Lords of the ring

Vienna at the fin-­de-­siècle

VIENNA’S RINGSTRASSE, BUILT from 1865 on the site of the old city wall, has long been derided for its architecture. Because it is a domain of revivalist styles, including neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque and neo-Gothic, modernists have been contemptuous. But the Ringstrasse has recently been reappraised, with Australia playing a part. A dinner in Melbourne in 2011 to celebrate the opening of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Vienna Art and Design – Australia’s first international exhibition focused on Vienna around 1900 – was crucial. At that dinner, one of the exhibition’s curators, Christian Witt-Döring, suggested to representatives of the Austrian National Tourist Office that Vienna mark the sesquicentenary of the Ringstrasse in 2015. Witt-Döring proposed that the city celebrate the Ring as one of the world’s great boulevards, and so it did, triggering a reappraisal that led Joseph Koerner in Burlington Magazine to declare the Ring ‘the world’s greatest instance of Historicism in architecture’.

My best experience of the Ringstrasse was in 2015 when I was living nearby while teaching at the University of Vienna: the Ring became my regular early morning running route. But it also looms large in the story of my extended Viennese family, which I first wrote about in Good Living Street (Allen & Unwin and Pantheon, 2011) and that my cousin, Sue Course, has now written about too in Lost Letters from Vienna (Wild Dingo, 2019). Especially for visitors to the National Gallery of Victoria, which has become home to much of the material designed by the modernist architects Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos for members of our family at the start of the twentieth century, these books provide a pair. While mine fixes on Hoffmann’s work for my great-grandparents, Moriz and Hermine Gallia, Sue’s book reveals much more about Loos’s work for her great-uncle and great-aunt, Jakob and Melanie Langer.

My interest in the Ringstrasse has also been spurred by my friend Desmond Manderson, a pivotal figure in the study of the interrelationship of law and the humanities. Over the past few years, working with several colleagues at the Australian National University, Des has developed a suite of courses that fill a profound intellectual gap. For all the proliferation of ‘combined degrees’ at Australian universities, starting with Arts/Law at the University of Sydney in the 1960s, there is generally no bridge between these components. The degrees are, in fact, not ‘combined’ at all. New courses at the ANU remedy this failing, attracting many students – not just because Des is a stellar teacher, but also because so many law students hunger for more than doctrinal analysis. In 2019, for the first time, Des and I taught one of these courses about law and art, ranging from fin-de-siècle Vienna and the Ringstrasse to republican Siena, colonial Hobart, the Supreme Court in Mexico City and the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul.

When I was invited to contribute to 1865, 2015: 150 Jahre Wiener Ringstrasse (Metroverlag, 2014), a sesquicentenary collection of essays by authors from several countries, I focused on my great-great uncle, Adolf Gallia, and his wife, Ida. In 1902 they bought a block on the Stubenring, the final part of the Ring to be completed. In 1904 they built a typically grandiose Ringstrasse pile there, designed by another family member, Jakob Gärtner, whose flourishing architectural practice saw him receive many commissions for villas, apartment houses and synagogues across much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Adolf and Ida could afford to buy and build on the Ring because Adolf – the first member of my branch of the Gallia family to go to university and the first to study law – made his fortune working for the great Austrian scientist Carl Auer von Welsbach.

Auer’s many inventions included the gas mantle, which, for about twenty years from the early 1890s, rivalled if not eclipsed the electric bulb as a form of private and public lighting. Adolf, who was one of Vienna’s foremost patent lawyers, not only worked to protect Auer’s intellectual property but also became a director of his Auergesellschaft – or company – with, I imagine, a significant shareholding. In the early twentieth century, when Vienna was a city of two million people at the centre of an empire of 50 million, Adolf was among its small class of super-rich. In Traumzeite für Millionäre, Roman Sandgruber’s listing of the wealthiest Viennese in 1910, Adolf came in at 306 while my great-grandfather, Moriz, who also made his fortune through the gas mantle business, was at 370.

Stubenring 24, where Adolf and Ida lived, has long been best known for its ground-floor café, the Prückel. I wrote about it in my sesquicentenary essay not just because this house provided my closest family connection to the Ringstrasse, but also because Adolf had left a small mark of himself on the building’s exterior. Over the back door, which had been the entrance to Adolf’s legal chambers, he placed his initials, ‘AG’. While the Nazis murdered some of my family in concentration camps, and others were forced to flee Vienna, Adolf’s initials are still there. Almost certainly pretentious – even boastful – in origin, and of no meaning and no interest to almost all passers-by, these initials are for me the one small sign on Vienna’s streets that this city was once home to my family.

Another building on the Ringstrasse, just five houses away, has recently been the focus of much more attention from Sue Course, whose grandfather, Wilhelm Gallia, was a brother of Adolf and Moriz. Stubenring 14 was all too briefly Sue’s childhood home. She lived there until she was four when her parents escaped with her to Melbourne in 1938. As the Viennese genealogist Georg Gaugusch revealed in the catalogue for Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard (an exhibition staged by Vienna’s Jewish Museum as part of the sesquicentenary celebrations), the initial purchaser of Stubenring 14 in 1902 was Jakob Gärtner, who designed Stubenring 24 for Adolf and Ida. This purchase by Gärtner, and his acquisition of the land at Stubenring 2 a year later, made him a significant property developer as well as architect. Perhaps while the house at Stubenring 14 was still being constructed, perhaps when it was complete, it was bought by Sue’s widowed great-grandmother, Pauline Kary.

In Lost Letters from Vienna, Sue provides an exceptional window onto how such a house could become a multigenerational family institution. Pauline Kary lived in the grandest apartment from 1905, when Stubenring 14 was new, until her death in 1915. Then the house – and Pauline’s apartment – were inherited by Pauline’s favourite son, Arthur, who ran ‘the most prosperous silk and cloth business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’ and who came in at number 201 in Roman Sandgruber’s 1910 Viennese rich list. When Sue’s mother, Herta Kary, married in 1932, Herta did not even change floors, let alone buildings. Sue writes: ‘She and my father were given the apartment next door to live in.’

Other family members lived there too. They included Sue’s great-aunt Marguerite on the floor above. The Nazis evicted her in 1939 and she spent most of the war in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. When she survived, ‘bloated, feeble and malnourished’, and returned to Vienna following the end of the war, she found her apartment ‘still occupied by an Austrian Nazi family’ and was unable to recover it. But when she tried again in the late 1940s, ‘she fought for and managed to have the Nazi family evicted’, allowing her to live in the apartment again until her death in 1979. The consequences for Sue, when she first returned to Europe aged thirty-three in 1968, were profound. She had a surviving relative living not just in Vienna but in the family building: ‘The name Kary was still on the door.’


DESMOND MANDERSON HAS written about Vienna as part of his larger examination of the intersection between time, law and art, which became Danse Macabre (CUP, 2019). He devotes a chapter of the book to Gustav Klimt’s giant painting Jurisprudence, which – along with two other vast pictures, Medicine and Philosophy – was commissioned in 1894 by the Ministry of Culture for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna on the Ringstrasse. This commission followed two others from the Austrian state that Klimt received after graduating from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Between 1886 and 1888, Klimt painted murals on both stairwells of Vienna’s Burgtheater on the Ringstrasse. In 1890–91, he worked on the main staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which is also on the Ring. Des, with typical panache, began a piece in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies in 2015: ‘Gustav Klimt was Lord of the Ring.’

This claim is enticing. Much was lordly about Klimt, who often treated his super-rich patrons with disdain. The Ringstrasse was a significant painting-ground for Klimt. But his murals for the Burgtheater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum were simply competent pieces of academic painting, which was why the Austrian state was happy with them and, after consulting with the university, happy to commission more, expecting similarly bland, conventional works.

Klimt’s murals for the university were radically different – integral to his new identity at the forefront of the avant-garde. Had the university embraced them, he would certainly have been a ‘Lord of the Ring’. Instead, a large, vociferous group of the university’s professors – though not all – excoriated Klimt’s paintings, as did powerful politicians, Catholic conservatives and proto-fascists. In response, Klimt repaid his advance, selling Philosophy to his biggest private patrons, the Lederers, who also bought Jurisprudence following the artist’s death in 1918. The furore over Klimt’s murals – and the fact that he did not find significant private patronage on the Ringstrasse – means that Klimt never became a ‘Lord of the Ring’, even though he will always be associated with it.

Yet ‘Lord of the Ring’ may have other applications. Does the moniker fit the likes of Adolf Gallia and Arthur Kary, notwithstanding all the anti-Semitism they must have encountered? Might we apply it to Ida Gallia, who initially co-owned Stubenring 24 and then became its sole owner after Adolf died in 1925? Could it, even more interestingly, denote the widowed Pauline Kary who, following the death of her husband, Samuel, chose to give up their apartment by the Danube Canal on the Franz-Josef Quai and buy Stubenring 14 instead? Or should we look elsewhere? Where only minor paintings by Klimt adorned the Ringstrasse, Gustav Mahler ruled the Vienna Hofoper or Court Opera on the Ringstrasse for ten years from 1897, conducting there more than 600 times and transforming its company, repertoire and productions. When Moriz Nähr photographed him at the end of his reign in 1907, Mahler fittingly performed for his camera in the Hopofer’s foyer. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, a major cultural figure could be a Lord of the Ring.

The Klimt Kollektiv – the first and only retrospective of Klimt’s work held in his lifetime, which opened at the Vienna Secession in November 1903 and included several of his new paintings – provides a key link between Des’s work and mine. The painting that excited most attention was Jurisprudence. One of the paintings to attract the least attention was Klimt’s portrait of my great-grandmother, Hermine Gallia, which he exhibited unfinished and, after minor modifications, completed in 1904. When Des and I teach, we fix on these paintings because they provide a striking contrast between a public commission and a private one, painted in radically different modes at the same time, with intertwined but radically different fates as Vienna became what Karl Kraus famously identified as ‘an experimental laboratory for the end of the world’.

The iconography of Jurisprudence was complex. As Des writes, it depicted a suffering, abject, naked everyman with head bowed, surrounded by the eyes of a creature from the deep: a kraken, the giant octopus of northern legend. There were three Furies above and, in the distance, among the clouds, three conventional allegorical figures: Truth, Justice and Law. While there have been many interpretations of this imagery, Jurisprudence was manifestly an indictment of the law. As Des reads it, Klimt suggested an all-powerful tyrannical state, not just beyond judicial control, but with the law implicated in its violence and oppression. He sees Jurisprudence as both a contemporary critique and a prophetic painting, imbued with foreboding.

The painting of my great-grandmother was one of about twenty full-length portraits by Klimt – all of women, as he refused to paint portraits of men, not needing the money and having scant interest in their depiction. The portraits of women, which Klimt painted from the late 1890s, were vital to his income and reputation then, and continue to be among his most famous and popular works. His portrait of Hermine is an accomplished, subtle – yet in some ways virtuoso – painting but, for all its interest and appeal, is not particularly rich in ideas. It is a conventional celebration of wealth and status, devoid of critique. As Klimt often did in these portraits, he set out to improve the appearance of his sitter, masking Hermine’s increasing stoutness and depicting her with more glamour and grace than any contemporary photographer achieved.


THE FATES OF Jurisprudence and the Hermine portrait after Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 could not have been more different. The Nazis Aryanised Jurisprudence, that painting of terror, prophetic of tyranny, seizing it from the Lederers in 1939, and it was destroyed in a fire at the end of the war. Partly because the Nazis conceived of Hermine as a Jew, despite her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1910, they allowed my great-aunt, who had inherited Hermine’s portrait, to take it with her to Australia. As a result, the painting came to Sydney as part of the best private collection of fin-de-siècle Vienna’s art and design to escape the Nazis. It is now owned by the National Gallery in London, and is the only painting by Klimt in a British public collection.

One of the key questions about Jurisprudence is what inspired Klimt’s iconography. In his 1980 book Fin-­de-­Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Knopf), Carl E Schorske persuasively argued that ‘Klimt’s bisected world of law, with its three graces of justice above and its three furies of instinct below, recalls the powerful resolution of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, where Athena establishes Zeus’s role of rational law and patriarchal power over vendetta law and matriarchal vengeance.’ Schorske concluded: ‘In Aeschylus, Athena had enthroned justice over instinct; Klimt has undone her work.’ But Schorske did not explore why Klimt came to be thinking of the Oresteia as he developed
his painting.

Stimulated by scholarship that postdates Schorskse’s book – about the revival and reception of classical Greek dramas – Des Manderson provides an answer involving the translation of Aeschylus into German in the late 1890s by the German classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff. The result, Des writes, was the first complete German-language performance of Aeschylus’s trilogy ‘at the end of 1900, when Berlin and Vienna both put on performances of the same new translation within weeks of one another’. Des argues: ‘There are enough internal references in Klimt’s image to be confident that he saw it and had it in mind.’

When I read Des’s account, I put it to a small familial test: the one surviving concert book of my great-grandmother, Hermine, in which she recorded the performances that she attended with my great-grandfather Moriz from 1898 while they were living on the Schleifmühlgasse in Vienna’s 4th district. This diary reveals that Moriz and Hermine attended many venues, but it is above all a record of cultural consumption on the Ringstrasse at the Hofoper and the Burgtheater. On the whole, Hermine simply recorded the fact of their attendance, leaving blank the column marked for Bemerkungen or observations. If she was particularly excited by a production, she would write more.

Oresteia opened at the Burgtheater on 6 December 1900. Moriz and Hermine did not go at first; there was much competition for their attention. As Richard Wagner was becoming Moriz’s favourite composer, they saw his Das Rheingold and Die Walküre for the second time and his Götterdämmerung for the first – all at the Hofoper – instead. Having already seen Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Volkstheater, they now also saw his A Doll’s House at the Raimund Theater. On New Year’s Eve 1900, they saw Johann Strauss Jnr’s Fledermaus at the Hofoper. Then, on New Year’s Day, they saw Otto Erich Hartleben’s immensely successful ‘officer tragedy’ Rosenmontag or Carnival Monday at the Burgtheater. On 2 January 1901, at last, they were back for the Oresteia – which, Hermine noted, was the Wilamowitz-Möllendorff translation.

By this time, Moriz and Hermine had become patrons of the modern at the Vienna Secession. They also knew which productions were most significant and fashionable. Their attendance at the Oresteia is a mark of its cultural cachet. It also raises a question about Klimt’s Jurisprudence. When Moriz and Hermine went to the Klimt Kollectiv at the Secession in late 1903, did they think back to that night at the Burgtheater almost three years before and, like Des, read Klimt’s painting in the light of that production of the Oresteia? Or were they too busy deciding on another art acquisition, one of Klimt’s beautiful beech forest landscapes, which for a while made them one of his biggest private patrons?

This Vienna – explored and evoked in such different ways by Sue Course and Desmond Manderson – also provided a stage for the soprano Frances Saville. Born in San Francisco in 1865, she appears to have come to Australia as a baby and then spent part of her childhood in Germany before returning to Australia as an eleven-year-old and remaining there until 1891, when she went to Paris to study. While she sometimes identified as an American, she often identified as an Australian – and because she spent so little time in the US, she was claimed, with good reason, by Australia. ‘Our Frances Saville’, the Sydney magazine The Lone Hand wrote of her in 1907.

Saville’s greatest stint as a performer was at the Hofoper from 1897, as musicologist Roger Neill is exploring in his forthcoming book The Simonsens of St Kilda. As often with leading members of the opera’s company, she was subject to Mahler’s power, which allowed him to compel her to resign when they fell out in 1903. Yet in keeping with her status as one of the opera’s stars, a performance by Saville in 1901 as Violette in Verdi’s La Traviata so excited my great-grandmother that she recorded it in her concert book – a small mark of how the Ringstrasse of Klimt, the Gallias and the Karys was also the Ringstrasse of an American Australian.

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