Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna

This review originally appeared in the Vol. 24 No. 2 / Fall-Winter 2017 issue of West 86th.

Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna
Elana Shapira
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016.
336 pp.; 13 color and 36 b/w ills.
Paper $40.00
ISBN 9781611689211

In an essay linking Secessionism to an ostentatious Jewish taste, Viennese journalist, satirist, and assimilated Jew Karl Kraus lambasted the proclivity of “money-proud Viennese Jewry” for commissioning elaborate Secessionist interiors to disguise their Jewishness through modernist art and design.1 Just as gentile aristocrats kept a Hausjude (house Jew) prior to the era of Jewish emancipation, finde-siècle Jewish financiers and industrialists now kept a resident Secessionist decorator on hand to facilitate their aesthetic acculturation into mainstream gentile society. Yet Kraus believed that Secessionist design could not, metaphorically speaking, transform ghettos into mansions and was ultimately incapable of delivering the integration its patrons desired. Anti-Secessionist architect and cultural critic Adolf Loos agreed with Kraus, likening Secessionist design to a new caftan that failed to cloak the Jewish origins of its wearer/inhabitant. Not unlike the protagonist of Theodor Herzl’s Das neue Ghetto—a cultured, assimilated Jew who comes to terms with the pitfalls of acculturation and the Jews’ supposed emancipation—Loos believed that moneyed Viennese Jews were cordoning themselves off in a new, self-imposed aesthetic ghetto through their continued preference for ornamental, Secessionist interiors. Antisemitic cartoonists and journalists likewise assailed Viennese Jews’ apparent enthusiasm for Secessionism, singling out especially the “Jewish painter” Gustav Klimt (a Catholic with close connections to moneyed Viennese Jewry), who wielded a proliferation of ornament and rich materials, so such cartoons alleged, to disguise his unattractive female portrait sitters. Such contemporary linkages between Viennese modernism and an ornamental gôut juif point to a revealing paradox in Jewish patronage. Even as Viennese Jews championed modernist art and design as a means of assimilation and acculturation, prominent Jewish patrons joined a predominantly Jewish rather than gentile community of collectors and connoisseurs, with their collecting practices highlighting rather than concealing their Jewishness.

Stressing the differential, generational nature of Jewish patronage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Elana Shapira’s important new monograph Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna tackles the complex question of Jewish self-identification as expressed, both directly and indirectly, through art, architecture, and design. Shapira’s monograph adds to the corpus of literature, first appearing in the 1980s and gaining ground in the 1990s and 2000s, that scrutinizes the vital contributions of Jewish artists, writers, and critics of Viennese modernism.2 The strongly Jewish base of support for Secessionist and other variants of Viennese modernist design should come as no surprise to the specialist reader whom Shapira addresses as her intended audience. Rather, Shapira’s claims to originality lie in the way that she probes the specifically Jewish influence(s) on Viennese modernism: how an engagement with Jewish culture and tradition propelled forms of artistic and cultural innovation through which Jewish patrons emerged as dynamic co-producers of Viennese modernism. Challenging the standard, historiographical narrative of patronage as a path toward acculturation and assimilation—a paradigm in which Jews sacrificed outward traces of Jewish history, religion, or culture—Shapira insists that prominent Jewish patrons and collectors “entertained the possibilities of ‘Jewishness’ and reconstructed a Jewish self-identification through their fashioning of Viennese style” (5). Moving chronologically through four successive generations of patrons (the historicists, the Secessionists, the modernists, and the avant-gardists), the author maintains that Jewish patrons not only adopted the markers of mainstream Christian society in the process of acculturation but championed a proud reclamation of Jewish cultural difference, using architecture and interior design to challenge Jewish stereotypes and promote their own authority as artistic producers and cultural celebrities. The Jewish identification discussed by Shapira is far from essentialist or reductionist but emerges through subtle, complex, and multivalent forms of aesthetic seduction: a flirtatious game of revealing and concealing, covering and uncovering, in which the shame or crime of the patron’s Jewishness could be variously transformed into an alluring or even exotic vice through coded or overt references to a specifically Jewish past.

Working closely with preeminent gentile architects like Theophil Hansen and Leopold Förster, late nineteenth-century financiers like Eduard von Todesco and Gustav von Epstein, who are profiled in the author’s first chapter, favored the historicist style for the building of their grand city-palaces on Vienna’s Ring Boulevard (or Ringstraße) not merely as a means of Europeanization but, through specific references to Hellenistic visual culture, to draw on the positive connotations of Hellenistic Jewish acculturation. Shapira locates the authorial intent of Jewish patrons in an intensive dialogue between patrons and architects, attributing specific meaning to iconographic content, architectural styles, and decorative schemes. Exemplifying her methodology is Shapira’s assertion that Carl Rahl’s ceiling mural for the Palais Todesco dining room, The Judgment of Paris (a theme singularly chosen by the patron), is key to the patron’s claim of owning the most beautiful Esszimmer in all of Vienna, as well as an indirect way of refuting stereotypes associating Jews with ugliness, vice, and corruption. Todesco’s compatriot, the financier Epstein, emerges as a similarly active co-producer of self-image and architectural style by rejecting decorative interior schemes that allegorize the mercantile sources of his fortune and instead preferring a more cultured, humanistic décor that attests to his role as art patron. Yet, while the aforementioned examples draw on specific textual evidence documenting patrons’ roles in decision-making, at other times evidence for patrons’ intentions is more indirect and conjectural, found in what the author refers to as (in reference to the Jung-Wien literate and aesthete Richard Beer-Hofmann) “a silent theater of imagery,” woven together through contextual readings of contemporary texts on the cultural aesthetics of acculturation, assimilation, and Jewish identity (164).

The author takes impressive strides to excavate the authorial intent of patrons’ active conversations with architects and designers, recasting familiar figures like Fritz Waerndorfer and Ludwig Wittgenstein (the main financial backers of the Secessionists’ commercial workshops, the Wiener Werkstätte, and the Secession Exhibition House) as active participants in—or even initiators of—Viennese modernism. Shapira’s terminology in framing patrons as cultural authors and artistic co-producers serves as useful shorthand for the Secessionists’ valorization of patronage and consumption, whereby consumption was to be understood not in a commercial but a manifestly spiritual sense. Indeed, despite the ways in which the Vienna Secessionists and especially the Klimt Group harbored radically inclusive definitions of art and art-making, propounding an equality between artist and patron, between applied and fine arts, and between acts of artistic creation and consumption, subsequent literature has tended to marginalize the role of clients and patrons. Foremost among the book’s vital contributions to the literature is the author’s stress on the dynamic, authorial intent of modernist patrons and on the helpful terminology of co-production—a phrase that deserves to be widely adopted, not least with regard to Klimt’s female portrait sitters, who are far too often short-shrifted in cliché-laden exhibitions reifying patronage as passive.

The authorial intent of Jewish patrons and collectors, Shapira insists, was part and parcel of a multigenerational dialogue that progressively advanced Viennese modernist design. In contrast to Ringstraße-era (1857–1914) patrons who favored coded references to their Jewishness through Hellenistic visual culture, references that likewise created a shared platform for creative exchange with gentiles, a new generation of Viennese Jewish patrons (analyzed as case studies in Shapira’s chapter on “The Secessionists”) embraced cultural difference via architectural and design commissions, which traced the Jews’ historical relationship with the Near East. A classic example can be found in the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein’s financing of the Secessionists’ Exhibition House. In its resemblance to an archaic, orientalist temple with its famed golden dome (or golden cabbage), Shapira reads Olbrich’s design for the Secessionist building as a generational protest against the acculturation strategy of Ringstraße-era patrons, whose references to the Hellenic/Hellenistic past were more outwardly Europeanizing than the ornamental, orientalist character of Secessionist design. To younger patrons like Karl Wittgenstein or photographer Friedrich Spitzer, the prior generation’s distancing from a cultural affiliation with the Orient emerged “as a weakness on a par with their being targeted by the media for their Jewish ‘looks’ and their riches” (93). Wittgenstein’s patronage is simultaneously read as a rebellious act of defiance against the collecting practices of his mother, salon hostess Fanny Figdor, a founding patron of the Künstlerhaus, or Viennese artists’ guild, which favored conservative academic styles. Further evidence for the Jewish influence on Viennese Secessionism is found in the work of Otto Wagner, whose mature designs drew on orientalist visual elements, such as his design in the Moorish-Byzantine style for the Rumbach synagogue (1866–67) in (Buda)pest. While the author’s evidence for the shared authorial intent among artists, patrons, and critics is sometimes free-floating, in this example the author connects her historicist and Secessionist patrons in a progressive dialogue that she argues advanced Viennese modernism more broadly. It was none other than Jewish celebrity patron Gustav von Epstein who helped mediate between Wagner and the Pest orthodox community for the Rumbach commission. That the main source of inspiration to Wagner—veritably celebrated as the founding father of Viennese modern architecture—was found in a two-volume work on the ornament of the Alhambra gifted to the Museum for Art and Industry by the Ringstraße patron Epstein represents a largely unknown but revealing linkage, which deserves wider acknowledgment in the literature on Viennese modernism. Jewish patronage, as Shapira masterfully demonstrates through such surprising lineages, unfolded not monolithically but multivalently, in a layered and dialectical fashion.

The story of the founding of the Secessionists’ commercial design workshops, the Wiener Werkstätte, is well known to the readers of West 86th, but the author delivers a revisionist account emphasizing the patrons’ Jewish identification. While standard narratives have stressed Fritz Waerndorfer’s extensive knowledge and intimate contacts with members of the British Arts and Crafts movement (including the architects and designers involved in the building and decoration of his eighteenth-district villa “House for an Art Lover”) as the critical impetus inspiring Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser to co-found workshops loosely based on British precedents, Shapira posits alternative reasons for Waerndorfer’s extensive financial and spiritual support of the Wiener Werkstätte. At a time when Jews faced increased attacks in politics and the press, the author interprets Waerndorfer’s dandy-aesthete persona and all-embracing personal commitment to the Wiener Werkstätte’s philosophy of the beautification of utility as subversive acts of defiance against heteronormative notions of masculinity and antisemitic stereotypes that cast Jewish men as weak, effeminate, and unattractive. According to the author, an engagement with beautiful things would allow the patron to become beautiful himself, effectively sidestepping notions of Jewish inferiority and ugliness. Waerndorfer could benefit from this association even as he sought to shock houseguests with provocative artworks such as Klimt’s Hope I (1903), a highly sexualized allegory of an expectant woman that he kept in a special glass cabinet, and his collection of exotic pet snakes, which he housed next to the picture gallery. Similar to the book’s other case studies, in Shapira’s analysis Waerndorfer engages in a flirtatious game of revealing and concealing his Jewish identification through the cultural authorship he exercised in his “House for an Art Lover.” Although Waerndorfer worked closely with the artistic director of the Werkstätte, Josef Hoffmann, he also employed Moser and members of the Mackintosh circle for the redesign of the villa, favoring a deliberately “patchwork Gesamtkunstwerk” style for outfitting the interiors (126). Interpreted in tandem with contemporary literary texts, the author attributes special meaning to Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s frieze for the music room, The Seven Princesses, locating its significance in the centrality of the number seven in Jewish religion and culture and hence indexing a sort of Jewish nostalgia on the part of its commissioner. Shapira offers up similar readings of the Hoffmann interiors commissioned for Jewish novelist and poet Richard Beer-Hoffman, a figure who reclaimed a specifically Jewish identity in his personal self-stylization (via his long “Jewish” beard), as well as through the architecture and interior décor of his villa that integrated Jewish symbols such as a Star of David, a Torah shield, and even the architectural arrangement of a synagogue dividing the women’s gallery from the main sacred space, which was evoked by the row of repeating arches in the villa’s central hall.

The book’s last chapter, “The Avant-Gardists,” scrutinizes a final generation of patrons associated with Adolf Loos, who, not unlike Klimt, relied on a largely Jewish clientage. Shapira maintains that Loos’s architectural work must be understood in the context of his close associations with Jewish writers like Karl Kraus, already encountered as a major opponent of Secessionist Vienna’s “Jewish taste,” and the poet troubadour Peter Altenberg. While this new generation of cultural co-producers seemed to reject historical references to Judaism, preferring instead a more purist, unornamented architecture “that erased differences between Jewish and gentile culture,” the author suggests that Loos created a more subtle form of ‘tailored authorship’ for prominent Jewish clients like the imperial court outfitters Michael and Leopold Goldman.

Rather like his clients’ professional practices, Loos opted for the architectural equivalent of a tailored men’s suit—distinctive yet not contrived in the manner of Secessionist interiors—that would provide his clients the choice of “opting in” or “opting out” of mainstream gentile society (169). Ultimately, given the centrality of questions of dressing and undressing to acculturated Viennese Jews, Shapira suggests that Loos and Jewish clients like the Goldmans embarked on parallel projects in offering respective clients “distinguished outfits with transformative power” but ones in which Jewishness remained present yet understated, in contradistinction to the new caftan of Secessionist design.

Style and Seduction is an invaluable addition to the literature on fin-de-siècle Viennese art and design, continuing themes of recent work on the specifically Jewish nature of Viennese modernism. The author is to be lauded for the daring nature of her interpretation that finds specific cultural meaning in design objects and, fundamentally, for subjecting design culture to a rigorous formal and contextual analysis. At times, however, the reader wishes for closer attention to the architectural and design objects that are ostensibly the focus of her study. Objects and interiors occasionally become lost in the author’s wide-ranging contextual analysis, which draws on both familiar and obscure but fascinating texts. The impeccably researched narrative presupposes the reader’s extensive visual and contextual familiarity with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Viennese architecture and design to such an extent that even the true specialist would welcome more-detailed visual descriptions of many of the interiors and architectural facades under examination. The author’s interpretive stance is admittedly bold, and from time to time the reader wonders whether the authorial intent attributed to specific patrons originated with the patrons or with the author herself. But the intrepid nature of her analysis is far superior to much of the older literature on Viennese design, which tends to approach design objects uncritically or focuses only on narrow institutional histories. It is to be hoped that further studies on Viennese modernist art and design will synthesize the exciting methods of contextual analysis used by Shapira with the valuable connoisseurial approaches of the older historiography.

Megan Brandow-Faller, associate professor of history at CUNY Kingsborough, works on art and design in Secessionist and interwar Vienna. She is the editor of Childhood by Design: Toys and the Material Culture of Childhood, 1700–Present (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017) and author of The Female Secession: Reclaiming “Women’s Art” at the Viennese Women’s Academy, 1897–1938(University Park: Penn State University Press, forthcoming).


  1. 1. Karl Kraus, Die Fackel II, 9 (November 1900): 19.
  2. 2. Steven Beller, Vienna and the Jews, 1867–1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Alison Rose, Jewish Women in Fin de Siècle Vienna (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008); Abigail Gillman, Viennese Jewish Modernism: Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2009); Julie Johnson, The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2012); Andrea Winklbauer, Sabine Fellner, and Sarah Seidl, Die bessere Hälfte: Jüdische Künstlerinnen bis 1938 (Vienna: Metroverlag / Jewish Museum, 2016).

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