[Image: Exhibition View CITY OF WOMEN, Photo: Johannes Stoll, © Belvedere, Vienna. NB: Ries’s “Self-Portrait” at the centre]
The current exhibition City of Women/Stadt der Frauen, 1900-1938 (Lower Belvedere, Vienna, 25 January-19 May 2019) outlines the art of female artists made in Vienna over 1900 to 1938. Most of these artists will be unknown to the general public. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. The catalogue has some introductory essays, sections of colour illustrations, essays on certain artists and summary biographies of artists. The text is in English and German. City of Women/Stadt der Frauen is an essential addition to any library on Austrian art and a good reference for those studying Modernism, Jugendstil, Expressionism, Symbolism and women’s art.
The significance of the dates is as follows. 1900 is seen as the point when Modernism became the dominant artistic mode in Vienna, publicised through Modernist-supporting channels such as Wiener Secession and illustrated journal Ver Sacrum (1898-1903). This period lasts until 1918, when the defeat of the First World War and the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire reduced the importance of Vienna. 1938 is the year of the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany gained control of Austria and merged it into the German Reich. At this point Modernism was no longer considered acceptable for public display, Modernist artists lost patronage and faced imprisonment if they were known Socialists. Jews were subject to extensive legal and social persecution;many emigrated. As much of the cultural life of Vienna was made by and consumed by Jewish Austrians, Nazi restrictions on Jews and Modernism effectively overlapped.
The exhibition focuses upon (but is not restricted to) members and activities of the Vereinigung bildender Künstlerinnen Österreichs (Austrian Association of Women Artists), which was founded in Vienna in 1910 with the specific aim of promoting knowledge of women artists. The association was not approved of by all women artists and two already successful artists (Tina Blau and Käthe Kollwitz) roundly rejected offers of membership. They seemingly considered that such institutional gender solidarity, which segregated women artists from male colleagues, unnecessary.
The exhibition curators’ case is that the women artists selected for the exhibition have been unjustly neglected and that women artists faced career impediments that men did not. As to the merits of the individual artists, we will cover those later. Although these artists may have been neglected during the mid-century period, they were hardly unknown in their own time. It seems they (almost) all received professional instruction (privately if not in the male-only academy), exhibited in mixed displays, sold pictures and won prizes. They had work purchased by museums and had their art discussed by newspaper critics. They were treated respectfully by some male artists. Some enjoyed successful international careers. Determined, talented and socially adept women artists were able to forge commercially and critically successful careers in the period 1900-1938.
We might note that resistance to women artists by some male artists was not purely a matter of chauvinism but one of careerism disguised as gallantry. Restricting the entry of women artists into the professional art market was an attempt to protect male artists in that field from a cohort of commercial competitors. Opposition to women’s emancipation (and, elsewhere, racial emancipation) was, as with the guild system of trade regulation, at least partly a matter of protectionism and self-interest.
Even compared to other attempts to revive attention for lesser-known artists, the paucity of information on artists in City of Women/Stadt der Frauen is notable. In the section of artist biographies there are some artists for whom photographs could not be found. In other cases, dates of birth or death (and even both) cannot be ascertained. It may be that they married and changed their names (possibly ceasing to exhibit) or they could have emigrated. The records of their deaths have been lost in the maelstrom of war or the vicissitudes of recordkeeping. It may also be that they were victims of the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish genocide. (On that subject, more later.)
So, who are these artists?
[Image: Exhibition View CITY OF WOMEN, Photo: Johannes Stoll, © Belvedere, Vienna. NB: Ries’s Eve (1909) in the foreground.]
Teresa Feodorovna Ries (1874-1956) is a very accomplished sculptor. Her style blends the Neo-Classical and Romantic in a post-Romantic style close to that of French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). Her Eve (1909) verges on outright realism in an honest representation of a lying woman, curled on her side, hands over her face. The great sensitivity and acute observation in her sculptures (judged from these illustrations) is impressive; added to which she had originality. Sadly, her renowned Lucifer (c. 1897) was destroyed by bomb damage and the sensual Penelope (c. 1912) was destroyed by fire in 1956. She is an exceptional sculptor and her statues are well worth seeking out. It is easy to see why her sculptures caused a sensation and why Klimt invited her to exhibit at the Secession. She was also a painter.
[Image: Ilse Beatrice Twardowska-Conrat, Empress Elisabeth (c. 1907), Photo: Johannes Stoll, (c) Belvedere, Vienna]
As a sculptor, Ilse Twardowski-Conrat (1880-1942) is much more of a Modernist, integrating clean lines and simple forms into the otherwise conventional portrait bust of Empress Elisabeth (c. 1907). Elza Kövesházi-Kalmár (1876-?) was a sculptor and printmaker. Enjoyable but lightweight, her bronze statuettes are decorative and unadventurous. Nude Girl (c. 1901) (carved in marble) and some portrait busts are attractive and prove she had range but are unremarkable. The overall impression is that of the conservativism of Viennese sculpture in this period. Sculptors depended more on work derived from public commissions and on portrait busts and gravestones, made to the taste of conventional patrons.
What of the painters and graphic artists?
Hermine Heller-Ostersetzer (1874-1909) specialised in working-class archetypes and nudes of adolescent girls. Her graphic cycle The Life of the Poor is More Bitter than the Death of the Rich (1900) is a classic example of social-realist agitation, which flourished in the illustrated press of the period. A self-portrait and nude painting (both around 1905) by Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934) are boldly painted, full of confidence, yet earlier paintings are very weak. It seems the painter made a dramatic breakthrough at this time and grew into her potential only in middle age. Her later work is some of the best painting in the exhibition.
Essay writer Alexander Klee points out the potential influence of Elena Luksch-Makowsky (1878-1967) on Schiele and Kokoschka. She exhibited at Secession exhibitions and the 1908 Kunstschau. Her art is in line with Symbolism. Ver Sacrum. Self-Portrait with Son Peter (1901) shows the naked infant at the centre of the painting, while the mother is shadowy and in the background. This is strikingly similar to infant paintings by Schiele and Kokoschka.
A sad case is the short life of Franziska Zach. Born in 1900, she trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts). She specialised as an enamel painter and travelled between France, Great Britain and Ireland from 1928 onwards before moving to Paris. 1930 was the year she received a prize from the city of Vienna awarded her a prize for her painting and also the year she died of a gastric disorder, apparently partially attributable to chronic poverty and lack of timely medical treatment.
No less curious is the life of Stephanie Hollenstein (1886-1944). She was born into a farming family and studied art in Munich. During the Great War she underwent medical training. Cutting her hair short, she joined the medical corps of the Austro-Hungarian army as an orderly and went into the theatre of war. Her deception was exposed after two months and she was cashiered but the subsequent publicity of her exploit led to her being hired as a war artist. After the war she worked as a landscape painter, living with her female partner. She became a member of the banned Austrian branch of the Nazi Party before the Anschluss. She was briefly chairperson of the Aryanised Association of Women Artists of the Reichsgau of Austria. She defended some fellow members of the charge of artistic degeneracy. Her own work was Expressionist in style, thus not entirely conforming to National Socialist artistic principles. Shortly after her resignation of this position, she died of a heart attack.
Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (1906-1996) was a painterly portraitist with a dry style and a tough detached view of her subjects. She lived her later life in London and it might be worth a British commercial gallery putting on a solo exhibition. Of the outright vanguardists, Stefi Kiesler (1897-1963) is a standout. During 1925 to 1930, she made art from using a typewriter to create patterns of characters on paper. Kiesler and her architect husband were part of the De Stijl group. Although the two pieces exhibited are not her best, the catalogue illustrates a number of others. Apparently, she was diffident about these pieces.
Other artists are less individualistic and original. We find followers of Beardsley, Klimt, Hodler, Modersohn-Becker, Beckmann, Kokoschka, Dufy, Kollwitz, Heartfield and other artists. We have Biedermeier landscapes, Orientalism, Aestheticism, plein-air Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, De Stijl, Rayonism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Surrealism and social realism. This is not to suggest that this group of artists is any more derivative than a random selection of comparably professional and comparably overlooked artists from any other metropolitan art centre of the period, regardless of nationality and gender. Worth comment is the broad selection of prints. The curators are to be commended for including prints, which are one of the most important facets of Viennese Modernism. Colour woodcuts were one of the distinctive contributions to Modernist printmaking, made by Austrian artists in this period. Other prints range through Expressionist woodcuts, Jugendstil etchings, Symbolist aquatints, social-realist lithographs, Post-Impressionist drypoints and exhibition-poster designs.
The Anschluss of 1938 led to Nazis taking control of many institutions, causing the firing of Jewish teachers, thereby removing the salaries of some artists. The Aryanisation of non-state organisations applied to artists’ associations, which were purged of Jewish and half-Jewish members. Museums removed art by Jews from display and deaccessioned art. In this newly hostile environment, Jewish women faced career-ending restrictions. Some managed to emigrate before the outbreak of war. Of the others who did not move, many were interned, deported and died in camps. This catalogue acts as a melancholy roll-call of artists who died in the Nazi death and extermination camps and of sculptor Ilse Twardowski-Conrat, who committed suicide at the point of forcible transportation.
In historical terms, this suppression of Jewish art, the destruction or loss of the war years, the displacement of artists and records and focus on post-war reconstruction formed a break in the art historical record. Afterwards, for many in Vienna it seemed best not to dwell on the dark years, especially as Austrians had been active instigators and beneficiaries of Nazi brutality. Julie M. Johnson comments “In Austria, a national reluctance to deal with the past also contributed to the belated rediscovery of its women artists. It would take a new generation of scholars to investigate their histories and to begin to tell the truth of what had happened.”
Nazi action in culture was targeted primarily against Jewish and Modernist artists, not specifically women. Jewish or Modernist artists, male and female, suffered alongside one another. The Nazi ideology espoused the primacy of the traditional family, with the woman confined (ideally) to the roles of mother and wife. While emancipation of women was strongly discouraged, women still worked in many areas. Moreover, women still worked in the arts. Women were permitted to remain members of arts organisations and continued to exhibit and publish. The ambiguous status of fine art under National Socialism placed women in a field with unclear, changeable, contradictory and capricious regulation. Women artists were unequivocally worse off under the Nazi Reich than in the Weimar Republic, but any comparison between the Nazi era and the Habsburg period in Austria is a much less straightforward one.
To summarise: in Vienna 1900-1938, women artists experienced more restrictions than men artists, though these were more social than legal/professional and – other than in the field of professional instruction – they are difficult to quantify. Nazi regulation did affect women marginally more than men but much less than it did Jews. Obscurity is an impediment faced by many artists (male and female) for many reasons and is hard to overturn. Due to the work of the academic historians and gender-activism campaigners, obscure women artists have a much greater chance of having their reputations revived than men artists do.
[Image: Broncia Koller-Pinell, The Artist’s Mother (1907), Photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna]
So, how much do we gain from this exhibition? We encounter artists not widely known. Although all of them achieved varying degrees of recognition in Austria in their lifetimes, there is not a reason why most of them would now be known internationally. Much art of this type (flower paintings, illustrations, abstract graphics) is hard to revive as it is currently unfashionable. A few individuals stand out as potentially important. Teresa Feodorovna Ries, while being outmoded stylistically speaking by 1905, is an artist of great ability and achievement. Her art should receive new international exhibitions and a monograph. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (early period) and Broncia Koller-Pinell (late period) also deserve greater international exposure.
The catalogue fails to address critical roles women had other than as artists. Viennese women were the commissioners and patronesses of many artistic works. They were perhaps the principle consumers of Wiener Werkstätte products; in their roles as mistresses of the home, they decided upon the decoration of their residences. Art was often collected with a view to its part in a decorative scheme in a domestic setting, thus it was often the wives of bankers, doctors, politicians and factory owners who chose suitable pictures from exhibitions, which were used to adorn their homes. They selected their preferred painter to make their portrait. Society ladies were as much the tastemakers of the era as were newspaper art critics. Women often followed the arts more closely than their fathers or husbands, who would pay for the art, and it was they who made decisions on aesthetic matters, decoration being “a feminine domain”. This is not counting the women who inherited considerable fortunes lavished money upon their favoured causes and creators. It is arguable that women as art collectors, portrait subjects and social influencers exerted more power in the Vienna art scene than the women artists did.
Sabine Feller, Stella Rollig (eds.), City of Women/Stadt der Frauen, 1900-1938, Belvedere/Prestel, 2019, hardback, 309pp, 200 col., German/English text, illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5865 9
© Alexander Adams 2019
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