By Meghna Singh
Weathered bronze-turned-green, faded gold and white buildings along cobblestoned streets; the smell of coffee; the taste of a cold, pale lager, and stinging paper cuts from an overused map: these are the sensations that colored my week in Vienna, Austria this spring break, as my class of 17 and I searched the city for reminders of the vibrant and fractured modernism that it experienced in 1900.
This trip to Vienna was a research excursion generously funded by Bryn Mawr, a part of the 360 course that my class and I are currently enrolled in called ‘The Last Days of the Habsburgs: Vienna 1900 and the End of an Empire.’ Co-taught by German Professor Imke Meyer and Art History Professor Christiane Hertel, the course is an interdisciplinary inquiry into the emergence of Viennese modernism and the art, literature and academia of the time with which it shared a mutually defining relationship.
The 360 course ‘clusters’ are designed, as the Bryn Mawr website puts it, to “focus on the history, economic concerns, cultural intersections and political impact of an era, decision, event, policy, or important scientific innovation.” Although sometimes this ‘cluster’ implies a set of classes are taught separately, the Vienna 1900 class is a single, 2 credit seminar that brings together students from a variety of disciplines once a week to engage in discussion about the art and architecture, literature and critical thought that arose in the crumbling Habsburg empire.
This was a deliberate decision on part of Professors Meyer and Hertel, who believe that it would be hard to disentangle the art of Vienna 1900 from its literature, its buildings from the theories of Freud. And through the course of the semester, certain links and themes centered around the fractured Viennese society recur in the natural course of discussion in the seminar.
Our experience in Vienna was similar: within and around the Ringstrasse, the major circular road that surrounds the old heart of Vienna, everything is entwined and everything is connected. A single ride on the tram around the Ring is enough to see how the political mixes with the artistic at ‘Wien’s’ center. One after the other, your eye flits from the Rathaus (the town hall) to the Opera House, the Museums quartier, the Hofburg Palace, the University building, a complex synthesis of the public and the private that we had a week to decipher.
Our week in Vienna started on Sun., Mar. 6, when we moved into our hotel within the Ringstrasse, down the street from Stephansdom, Vienna’s mother church (its soaring spires became a beacon for my friends and me whenever we made our way back from different parts of the city). That first day, our jet-lagged feet walked along the Ring and the Heldenplatz (the historic square where Hitler announced Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938), leading us to Cafe Griensteidl, a well-known Viennese coffee house where you can linger over a cup of “Grosser Brauner” for hours on end. After filling, delicious Austrian cuisine, we went separate ways into the night, exploring cobblestoned streets with accordion players and street side carts selling sausages, the sounds of German all around us.
The week that followed was a blur of movement from place to place in the city as we made our way across different museums, art galleries, architecturally significant buildings and, of course, coffee-houses. On Monday I found myself in front of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ in the Oberes Belvedere – a reminder of the uniqueness of an original work of art. Also at the Belvedere and the Leopold Museums was a treasure-trove of Egon Schiele’s work, Klimt’s prodigy whose intriguing self-portraits were the subject of many huddled conversations.
The visit to the Vienna Secession building, the home of the fin-de-siecle’s break-away art movement, was another major highlight of the trip for me: Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, mounted in panels in a double-height room, has infinite stories within it. You pivot and turn, over and over again, to see the frieze’s panels one after the next, in motion, conversing with each other; it’s hard to say you spent ‘too much’ time in this room.
Importantly, time reserved for group-specific research allowed us to pursue particular interests. With my group partner and our professors I visited the Josephinum, the Medical University’s museum, to learn more about the way medicine was practiced during Freud’s time. Other groups visited places specific to their interests as well – the Theatre Museum and certain plays for the theatre group; a walk along the Prater, Vienna’s ‘amusement park’, as well as a visit to Adolf Loos’s famous Cafe Museum for the architecture group; a visit to the Albertina for the art group, for example.
All of us also paid a visit to Sigmund Freud’s home, an amazing opportunity to see his documents, collectible antiques and artifacts, and just what kind of cigars he preferred (he took his couch with him to England, though, a slight disappointment). Time away from art galleries and museums was spent wandering the streets of the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s famous open-air market; we went to see a production of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ at the Volksoper; we visited the Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburgs’ summer residence; and became very familiar with Viennese coffees and beers, pastries and the famous ‘Habsburger’ – a true Viennese specialty!
Details do little to explicate just what this trip has left us with- intellectually invigorating, it also helped our class to get to know each other and our professors. The classroom dynamic has changed since the trip, at least in my eyes: having a class rapport that is very in-sync and, of course, a deeper understanding of the art and culture we are discussing through first-hand experience goes a long way in creating engaging and meaningful conversation.
Though I don’t plan to enroll in the 360 program entitled ‘Contemplative Traditions’ next semester (oh, divisional requirements!), I’m excited to hear from students who do enroll about the classes, their trips to Japan, PA and NY, the friendships they form and how the 360 program changes their academic perspectives. I know Vienna has certainly left me changed – and not only with a craving for coffee that even my beloved Haffner cannot satisfy.