Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

5.9. Austrian Writers and the Unifying Aspects of Cultures
HerausgeberInnen | Editors | Éditeurs: Donald G. Daviau (Riverside)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Viennese Fin-de-Siècle Impressionism in International Context

Pamela S. Saur (Lamar University, Texas) [BIO]


Before discussing the international context of Viennese fin-de-siècle literary impressionism, I shall begin with another context, that of Austrian myth. In an exaggerated formulation, the mythic context surrounding impressionism's birth can be expressed as follows: A concurrence of historical, political, cultural, perhaps even cosmic forces brought about the disintegration and the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at approximately the same time the nineteenth century came to an end; the same ineluctable forces that ended the Empire and the century, now wrapped in an Indian Summer mood of bittersweet, decadent melancholy, effected as well the disintegration of reality itself, or at least, the ability of Austrian authors to confront and comprehend it, and at the same time brought about the disintegration of all wholeness in Austrian art and literature. Just as reality fell apart into little dots and wisps of light and color, mirroring French impressionist paintings, time disintegrated into disconnected moments, experienced one at a time, and language fell apart into fragments of ambiguity and incoherence. Long literary texts could no longer be sustained; they were replaced by aphorisms, short sketches by such authors as Peter Altenberg and Alfred Polgar, fragments, or long but unfinished works such as Robert Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

Certain texts are often singled out and cited as evidence of this myth of disintegration. Most notable is Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Ein Brief," of 1902, an essay in letter form fewer than fifteen pages long, but often regarded as a significant key to a whole cultural era. In the fictional letter, dated 1603, Philipp Lord Chandos writes Francis Bacon "um sich bei diesem Freunde wegen des gänzlichen Verzichtes auf literarische Betätigungen zu entschuldigen."(1) Although impressionism in most contexts fosters some type of artistic creation, Lord Chandos' personal crisis of perception leads to paralysis and silence. He discusses his attempts at writing on classical subjects, but both his abilities to perceive objects with the right perspective and to use language are inadequate to attain unity or wholeness. The narrator writes, "Mein Geist zwang mich, alle Dinge ... in einer unheimlichen Nähe zu sehen ... Es gelang mir nicht mehr, sie mit dem vereinfachenden Blick der Gewohnheit zu erfassen. Es zerfiel mir alles in Teile, die Teile wieder in Teile, und nichts mehr ließ sich mit einem Begriff umspannen. Die einzelnen Worte schwammen um mich; sie gerannen zu Augen, die mich anstarrten und in die ich wieder hineinstarren muß: Wirbel sind sie, in die hinabzusehen mich schwindelt, die sich unaufhaltsam drehen und durch die hindurch man ins Leere kommt."(2)

Another text associated with this mythic view is Leopold von Andrian's 1895 novella, Garten der Erkenntnis. In the influential volume, Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1979), Carl Schorske asserts, "Not Hofmannsthal, but his friend Andrian produced the classic novel of the fin-de-siècle identity crisis, The Garden of Knowledge (Der Garten der Erkenntnis)." (3) According to Schorske, for these two writers, "fin-de-siècle aesthetes," "a diffuse oceanic consciousness blurred the border between self and other, between inner and outer, blending dream and reality."(4) Jens Rieckmann has said of Andrian's novel, "The Weltanschauung expressed in it, with its key elements of narcissism, aestheticism, solipsism, the duality of life, the crisis of knowledge, struck a responsive chord in a whole generation."(5)

Although written some years after the turn of the century, in 1932, Joseph Roth's famous novel Radetzkymarsch, which celebrates the glory of the Habsburg Empire and culture, and at the same time portrays its weaknesses and ultimate downfall, contains a passage in which a very significant painting ominously reveals itself to be composed of impressionistic bits. The protagonist, Carl Joseph von Trotta, is a decadent outsider figure who cannot measure up to the heroic legacy of his grandfather, who once saved the Emperor's life. Every summer when he came home for vacation, young Trotta climbed onto a chair to see his grandfather's portrait more closely, whereupon, ""Es zerfiel in zahlreiche teife Schatten und helle Lichtflecke, in Pinselstreiche und Tupfen, in ein tausendfältiges Gewebe der bemalten Leinwand, in ein hartes Farbenspiel getrockenen Öls." The portrait becomes whole again when the boy climbs down from the chair, but, stare as he might, year after year, the grandfather in the portrait remains an enigma: "Nichts verriet der Tote. Nichts erfuhr der Junge."(6) The disintegration of the painting can be associated with decadence in the novel, which portrays the end of the Empire, intertwined with the downfall of the von Trotta family, and displays individual decadent traits in Carl Joseph and several other characters.

Continuing with the myth, it should next be stated that the forces of the age that brought out Carl Joseph's inadequacies also caused Austrian writers and their literary characters, including Arthur Schnitzler's playboy figure Anatol as well as Lord Chandos, to become apolitical, bohemian, escapist and decadent, and to live only for the brief sensations of the moment, the perceptions of the senses, emotions, and nerves. The word and concept impressionism were conveniently supplied by French painters - the term, derogatory at first, came to prominence at their famous first exhibit in 1874--but thereafter the Austrian movement developed independently, acquiring along the way the necessary philosophical underpinnings from the Austrian Ernst Mach. Thus ends this version of Austrian myth. These exaggerated views bring out some aspects of the so-called Habsburg myth, or more accurately, cluster of myths. If this mythic heritage is defined as the enduring cultural fascination with the Habsburg Empire, Austrian history, and the cultural achievements of the fin-de-siécle period in Vienna, it is real in its mythic, if not necessarily literal, truth and its power and influence.

Without examining the associated myths of language disintegration or a "language crisis," the historical and political facts about the end of the Empire and century, or the political stances of the authors themselves, this study will focus only on fin de siècle literary impressionism as in international phenomenon. Ilona Sármámy-Parsons has pointed out another distortion involved in Austrian myth-building: "Ever since Carl Schorske's book Fin-de-Siécle Vienna first focused the attention of cultural and art history on Vienna, most references to Austro-Hungarian culture of the fin-de-siécle have tended to project the Viennese pattern onto the whole region. It is only local scholars who have attempted to correct this perspective when writing on Czech, Polish, or Hungarian culture." (7) The Habsburg myth included Eastern/Slavic culture, of course, but for the most part valued as imaginative cultural fodder for the glorification of the Empire and its capital city, or as a romanticized source of personal identity, as it functioned for Carl Joseph von Trotta. Another common distortion is the conflation of authors and their characters, for example, the assumption that the views and lifestyles of Anatol and Lord Chandos are those of their creators, Schnitzler and Hofmannthal. (8) While idealized myths of glory are positive in a certain sense, associated myths, defined in the negative sense of the word as distortions or inaccuracies, including sweeping claims of apocalyptic disintegration as well as narrow nationalistic views, either of which may support the myth that impressionism reflects the particular spirit of fin-de-siècle Vienna and the myth that it is uniquely Austrian.

A look at the international context reveals numerous other understandings of the term and its history, many of them also prone to myths both overly broad and overly narrow. Some studies regard German and Austrian authors as comprising one literary tradition, others as two interacting or warring traditions; some suggest that impressionism was uniquely French, originated by Alphonse Daudet (mentioned in 1879 by Brunetière in the first known use of the word for literature)(9), or by Proust, Flaubert, Karl Huysman, or the brothers Goncourt,(10) or uniquely English and invented by Walter Pater or Henry James; some equate impressionism with or identify overlapping qualities with decadence, symbolism, aestheticism, naturalism, Jugendstil, mannerism, neo-romanticism, and, in American poetry, imagism, all of which have their own distinct definitions and histories and for clarity's sake are best regarded as distinct as often as possible. In early modern drama, the plays of the Russian Chekhov are distinguished from the expressionism of Strindberg and the realistic but tightly controlled structure of Ibsen by his ground-breaking impressionistic use of mood, sensation, and random and petty detail. Donald Riechel has traced the connections and parallels between the Italian Gabriel D'Anunzio and the Scandinavians Jens Peter Jacobsen and Kurt Hamsen and the Austrian writer Robert Musil, and he mentions several impressionistic elements, including D'Annunio's language of landscape, Jacobsen's creation of moods and feelings, and Hamsun's indeterminate narrator. Hamsun, influenced by Nietzche, called for a literature that attended to "the incalculable chaos of impressions, the delicate life of the imagination seen under a magnifying glass; the random wanderings of ... thoughts and feelings," and he goes on to mention effects of brain, heart, nerves, blood and bone."(11) Other discussions include bewilderingly inclusive lists of impressionist writers. In 1907, Richard Hamann is sweeping in his influential book, Der Impressionismus in Leben und Kunst, Equating impressionism with subjectivism and individualism, he finds the movement so pervasive that he sometimes replaces "impressionistisch" with "modern." Hamann cites elements often found in definitions, such as "die sinnliche Wahrnehmung," "Antimentalismus," "Nuanciertheit," "die Verfeinerung der Wahrnehmung und ihrer künstlerischen Wiedergabe." Hamann also comments, "... die Gegenstände selbst verlieren in impressionistischer Kunst einen Teil ihrer Konsistenz und Dignität;" for this phenomenon he used the word "Atomismus."(12) One re-assessment of the movement undertaken in a 1968 symposium in America explicated impressionist texts by authors from such places as the United States, Spain, South America, Belgium, Flanders, Denmark, Italy, and Japan. Over the years, critics have made many judgments about impressionism, some finding it superficial, subjective to the point of solipsism, anti-metaphysical, anti-religion, immoral, dangerously relativistic, a decadent product of monopoly capitalism, overly sociological, or an unimportant vehicle for minor talents. Several frustrated critics have made the understandable but impractical suggestion that the term be abolished; including Calvin S. Brown, and Ralph M. Werner, who proposed replacing it with "Skepticismus, Aestheticismus," or "Aktivismus" as needed.(13)

An often-quoted study of French Impressionism is Helmut Hatzfeld's Literature Through Art: A New Approach to French Literature (1952). He sees in the movement such elements as "the triumph of description over narration; the new spiritual climate of the great cities; intoxication with life, water, sun, rhythm; enthusiasm for movement, dancing, horse races;... ornament rather than topic; abstract art and pure poetry ... "(14) Showing similarities in funeral scenes by the painter Courbet and the writer Gustave Flaubert, Hatzfeld comments, "The interest is in the contemporary, everyday life, presented not in a plot or a story but in a fleeting moment, whatever it may be - an event, an impression... ." He adds, " ... [A] philosophy that concentrates on the sensibility of the moment without any symbolic or metaphysical implication is involved."(15) He also provides more specific details of impressionist literary technique: "primacy of atmosphere," "refined response to nature, concentration on the nuance, ... that is, suggestive art, effacing of contour, . . that is, no logically constructed sentences, shading, ... that is, metaphors rather than similes, ... [and]... vague expressions ... generally effected by the nominal style without clarifying verbs."(16) In addition, "An effacing of contours is effected in literature by the hazy style indirect libre, a tricky presentation of half-direct, half-indirect speech, in which the author uses the vocabulary and locutions of his characters."(17) Returning to the philosophical implications of the movement, Hatzfield concludes, "Impressionism is driven to two extremes inherent in its tendencies: a radical l'Art pour l'Art, which is no longer interested in life, but in the rhythm of life expressed by art; and a preoccupation with striking, beautiful, or surprising movement, as in dancers, running horses, or people at work. But interest in these movements leads the observer to people of the meanest and lowest classes and characters [causing] a detour over the most pronounced naturalism"(18) I am reminded here of Altenberg's numerous sensitive descriptions of the beauties and unseen lives of hotel maids, from which a social message does emerge. The sensitive "Augenmensch" Altenberg wrote several sketches on maids in hotels and aristocratic homes. He did not praise their appearance, but sought to bring to light their dedication and diligence, their unseen virtues, as well as the lack of appreciation shown them by their insensitive employers. Although his sketches propose no change in social policies or class structure, his impressionistic observation does cause him to express social criticism in regard to treatment of servants.(19)

Altenberg, with his eye for all aspects of feminine beauty, also has in common with some French impressionists their interest in fashion as art. According to Denis Hollier in a history of French literature, "Impressionist artists and their critics were being drawn to fashion for fleeting images of their rapidly changing environment."(20) Altenberg, one of the most quintessentially Viennse writers, also acknowledged influences from other countries, including the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, as well as such French writers of prose poems as Bertrand, Baudelaire, and Huysman.(21)

Although the term fin de siècle originated in France, the sense of thrilling but uncomfortable newness and transition associated with Vienna was also strong in England, where it was related to rebellion against the culture of the Victorian era; English culture also contributed the term "dandyism" to refer to the aesthetic lifestyle in that country. Karl E. Beckson and Arthur Ganz in A Reader's Guide to Literary Terms comment on the French origins of the term impressionism. then turn to the English context: "Many of the French Symbolists have, at one time or another, been called impressionists. In England, Walter Pater, concerned with aesthetic matters, used the term impression in The Renaissance (1873) to indicate that the critic must first examine his own reactions in judging a work of art. The verse of such aesthetes as Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Symons abounds in poems entitled "Impression" to suggest their indebtedness to the French impressionists and to indicate that they were painting word pictures... . In the modern novel, impressionism frequently refers to the technique of centering on the mental life of the chief character rather than the reality around him. Such writers as Proust, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf dwell on their characters' memories, associations, and inner emotional reactions."(22) This succinct account shows how the term impressionism can fruitfully be used with different meanings when applied to literary criticism, poetry, and novels.

In 1990, feminist critic Elaine Showalter published Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, which quotes Austrian Max Nordau and makes a few brief references to Gustav Klimt and Viennese culture, but concentrates on the phenomenon in the English-speaking realm. She asserts, "This book is about the myths, metaphors, and images of sexual crises and apocalypse that marked both the late nineteenth century and our own fin de siècle, and its representatives in English and American literature, art, and film."(23) In the years 2000 and 2001, two books on English language impressionism were published. One, by Tamara Katz, understands impressionism in the context of Victorian culture, including concepts of gender and domesticity, while commenting more generally about modernism and the modern city. On the movement's origins, she writes, "Literary Impressionism - as it was first rendered influential by Walter Pater, and as it was critically elaborated by Ford Maddox Ford, among others - articulated a sense of social instability and change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." (24) The other volume, Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics, by Jesse Matz, begins, "'Fiction is an Impression," so said Henry James, and many others, from Hardy to Woolf, from Conrad to Proust."(25) Matz elucidates many of the issues involved in defining the term, and states, "As a name for late nineteenth- and early twentieth century subjective writing, it has enjoyed only uneasy legitimacy... To many Anglo-American writers, 'impression' meant not non-literary sensation, but the very instance of aesthetic representation."(26) Citing Pater, James, Hardy, Conrad, Woolf, Vernon Lee, Garland, May, Sinclair, Hume and Elizabeth Bowen, Matz. asserts, "As these writers invoke it, the impression is nothing less than the name for the aesthetic moment itself, a new sign for the old bridge between art and life."(27) Matz provides this definition: "Fiction locates itself not in sense, nor in thought, but in the feeling that comes between, not in the movement that passes, nor in the decision that lasts, but in the intuition that lingers. Impressionism does not choose surfaces and fragments over depths and wholes, but makes surfaces show depths, makes fragments suggest wholes, and devotes itself to the undoing of such distinctions."(28) The purported father of English impressionism, who saw the "single sharp impression as life's quintessence," Walter Pater, is said to have "struck out a new line in English prose, working on the principles enunciated by Flaubert." His prose, according to A. C. Benson, was "full of color and melody, serious, exquisite, ornate... . His object was that every sentence should be weighted, charged with music, haunted with echoes; that it should charm and suggest, rather than convince or state." (29) Obviously, English impressionism is a significant movement represented by some very well-known writers legitimately studied in their own right. Nevertheless, these examples demonstrate that in this tradition, as in the Austrian, overly sweeping statements about the general pervasiveness of the movement can by found, as well as studies that are narrow in the sense that they virtually ignore the international context and regard the movement as belonging to one nation or language.

A look at literary bibliographies reveals that well-known American authors classified as impressionist include Stephen Crane, Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Horton Foote, Walt Whitman, and Faulkner. In 1894, the American regionalist writer Hamlin Garland wrote a pertinent book, Crumbling Idols, an artistic manifesto acknowledging the influence of the aesthetic theories of the French critic EugèneVéron. Garland opposed "conventionalism" and favored an evolutionary, dynamic theory of art. As Donald Pizer explains, "In Crumbling Idols Garland stated an aesthetic system in which evolutionary ideas served as the intellectual foundation, impressionism as the artistic method advocated, and local color as the end product in the various arts... Throughout Crumbling Idols Garland uses impressionism and veritism interchangeably." He defines impressionism as "the statement of one's individual perception of life and nature, guided by devotion to truth."(30)

The studies exploring German and Austrian impressionism generally concern naturalism as well. Many associate naturalism with Berlin; impressionism with Vienna. Those seeing a rivalry asserted that Austrians felt old-fashioned, passive, and inferior in view of Germany's outward success as a great power, and so turned inward; others have labeled Austrian culture more conservative, less rebellious against parental and imperial authority and social class hierarchy. Some Germans did reject impressionism as belonging to France or Austria, identifying themselves instead with expressionism, naturalism, neo-romanticism, or Renaissance and classical German literature. Instead of the Austrian Ernst Mach, the theories of the Swiss Richard Avenarius were also claimed as philosophical foundation. However, strict lines of demarcation between German and Austrian culture of the turn of the century period or between impressionism and naturalism cannot easily be drawn. An early use of the term was "Eine impressionistische Skizze" in a 1888 sub-title by Michael Georg Conrad, a German writer who saw impressionism as closely related to photography and who also founded "Die Gesellschaft," an important organ of early naturalism. Writers identified by Hartmut Marhold as authors of both types of texts include Bölsche, Clara Viebig, Karl Bleibtreu, Heinz Tovote, Gerhard Hauptmann, and Holz and Schlaf.(31) Schnitzler is often labeled an impressionist, or just his early work is; another view is that he used impressionist technique, but his psychological passages were naturalistic. At any rate both German and Austrian culture were influenced by various, mostly French writers and caught up in several international movements including both naturalism and impressionism. Austrian involvement in larger European culture was pushed forward by the efforts of Hermann Bahr, who had connections to the artistic scene in Spain, France and Germany; he introduced various authors to Vienna and promoted Austrian writers abroad. In one of his studies of Bahr, Donald Daviau has written, "As an impressionist and follower of Ernst Mach, Bahr believed that there was no fixed ego. The individual was free to change, indeed, he insisted that the individual must stay in a continuous process of development in order to stay in tune with the constantly changing world."(32) Bahr appeared to herald the triumph of impressionism in his book, "Die Überwindung des Naturalismus," but, in keeping with his belief in change, he adopted and promoted many other movements at different phases of his own development. Daviau has also labeled Stefan Zweig a "model and victim" of the impressionist aesthetic lifestyle, as articulated in A Rebours by the French author Karl Joris Huysman. He explains, "An Impressionist prizes as his highest values personal freedom and self-fulfillment, [living] through and for sensations ... He is dedicated to the pursuit of beauty, pleasure, and personal happiness; [passive in social and political terms [ and living] as much as possible on an intellectual and spiritual plane."(33) The use of the word impressionist to denote a lifestyle associates it with the terms "aestheticism" and "decadence," as seen in the above phrase "impressionist aesthetic lifestyle," and in the association with Huysman. Huysman began as a naturalistic disciple of Zola, but his art criticism and his novel A Rebours signaled a break with that movement. A Rebours is also classified as a seminal work of the decadent movement. Its hero, Des Esseintes, can be regarded as an impressionist, but Huysman and other decadent French writers demonstrated that the decadent movement went to greater extremes than its milder relative, impressionism. According to J. Birkett and J. Kearns, discussing decadence in French literature, "the pursuit of ever more bizarre, neurotic or violent sensation could not occupy for long the mainstream of literary developments. The movement was soon seen as a very partial response to the philosophical and aesthetic shortcomings of Naturalism."(34)

A recent view of the current status of German language impressionism in literary history is given in Ingo Stoehr's 2001 volume on German literature of the twentieth century. Stoehr defines impressionism thus: "Impressionism assumed that the human mind is exposed to a continuous sensual perception of the forever-changing world. The major characteristic of this style was its attempt to capture the moment in motion. Impressionist texts shared with Impressionist paintings motifs that express the concept of flux, such as light, reflections, vibrations, water, and rivers (as water in motion)."(35) While some would fault Stoehr for subsuming Austrian literature under German, he does go on to provide an international context for the term: "The image of flow was applied to the human mind as the stream of consciousness ... a term that was coined by William James... . and free indirect stye (from the French style indirect libre)." He continues, "While free indirect style can be traced back to Jane Austen in British prose and Gustave Flaubert in French, it was not used in German literature until Naturalism. In contrast, interior monologue was a Modernist invention, pioneered in German-language literature by Arthur Schnitzler."(36)

While various studies put forth the possibility that impressionism may be a literary epoch, its complete absence from many literary histories suggests that it is neither an epoch nor a major movement; its persistence, however, indicates that it is better regarded as a minor movement than as a term so imprecise and recklessly used that it should be abolished. Although impressionistic techniques could probably be identified in works of any time or place, the term is most useful if it is identified as a European and American movement, and defined as coming to prominence in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, although not as dominating that era. Another question is whether the term should be applied to authors themselves or only to specific literary works or passages from them. With the exception of thorough-going literary impressionists such as Peter Altenberg, it is usually best to apply the word to texts or passages and refrain from using the word to describe an author's whole oeuvre. The word describes only a fraction of the attributes of the complex, influential, and diverse authors that have been labeled impressionist, including Flaubert, Proust, James, Woolf, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Liliencron, Hauptmann, George and Faulkner.

If literary impressionism was inspired by the movement in painting, a look at the causes contributing to French impressionist painting is in order. They are said to include the development of more luminous synthetic chemical pigments, and several types of new technical means of distributing art to a wider audience, including newspapers, lithography producing low cost prints, photography, and widely available sheet music. In this general movement toward a people's art, painters moved toward the reality of the here and now. Impressionist paintings concentrated on the general impression created by a scene or object and the use of unmixed primary colors and small brush strokes to simulate actual reflected light. The aim was to accurately record visual reality in terms of transient effects of light and color. The practice of painting outdoors was also an innovation of the impressionists. A strong interest in science also influenced many painters from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. According to Phoebe Pool, " . . for painters and writers alike 'the true' was replacing the beautiful' as a word of praise... Comte, the founder of the humanitarian philosophy of Positivism, had distrusted a priori principles, assigning a prime importance to what was factual or the product of direct observation - a distinct parallel with Impressionist aims." She adds, "The impact of science upon painters was, as one would expect, chiefly in the field of optical research, especially the constitution of colours and the structure of light."(37) Although specialists who delve into the intricacies of impressionism and neo-impressionism in painting no doubt find these terms frustrating and over-simplified as well, these terms are clearly of great use in grasping the history of modern art. The general modern technological, realistic, and down to earth trends that can be cited as influencing the movement, along with its emphasis on ordinary people, events, and scenes, were carried into parallel movements in literature; interest in connecting artistic genres accompanied loosening of the boundaries and defining characteristics of established literary and artistic genres. Indeed, several defining aspects of the movement, in terms of both rhetoric and subject matter, are taken for granted in poetry and are therefore more striking and original in prose and drama.

The enormous changes represented by modern drama of the Western world, still rebelling against ancient Aristotlean principles of comedy and tragedy in the late nineteenth century, include impressionistic techniques among the other overlapping modern movements toward mixing comic and tragic elements, dramatizing ordinary events, people, and conversation.

Thus, the inclusion of smells and tastes, small visual details, fleeting thoughts, remarks, and feelings, and broken syntax in Chekhov's early twentieth century dramas are original in the drama of the early modern period, in a sense because they introduce subjective, sensual, and irrational material that is usual in poetry into drama. William Germardie has described Chekhov's impressionism thus: "One of the chief delights of reading Chekhov is the discovery that our vaguely apprehended, half-suspected thoughts concerning the fluidness, complexity, and elusiveness of life have been confirmed articulately and in print. It is as if all along we had suspected that the private and unnoticed little things in life were the important ones; but had thought it necessary to present ourselves to our fellow in a stiff intellectual shirt-front."(38) Investigation of the techniques of impressionism used by various writers in different genres is one helpful technique in aiming at more precise definitions of the term.

In the German-speaking realm, speculation about the causes of impressionism points toward common ground between impressionism and naturalism. The differing political and historical situations in the various countries in which impressionism developed suggest that care be taken before very precise and direct causes are identified, especially when many authors employ impressionism in addition to other styles. One can trace various international artistic influences, of course, but some agreement exists that the impressionist and naturalist movement belong to a general modern cultural period that was influenced by broad political and historical developments. The background for these two seemingly opposite but related movements, both schools of realism flourishing in about the same years, was the Enlightenment, industrialization, secularism, evolution, liberalism, technology, the fast pace, dynamism and fragmentation of the cities, as well as observational, objective science, philosophical positivism and empiricism. In this environment, impressionism arose amid a general Europan sense of a new age and the need for new lifestyles, new definitions of art, as well as new explorations of its possibilities, and of the connections between art and life. Impressionism was part of a rebellion against pomposity, falseness, historicism, salon culture, the comfortable conventionality of classical modes, and any kind of absolutism. Both naturalism and impressionism aimed to perceive and record empirical reality; however naturalism tended more toward ugliness, emphasis on evolution and science, and realistic depiction of social and political ills; impressionism more often toward beauty and a viewpoint including a sense of transcendence and permanence behind the surface reality it depicted. Impressionism posits that what the viewer views is always in flux, palpitating, evanescence, in partial focus, and moving.

Sifting through the sometimes startlingly diverse discussions and contexts surrounding the term impressionism, it is striking that one can find considerable agreement among the actual definitions of the term in terms of literary characteristics, and underlying linguistic technique. Noted features include prominent use of dependent clauses, grammatical dislocation, suppression of the verb or conjunction, adjectives that could apply to several nouns, feelings translated through the language of the senses, musicality in poetry, recurrent elements, fusion of painting and literature, nuanced prose, figurative language, questioning of the logical, rational way of perceiving, alliteration, suspension of genre rules, attention to medium, mixing of different languages, short or unfinished texts, and use of stream of consciousness technique. As can be inferred from these features, strict rules for the various genres are not followed; rather, a fruitful merging of genre is one effect of the movement.

With the hindsight of a century, the radical aspects of the impressionistic movement have faded. It provided one set of answers, suited to its times, to the enduring and never settled questions about the purposes of art and connections of art to life, but it was not apocalyptic and did not effect or reflect a tidal wave of disintegration. The art, literature, and criticism that followed it have shown more dire types of fragmentation, relativism, and relentless questioning and doubt; and the developments involved in the associated concept of a "language crisis," associated with the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is a separate field onto itself. Impressionism is one of the movements that call language into question in new ways, but no deep understanding of linguistics or the philosophy of language is necessary to appreciate impressionistic literary techniques. Despite its association with the fragment, one reference work, Das kleine Lexikon der Weltliteratur begins the entry on impressionism with the label,"Letzter einheitlicher Welt-Stil des Abendlands,"(39) pointing toward increased chaos in the artistic history of the twentieth century as the decades wore on. There is much confusion surrounding the term, as many other literary terms, but it is not impossible to define; indeed, collecting the various specific definitions of its qualities and techniques yields more consistency and clarity than tracing the history of the use of the label as applied to authors or eras. Jesse Matz comments on impressionism's place in cultural history thus, "If Impressionism is a troubled theory of perceptual totality, it is important to the study of modernity, intervening (historically) between romantic unities and modernist fragmentation, and (conceptually) between utopianism and social critique."(40) (2) Just as impressionism in painting has duly taken its place in art history, literary impressionism has duly taken its place as a minor movement within international modernism and realism of the turn of the century and early twentieth century. To most readers in our day, impressionism seems to be an acceptable and almost inevitable development, a type of realism capturing aspects of life ignored by naturalism and expressionism, and a movement needing no particular philosophical justification. In the meantime, history has brought forth both previously unimaginable extremes in artistic experimentation and rebellion in all art forms, as well as doubt, absurdity, meaninglessness, destruction and death that have replaced impressionism's once radical and shocking mosaics of words and patterns of bits of color and light with great canvasses of darkness.

© Pamela S. Saur (Lamar University, Texas)


(1) Hugo von Hofmannsthal. "Ein Brief" in: Prosa II. (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1959), p. 7.

(2) Ibid., p. 13.

(3) Carl Schorkse, Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Knopf, 1979/1980), p. 308.

(4) Ibid., pp. 333-334.

(5) Jens Rieckmann, "Leopold von Andrian" in Major Figures of Turn-of-the-Century Austrian Literature, Ed. and Intro. Donald G. Daviau (Riverside: Ariadne, 1991), p. 38.

(6) Joseph Roth, Radetzkymarsch, Vol. I, Romane und Erzählungen (Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1982), p. 40.

(7) Ilona Sármány-Parsons, "The Image of Women in Painting: Clichés and Reality in Austro-Hungary," in Gertraud Diem-Wille, et al., Eds, Weltanschauungen des Wiener Fin de Siècle 1900/2000. (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2000), p. 220.

(8) Daviau, Donald G. "Introduction," Major Figures of Turn-of-the-Century Austrian Literature, Ed. Donald G. Daviau (Riverside: Ariadne, 1991), p. v.

(9) Ralph Michael Werner, Impressionismus als literarhistorischer Begriff: Untersuchung zum Beispiel Arthur Schnitzlers (Frankfurt am Main: Peter D. Lang, 1981), p. 14.

(10) One example is the entry, Impressionism, (pp. 400-401) in The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), stating, "the term has frequently been used with reference to the novels of the Goncourts and the poetry of Verlaine."

(11) Donald Riechel, "Perfecting Failure: Musil on Hamsun, Jacobsen and D'Annunzio, and the Writing of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften," Modern Austrian Literature 32.1 (1999), p. 29.

(12)  Richard Hamann, Der Impressionismus in Leben und Kunst, 2nd. Ed. (Marburg an der Lahn: Verlag des Kunstgeschichtlichen Seminars, 1923), p. 82.

(13) In a generally positive review of Werner's book, cited above, (Modern Austrian Literature 16.2 (1983): 125-127, Donald G. Daviau commented, "In truth, it seems hard to see just how replacing one term with three will improve matters." (126)

(14) Helmut Hatzfeld, Literature through Art: A New Approach to French Literature (Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 1969), p. 165.

(15) Hatzfeld, p. 166.

(16) Ibid., p. 169.

(17) Ibid., p. 173.

(18) Ibid., p. 186.

(19) Pamela S. Saur, "The Maid," in Peter Altenberg's Approach to Women and Love, M.A. Thesis, University of Iowa, 1972: pp. 77-81.

(20) Denis Hollier, A New View of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), p. 767.

(21) See Barbara Z. Schoenberg, "The Influence of the French Prose Poem on Peter Altenberg." Modern Austrian Literature, 22.3-4 (1989): 15-32.

(22) Karl E. Beckson and Arthur Ganz, "Impressioism," in A Reader's Guide to Literary Terms (New York: Noonday Press, 1970), pp. 88-89.

(23) Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking, 1990), p. 3.

(24) Tamar Katz, Impressionist Subjects: Gender, Interiority and Modernist Fiction in England (Urbana: U of IL P, 2000), p. 5.

(25) Jesse Matz, Literary Impressionism and Modernist Asthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), p. 1.

(26) Ibid., p. 12.

(27) Ibid., p. 13.

(28)  Ibid., p. 16.

(29) A. C. Benson, Walter Pater (London: Macmillan, 1906), p. 212.

(30) Donald Pizer, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth Century American Literature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1966), p. 93.

(31) Hartmut Marhold, Impressionismus in der deutschen Dichtung (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1985), p. 215.

(32) Donald G. Daviau, Understanding Hermann Bahr (St. Ingbert: Röhrig, 2002), p. 13.

(33) Daviau, "Stefan Zweig: A Model and Victim of the Impressionistic Lifestyle of the Fin de Sieècle," in Gelber, Mark H., Ed. Stefan Zweig: Exil und Suche nach dem Weltfrieden (Riverside: Ariadne, 1995) p. 168.

(34) Jennifer Birkett and James Kearns, A Guide to French Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), p. 171.

(35) Ingo Stoehr, German Literature of the Twentieth Century from Aestheticism to Post- Modernism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002), p. 22.

(36) Ibid., pp. 22-23.

(37) Phoebe Pool, Impressionism (New York: Praeger, 1967), p. 12.

(38) William Germandie, Anton Chekhov: A Critical Study (New York: Duffield, 1923), p. 4.

(39) Herman Pongs, "Impressionism," in Das kleine Lexikon der Weltliteratur (Stuttgart: Union 1967), p. 935.

(40) Matz, p. 2.

5.9. Austrian Writers and the Unifying Aspects of Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Pamela S. Saur (Lamar University, Texas): Viennese Fin-de-Siècle Impressionism in International Context. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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