Friday, 23 October 2009

A Wittgenstein Wochenendbeilage

There are loads more cool things about Wittgenstein. Since his family was minted, he chilled with so many of his generation's elite--especially the artistic elite. I suppose one way of putting it would be that when you walk into the Neue Galerie on 5th Ave., you're pretty much entering Wittgenstein's world.

This painting by Klimt is of Wittgenstein's sister, also known as Margaret Stonborough (1905). Wittgenstein's father also commissioned works by Rodin and fully funded the Vienna Secession building. Basically, he was the sugar daddy for many artists and architects of the various modernist movements. The Vienna Secession was primarily founded by Josef Hoffman, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Otto Wagner, and Koloman Moser.

Wittgenstein not only rubbed shoulders with the gifted artists of his day, but also one particularly mediocre artist, as well. At school, he was two years above Adolf Hitler, despite being born six days after the future Fuhrer. Thirty six years later, Wittgenstein would be on the run from his former schoolmate, and ironically require his assistance. With the advent of the Anschluss, or Germany's annexation of Austria, Wittgenstein was racially classified as a Jew. In order to be reclassified--to receive a Befreiung--as a Mischlinge, the applicant required the personal approval of Hitler. Out of 2100 applications in 1939, Hitler approved 12 (but not because he was stingy or really hated Jews; he was simply too busy designing flamboyant leather uniforms for his troops). The Wittgensteins' sheer wealth, which the Reichsbank had likely been eagerly eyeing for quite some time, definitely made the slim odds seem more in their favour to have their grandfather (and therefore his progeny) reclassified. And it would certainly cost them. In August of 1939, for the hefty sum of 1.7 tonnes of gold and other assets (way over $50 million in our time), the Befreiung was granted. If the Wittgensteins had transferred the money to the Reichsbank a few weeks later (i.e, after the outbreak of the war), it actually would have been considered a war crime, the punishment being death by hanging.

Hoffmann Desk 1905
But before Hitler ruined the Wittgenstein's party, Ludwig had met some pretty cool people and tried his hand at a few artistic pursuits, as well. Brahms and Mahler hung out at his house, and Brahms even gave his sister piano lessons.
Wittgenstein's sister commissioned Josef Hoffman to build this desk, which i have not been able to get out of my head since my visit to the Neue Gallerie. Hoffman stained the oak and then rubbed chalk into the wood grain to achieve this effect.

imagesIn 1925, Margaret Stonborough also commissioned her brother Ludwig--then a gardener in a nearby monastery--as an architect to design a large house for her in Vienna. Wittgenstein worked alongside Paul Engelmann, his friend from the army. Just to get an idea of how all the modernist movements are intertwined (not necessarily harmoniously), Engelmann had studied under Adolf Loos, who was also a friend of Wittgenstein. Loos basically bashed the Vienna Secession, whose building Wittgenstein's father had financed.

During the building of his sister's house, Wittgenstein also focussed more on sculpture. He had met the sculptor Michael Drobil when they were both in a POW camp, and Drobil had been a member of the Secession, as well.

It's fascinating to contextualise philosophers and artists with their cultural milieu. That being said, i've barely scratched the surface of the modernists, and i welcome any suggested reading.


I got a helpful comment from a reader on Lumberjocks (where i also post my blog), as well as some suggested reading. I thought i would post it here so we can all benefit. Thanks, JL Smith!

As a result of my education (both formal and informal) I have a pretty good grasp of the Vienna Secession particularly from an architectural and painting perspective. I have always found it interesting that the movement imposed no aesthetic dogma but instead focused on producing modern works of art. My understanding of the context beyond the artistic world has always been somewhat limited. I am sure you know that Art and Architectural history professors typically don’t like to teach social and political history. For the most part it seems if one whats to understand the art world in it’s broader context they will have to do it on their own.

I don’t know if these reading suggestions will align with your interests or not but I have read them and found them interesting. They cast a wider net then most art/architectural books do regarding context (the widest context is probably the Judgment of Paris).

These three are by Ross King
The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

Gregory Curtis wrote
The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists

Philip Steadman wrote
Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces

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