November 30, 2012


Wiener Gruppe (the Vienna Group)

A small and loosely-connected group of Austrian poets and writers previously connected with the postwar activities of artists connected with Art-Club, the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) formed around 1954 under the influence of Austrian poet H. C. Artmann (1921-2000), existing in one form or another until 1964, with the suicide of one its original members, Konrad Bayer.

      Interested in Baroque literature as well as Expressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, group members also came to stand for the linguistic criticism and philosophy of figures such as Hugo van Hofmannsthal, Fritz Mauthner, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Similarly, the group—which originally included Artmann, Friedrich Achleitner (1930), Bayer (1932-1964), Gerhard Rühm, and Oswald Wiener (1935)—recognized language as both a visual and acoustic medium, and involved their work intensely with readings and recordings, and in using sound and various Austrian dialects in their works. They also shared a fascination with developments in Concrete Poetry.

     The major book on the group was edited by Gerhard Rühm, De Wiener Gruppe: Achleitner, Artmann, Bayer, Rühm, Wiener (Reinbek, Germany: Rowohlt, 1985). In English, the central anthology was edited and translated by Rosmarie Waldrop and Harriett Watts, The Vienna Group: 6 Major Austrian Poets (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1985). Below I have reprinted the introduction to Waldrop’s and Watts’ publication.

If you had been walking through Vienna on the evening of August 22, 1953 you would have seen a strange procession. It looked like a funeral. A melancholy flute set the pace for veiled women, men in black with clown-white faces carrying wreaths, candelabra, chrysanthemums and burning incense. The procession stopped only to recite macabre passages from Poe, Baudelair, Nerval and Trakl. This Soirée aux amants funèbres was the first public poetic act of an informal group of friends—a group now recognized for its radical experimentation and linguistic discoveries which have extended the expressive potential of language.

     Vienna, a center of avant-garde writing? Vienna, the ultimate backwater capital, still mired in nostalgia for the Habsburgs and the nineteenth century! Interestingly enough, experimental movements have cropped up in the most staid and bourgeois urban centers. Dada first made its appearance in Zurich, the bastion of Swiss respectability. Schwitters conceived Merz in Hannover, one of the provincial German cities least likely to spawn a collage maniac. And the most experimental movement in German emerged, of all places, in Vienna. It would seem that the very provinciality of a place may trigger the rebellious energies of its young artists, energies which may be channeled into intensive experimentation if enough of these potential revolutionaries happen to meet. In Vienna, five of them did, between 1950 and 1955, and that was sufficient to create a movement later to be called “die Wiener Gruppe,” a movement which has initiated a more general renaissance in Austrian writing.

In 1953, Hans Carl Artmann, poet, translator and vagabond, founded a basement theater in Vienna (die kleine schaubühne) for “macabre feats, poetic acts,” and pranks like black masses, an evening “with illuminated birdcages,” or one “in memoriam to a crucified glove.” Much of it was apparently improvised. Artmann had already proclaimed an 8-point-manifesto of the “poetic act…refuses anything secondhand, i.e. any mediation through language, music, or writing.” When the police promptly condemned the theater, it metamorphosed (in late 1954) into a night club, Exil. The theater attracted Oswald Wiener and his jazz trumpet, and when the architect Friedrich Achleitner joined in 1955 he completed the actual “Wiener Gruppe”: H. C. Artmann, Gerhard Rühm, Konrad Bayer, Oswald Wiener, Friedrich Achleitner.

     These five writers read and discussed baroque poetry, the French Surrealists, Gertrude Stein, the German Expressionists, the Dadas (Arp and Schwitters became heroes), also grammars and dictionaries was well as linguistic theory, cybernetics, and Wittgenstein. It was Oswald Wiener who stimulated the interest in theory.

     And they experimented.

     Artmann discovered the possibilities of using dialect—not in order to mimic speech or render local color, but as a reservoir of sounds and expressions which can be submitted to formal manipulation. The dialect poems of Artmann, Rühm and Achleitner exploit the tension between the spoken immediacy and the outlandish look of the dialect words when spelled out on the page. This startling effect calls our attention to the speech mechanisms (and those of thought and perception, necessarily) in much the same way as the sound poems do, and, indeed, most of these authors writings. It was the dialect poems, the “vowels of Vienna,” which first attracted general attention to the group and made Artmann particularly famous.

     Early on Rühm had become interested in visual poems; an interest which sprang up at the same time in places as remote from Vienna as Brazil and Scotland. These poems replace the sentence and its hierarchy with a spatial “constellation,” a non-linear relation of elements which may be words, syllables, or even letters.

     Wiener worked toward different, linear alternatives to the sentence and collected formulas, lists, business signs.

    All of them worked on montages of “given” material. These montages are verbal expressions of the principle of collage. Inherent in the process of montage is the possibility of making language abstract: sentences from newspapers, from grade school primers, from catalogues and technical manuals become “non-referential” when lifted intact from the natural habitats and remounted into new combinations. The montage technique also provided an opportunity for collaboration by several artists on one text. Bayer saw these collective works as the main justification of the group which made the group more than an economic organization: “a laboratory and a test-bench.”

     All of them also experimented with reduction, especially once Artmann, with his irrepressible baroque inventiveness, began to drift away from the group. They worked, for instance, with restricted vocabularies (Rühm used cross-word puzzles), sometimes with single words, which then were subjected to various kinds of manipulations, optical, serial, associative, etc.

     1957 marked a widening of the circle. The magazine Neue Wege published Ernst Jandl’s “sprechgedichte” along with work by the group. Although neither Ernst Jandl nor Friederike Mayröcker became part of the nucleus—they did not become involved in the collaborations or the cabaret—the group welcomed kindred spirits. In fact, as the original group began to disintegrate, these newcomers carried the impetus of the movement to an even more provincial center: Graz, the capital of Styria. There, in 1960, the Grazer Stadtpark Forum came into existence. Its monthly journal, Manuskripte, continues to be the principal organ for artists once associated with the “Wiener Gruppe,” along with a new generation of major Austrian writers: Peter Handke, Gerhard Roth, Barbara Frischmuth, G. F. Jonke.

     1957 also marked a widening of the audience in Vienna. There began an unending series of performances halfway between cabaret and happening, often with stormy audience reactions. The name “Wiener Gruppe” began to appear in reviews. The first dialect poems had appeared in 1956 as a special issue of the magazine alpha and found favorable echoes. Artmann’s med ana schwoazzn dintn, published in 1958, was an impressive success. Hosn rosn haa by Artmann, Rühm and Achleitner followed in 1959.

     The success, however, also marked the beginning of the end. Artmann drifted off, and others followed. In 1962, the group tried to rally once more around its own magazine, edition 62, edited by Bayer. Only two issues came out. When Bayer wrote a short article on the “Vienna Group” in The Times Literary Supplement of September 3, 1964, it was a retrospective. The working collective had dissolved back into loose contacts between friends scattered between Vienna, Berlin, and Malmö. A month later, Konrad Byaer killed himself.

     The work of these writers does not travel easily. Even when they do not write dialect their texts are very much “in” the language. They take the structures and mechanisms of language itself as their subject matter. One might say this is the common basis of all their different styles and methods. What distinguishes them from other experimental poets to whom this might equally apply (Heissenbüttel, Gomringer, to name just two) is their greater exuberance and humor.

     We have not attempted to translated the dialect poems or the cabaret collaborations. We have tried to give a characteristic sampling of those short texts by individual authors which seemed translatable.

     Oswald Wiener is not represented in this volume. He has disowned his work from the period (with the result that it is inaccessible, unincluded even in the group anthology). His novel, Die Verbesserung Mitteleuropas (Rowohlt, 1969) is available, but does not excerpt well in spite of (because of?) its aphoristic texture.


Essay copyright ©1985 by Rosmarie Waldrop and Harriett Watts. Reprinted from The Vienna Group: 6 Major Austrian Poets (Barrytown, New York: Station Hill Press, 1985). Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

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