Vienna: Sachertorte, Freud and W.S.Burroughs


Vienna Gay Parade
Vienna Gay Parade

Sachertorte. Freud. Klimt. The Ferris wheel from The Third Man. Rachel Whiteread’s controversial monument to the murdered Jews. And snow globes- first patented in Vienna. These were my few fragments of knowledge of Vienna before visiting for the first time, discovering a piece of the European jigsaw I did not even realise was missing.

Our journey had its own particular theme. William Burroughs, the great 20th century writer about whom my husband, Barry Miles, is writing a biography. The occasion was an exhibition of Burroughs’ work in the Kunsthalle, one of several museums and art galleries in the new Museum Quarter, arranged around a central square empty of traffic, with huge moulded plastic sofas, casual cafes, children’s pool and a playpen grown from bamboo. The perfect cultural hang-out – and like the famous Viennese coffee houses, accessible to all. Here it is clear how Vienna has blossomed as the capital of the liberated youth of Eastern Europe.

The Burroughs’ show is devoted to his cut-ups; pages of manuscript, fragments of text, photos, collages, films, his shotgun paintings and even a shotgun painted door, which now belongs to Damien Hirst. Positioned in the middle of the gallery floor it looked like a doorway to a wild and wayward universe. The whole show such an insight into a writer’s mind.

Burroughs’ great theme was escaping control systems. Any control system. Maybe some of that passion was inspired by his own period of time studying in Vienna, just before the Second World War, when fascism was on the march and anti-semitism in full spate. Despite being homosexual, and only 23, he married an older Jewish woman to help her escape to America.

We explored Vienna looking for Burroughs, and his life there provided a good frame for the city. The gay hotel he first stayed in was next door to Mozart’s house, now a fancy restaurant where we sampled Austrian fare- in particular the famous Tafelspitz- a dish of beef served with fresh grated horseradish and apple sauce.   Subsequently Burroughs lived not far from Bergasse 19, and in later years was  analysed by a Freud disciple, so we went to the Freud museum.  I had strange dreams after that…

His favourite bath-house was not far from the fairground. Back in the Twenties this was a popular gay pick-up ground- at least it was for Wittgenstein, as we were informed by our Austrian friend, Elisabeth, who is currently working on the Wittgenstein family archive. (She recommends his book for children  – only in Vienna I think…Wittgenstein for Kids.)  So we had to take a ride on the Reisenrad, the Ferris wheel famous for the scene in The Third Man. It was a slow and sedate ascension, and we gasped with horror at other terrifying options, raising passengers to dizzy heights and spinning them mercilessly. As it happened we coincided with the annual Gay Pride procession, a glorious rainbow anarchy against the bourgeois backdrop of Imperial Vienna.

A tour of a show about Klimt’s life in the Leopold museum, and a final glimpse of the Klimt Beethoven Frieze in the white and gold Secession building, showed Vienna at the heart of artistic freedom at the beginning of the 20th century. Their motto, “For every time its art. For art its freedom.” We bought the snow globe.

The Burroughs’ show is on until October.

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