A Tale of Two Gustavs

Sonya Wohletz

Part 1 of Some Thoughts on Love and Memory

Around the turn of the 20th century, two remarkable artists were working in Vienna whose contributions would bring to surface deep cultural tensions that had somehow remained buried and unresolved in the Western consciousness for thousands of years. One of the artists was a musician, a composer, and the director of the Vienna Court Opera; the other worked in applied arts and paintings. The composer’s 5th Symphony was conceived of in dedication to his love of (or rather his ineffable desire for) his wife. In a poem accompanying the piece, he wrote:

In which way I love you, my sunbeam,
I cannot tell you with words.
Only my longing, my love and my bliss,
Can I with anguish declare

I’ve frequently heard the piece on the radio, the adagietto, swathed in static and rain as I drive home at the end of the day. As the strings make their gentle, if diffident, entrance in the first bars, it is hard to draw out the melodic structure from the mass of sound, as if something had not quite been resolved in the composer’s mind. The effect is lovely, yet we can sense the lavender lack of resolution and evasive drive for satisfaction that moves underneath the sound waves. It is in equal parts an uneasy and comforting experience, an all-consuming nebula of feeling. Wagner smiles in the background. As with most things that are all-consuming, the idea of committing fully to these tides of tension and resolution is terrifying, having known what it felt like before.

Here is how it felt (or rather, how the experience summons itself in visions): a suspension of emotion caught inside some viscosity of blue liquid—impossibly difficult to submit oneself fully, though it is, of course, inevitable. Having been there before, in the music, I know for myself that it is better to submerge the senses all at once and allow it to swallow me, the terrible future contemplated as if from the soaring vantage point of some rocky outcropping on a windswept, Teutonic winter day. The freezing, yet tonic turquoise of the water below. In to it from the promontory, panting with shock, the electric heart whirring the oxygen along to the extremities in tiny little vehicles of fatted blood. Goosebumps sprout like a patterned illness.

This was before the war. And then it was over.

The music begins to reveal itself with more confidence, and with it descends a disorienting sensation that welcomes back a native warmth. The war was long ago, I remember, and the beauty, death’s premonition, somehow persisted.

Around the same time Gustav Mahler began work on this monument, Gustav Klimt was in the midst of a scandal following the unveiling of an unfinished work meant to adorn the ceiling of Vienna University’s Great Hall. The work in question, a dedicatory to the theme of Philosophy, was met with disgust. Where it was understood that the artist would display the apollonian restraint associated with the striving of intellect, he instead painted the simple madness, the turgid void of the human psyche.

Ascending towards the heavens on the left side of the composition: a stream of life—naked bodies, beautiful bodies, bodies twirling in the copulative act; at the top, children, partially obscured by the burly, Michaelangelo-esque figure of some male nude, his ropy back muscles confronting the viewer in suggestive, agile brushwork. A woman dangles just beneath this group, ivory white, her head thrown back in ecstasy as she grasps her full breasts. Unlike most of the other figures in this life stream, she is not engaged with anyone else, but rather suspended in mid-air, lost in sensation. I imagine her a tired mother like me, stripped bare of worldly concerns, tied in tight to the experience of her body, her milk, her skin. Deep green rapture.

Beneath these glorious bodies, a desiccated figure of a man, warped in sorrow, his skin hanging from his bones as he claws his head with demon-like talons, weeping in despair. Another grieving figure, diagonally elevated to the right—his female counterpart. Our ancestors.

Nietzsche speaks:

Oh, man, take heed:
What does the deep midnight say?
I was asleep, asleep
From a deep dream I woke
The world is deep
Deeper than the day has known
Deep in its woe—
Desire—deeper still than a heartbreak
Woe speaks: Go die!

At the lowest edge of the painting, a mysterious woman peeks out amidst a fabulous swatch of dark hair, reminiscent of a Japanese ukiyo-e courtesan. Eyes lit, she recalls the image of Judith from one of the artist’s other well-known compositions. She sees us looking, trying to understand what she already knows, what she had to kill to know.

Finally, in the background, the evocative image of a Sphinx—the Symbolist representation of the cosmic riddle—emerges amidst stippled brushwork, face slack and peaceful.

Klimt was never able to fully execute this masterpiece. Having been accused of pornography and perverted excess, his vision of the philosophic impulse as a swirling of “atoms and elemental forces,” as the critic Ludwig Hevesi had characterized it, had not found purchase with the conservative tastes of government officials. They wanted beauty, but the tasteful sort, measured in part by the classicizing legacy of the Renaissance, understood as it was to be governed by reason, measure, decency, triumph, harmony. Strange to realize that these criticisms would much echo the same derisions directed towards interwar artists a few decades later in Germany as Hitler extended his aesthetic machine into the hearts and minds of his followers, determined to expunge the scourge of the so-called entarte (degenerate) from the cultural sphere. He himself had studied art in Vienna. And Vienna, save for the few (mostly Jewish) collectors that actually purchased his obsessively-ordered works, had rejected him.

In the 1930s Klimt’s Philosophy (as well as the accompanying works, Medicine and Jurisprudence, which were equally ridiculed for their avant garde qualities) came into the possession of a Jewish family before they were confiscated by Nazis. It is believed that the works were later deliberately destroyed by the Nazis during the retreat in 1945. Of Philosophy, only black and white photographs survive.

I think about pre-war Vienna, the opera, the Sphynx, Mahler’s symphony, the melting away of the last remnants of Habsburg glory. The Byzantine opulence of Holy Roman piety, sparkling surfaces marked out in gorgeous patterns, sighing with life. I suppose, in some ways, this represents, at least historiographically, a point in time where so many things converged or promised to converge, before the earth crumbled apart and the rotten corpses of the old conflicts between philosophy and cultic adoration, magic and reason, and god and man were somehow called forth, re-animated, and loosed in a wild and orgiastic stampede.

Perhaps these old ghosts somehow have this insipid quality of disguise, of mimicry. Claiming for themselves some imagined distance between subject and object, they lodge themselves in the folds of time and fatten themselves with lies and forgetting. The spaces around them inflate--grow vaster--and the ghosts more bloated, until the tissues that contain that fictive, sick space of cultural progress begin to collapse in on themselves once more. We find ourselves in the atemporal experience of magic, which we believed was somehow extirpated along the way towards modernity.

Philosophy—well, German Idealism, particularly—certainly seems to have guided itself along this direction, having negotiated some sort of peace treaty between thought and emotion, experience and truth, through the expedient of logic. In turn—designating art as a receptacle for that which could not fully be accounted for in logical terms. Yet this division was bound to fail. For logic has an unquenchable appetite for aesthetic and emotional experience.

In Mahler’s music I find the unmediated urge for a medium by which this experience could somehow unhinge itself from the yoke of that German methodical madness. His was a beckoning to the immediate demands of intimacy. It is no coincidence that now, years later, people can respond to his creation so strongly.

Whereas contemporary thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer emphasized a growing concern with the generative impulse, the mechanism by which mankind secures its future, Mahler’s music, in some ways, overrides theoretical concerns and to an equal degree, the clinical take on reproduction. Love is the experience we have with other human beings, the memories, feelings, and disappointments that come to mind when we recall the image of a particular individual to mind. The smell of hair, embarrassment, and threadbare bedclothes. The woman who poses for the painting, bare-breasted, thick-thighed. For the madmen of the time, Love, as a dirty word for reproduction, was nothing but a tool and would become the fulcrum upon which world domination rested.

There is a tension there, in Vienna, before the world wars. It hasn’t been diffused. The world still burns its ghosts, smoke ascending from rows of votive candles, wax melting down between the cracks in the altar beneath which the unctuous liquid pools in that primordial place to commune with the next generation. Subject and object collapse; or, we see that they were never really separate. The madmen would claim that they are. The madmen would win out in the short-term, with the introduction of eugenics theory and the preoccupation with (and, consequently, inconsolable anxiety about) the supposed superiority of the make-believe Aryan race.

Mahler’s art is in some ways a soothing reminder that no matter what the world devises for us, there may be some safety in love. Can we afford to believe that, or is the burden of cultural trauma too overpowering?

With Klimt, I sense at work something perhaps even more profound, that is, the desire to dissolve the boundaries between the affective and the act of knowing. This, in many ways, represents a turn away from an ordered approach to the world, guided perhaps by the rich cultural conversation, helmed by Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, that sought to unearth the primal chaos of the human psyche as a significant driving force of civilization. There is much to be said about their failures.

What Nietzsche problematically sought to achieve with his holographic prose, his return to the “origins” of Western Civilization through the Dionysian complex of pleasure, disaster, and chaos, Aby Warburg, an early 20th-century art historian, would elevate with his re-evaluation of the state of philosophy and art, exorcising the “I” of Nietzsche’s false ego. Regarded today by many as the originator of the modern approach to art history, Aby Warburg is somewhat of a mystery, according to Georges Didi-Huberman, a “dybbuk” (spirit, though I am sure that Didi-Huberman only implies the malicious nature of this ghostly imp for the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t expunge Warburg fully from his own approach to the matter of art history). Through Warburg, art history itself as a genre, a way of looking at the world, a method (or, as James Elkins argues, lack thereof) may permit some sort of expansive, somehow artless insight into the inner workings of the Western ethos on the eve of the world wars.

With his preoccupation with movement, the juncture between systems of thought—the cosmos, space, the human body—and the persistence of Pagan astrology throughout the Renaissance and beyond, Aby Warburg may have found much to appreciate in Klimt’s rejected works (though we don’t know if he ever saw them) and their insistence on a timeless sense of being. For Warburg, historiography was too concerned with chronology, and through images, he was able to express something about the persistence of human urges and impulses and the cycles by which we negotiate empathy and distance, chaos and order.

In his final work, Atlas Mnemosyne, which he undertook in 1924, leaving it unfinished at his death in 1929, Warburg compiled series of images meant to illustrate the atemporal, affective structure of image systems as he experienced them in his studies. Much has been said about these panels, each of which was thematically conceived, consisting of collaged images, photograph, and manuscripts. In many ways they lend themselves to a limitless range of interpretive possibilities. As sites of reflection and syntheses, they allow their creator (and their viewer) to lay bare the ways in which images are never singular, but rather participate in larger network of ideas that seem to collapse time and space.

One of the recurrent schematic keys to interpreting the aesthetic pathos is that of ascent and fall. In Warburg, these two polarities find expression through a number of themes: salvation and condemnation, progress and decay, triumph and defeat, the movement of celestial bodies.

Add to the pastiche the image of Klimt’s bodies in Philosophy. Do they rise, or fall with age? Is age the same thing as time? And where does the image locate us, as spectators, in this stream? Play it to the tune of Mahler, and press pause. Try to forget what happens next.

The Thread
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