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Thursday, September 25, 2014

“Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900”, by Tim Bonyhady

400 pages, Pantheon, ISBN-13: 978-0307378804

Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900 is one of those books which seems to be, on the surface, a simple family yarn; however, there is a lot more to this rare gem, as Tim Bonyhady has researched his family back to Vienna when they were living at the turn of the 19th Century. Yes, Jews had done very well in Vienna since the mid-1800s, and many became wealthy; in fact they provided large parts of the money and talent to rebuild the city and its palaces along the Ring-Boulevard. At around 10% of the population they represented more than 50% of its medical doctors and considerably higher percentages of lawyers and financiers. They were one of the most astounding success stories anywhere and so became largely responsible for Viennese culture both in the creation and consumption. The book supplies some answers how this all happened.

The book begins with a move of the author’s great-grandparents from the provinces to Vienna and their achieving wealth in the gas lighting business in which Vienna was leading. They now participate in the glory that is Vienna 1900 to the fullest as art patrons amongst others. The Gallia great-grandparents, Moriz and Hermine, married in the 1890’s and had four children. The Gallia’s older daughter, Gretl, was a young woman who enjoyed being out in Viennese society in the pre-World War One years. She became engaged to an architect but the engagement was dissolved. After the war, she married briefly and had a daughter. Her sister became the first woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry (Gretl’s daughter Annelore is the author’s mother).

The main part deals with the art patronage of the founder family. Klimt painted a famous portrait of Hermine that is today in the National Gallery, London. A fine analysis is given of the circumstances of the painting’s creation. Like the furniture having been made by Josef Hoffmann, one of the major craftsmen of the time in the Wiener Werkstaette. The family is able to take along, on emigration, the largest art collection from the period. The story does not end with emigration but depicts the coming to terms in the new environment and a final visit back to Vienna of the author's mother at the turn of another century. The writing is very good, eliciting vivid pictures of a time long gone with its glory and upheaval.

What makes this book incredible is just how different their lives were in Vienna prior to migrating to Sydney after Kristallnacht. They are upper class women who have never needed to work, yet their Jewish heritage (even though they converted to Catholicism) forces them to make the decision to leave during the onset on World War Two. It is terrible to imagine what their fates would have been if they remained in Vienna. Due to their high social standing, they seem almost oblivious to the impending horrors of the war which their attitude is best exemplified when they travel first class by ship to Australia via London for a holiday before arriving as Austrian refugees.

What is incredible about the story is they create a new life in Sydney, begin working and live in a cramped apartment surrounded by designer Viennese furniture, paintings and decorative art in which some is later purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. The collection is one of the most important examples of turn of the century Viennese art. Finally, it describes the lives of three generations of women who were indeed trailblazers. It is not a “light”, read rather a most intriguing book.

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