viennese painters behind abstract painters; their figurative paintings were, so to speak, less modern. Nathan Timpano wants us to challenge this belief. Some of the most important examples of Viennese modernism, he suggests, include figurative paintings by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Koloman Moser. While modernist painters ventured into abstraction, those in Vienna "continued to pursue an avant-garde exploration of the human body rather than anticipating or embracing abstract compositions" (2). The artistic representation of the human body in fin-de-siècle Viennese painting was just as avant-garde as other modernist styles.

Paintings by Kokoschka, Schiele, and Moser illustrate the tension between abstraction and figuration throughout the book. These painters were particularly interested in how inner psychological states manifest themselves outwardly. The author begins the book with an analysis of theories of vision. Scholars and critics generally argue that expressionist artists gave up "the aesthetics of the outer body for the inner mind" (19). Contemporary critics, such as Wilhelm Worringer, proposed a theory of art in which observation of the natural world; for example, the overreliance on vision of impressionist painters, evolved to inner (psychological) vision. Abstraction was the result of this process, which was supported by painters like Kandinsky. By contrast, Timpano contends that this position was not universally accepted. Kokoschka developed a theory of vision that challenged "the hegemony of inner vision and emotive feeling in determining expressionist iconographies" (23). The painter proposed a "synthesis of [End Page 635] optical and inner vision, … a vision dialectic that was specific to expressionist sight, as well as images from the artist's imagination" (25). Schiele did not write theoretical essays, but he supported the need for both forms of vision in his poetry, which he then translated to his portraits. These artists chose to focus on the pathological body of the female hysteric.

The author examines representations of the body in medical treatises, clinical photography, figurative painting, dramatic performances, and puppet theater. The rich connections between pathology (the hysteric), gender (the femme fatale), and artificial theatrical gestures (the puppet) provided Viennese painters with a new visual language to construct the Viennese modern body. While the connections between hysteria and art and literature are well known, especially within a psychoanalytic framework, Timpano's focus on Puppen (puppets, marionettes, and dolls) provides a fresh perspective on how the motions and gesticulations associated with hysteria, which Timpano calls "hysterotheatrical gestures," became common visual motifs in Viennese modernist painting.

Drawing upon previous scholarship, Timpano contends that the fixation on the hysterical body in Viennese modernist art has its source in French psychiatry rather than in Viennese psychoanalysis. He traces this discourse to the rich photographic archive of hysterics produced under the supervision of French psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital, pictures that circulated in Vienna at the fin de siècle. While Charcot and Freud disagreed on the causes of this condition, clinical hysteria "was understood to be nothing more than a display of modern theatrics" at the turn of the century (66). The stating and representation of the disease became more important than the disease itself: the hysteric became a femme fatale. And artists, actors, and playwrights loved to portray her histrionic gestures.

Timpano makes this symbiosis of psychiatry and art come to life. He traces the fascinating connections between hysterotheatrical gestures from the insane asylum to the theater and cabaret. Originating in Paris, the language of clinical psychology influenced modern theater in German from Berlin to Vienna, as well. Timpano pays particular attention to Max Reinhardt's stagings of Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1891), Hofmannsthal's Elektra (1903), and...


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pp. 635-637
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