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Fanny von Arnstein’s salon in the 1780s. (© Jüdisches Museum Wien)

“Austria comes alive on my divan,” said Berta Zuckerkandl, and this was an understatement. An influential journalist and art critic, Zuckerkandl welcomed everybody from Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt to Arthur Schnitzler at her home. There, she promoted their work, found them buyers and introduced them to the luminaries of the day. “Hail to the most marvellous and witty woman in Vienna,” Johann Strauss is said to have exclaimed, falling to his knees before her. From the turn of the 20th century, hers was the most important salon in the city.

“Her red hair glowed with colourfully embroidered fabrics  . . .  her dark brown eyes sparkled with inner fire,” noted the German writer Helene von Nostitz, who was a guest at Zuckerkandl’s salon. “Most of the time she was found sitting on her long divan, surrounded by young painters, poets and musicians, who always felt comfortable with her, because a releasing, vibrant air wafted here.”

The first salon originated in 17th-century France, when the Marquise de Rambouillet broke with the tradition of the court and invited guests to gather at her home. From then on, salons were run all over Europe, as key places where intellectuals, writers, musicians and artists mingled and talked for hours, sometimes days. They would form alliances, think up works of art, and engage in free thinking and proto-political debates. An excellent recent exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum, The Place to Be, showed that salons were also “spaces of emancipation”. Each space of the exhibition introduced an influential woman who ran a salon, charting her interests, her guests and her legacy.

The woman who interested me the most was Berta Zuckerkandl, as soon as I saw a photograph of her sitting at her desk, writing. She glances at the camera with the look of one who is inspired and inspires others. Zuckerkandl was born in 1864, the daughter of an influential publisher. Her father ran the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, one of Austria’s leading liberal daily newspapers. He was a friend of Crown Prince Rudolf, whose political articles he published without naming the author. Only Berta was privy to the secret, as she was her father’s right hand by the age of 16, and she became a journalist and cultural critic in her own right.

The Viennese culture we know today flourished in her salon. She had a poignant way of telling stories and the ability to portray characters deftly in a few words. She ran her salon from 1888 to 1938. The gatherings, which took place on Sundays, had up to 200 guests. The food was known to be meagre, consisting of sandwiches with coffee and tea, as Zuckerkandl focused on nourishing the intellect instead. It is said that the art movement the Vienna Secession was founded at her salon, as were the influential design group the Wiener Werkstaette (Vienna Workshop) and the Salzburg Festival.
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