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'The Visual Arts in Vienna c. 1900; Reflections on the Jewish Catastrophe'

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The Visual Arts in Vienna c. 1900; Reflections on the Jewish Catastrophe


E. H. Gombrich


February 2012


A lecture given in 1996 on the occasion of the seminar 'Fin De Siècle Vienna and its Jewish Cultural Influences'. The published lecture is preceded by a Preface by Ambassador Emil Brix:

The following article by Sir Ernst Gombrich is part of a controversy. When the Austrian Cultural Institute was preparing a Festival of Austrian Jewish culture, I asked Sir Ernst to participate in a seminar on the topic 'Fin de Siècle Vienna and its Jewish Cultural Influences'. He was invited to speak about the Jewish influences on the visual arts. His answer was one of restrained fury. He questioned the very concept of a specific Jewish influence in the fin de siècle Vienna and warned against prolonging the idea that there existed a separate Jewish culture in Europe. I was glad that Sir Ernst finally accepted the invitation, for the sake of an open discussion on this difficult topic.

The seminar took place on 17 November 1996 in the London Liberal Jewish Synagogue. It was chaired by Rabbi David Goldberg. The speakers included Norman Stone, Martin Roth, Edward Timms and Steve Beller.

In recent years a growing amount of scholarly writing about Austrian culture and the extraordinary intellectual splendour of Vienna around 1900 has concentrated on the Jewish background of many of Austria's intellectuals. The Anglo-American historian Steve Beller's work high-lights the ethical and educational influences of the Jewish enlightenment tradition. He interprets the phenomenon of 'Vienna 1900' as a reaction by Jews to partially failed attempts to integrate and to assimilate into Viennese intellectuals, but that the crisis of identity felt during the late Habsburg Monarchy can mainly be traced back to the experience of Jews caught in the dilemmas of assimilation.

Ernst Gombrich challenges this position. His lecture questions the relevance of the concept of Jewish identity to the cultured Jews of the turn of the century. He rejects any kind of collective 'national' myth.

Born in 1909, in Vienna, Ernst Gombrich grew up in an assimilated Jewish family and educated in the traditional German humanism.

The discussion which followed his lecture brought Gombrich's insight into contact with contemporary concerns, not to say anxieties, about the issues of identity and difference. It evoked the question of whether it is possible to assume a collective identity (be it Jewish, Austrian or British) without claiming the superiority of that identity over other, and of the role of intellectuals in the 'invention' and perpetuation of the 'national myths' which have so often in history led to disaster. I think Gombrich is right when he points out that collective identity and the feeling of superiority cannot be separated. But there may be strategies of controlling the negative consequences of 'national' myths.

Ernst Gombrich belongs to an intellectual tradition which regards historiography is worth the effort in so far as it is capable of resisting the sway of myth. Argument will no doubt continue as to what that tradition owes to humanist, Jewish or Viennese culture.

To read the lecture and Preface in full, click here.


Occasions, The Austrian Cultural Institute London, 17.11.96, Vol. 1, pp.40 [Trapp no.1997C.1]
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