To commemorate the centenary of the First Austrian Republic in 2018, the Upper Austrian regional gallery in Linz presented a cross-section of stylistic developments and institutional frameworks of fine arts produced in Upper Austria between the two World Wars. The exhibition was part of the historical exhibition Between War Times: Upper Austria from 1918 to 1939 at the Linz Palace Museum, which runs through to January 2019 with a focus on the federal state’s position in an Austria that suffered deeply from social and political upheavals in the 1920s and 30s, and was annexed to the Third Reich in March 1938. With these historical complexities discussed elsewhere, the exhibition in the gallery focused its efforts on painting, photography and the graphic arts of the region, paying no more than faint attention to socio-political developments.
Set across three rooms, Between War Times was divided into three topics; one dedicated to New Objectivity in painting and the graphic arts, one to representatives of the Linzer Schule photography group, and one to the training of painters, especially women artists, in private and public institutions in interwar Linz, while one of the exhibition’s most interesting aspects – the first presentation of New Objectivity painting in Austria with the 1929 exhibition Neuromantik und Neue Sachlichkeit in Oberösterreich – was restricted to a small cabinet in the foyer. The show’s most prominent representatives, however, Paul Ikrath, Herbert Ploberger and Franz Sedlacek formed the core of the display in the first room with a small but fine selection of paintings and graphic works. Ikrath’s Seated Girl (1928) for example evidenced the painter’s sombre application of New Objectivity painting, while the attention paid to his sitter’s clothes recalled his teaching activities for fashion classes in Linz and Vienna.
Also addressing fashion, the New Woman, and consumer culture, works by Ploberger and Sedlacek could be found nearby, though the most engaging – and critical – commentary could be found in the lithographs of Karl Rössing, aptly titled My Prejudice Against this Time (1932/1984, Fig. 2). Comprising of more than one hundred sheets, produced between 1925 and 1932, Rössing created an accomplished visual critique of life in the Weimar Republic, reminiscent of works by George Grosz and Otto Dix. Though born in Upper Austrian Gmunden, Rössing lived in Germany for most of his life, and his artistic and political biography, which oscillated between leftist and national socialist affiliations, remains to be addressed.
In the room dedicated to photography, it was yet another émigré with a conflicted biography that stood out: Herbert Bayer and his surrealist photomontages, like Good Night, Marie. Shown alongside works by Linzer Schule photographers Heinrich Bitzan, Michael Neumüller, Helene Clodi-Titze and Anna Lerperger, who favoured pictorialist tendencies and the New Objectivity emphasis on form, Bayer’s work almost seemed out of place, inevitably suggesting that truly experimental photography was produced elsewhere, not in Upper Austria.
The third room, introducing Matthias May and Paul Ikrath’s teaching activities in private drawing schools and the establishment of the artists association MAERZ (1913-1939) as a driving force for the development of modern art in Linz, displayed a similar tendency towards ‘safe’, or ‘moderate’, forms of modernism in painting and the graphic arts with works by Vilma Eckl, Klemens Brosch, and Margret Bilger, among others. While the artworks on display were remarkably conventional with a focus on late impressionist forms, its display was nonetheless exemplary for its inclusive approach to women artists, paying due attention to their work and its difficult circumstances of production without according them special status next to their male counterparts.
In general, the classic focus on painting, photography and the graphic arts in Between the Wars showed an intriguing selection of works from the Upper Austrian museum collections, including works by a number of artists that have yet to be assessed in depth. In so doing, the exhibition has laid foundations for an investigation into interwar modernism in Austria outside its capital Vienna. Yet while Between War Times succeeded in providing a cross-section of artistic developments in Upper Austria after WWI, it failed to successfully argue what its achievements were within the social and political context of its time. Carefully calling the works on show experiments with a ‘moderate form of modernism’ in the accompanying exhibition leaflet almost sounds apologetic, especially as the exhibition juxtaposed works by artists based in Upper Austria to those of their more radical, emigré counterparts. Which place did regional art occupy in interwar Austrian society and culture? What was its relation to international networks? And why were regional tendencies perhaps more important than alignment with an international avant-garde? These are some of the questions the exhibition provoked rather than tried to answer, leaving Between War Times as a solid summary for investigations to come.
Zwischen den Kriegen: Kunst in Oberösterreich 1918-1939 / Between War Times: Art in Upper Austria 1918-1939 (Landesgalerie Linz, 7 February to 6 May 2018)