The subject of the Augarten Porcelain Museum’s new special exhibition is solitude, withdrawal in a safe place. Whether alone or à deux, this state has acquired new significance in the year 2020. Historically speaking, it has not been rare for people to have to do without larger-scale social amusement – or to consciously choose to do so. For many reasons: pandemics and other threats, the demands of etiquette – or, more positively, the productivity of solitude for the creative mind. Our ancestors have always been familiar with the practice of self-isolation.

The eighteenth-century breakfast was often a time of solitude, maybe accompanied by Empress Maria Theresa’s beloved café au lait, simply served – but only relatively simply,
because it had to be done with grace and thoughtfulness. In France, the porcelain déjeuner was invented for Madame de Pompadour – either for the consumption of fashionable hot
beverages or simply to delight the eye. In Vienna too, the breakfast service became a permanent bestseller. In 1922, the Spanish flu pandemic not yet long overcome, work began at the new porcelain manufactory in the Augarten where, 150 years before, Emperor Joseph II had most liked to stroll alone amongst his people. In 1924 the manufactory officially opened its doors in the Augarten ‘hall building’, its focus firmly on the present day. The custom of drinking Turkish coffee (‘Mokka’) at small social gatherings created a demand for miniature cups, which today are the perfect size for a quick espresso.

Although solitude can bring a sense of freedom, it can also generate less pleasant feelings when enforced. Psychologists and philosophers are investigating the side effects of the pandemic, the only cure for which is unfortunately – as the writer Daniel Kehlmann recently said – to keep our mutual distance. While bonds of attachment are now more often cultivated digitally, they have in some cases become closer than ever before. How about a Zoom coffee? Which cup, warm from your favourite tea, would you like to hold in your hand?