Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cafe Museum

Cafe Museum is between the Karlsplatz subway station and the State Opera House. Its customers included Ludwig Wittgenstein, the artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, as well as the Jugendstihl architect Otto Wagner. It's famous for having an interior designed in his typically spartan fashion by Adolf Loos.

This historic cafe was also a stomping ground for such literary heavyweights as Elias Canetti and Robert Musil. Canetti frequently mentions Viennese cafes in his autobiography, esp. in the third volume thereof (The Play of the Eyes). Musil, by contrast, is much more sparing in his cafe references -- in his Diaries he devotes much more space to describing his walking routes through Vienna.

Here's one of Musil's few mentions of a cafe: "We then went on foot to the Cafe Museum in the hope of meeting Morgenstern; I wanted to tell him about Frankfurt. But, to our surprise, we met Frau Krista." (Robert Musil, Diaries: Robert Musil 1899-1942 , ed. Frise & Mirsky, trans. Philip Payne [Basic Books, 1998] p. 365, entry for March 16, 1930)

Canetti's descriptions of Cafe Museum are more informative. Here are three of them:

"Georg Merkel, a painter ..., was a man of about Broch's age. I had seen him at the Cafe Museum, though less frequently than some other painters." (Elias Canetti, The Play of the Eyes, trans. Ralph Manheim [Granta Books, 1999], p. 128)

"At the Cafe Museum, where I went every day after moving back to town, there was a man [later identified as Dr. Sonne] whom I noticed because he was always sitting alone and never spoke to anyone. That in itself was not so unusual, lots of people went to cafes to be alone among many." (Ibid., p. 112)

"I saw [Alban Berg] last at the Cafe Museum a few weeks before his death. It was a short meeting, at night after a concert." (Ibid., p.230)

Update (Sept. 27): There's a nice description of Cafe Museum in Wittgenstein in Vienna (by Allan S. Janik & Hans Veigl [Springer, 1998], pp. 57-8). The authors say that this cafe was originally (1886) at Babenbergerstrasse 5, and then moved to its current Loos-designed location in 1899. Among its patrons, they list (in addition to Musil, Klimt and Schiele) Hermann Broch, Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Franz Blei, Roda Roda, etc.

They also include this bit from a letter written by the poet Georg Trakl: "Dear Mr. Ficker! I beg you to loan me 40 crowns, for I am momentarily in a very sad situation.... I would be very happy to be able to meet with you tomorrow, Thursday, at 2 p.m. in Cafe Museum." (Wittgenstein in Vienna, p. 58)


Alok said...

thanks for all these fascinating first hand reports and other assorted information about Viennese cafes.

The way the culture and arts of the period has been festishized in our time, it feels very ironic specially because those great thinkers felt so strongly about it and wrote and thought about the same things. In Neue Galerie, the museum in new york city dedicated to German and Austrian art, there is a cafe at the ground level which has all the interiors and everything as if it were real...chairs, desks all designed by Loos with bunch of eager tourists taking their photographs as usual. It feels surreal...

praymont said...

alok -- yes, kitsch prevails. In Vienna, one is surrounded by tourist shops selling mostly the same things (often with Mozart, Klimt or Habsburg themes). I did the shameless touristy thing in Vienna for a while and then tried to get past that and see the real city. But in Vienna that's like 'waking up from a dream' only to find you're in a different dream. Just when you think you're out of the tacky tourist scene, you're really just in a different, less obviously tacky tourist scene (one that has to do with past novelists and philosophers rather than Mozart and the Habsburgs). This is most apparent in the re-created Cafe Central with its little statue of Peter Altenberg seated by the entrance. Well, at least no cafe put up a statue of Weininger or Kraus (imagine a kitschy Kraus). It's a city overwhelmed by the past and in love with it. For me, this wasn't so bad. Coming from Toronto, I'm not used to the experience of a contemporary city haunted by an older, dead city (even a dead culture) within its borders, and sometimes sharing the same old buildings.

Alok said...

I haven't been there yet but what you say doesn't surprise me at all. I think in general the constant presence of past in public life indicates an intellectually rich and healthy society but in this case the past seems like an idealized and a deliberately sanitized..I read somewhere that mainstream austrian culture now systematically avoids any connection with anti-semitism and holocaust. Something which so enraged Thomas Bernhard for example. Even this idea of "Old Europe" (habsburgs etc) is a sentimental fantasy something Musil or Kraus would have had great fun ridiculing.

As I said I have never been there and I may be unduly cynical but it is actually true not just for Vienna (though it is very obvious there because of the old Europe connection) but in general it is applicable to "culture consumption" everywhere. People fetishize the past and the commercial structures help meet the demand by creating these replicas and objects.

In my own country India, there is a different problem. Even people who have never opened a history book in their life have an opinion on the most arcane historical debates which in other places will interest only specialist scholars. One obscure mistake in a history textbook occasions a debate in the parliament and lead editorials in newspapers! Of course none of these ever involves real scholars. We don't have any museum of real worth and no real historical awareness but the past is always there...only in this case it is the past politicised to suit one's need for identity which can be exploited for political ends.

praymont said...

Thanks, alok, for those very stimulating observations.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Any guess as to why its Mozart everywhere in Vienna, but never Beethoven? He's famous, too, right, with iconic portraits and whatnot?

Did you get hit up by the costumed touts recruiting for the tourist concerts? "Very good concert. We have a Leetle Night Music." Poor guys; crummy job.

praymont said...

AR -- I know. I started really searching for decent Beethoven knick-knacks and they were surprisingly hard to find. I wonder if Beethoven diss'd Vienna.

Luckily, I had consulted several travel guides for the city, so I knew enough to avoid those costumed guys peddling the tickets. I also felt sorry for them -- having to wear those costumes in the heat.