Vienna’s forgotten Jewish women

An exhibition seeks to show the enormous contribution to Vienna’s cultural life of the female artists working there before WWII.

Teresa Feodorovna Ries, ‘Selfportrait,’ 1902, oil on canvas (photo credit: W. SCHAUB WALZER / WIEN MUSEUM)
Teresa Feodorovna Ries, ‘Selfportrait,’ 1902, oil on canvas
(photo credit: W. SCHAUB WALZER / WIEN MUSEUM)
When Teresa Feodorovna Ries’s sculpture, “Witch Doing Her Toilet on Walpurgis Night,” was presented in Vienna’s Künstlerhaus in 1896, many of the city’s prominent art critics went berserk. The lively depiction of a free-spirited, nude woman mundanely trimming her toe nails with garden shears had offended them profoundly.
They tagged the work “atrocious” and “tasteless”; complained about Ries’s decision to create “such a grotesque apparition out of precious marble”; and raged over the artist’s gender. “It’s a pity she suffers from the delusion that she can do men’s work that she was not born to do,” exploded the prominent art critic Ludwig Hevesi, who, like Ries, was Jewish, and who, a year later, became a pivotal force in promoting the Vienna Secession – an artistic movement that in 1897 rebelled against the dominance of the Künstlerhaus’s Artists’ Association.
Ries is a conspicuous protagonist in a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum Vienna titled “The Better Half – Jewish Women Artists Before 1938,” which will run until May.
The exhibition aims to bring back to light the achievements of Vienna’s pre-WWII Jewish female artists, who made up a disproportionally large share of the era’s women artists in Austria.
It reveals how and why these women disappeared from collective memory, and restitutes their deserved place in art history, explains Andrea Winklbauer, an art historian and curator at the museum who co-curated the exhibition with art historian Sabine Fellner.
“We wanted to assemble the most interesting and – from an art historical view – the most important Jewish women artists in Vienna from 1860 to 1938,” Winklbauer tells The Jerusalem Report. “We specifically wanted to demonstrate what they had succeeded to achieve, and also to show that indeed, there were so many of them.”
The exhibit also exposes the barriers that hampered their striving to artistic accomplishment.
Thus, the mainstream’s reaction toward women trying to enter a maledominated realm is reflected in the exhibition by quotes of cultural figures such as Havesi and his fellow critic Karl Scheffler, who was certain women lack “any sense of form.”
The tantrum over Ries’s Witch was therefore not exceptional in fin de ciècle Vienna.
It was an environment which believed that sculpture is “the most unemotional art and is thus the branch of the arts that presents the greatest difficulties for women,” as art historian and critic Arthur Roessler commented as late as 1922. The exceptional aspect of the event was, actually, that a prominent venue for contemporary art as Vienna’s Künstlerhaus had – to begin with – displayed Ries’s sculpture.
Moreover, the owner of the Künstlerhaus, the Association of Austrian Artists, did not accept female members to its ranks until many years later. Rival groups, such as the Vienna Secession, conducted similar policies.
All these influential Viennese artistic organizations at the turn of the 20th century were just as reluctant to promote female works by displaying them in their glorious edifices.
Unquestionably, the imperial capital was overflowing with cultural, artistic and intellectual innovation. Many leading figures in this scene were avid for social change and progress. But when it came to applying their emancipating vision to women, their enthusiasm evaporated.
Closing artistic associations to women also meant preventing them from an automatic admission to these societies’ major exhibitions. In this way, female artists were sealed off from the bonanza of media coverage of art events, exposure to opinion leaders, and interest from potential art buyers.
Vienna’s art academies also barred women or, at best, offered them limited training that often pushed them into cheap labor in the applied arts industry.
And, of course, there was always the constant drip of overt misogynic sentiment.
“Pictures from the hand of women daubed like a bricklayer with a spatula […] are an abomination to me and most men,” Roessler bluntly asserted while referring to another Jewish artist – the painter Helene Taussig.
Ries, a daughter of wealthy Russian- Jewish parents, surmounted these barriers by getting an expensive private tutor, industriously self-promoting her work and utilizing social circles to facilitate further networking.
Her teacher in Vienna, the sculptor Edmund von Hellmer, told her there was “no point in teaching the ladies; they were a nuisance in the first place and then they got married.”
DESPITE SUCH remarks, he arranged for her a work space in the Academy of Fine Arts, an institution officially closed to women until 1920. At the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, a sculpture created by Ries “The Lamp Bearer” was presented under Hellmer’s name. It won Hellmer the Fair’s Grand Golden Medal.
Mark Twain visited her studio. So did Theodor Herzl, who, according to Ries’s 1928 autobiography, responded to her assertion that “Jewish history lacks outstanding geniuses of cultural significance like Shakespeare or Goethe” by blaming the “the inhibition nurtured over thousands of years.”
Born in Moscow in 1874, Teresa Feodorovna Ries “became engaged at the age of seventeen, broke off the engagement, married shortly afterwards and had a child, who died a few months later. At the age of nineteen she returned as a divorcee to her parents’ home. From then on, she abandoned conventions and opted for the independent and free life of an artist,” elaborates Fellner in an essay in the exhibition’s catalogue.
Ries’s aristocratic upbringing, Fellner continues, probably made it “easier for her to ignore strict social conventions.”
Her talent was acknowledged and she was considered a successful artist before the war, but fled from the Nazis to Switzerland where she died in obscurity in 1956.
A predecessor to Ries in Vienna was the painter Tina Blau, also a Jew and the only woman in a small group of contemporaries who developed a progressive Viennese version of Impressionism in the late 1860s.
Blau traveled abroad to paint outdoor scenes and landscapes in countries such as Italy and the Netherlands, but was most famous for her mastery in depicting life at the Prater – a large public park in Vienna.
Blau shared a rented studio with the painter Emil Jakob Schindler ‒ an arrangement that led to the general assumption that she was his pupil, despite their similar age and artistic stature. Praise of her work often included comments about her “ability to paint like a man.”
The exclusion of women from the arts led to the founding of female artists associations, not all of them, by the way, women only. In the first decades of the 20th century, a quarter to a third of their members were Jewish. Jewish women also had a significant presence in the few academic art classes open to women and in a progressive girls’ gymnasium [secondary school] – led by a Jewish management ‒ that offered art classes to meet the growing demand among female youngsters in Austria’s bourgeoisie for a professional education in the arts.
“The Better Half” exhibition’s extensive research ascribes the disproportional rate of Jewish female artists – Jews comprised 10 percent of Vienna’s population in 1880 and 8 percent in 1910 – to social and cultural factors.
“The Jewish tradition places great emphasis on education as social competence,” notes historian Dieter J. Hecht. Jews also saw education as an important factor in assimilating with non-Jewish society, he explains. Author and art historian Elana Shapira, in her recently published book “Style and Seduction,” writes that what motivated influential Jews to promote Modernist cultural movements and shape the Viennese city landscape and material culture was their desire to create a new platform of communication between Jews and gentiles.
A shared aesthetic identity, Shapira argues, aimed to grant Jews social and cultural emancipation ‒ a deliverance that would ensure their equal membership within society and at the same time allow them to express their Jewish identification.
Shapira’s conclusions explain the prevalence of Jewish patronage in Vienna. Indeed, the link between art patronage and the belief that modern culture is a potentially shared space can be another reason for the disproportionately high number of Jews among Austria’s female artists in a time of flourishing cultural life.
Modern culture, Shapira clarifies, was meant to create a shared place between Jews and gentiles, between women and men, and to allow both Jewish men and women to claim their authority as cultural producers and artists. And it all occurred despite, and perhaps because of, the growing anti-Semitism and widening social and economic gaps.
It was possible, then, that for bourgeois Jewish women, the intersection between the incentive for their families to invest in the arts and their own feminist perception of art as an emancipating power was a promising starting point.
Yet, being a part of the patronage scene had its disadvantages too, in particular for women. For example, the painter Broncia Koller-Pinell, who was married to the industrialist Hugo Koller, undoubtedly found it easier to establish friendships with stars such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, thanks to her and her husband’s extensive investment in the arts. But, at the same time, that patronage caused many to attribute her achievements to her contacts rather than to her talent.
While her biographer Wolfgang Krug said her work should give her a place as “one of the most important Austrian female artists of the early 20th century,” Koller-Pinell was underrated during her life and in the decades after her death in 1934. A colleague wrote in an obituary that she was unjustly disrespected “because she was a woman ‒ and a wealthy one at that.”
SOME JEWISH male figures in the Austrian art world, despite being extremely sensitive to their own integration into society, were not always keen to show the same receptiveness to female artists’ pleas for acceptance.
Graphic artist Julius Klinger – who in 1942 was deported and murdered by the Nazis – referred in 1927 to the Wiener Werkstätte (the Vienna Workshops), a Vienna Secession initiative that would became a hub for internationally acclaimed avant-garde female artists, as “applied art by women dabblers.”
Writer Karl Kraus, wrote acrimoniously in 1906 in his satirical periodical “Die Fackel”: “Too much Feodorovna Ries! A warm breeze of publicity is blowing through the Vienna media jungle.”
Yet others, like Stefan Zweig, were keen to acknowledge the contribution of these artists to universal culture. In 1902, Zweig declared that Ries “could become for sculpture what Charles Baudelaire is for literature.”
Being excluded from institutional training in the arts, many women were forced to seek education elsewhere. Many studied abroad and, upon their return, brought to Austria new artistic styles and progressive interpretations of existing styles.
Often they faced criticism for daring to question suppressive conventions on femininity and gender roles. “Artistic production beyond the stereotypically meticulous, clean, decorative, or imitative works was met with the greatest disapproval,” notes art historian Tamara Loitfellner.
A critic for the Viennese daily Die Neue Zeitung, for example, lambasted the Künstlerhaus in 1919 for displaying a work titled “Mother” by the abstract painter Sophie Lourié. “The Künstlerhaus has become a field hospital for the mentally abnormal![…] We want to admire common sense, not pity the mentally ill. […] The most atrocious works are by women.
What should we think of these ‘painter women,’ as they are called in Munich? How can a woman so deform the concept of Mother?” Lourié, the daughter of a rich Jewish industrialist, was a member of the “Society of Intellectuals,” a Modernist group made up of four men and four women.
Three of the women were Jewish, among them Grete Wolf, a student of Blau and another protagonist of “The Better Half” exhibition. Wolf left for Palestine with her husband, the painter and architect Leopold Krakauer in the mid-1920s. She continued to travel to Europe, and exhibited her work in Austria until the 1930s. But unlike her husband who became a household name in British Mandate Palestine and in the newly established State of Israel, Wolf-Krakauer’s efforts to resume her brilliant career failed.
The exhibition also emphasizes the decisive role of Jewish female artists in works critical of social and political issues.
Artists such as Wolf, Taussig, Hermine Heller-Ostersetzer, Lili Réthi, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, Bertha Tarnay, Grete Hamerschlag and Friedl Dicker were attentive enough to focus their work on the grim political and social processes in Austria and in Europe.
Dicker and Taussig were among the exhibition’s protagonists who were killed by the Nazis; others escaped or had already emigrated before the Anschluss. Some worked again as ‘artists in exile’ says Winklbauer.
“But in Austria it was all over. Apart from a few, like Tina Blau, they were all erased from history. Only in the last two or three decades are they being gradually rediscovered.”
A MAJOR factor in their disappearence from collective memory was the loss of their works, which, having been excluded from most institutions, were not regularly documented in catalogues and museum listings.
Another reason is that the Nazis destroyed and wiped out whatever little they left behind.
Most of Ries’s oeuvre was lost or destroyed after her escape. “Witch” survived, but not intact. It was the same with all but one of Bettina Ehrlich-Bauer’s paintings in the “New Objectivity” style, which she created in Berlin, Paris and Vienna during the 1920s and 30s.
Ehrlich-Bauer, the niece of Klimt’s model and patroness Adele Bloch-Bauer, saved the work of her husband, sculptor Georg Ehrlich, by shipping it to Britain before fleeing to London in 1938. Her own paintings, however, remained in a storage facility in Vienna and were lost during the war. The only traces of that treasure were black and white photos with Ehrlich-Bauer’s comments written on the back.
Winklbauer came across the photos when she was conducting research for a 2008 exhibition in the Vienna Jewish Museum. “I visited a private collector who showed me old black and white photographs of about 30 lost paintings by Ehrlich-Bauer,” she says. “Even without color, the paintings were so impressive, so memorable, that I now decided to include these photographs in this current exhibition.”
Based on the handwritten annotations and Ehrlich-Bauer’s only surviving painting from that period – a still life of the backstage of a jazz show – the museum’s team is using a light-projection method to reconstruct the possible coloring of one of these lost works, a cinematically angled self-portrait of Ehrlich-Bauer in her studio.
Conny Cossa, the exhibition’s designer, told The Report the decision to use this special reconstruction also as the image for the exhibition’s poster and its catalogue’s cover is a statement about the unknown fate of this work, and of probably many other masterpieces by other forgotten artists that may never be rediscovered.