Vienna and The Modern World

Snowy-benches-along-a-bou-007William Boyd in The Guardian (Photograph: Irene Lamprakou/Getty Images/Flickr RM):

Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period. In my own case I can identify four such cities – Los Angeles in the 1970s, Lisbon in the 1930s, Berlin in the 1920s and Vienna in the years just before the first world war. Thus captivated, I wrote fiction – short stories, chapters of novels – set in each of these cities long before I ever visited them. This is the mark and measure, I suppose, of their allure – it's vicarious, it works at a great distance – but it must be some conveyed sense of atmosphere, the spirit of place, that prompts the fascination. Perhaps the most telling factor is a powerful feeling that you would like to have lived there yourself.

One of the amazing aspects of Vienna – or certainly the central city, the Inner Stadt bounded by the great circling boulevard of the Ring, is how easy it is to imagine living there – not just in the early years of the 20th century but in the 19th or even 18th century as well. It's so beautifully preserved and maintained that you can turn a corner and draw up with a shock, imagining that Mozart or Brahms could have seen the identical view. But Vienna in its fading pomp, in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire (1867-1918), is present before you in almost every street scene or vista. Freud's Vienna, Wittgenstein's Vienna, Egon Schiele's Vienna.

It was Egon Schiele who started my Vienna obsession. Schiele and Klimt. Up until the 1970s – when Rudolf Leopold's catalogue raisonné of Schiele's paintings and drawings appeared – Schiele was a virtual unknown. I can remember while I was at university in the 70s the sudden outpouring of postcards and posters, books or reproductions that occurred. Suddenly everyone loved Schiele and was enthralled by his short, tormented life. Schiele's angular, mannered, brilliant draughtsmanship, the blatant near-pornography of his nudes, male and female, were a thrilling revelation. I went to Vienna for the first time to write a piece about Schiele, or to be more precise to write a piece about the Leopold Museum that contains the world's biggest collection of his work. Even after decades of familiarity the actual canvases and drawings retain their power to shock and disturb. In some ways, Schiele is the perfect symbol of the Viennese antithesis – namely that this small, safe, solid, beautiful, bourgeois capital city should have housed in the early years of the 20th century such a contrapuntal, boiling ferment of modernism in every art form.