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Winter 2003

Emil Mayer

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Thomas Laqueur

Consider the following thought experiment: There has been a great flood that has destroyed much of the visual record of the early twentieth century. Miraculously, a copy of Dr. Emil Mayer’s Wiener Typen has fallen into our hands. Here is evidence of a place said to be the birthplace of modernism in both art and politics, and we are delighted. But almost immediately we are puzzled. The picture surfaces have the soft, creamy texture of lithographs punctuated by sharp inked lines. This is a city, Vienna in 1910, of market women—round-faced, stout, their heads covered with babushkas—who eat their lunch out of tin cups and intently count out a few groschen change into the stubby hand of a customer. These women wear clogs as they water horses; they lean over the counter benignly as they give some candies to children. None of the men in this city are proletarian or likely to have what we have been taught is working-class consciousness. They are transport workers (coachmen, draymen), minor officials (policemen, postmen), small retailers or artisans (the chestnut vendor, the knife sharpener). There are beggars—bearded, grim, hat in hand. It is not a city free of the unexpected or sad: a horse whose backbone is all too evident has collapsed by its wagon. “The accident,” this picture is called. But otherwise everything seems to go smoothly.

There are a few bourgeois—mostly women in fine hats—and there are the waiters who serve them in cafés. One picture survives of a couple. They are shopping in front of the glass window of a small jewelry store. She has her arm in his and is turning as if she is about to point or say something. We cannot tell because we see them only from the back. But judging by this precious single image of a nicely dressed couple happily window-shopping, all seems to be well between the sexes here in Vienna, 1910.

In one sense there is nothing suspicious about these reassuring images of a mid-nineteenth-century city, and we should be grateful that so precious a record has survived from so famous an antediluvian city. Perhaps this is how things were in “the Golden Age of Security,” as Stephan Zweig called it. Perhaps Vienna still had the intimacy of a small town, as Rudolph Arnheim suggests. We historians have to go on what we have, and maybe what we learn from other records is deceptive.

But somewhere within a kilometer of these Vienna types was the Bergasse, where Dr. Freud wrote. And what about those other Vienna types: Schoenberg, whose radical views on tonality were shaking up the verities of nineteenth-century music; or Schnitz-ler, whose bourgeois couples were said to be not so happy; or all those painters whose worlds seemed so jagged and fraught? And where is the Danube, with its port workers and holiday- makers? And the big department stores—many owned by Jews—which were suppposedly upsetting the city’s small shopkeepers, the folks Mayer photographed? And how about its political types? Where is Karl Lueger, the mayor who founded Europe’s first mass political party founded on anti-semitism? And where, among Mayer’s Vienna types, is the court, with its bustles and uniforms and officials from a far-flung, disintegrating empire?

Sadly, our book of photographs has almost no images of architecture. But there is one, at the end. The Stephan-kirche rises into a luminous sky from a jumble of crowded tile roofs, their chimney pots no competition to the cathedral’s great spire. Perhaps we have it wrong. Perhaps the famous Ringstrasse—the greatest middle-class urban design project of the nineteenth-century, even more unified and visually coercive than Haussmann’s Paris—was not so manifestly present in Vienna, 1910. Maybe it was a town of village pumps and cabmen splashing themselves from water in a bucket. Maybe the city had the intimate human scale that is so singularly lacking in that great circle of mammoths, each representing some critical institution of modernity: the art museum, the parliament, the opera house, the research university.

We can be happy to have this book (found not after a flood, but in bookshops, thanks to Blind River Press). But it reminds us again how extraordinarily personal and idiosyncratic photographic images are, how tiny the universe they capture, how isolated their worlds—like monads that are, we tell ourselves, amazingly articulate with one another. Mayer’s pictures are unsettling for all sorts of reasons: after all, the Vienna he sees and treasures is precisely the cozy, secure one that the Nazis and their Austrian friends believed that the Jews and their cosmopolitan allies had destroyed. But mainly, they teach us yet again how much of what we see is what we hope to see in the world around us.

Thomas Laqueur, the author of Making Sex, teaches history at UC Berkeley.

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