Vienna: The cafés that shaped the 20th century

To celebrate the opening of Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery, we explore the coffee house culture that gave the city its unique character.

Unesco, the branch of the United Nations responsible for culture, keeps a list of Intangible Cultural Heritages – treasures of human culture that it deems worthy of protection. It is a wide-ranging selection, spanning traditions as diverse as Chinese calligraphy and the Panama hat. Yet one item seems even more ephemeral than the rest: Viennese Coffee House Culture.

Vienna's coffee houses supposedly date back to the 17th century, when the Habsburg army discovered sacks of mysterious beans after defeating the Ottoman forces in the Battle of Vienna. The king of Poland agreed to give the beans to an officer in the army, who founded the first café and kick-started a tradition that continues to this day.

While the coffee houses themselves can be traced back to an enterprising officer, the unique culture that sprung up around them was the result of Vienna's unique history and location. During its golden fin de siècle at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Vienna found itself at the epicentre of European thought. It was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire – one of many empires to emerge from the age of imperialism, but the only one whose territories were predominately European, making Vienna a melting pot for ideas emerging across the continent.

Vienna wasn't only the capital of the most European of the empires; geographically and intellectually it was situated on the watershed dividing western from eastern Europe, straddling the universalist ideology that was dominant east of the Rhine and the prevailing individualism to the west. The contrasting worldviews clashed not on the battlefield, but on the marble tabletops of Vienna's coffee houses.

The cafés became informal clubs, each with its own distinctive clientele and atmosphere. Purchasing a cup of coffee in any of Vienna's coffee houses entitled the visitor to remain all day, to read the latest publication or debate with other clients. For some the coffee house became a primary address, somewhere they kept a change of clothes and received their mail.

A list of the individuals frequenting the coffee houses reads like a Who's Who of the early 20th century. In the arts the most significant establishment was Café Museum, whose regular guests included Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka (and, in music, the composer Alban Berg).

The city's reputation in the visual arts inspired a young Austrian watercolourist to move to Vienna in 1905, living as a bohemian while he applied to the city's Academy of Fine Arts. Adolf Hitler was one of many future world leaders to frequent Vienna's cafés – in a single month at the beginning of 1913, Café Central received Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Josip Broz Tito as patrons.

In the inventory of Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list, Vienna's coffee houses are described as places "where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill". While the coffee itself may have been an incidental detail in the cafés of the Austrian capital, the conversations that took place there would shape the 20th century.

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 is at the National Gallery, London until 12 January 2014.

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