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Cracks in the Austrian Empire

THIS beautiful, oddly pitiful little girl with her wide blue silk sash and high, black-button boots was painted by Anton Romako in 1882. By that time wonderful Vienna, the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was in decline, beset by a myriad of problems, which most of its citizens, willing to barter anything for pleasure, were determined to ignore. The rich musical heritage of the lovely city, its splendid buildings and artistic accomplishments, coupled with a way of life that stressed constant enjoyment, lulled them into a false sense of security. The empire was composed of diverse peoples and elements, ranging from the Italian territories it occupied to the fiery Hungarians and the peoples of the lower Danube, all the way down to the Balkans - while to the north, cold, efficient Germany lay in wait. They put their trust, such as it was, in their absolute monarch and their rigid bureaucracy.

There is an Austrian proverb that runs, ``Es ist ernst aber es ist nicht tragisch,'' with its corollary, ``Es ist tragisch aber es ist nicht ernst,'' which time would disprove - they would find eventually that some matters could be both serious and tragic. The emperor, Franz Joseph, who ruled for more than 60 years, never doubting his authority and mission, was extremely hardworking, meddlesome, traditional, and serious - he knew that the times were troubled. He had no wish, however, to awaken his people to anything they might try to change; he believed in the reign of pleasure as far as they were concerned; this made him popular.

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Vienna was very rich; not only the aristocracy but also the middle class indulged in a heady materialistic existence, with every sort of opulence and display. In his personal life, the emperor lived plainly, sleeping on a narrow iron bedstead, getting up early and slaving away on minute details he should have left to others. Highly conservative, he was convinced of the importance of pomp, ceremony, and court etiquette, continuing doggedly on the path where tragedy awaited him at every turn.

As he grew older, in spite of his glaring political mistakes, the Austrians did not blame him very much. On the contrary, they had deep sympathy for him, and today they still remember him with affection. He was tiresome, yes, but his devotion to the nation touched them; it was so patently sincere, as was his willingness to serve, and they grieved for him in his afflictions. Even today one encounters people who remember amiable anecdotes about him and are grateful that he was so meticulous in small affairs that affected their own lives.

Early and mid-century Vienna went in for Biedermeier furnishings, an adaptation from the French Empire, which was simple and elegant. As time passed and the demand for comfort increased, and with it ostentation, the pure lines of the earlier patterns were corrupted, and it was often condemned as bourgeois. Good taste or bad, it was a part of that way of life which included picnics on the Prater and along the (rarely blue) Danube, dancing Strauss waltzes, going to the opera, and watching the exercises of the Spanish Riding School with its beautiful Lippizans.

Their artists painted the picturesque country villages and chalets and, in the city, the fashionable beauties and dashing officers, generally with a bold and glittering brush. These painters were honored locally, their repute in general rather transient, but today we look at them with nostalgia. Their names, familiar to those who haunt the galleries and museums of Vienna, include Hans Makart, Hugo Charlemont, Rudolf von Alt, Friedrich Amerling, Franz Winterhalter, Ferdinand Waldm"uller - all competent, successful men. In this roster we find Anton Romako who painted portraits and genre pictures in a brilliant, subjective, and sometimes fantastic style. He lived away from Vienna for 20 years, most of the time in Rome, with his beautiful wife (Liszt played at their wedding) - but she left him and his three children.

WITH her narrow face and big ears, her swing set above a floral background, her wide hat on the ground beside her, this fragile and touching child is a masterly piece of work. She must have been a young woman when World War I broke out - one looks at her in this fleeting and sheltered phase, before the storm broke, in all her sweet innocence, with those big dark eyes - it is a vivid likeness. One is anxious about the strength of the rope. It is perhaps frayed? In spite of that, how much the picture gives us, as does Vienna.

Finally, the forces sustaining the Austrian Empire were unequal to their task, and for all its panache it fell. The glittering portraits of their fashionable artists, so unknown to most of us, were not truly indicative of the times.

Its fa,cade charmed, its music and display, the handsome buildings, the beautiful dresses, the dashing cavalry, the Lippizans (these last have endured, as they were genuine). But that was not the way it really was. The intellectual atmosphere was too often bogus, the entertainment tawdry - much of what it did could not command respect. The Viennese were an easy target for Freud and his friends, who were greatly sought after by the rich and idle stars of that society.

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Yet there remains a core of real felicity about old Vienna and the countryside round about it - there were those who had honest standards, and lived innocently, enjoying simple pleasures. If they were not politically acute, they paid for this omission dearly in the years to come, and one cannot deny that the world is their debtor for many unique and generous visions of Gem"utlichkeit. This word, which is really untranslatable, is thus also uniquely Austrian, and conveys the idea of a happy and easy style, something both pleasing and amusing, essentially lighthearted - paradoxically perhaps one likes to conjure up the country in these terms.

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