On Alma Mahler, Muse and Mistress of Fin-de-Siecle Vienna
Cate Haste Considers the Legacy of "a modern woman who
lived out of her time."
When Alma Mahler walked into a room, heads turned. Her magnetic presence and charismatic allure were like “an electric charge” in any gathering. She was a femme fatale who commanded fascination, adoration, and love and could enchant people in seconds. At the age of nineteen, with clear skin, an enigmatic smile, lustrous, flowing hair, and piercing, watchful blue eyes, Alma was called “the most beautiful girl in Vienna.” Her personality was mercurial; one minute she was the grande dame—imposing, regal, exuding authority—the next she was jolly and good humored, revealing “the Viennese soft femininity [which] even in her most awful moments, made it difficult to really dislike her.” Some likened her to a demigoddess to whom her admirers and devotees brought gifts. Others loathed her.
Alma was a modern woman who lived out of her time. With an independent will, an intelligent mind of her own, and a strong sense of her own worth, she harbored ambitions that were completely at odds with the behavior expected of young women in late nineteenth-century Viennese society. Her freedom mattered as she challenged the constraints imposed on her.
Alma was deeply romantic. She needed to be loved fiercely and also to feel love with a passion that fired her being. Only superior creative talents inspired her love. She was irresistibly and erotically attracted to a series of extraordinary men of glittering talent and genius, each of whom would make his distinctive mark on the European cultural landscape.
Her first infatuation was with the painter Gustav Klimt, though he never made a golden portrait of her and did not become her lover. Composer Gustav Mahler was her first husband, and, after he died in 1911, the wild expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka openly became her lover. Her second husband, the architect Walter Gropius (with whom she had had an affair while married to Mahler), founded the modernist Bauhaus movement; her third was the then widely read novelist and poet Franz Werfel. Several other writers, composers, and artists who worshiped her praised her for her “unique gift,” her “profound, uncanny understanding of what creative men tried to achieve, and her capacity to persuade them that they could do what they aimed at, and that she, Alma, understood what it was,” as one associate described it.
Alma had not anticipated this. At eighteen, music was her passion. Her consuming aspiration was to be a composer, an extremely ambitious goal for a young woman. Nothing moved her as much as her usual twice-weekly visits to the opera, which left her enraptured and her imagination overwhelmed by its beauty and grandeur. But women composers were almost nonexistent. Girls were taught the piano not to encourage their creativity but to burnish their accomplishments as elegant and cultured wives. Women were still barred from studying at the music and art academies. Their capacity for creativity was deemed, then and later, to be limited, parochial, “domestic,” and their creative vision, by their very nature, far inferior to that of men. If, as happened to Alma, a work revealed remarkable talent, its merits were belittled or attributed to the influence or direct intervention of another—male—composer.
The adverse climate did not dim Alma’s ambition. For she was compelled to create music, driven by the spirit that flows from mysterious sources. Her belief in her innately superior pedigree, descended as she was from a painter father, Emil Jakob Schindler, whom she was convinced was a genius, gave her an unshakeable confidence in her own worth. From him came her profound conviction that the pursuit of artistic excellence was the only truly worthwhile goal and that only a person of exceptional creative talent was worthy of eliciting her love or capturing her soul.
But, when she was twenty-one, Alma was faced with a dreadful dilemma. She had to choose between her passion for a genius nearly twice her age, Gustav Mahler, and the pursuit of her own precious goal, her music. She chose the genius. Why? She had become persuaded of the nobility of giving herself entirely to a superior being who would “give my life meaning,” she explained. It was a capitulation of her inner being to the prevailing view of the role of the wife, and it happened, despite her stubborn nature and her modern ideas, because of the overwhelming intensity of her love.
Although the loss of her own music left a lasting wound, music would remain her source of strength during a life of passion and high drama, shadowed by tragedy with the premature loss of her first husband and the deaths of three of her four children. Love was the core of her existence and the wellspring of the power that this restless and irrepressible woman would from then on exercise over those in her orbit.
Born in 1879, Alma Schindler was brought up as a child in the bohemian artistic circles to which her parents, Emil and Anna Schindler, belonged, and, as an adolescent at the busy hub of the influential Viennese avant-garde, the Secession movement cofounded by her stepfather, the artist Carl Moll. She was a young woman of exceptional vitality and intellectual curiosity, eager and open, like a flower to the sun, to life and new experience.
The milieu of her self-discovery was fin-de-siècle Vienna, the magnet for talent and enterprise from across the sprawling Austro-Hungarian (or Habsburg) empire and the crucible for innovation and new ideas in every sphere of culture and intellectual thought. Artists, composers, writers, dramatists, architects, and scientists of the psyche all sought to express the new soul and spirit of modern man and woman, their condition of uncertainty and nervous anxiety, their rejection of ossified principles, and their search for inner truth through emotional and psychological introspection. In so doing they shaped the intellectual currents that defined the twentieth century.
Yet underlying the city’s buoyant cultural energy was an ominous sense of unease. The multinational empire of Austria-Hungary, which for three centuries had held together a kaleidoscope of nationalities and ethnic minorities covering much of central Europe, had begun to fragment. Demands by minorities for greater autonomy and increased rights to control their own languages and territory were opening up fissures that threatened the empire’s cohesion and stability. Faced with these intractable problems, the Viennese zeitgeist turned increasingly toward the unifying and exuberant balms of art and culture, in which pursuit the city could still lay claim to be the capital of Europe.
Within this atmosphere of cultural ferment, the guide, mentor, and polestar of the young Alma’s existence was her father, the painter Emil Jakob Schindler. She would spend many hours in his studio, watching him paint, “standing and staring at the revelations of the hand that led the brush,” and through this she acquired an intuitive sense of the process and struggle of artistic creation. Such intense involvement with the artist she loved unreservedly nurtured in her young imagination fantasies of patronage: “I dreamed of wealth merely in order to smooth the paths of creative personalities. I wished for a great Italian garden filled by many white studios; I wished to invite many outstanding men there—to live for their art alone, without mundane worries—and never to show myself,” she wrote.
Alma’s love of music dated back to her childhood when her “profoundly musical” father sang beautifully his favorite Schumann lieder and her mother, Anna, a trained singer, joined in. Emil Schindler took his intelligent, growing daughter seriously. His conversation was “fascinating and never commonplace,” she recalled. When she was eight, he led Alma and her sister, Gretl, into his studio to tell them the story of Goethe’s Faust: “We wept, not knowing why. When we were all enraptured, he gave us the book. ‘This is the most beautiful book in the world,’ he said. ‘Read it. Keep it.'” Her furious mother thought it unsuitable reading for small children and removed it. As her parents argued, Alma and Gretl listened behind closed doors with bated breath. Their mother won: “But in my mind a fixed idea remained: I had to get the Faust back!” Alma wrote.
Her unwavering devotion to Goethe spawned a burgeoning interest in literature and, later, philosophy. But her education was otherwise patchy. Though Alma appears to have attended school for a short period, she and Gretl, in common with other bourgeois Viennese girls, were taught at home by tutors. Alma’s tutors were either “nasty” and were dismissed, or they were nice and taught them nothing. Girls had been admitted to secondary school in Vienna since 1868, but until 1892, when Alma was thirteen, they were still barred from the gymnasium— the grammar school—and access to universities was still impossible. The education of girls, including Alma, tended to focus on social skills—French, dress making, and piano, rather than the philosophy and literature that inspired her.
Alma remembered herself as “a nervous child, fairly bright, with the typical hop-skip-and jump brains of precocity I could not think anything through, and was never able to keep a date in mind, and took no interest in anything but music.” Later she railed loudly against this neglect of girls’ education: “Why are boys taught to use their brains, but not girls? I can see it in my own case. My mind has not been schooled, which is why I have such frightful difficulty with everything. Sometimes I really try, force myself to think, but my thoughts vanish into thin air. And I really want to use my mind. I really do. Why do they make everything so terribly difficult for girls?”Alma railed loudly against this neglect of girls’ education: “Why are boys taught to use their brains, but not girls?”
However, she had acquired through her father a deep appreciation of painting and of the arts. Schindler, though influenced by plein air painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, and Charles-François Daubigny, had developed his own vision of landscape known as poetic realism—atmospheric paintings saturated with feeling, which convey a strong sense of transience in images that are both aesthetic and subjective. He focused not on the heroic panorama of landscape but on the mundane and everyday—the vegetable garden, the mill and stream near their house, the poplar tree avenue—which he transformed with fluent brushstrokes in different light and atmospheric conditions into statements of poetic truth. Although rooted in the Viennese tradition, his style reflected the new understanding of nature that was spreading across Europe. In Alma’s eyes, he was the true prophet of the Austrian landscape.
In complete contrast, Alma’s expansive imagination was also fired by the opulent spectacles of her father’s friend and associate, Hans Makart, the most fashionable artist of the era. His dramatic, ornate representations of allegorical, historical, and classical motifs decorated Vienna’s public buildings and private neo-Renaissance palaces, and he was the dominant influence on painting, fashion, and interior design: Makart hats and Makart red were all the rage, along with the Makart bouquets—bunches of dried flowers, ostrich feathers, and grasses that decorated the salons of the bourgeoisie.
Alma fell under Makart’s spell for a time: “I loved trailing velvet gowns, and I wanted to be rowed in gondolas with velvet draperies floating astern,” she wrote. She was entranced by stories of his legendary parties, when “the loveliest women were dressed in genuine Renaissance costumes, rose garlands trailed from ballroom ceilings, Franz Liszt played through the nights, the choicest wines flowed, velvet-clad pages stood behind every chair, and so forth to the limits of splendor and imagination.”
Alongside this romantic extravagance there was in Alma a practical young woman with a sense of the difficulties and hardships of life. For her family’s comparatively comfortable existence had been only recently earned.
Excerpted from Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste. ©Cate Haste 2019. Reprinted with permission from Basic Books.
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