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A family stripped down: Alexander Waugh's ambitious account of the Wittgenstein family has surprisingly little to say about the importance of art and architecture in their lives, writes Richard Calvocoressi.

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War


Bloomsbury, 20 [pounds sterling]/Doubleday, $28.95

ISBN 9780747591856 (UK); 9780385520607 (US)

The life of the steel magnate Karl Wittgenstein--born in 1847, he died in 1913--coincided almost exactly with the 68 years that Emperor Franz Josef ruled Austria-Hungary. During that time Wittgenstein became one of the richest men in the Habsburg empire, so rich that he was able to retire from his industrial and business enterprises in his early fifties, transferring his fortune into property and foreign investments. For the remainder of his life he indulged his private interests, including building up his art collection.

Having previously acquired the work of academic artists for his grandiose 19th-century 'palais' in Vienna's Alleegasse, together with antique furniture and tapestries, he now turned his attention to the avant-garde. Encouraged by his oldest daughter Hermine ('Mining'), he became a supporter of Gustar Klimt and his circle. He bought Klimt's painting The Golden Knight from the Vienna Secession in 1903, and in 1905 commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his youngest daughter, Margarethe ('Gretl'), which was shown on an easel in the so-called Red Drawing Room in the Alleegasse. He also helped Klimt financially when the latter was forced to renounce the commission to decorate part of Vienna University's Great Hall and repay the advance on his three vast ceiling paintings. Most important of all, Wittgenstein financed the construction of the Vienna Secession building by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1898. His obituary in the Neue Freie Presse, the main Viennese newspaper, called him 'the most distinguished patron of that young generation of artists who in 1897 ... founded a Secession'.

In addition to Klimt, Wittgenstein bought work by other modern artists: sculptures by Rodin, Klinger, Carpeaux and Mestrovic; and paintings by Hodler, Segantini and Puvis de Chavannes. The Klinger Crouching Figure was a preparatory study for his monumental sculpture of Beethoven shown at the 14th Secession exhibition in 1902, together with Klimt's Beethoven-Frieze. Of other Jugendstil artists associated with the Secession, Wittgenstein owned a sculpture by Richard Teschner and employed the painter and printmaker Rudolf Jettmar. He did not stop at works of fine art but acquired a glass cabinet by Carl Otto Czeschka, one of the designers of the Wiener Werkstatte. He even commissioned a suite of elegant, geometric interiors from Josef Hoffmann, founder of the Wiener Werkstatte, for his house in the lower Austrian alps, where he hung a sketch for Medicine, one of Klimt's ceiling paintings for Vienna University.

There is little discussion of Karl Wittgenstein's patronage of modern art, architecture and design in Alexander Waugh's book. When it comes to Karl's youngest son, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Waugh is equally indifferent to this aspect of family tradition--even if it was a tradition that Ludwig reacted against. After his father's death, Ludwig set up a trust with some of his inheritance to help artists and writers, leaving it to the editor and publisher Ludwig von Ficker to distribute the money as and to whom he thought fit. Among the beneficiaries were Oskar Kokoschka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl and Adolf Loos. It was Ficker who introduced Wittgenstein to Loos, on the eve of World War I--a meeting that was to have important consequences for the young philosopher.

Ludwig did not collect art; in fact he made a point of owning almost nothing, deliberately purging his life of the trappings of privilege and giving away most of his fortune. But he recognised that artists needed support. He also tried his own hand at sculpting and at designing a house, part of his fascination with how things are made and how they work. The two activities were not unconnected. In the mid-1920s he started frequenting the studio of the sculptor Michael Drobil, whom he had met when they were both prisoners-of-war in Italy. Drobil worked in a simplified naturalistic style, reflecting the classical revival of the 1920s, producing portraits, nudes and war memorials. Ludwig or his sister Mining bought a marble figure, A Thinker, by Drobil and sited it on a landing in the family house in the Alleegasse. Drobil also carved a bust of Ludwig. Ludwig's own bronze Head of a Girl surpasses Drobil in its stripped classicism; his sister Gretl had a plaster cast of it in the large house that Ludwig designed for her in the Kundmanngasse.


This interest in clarity and proportion informs every aspect of the now famous house. In its clean lines, cubic volumes and absence of detail it could not have afforded a greater contrast to the ornate Alleegasse, where its owner and architect had been brought up, although its scale is similar. It provided an ideal setting for the plaster casts of classical antique sculpture that Gretl owned. (Waugh does not specify what Gretl had in her apparently extensive collection, apart from valuable musical manuscripts.) Waugh attributes the design of the house to the architect Paul Engelmann, but Engelmann firmly disassociated himself from it in a letter to Ludwig's cousin, the economist F.A. von Hayek, in 1953. Ludwig himself wrote to Maynard Keynes from Vienna in late 1928, saying: 'I've just finished my house that has kept me entirely busy these last two years ... Enclosed you will find a few photos of my house and hope you won't be too much disgusted by its simplicity.'

It is worth recalling--as Waugh does not--that Engelmann was a former pupil of Loos. Loos introduced Ludwig to Engelmann in 1916 and the two men became friends, so it was probably on Ludwig's recommendation that Gretl initially asked Engelmann to draw up plans for a house after the war. However, when Ludwig took over as architect he went further than even Loos would have done in embracing Ornamentlosigkeit--living without superfluous ornament--to the extent of eschewing all natural materials in favour of the industrially manufactured. Ideals of honesty and simplicity similarly characterised Ludwig's philosophical remarks, which set limits to what reason and the language we use to articulate our thoughts could explain--and what it could not. In whatever he did--sculpting, building, writing--the emphasis was on understatement.

Waugh is more at home with the musical culture of the Wittgenstein family. One suspects that this ambitious but curiously unsympathetic book started life as a biography of Ludwig's brother Paul, who lost his right arm in World War I, and went on to become a concert pianist. He was fortunate in being able to commission pieces for the left hand from Prokofiev, Ravel and other composers, but he invariably fell out with them. The difficulty that both Paul and Ludwig seem to have experienced in forming relationships in their professional and personal lives is a major theme of the book. Certainly Ludwig--as recent research suggests--may have suffered from a schizoid personality, but Waugh's picture of a dysfunctional and feuding family is not always supported by the evidence. The letters to and from their mother, and between the five surviving siblings (three out of eight having died, disappeared or committed suicide), exhibit concern, warmth, affection and humour. Until his death Ludwig kept a small notebook into which he stuck photographs of those friends and relations who obviously meant much to him, including his three sisters. One, of Gretl, is juxtaposed with a photograph of himself, suggesting particular closeness.

Richard Calvocoressi is director of the Henry Moore Foundation.
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Title Annotation:The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War
Author:Calvocoressi, Richard
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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