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  • Books on Women, the Chancellor, and a Nobel LaureateThe Year in Austria
  • Wilhelm Hemecker (bio) and David Österle (bio)

One Hundred Years of Viennese Modernism

In 2018 Austria celebrated the centennial of the end of an era: the downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy at the end of the First World War in 1918—and with it the end of Viennese Modernism. In the same year, four of the epoch's protagonists died: Otto Wagner, Kolo Moser, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele, all of whom have had a lasting impact on the architecture and art of Vienna. In keeping with the marketing logic of biographies, this jubilee year not only brought numerous biographically orientated exhibitions that ran under a common motto: "beauty and abyss." The year also generated many new biographies of the stars of Modernism, including Gregor Mayer's Ich Ewiges Kind: Das Leben des Egon Schiele, Renata Kassal-Mikula's Otto Wagner 1841–1918: Sein Leben – Die Familie – Das Netzwerk – Eine Chronik, and a new biography by Mona Horncastle and Alfred Weidinger of Gustav Klimt, the painter of The Woman in Gold.

Inspiring Female Figures

Among many other subjects, Gustav Klimt painted Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, whose father, the Gründerzeit industrialist and art patron, Karl Wittgenstein, was a great admirer and patron of the painter. She was a patron of the arts, occupied herself with mathematics and psychoanalysis, worked temporarily in a chemical laboratory in Zurich, and commissioned the construction of Haus Wittgenstein, the ascetic cubist city palace in Vienna. While the most prominent of her brothers—philosopher Ludwig and one-armed concert pianist Paul—have already been fully illuminated biographically, the life of Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein is, and remains, far less well-known. However, in 2018 a biography by Margret [End Page 9] Greiner, a historian and expert in German studies, introduced Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein to a broader reading public.

What distinguishes Greiner's biography is her liberal approach to the objectivity and conjecture of truth within the biographical genre. Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein: Grande Dame of Viennese Modernism is not a scientific biography, but a romanbiografie (novel biography)—as the author herself has called it. The facts are enriched by fictional elements, clearly stemming from fictional narrative forms. The book contains dialogue and scenic descriptions that illustrate the life of Stonborough-Wittgenstein far more clearly, but turn the biographical object into a fictional character. Whether or not Greiner's biography still maintains a balance between poetry and science—something Stefan Zweig no longer saw in the genre of biographie romancée, and thereafter deliberately demarcated his own literary-biographical writing from this subgenre of biography—must be called into question. Pleasure should not be allowed to outstrip the "logic of history," Zweig argued (143).

The biographical work being done in Austria during the last two years has been characterized by an intense occupation with inspiring female figures, women who for a long time were outside the canon of biography-worthy persons in a male-dominated world. In addition to Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, Lise Meitner, a pioneer of the atomic age, has recently become the subject of a comprehensive portrait by David Rennert and Tanja Traxler, two journalists of the bourgeois-liberal daily Der Standard. Meitner, who in 1906 became the second female physicist to receive her doctorate from the University of Vienna, was considered by Albert Einstein to be "our Madame Curie," by the Nazis as an unwanted Jew, and by the tabloids as the "mother of the atomic bomb." In Stockholm, where she fled in 1938, she discovered together with Otto Frisch the principle of nuclear fission. She was never considered for the Nobel Prize, most likely because she was a woman, even though she was nominated a total of forty-eight times. The aforementioned biography by Rennert and Traxler reads as a case study of a career within the male domain of science, in which women were not only underrepresented, but the absolute exception.

Things are far from different when it comes to the biography of Ingrid Wiener. The artist and cook, who spent a lifetime in the shadow of her husband, the avant-garde artist Oswald Wiener, was the subject of a biography by...


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