Vienna, magnet for all of the enormous Hapsburg Empire, was a pressure cooker waiting to explode.  So said our speaker, Gavin Plumley, when he addressed the assembled members for our January lecture.  

Since 1848 Europe had been subject to revolution, Italy and Germany to name but two.  Within the Hapsburg Empire similar feelings were stirring and the Emperor had made one or two minor concessions, but by 1914 matters reached the explosive point and after that fatal gunshot Europe was at war.

Before all that happened, Vienna was a hotbed of ideas.  Hitler, Trotsky and Stalin were all there at the same time, Gustav Mahler was in charge at the State Opera House, Otto Wagner was the architect of the most modern buildings, Egon Schiele was producing outlandish paintings, Gustav Klimt was changing his style from traditional to symbolism and Sigmund Freud was on the edge of medical thought.

In his efforts to revive the importance of the Empire the Emperor decided to enhance Vienna.  He demolished the old ramparts and built the Ringstrasse, decreeing that it should be lined with important and impressive buildings.  To achieve this he sold the land to various groups, newly wealthy tradesmen and the Rothschilds among them.

The first building to be erected was the Catholic Cathedral, modelled on Chartres.  It was followed by the Stock Exchange in 1873.  Unfortunately the stock market crashed shortly afterwards, and two decades of depression followed, adding to the social tension already simmering.

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna.

The demolished Old Court Theatre.

The first sign of the new thinking was a production of Die Fledermaus, Strauss's satire on the moneyed classes; Karl Hofffner, the librettist, wrote for Act 2, 'Happy is he who forgets what can no longer be changed".

In 1895 a new mayor was elected, Karl Lueger, who was anti-semitic.  The Emperor considered him a revolutionary and it was two years before his appointment was ratified.  Lueger is credited with much of the modernising of Vienna but his attitudes added fuel to the fire.

In 1888 the Old Court Theatre was demolished and Klimt painted a conventional image of the auditorium, including people whom he admired.  Klimt had benefitted from the relatively liberal education system in Austria and he and his brother, Ernst, were recommended by their teacher to work on interiors.  They were successful in obtaining commissions, including from the King of Romania who had built himself a new castle.

He was involved in several of the new buildings along the Ringstrasse, including an Italian Renaissance style edifice for the University (founded in 1365).

From 1897 onwards Klimt and many other famous names gathered at the CafĂ© Sperl.  In 1898 several artists decided that they would 'regret the Academy of Fine Arts'.  They were fortunate to have a sympathiser in Joseph Olbrich who built the Secession.  A brand new art gallery, in the same part of town as the Academy of Fine Arts where these rebellious modern artists were able to display their works.

Gavin Plumley's then drew our attention to the architect, Otto Wagner, showing us his forward thinking mental hospital, the railway network for Vienna, a Renaissance style block of flats and the imposing Post Office.

The evening finished with excerpts from Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg, summing up the amazing variety of artistic endeavour which flourished in Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Arts and Culture of Fin de Siecle Vienna: Gavin Plumley.