As Queen Victoria passes, Vienna-based historian Blom (To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting, 2003, etc.) finds a Modern World breaking through the crust.
In this masterful presentation, the time in question is so richly laced with scientific bedazzlement, social ferment and cultural churning that a sense of giddying misadventure begins to feel strangely familiar. The roots of tensions that alternately bind and threaten to fracture today’s Europe are all there, easily visible to us in hindsight but not to most of those who lived through it and experienced as a result, the author posits, mass vertigo. In analytical chronicles of this kind, the little delights that leap out serendipitously are a large part of the reward. The French, supposed masters of the art of love who were unable to reproduce sufficiently to maintain the population, still held sway as cultural arbiters, anointed in 1870 by a historian who noted: “Perhaps nothing is properly understood in Europe until the French have explained it.” Yet these explicating authorities initially greeted groundbreaking painters van Gogh and Gauguin as insane and animalistic. The Viennese specialized in elegant duplicity, with their high airs and public manners masking a seamy nightlife whose amateur prostitutes almost outhustled the pros. Best tidbit: Felix Salten, the Austrian writer who invented precious little Bambi, also produced outrageously pornographic works. Sigmund Freud gave up researching the function of bone marrow in lower fishes just in time to define the malaise of the age—and treat those who could afford him. Parisians shrugged then cowered in fear as growing masses of violent street gangs mocked law and order. Real men hated the proto-feminists, and raving anti-Semites saw Jews behind every ill. From Thomas Eakins’s stroboscopic photos to Duchamp’s descending nude, everything was coming apart.
Offers rewarding insights into a period often obscured from view by the decades of conflict that followed.