Smutty art in Vienna

When Uncle Otto was trying to become an established figure in the art world, the Viennese had sex on the brain.

Vienna could be called the birthplace of modern sexology. This is where Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), the first systematic record of human sexuality in all its expressions. 

The early 1900s saw the world’s first erotic movies filmed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A story that didn’t make it into “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre” was about Otto’s brief brush with porn. 

Vienna’s imposing Court of Justice was where a large collection of confiscated pornographic drawings was held in one its many chambers. A lawyer friend of Otto’s suggested that as an artist he might like to visit it. Otto turned up at the law courts, and they went to the offending room.

He gave Otto the key, told him to lock the door when he left and to return the key to him in his office in the same building. Left alone, Otto looked at the rows of shelves groaning under packed portfolios of original drawings and reproductions. 

“I had seen daring drawings by some of the great artists,” he later wrote. “They contained wit, and a mastery that bans in the onlooker all thoughts implying hypocrisy.”

He may well have been referring to Gustav Klimt’s Danae, the sleeping, curled-up princess whose left thigh is raised to welcome a stream of gold, Zeus’s sperm; or Egon Schiele’s scrawny models posing with legs ajar and blank faces.

But the banned pornography he found was deeply disappointing. To his surprise, some of the portfolios contained work “by some of the tamest, most demure picture-makers, who in privacy and secrecy indulged in the sneering pictorial representation of sexual activity or perversity.”

“It was their limited purpose, the brainless gluttony that by trespassing against human dignity turned these drawings into pornography.” He said he was reminded of a Czech peasant saying: “When your sex organ swells, your brain slides down to your buttocks.”

“I soon began to feel uneasy, as if the room I was sitting in was haunted by sinister figures like those of Hieronymus Bosch, organs with limbs and wings but no heads.” 

He soon locked the door and left. To his friend, he said “It’s the lack of variety, not prudery”. But what he really didn’t like, he wrote, is the familiarity that pornography seems to suggest in the onlooker.