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Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon in the 1930s. “Austria comes alive on my divan”, she said (© Bel Etage, Wolfgang Bauer, Wien)


Zuckerkandl also had the courage to take a stand. When national chauvinism was running high during the First World War, she declared her pacifism by publishing a letter from young French authors calling for peace. After the war, she acted as an unofficial Austrian diplomat, arranging informal contacts with French politicians. Zuckerkandl was the last grande dame of the salon era, which ended with the Second World War.

The first woman to bring the salon culture to Austria was Fanny von Arnstein at the end of the 18th century. At the time, Jews had been granted permission to live in Vienna, but had to pay very hefty taxes for this privilege, so only the most successful businessmen managed to settle there. Originally from Berlin, Arnstein was highly educated and inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment. She moved to Vienna when she got married, and decided to bring salon culture with her around 1780.

Back then, women could not participate in public life, and Jewish women were doubly marginalised for their gender and ethnicity. So they chose to invite the public into their homes instead. The spaces they created in their living-rooms consequently promoted both the integration of Jews in society as well as the emancipation of women.

Her biographer, Hilde Spiel, describes her “ephemeral figure, her intangible charm”. A miniature medallion from the family estate shows Arnstein as an elegant and confident young woman, with a shock of brown locks, and large wise dark eyes. There were no grand invitations to Arnstein’s salon, and the atmosphere was informal. The purpose was to promote non-hierarchical, free-flowing conversation, reflected in the scattered furniture. Everybody participated and ego-fuelled boasting was not welcome.

With her salon, Arnstein created “an institution that became a major meeting place of intellectuals, artists, scholars and especially the proponents of political liberalism,” notes Danielle Spera, director of the Jewish Museum. “In the intellectual wasteland of Vienna, Fanny von Arnstein managed to open a door into the world — and she did all of this at a time of political and social repression.” She was the trailblazer for many Viennese Jewish women who followed in her footsteps.

Salons were often a place of contact for travellers or new arrivals to Vienna. Hilde Spiel cites a letter from a Bavarian guest: “Towards every stranger [Arnstein] is almost equally civil, and knows how to create a pleasant relationship . . . Her elegant house is open to any traveller recommended to her. From midday about twelve until well after midnight one  meets the most select company here . . . One comes without great ceremony and goes without taking formal leave.” What’s more, “the tiresome etiquette of the higher circles is banned, the spirit, freed from the restraining fetters of propriety, breathes more freely here.”

How many women attended Arnstein’s salon? The exhibition featured a unique collection of 30 small portraits of her guests,  five of them women. This could indicate that her salon was more open to women than the 20th century (or even the 21st, judging by the fact that fewer than one-sixth of works displayed at New York’s  Museum of Modern Art are by women, and fewer than   one-sixth of CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women).
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