The expression “fin de siècle” refers to the artistic and cultural movements in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century.
In Vienna, philosophy and art are now erupting. In medicine, with the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, Sigmund Freud lays the foundations for the field of psychoanalysis. In literature, Arthur Schnitzler breaks the taboos of an overly puritan society with his play La Ronde. In architecture, there is a battle going on between the minimalist approach of Adolf Loos and the organic lines of Otto Wagner. It is the golden age of Viennese music. Waltz and operetta, developed by the Strauss family, are making way for the stylings of Gustav Mahler, for whom tradition is synonymous with laziness and carelessness. He becomes the epitome of Austrian music. Soon, the “Second Viennese School”, a group of composers that comprises Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, scrap the code and introduce atonality and the twelve-tone technique. A cultural revolution is under way.
The city is also getting a makeover. Between 1857 and 1914, “the Ringstrasse Period”, the government and the emerging bourgeoisie construct architecturally extravagant buildings along the new boulevard. For the rest of society, industrialisation provokes a rural exodus and what comes to be known as the working-class misery. In reality, beneath the splendour of the capital in metamorphosis, the general mood at the turn of the century is melancholic and unsettled by the scientific and technological advances.
Vienna is indeed the capital of an increasingly fragile state. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a veritable mosaic of people (Germans, Hungarians, Slavs, Mediterraneans, and Jews) is in jeopardy from nationalist aspirations. According to Schnitzler, the diverse population within the Empire is getting nervous about cultural homogenisation. Worse still, anti-Semitism is becoming prolific in society to such an extent that, in 1895, Vienna elects an openly anti-Semitic mayor. Painter and write Oskar Kokoschka says of the situation, “The people lived in security, yet they were all afraid. I felt this through their cultivated form of living”.
The cultural climate in Vienna is conducive to secessionist art, the movement initiated by Klimt in 1897. In the city, which is a genuine think tank, there is now scope for separation between traditional and modern art. Although the Austro-Hungarian State is conservative, it contributes to the funding of the Secession movement. One explanation for this could be their interest in adopting the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (a Total Work of Art), developed by the secessionists as a metaphor for a united empire.