Photography has long been a stepchild of art historical research in Austria, and only few publications, most notably Anton Holzer’s Fotografie in Österreich (Vienna, 2013), have provided comprehensive assessment of this topic. Talks about the first Austrian museum of photography are ongoing, however, and Vienna’s exhibition landscape has started to include an increasing number of photographic exhibitions into its schedule. This year, coinciding with the centenary of the First Austrian Republic in November 1918, several museums in Vienna are focusing on photography in interwar Austria, and offer diverse insights into the medium’s significance at the time.
Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! at the Leopold Museum
From July to October 2018, the Leopold Museum presented a large retrospective of the fashion and portrait photographer Dora Kallmus (‘Madame d’Ora’) with Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! The first woman to open a photography studio in Vienna in 1907, d’Ora portrayed Habsburg aristocracy as well as cultural figures such as Gustav Klimt and Hermann Bahr. Within a few years, she became Vienna’s most sought-after portraitist, celebrated for her meticulously composed and retouched photographs.
With the founding of the First Austrian Republic, d’Ora increasingly focused on fashion and modern dance photography as an alternative source of income when private commissions decreased as a result of Austria’s failing economy. By 1925 d’Ora long was a successful female business owner. She opened a photography studio in Paris, shooting for fashion and lifestyle magazines, and portraying designers and artists such as Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso. In chronological order, Make Me Look Beautiful has traced d’Ora’s career across the first half of the twentieth century, showing an impressive selection of portraits and fashion and dance photography, which emphasise the artist’s connections with international high society.
The exhibition’s most striking part lay elsewhere, however: surviving the National Socialist occupation of France in hiding, d’Ora briefly portrayed refugees after the Second World War, which offer a stark contrast to her glamorous studio works from the interwar period. Even more striking are d’Ora’s slaughterhouse photographs, in which animal carcasses serve as a metaphor for the human slaughter of the Shoah. Seeming out of place in juxtaposition to the fashionable Paris portraits in the adjacent room, one wishes that more space had been given to these photographs.
While d’Ora’s talent to make her sitters ‘look beautiful’ has been well-documented, her post-war images bring to light how versatile d’Ora could implement her creative vision, capturing not only the best of fashion and glamour, but also merciless human destruction. In this regard, the prevailing focus on the ‘beautiful’ in the exhibition, though overall impressive in scope, glosses over other pertinent social aspects in d’Ora’s oeuvre. Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! pays long overdue credit to one of Austria’s most successful female photographers, no doubt. Yet a more critical framing of her achievements would have helped to pronounce the exhibition’s core message: d’Ora not only served the image of the Golden Twenties in Paris with brilliance, but also gave a face to the sense of loss and trauma she personally experienced in the decades to follow.
The Hard-Won Republic: 1918/19 in Photographs at the Wien Museum
With its current exhibition The Hard-Won Republic, the Wien Museum traces social and political developments during the initial twelve months of the First Austrian Republic. Curated by one of Austria’s most eminent photography scholars, Anton Holzer, the exhibition gives prominence to a series of documentary images by the socialist Viennese photographer Richard Hauffe (1878–1933), who started his career at age forty in the throes of the Habsburg Empire’s collapse. With its close temporal focus, The Hard-Won Republic places a spotlight on the mass demonstrations that occurred in the Republic’s early days on a regular basis, fuelled by economic hardship and the emancipation of different political fractions. Yet while the First Austrian Republic has come to be known as ‘the State that nobody wanted’ in the collective historical memory, the exhibition counters this view by showing that, at least in its early days, democracy was enthusiastically celebrated.
At the same time, The Hard-Won Republic does not fail to include coverage of the economic hardship Austria’s population had to contend with after the end of the First World War, showing photographs of people illegally collecting firewood from the Wienerwald forest for lack of coal and groups of children huddled together in crammed sleeping spaces. Reports and images from illustrated magazines make up most of the material here, emphasising the rise of the mass media after Habsburg censorship had been lifted. Press reports in combination with documentary photographs also frame the political formations that arose as a consequence of these hardships: little-known today, a series of communist protests in Vienna in 1919 demanded the establishment of a Republic of Councils after the examples of Hungary and Bavaria. Violent clashes with the social democratic Volkswehr followed and were decided in favour of the moderate Left, leaving the Austrian Communist Party to play only a miniscule part in Austrian politics for the decades to follow. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, rose to be one of the country’s most influential parties.
While The Hard-Won Republic has had to rely on many replicas, its careful placing of original photographs and one painting, Rudolf Konopa’s The Proclamation of the Republic (1918), makes for a well-informed and critically engaged exhibition. Not least, its emphasis on democracy and free speech, leading through the exhibition narrative, subtly but confidently provokes links to current political developments in Central Europe, showing that democratic values have to be actively upheld at all times.
‘Everybody line up! It’s time to snap!’ Private photography in Austria 1930-1950 at the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art
In yet another approach to interwar photography, the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art presents an interactive exhibition of private photography in Austria from 1930 to 1950. Concurrently an open-to-all research institute, it is both an archive and an ever-changing exhibition. Visitors are encouraged to identify photographs, curate their own sets, and bring in old albums to enlarge the selection on view. The result is impressive: in the first room, some thousand small photographs are pinned onto the walls, covering everything from wedding celebrations to holiday snaps and war portraits. Though somewhat overwhelming in scope, the diverse range of photographs provides a thought-provoking overview of life in 1930s Austria, juxtaposing soldiers happily posing in SS uniform with small children playing in the garden.
The effect of these contrasts is expanded in the second room, where members of the public have curated photographs by various themes. Reaching from the leisurely ‘The best summer’ to ‘Anschluss 1938’, the crowded walls offer manifold constellations, which are constantly being added to and changed. ‘Anschluss 1938’, for example, not only contains photographs of National Socialist rallies in rural Neulengbach and Vienna’s outer district of Floridsdorf, but also holiday snaps and family portraits.
As the historically significant and the mundane merge, the exhibition reveals the malleability of historical experience in a simple yet effective manner. Not least, it identifies the photograph as a brief snapshot in time, with a photograph of a group of soldiers being accompanied by the following questions: ‘Who of you lived? Who was injured? Who died? And who killed?’ The discrepancies between the celebrated moments caught on camera and the invisible historical experiences lived out of sight lie at the exhibition’s core, inviting people to share their stories to construct a publicly visible process of knowledge acquisition. In the process ‘Everbody line up!’ connects private photography from the first half of the 20th century with the way they are experienced now, and successfully links ethnographic research with an innovative exhibition concept.
Displayed at such different locations as the Leopold Museum, the Wien Museum and the Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art, photography constitutes an important part in the presentation of interwar Austrian culture for a collective memory. While Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! has provided a new assessment of the work of one of Austria’s most celebrated female photographers, the Wien Museum’s focus on press images and Richard Hauffe’s work, which has only recently been rediscovered, fills in the gaps of an Austrian history of photography in close relation to wider social and political issues. The Museum for Folk Life, meanwhile, has placed the political and social implications of image-taking and -dissemination at the core of its quest to explore the role of photographic production during turbulent political times. Together, these exhibitions not only offer a brief insight into the diversity of photographic imagery in interwar Austria, they also highlight photography’s rise as a medium of mass culture, which represented truth and manipulation, a celebrated moment and a lived-through trauma alike.
Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora! (Leopold Museum, Vienna, 13 July to 29 October 2018)
The Hard-Won Republic: 1918/19 in Photographs (Wien Museum, Vienna, 25 October 2018 to 3 February 2019)
‘Everybody line up! It’s time to snap!’ Private photography in Austria 1930-1950 (Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art, Vienna, 10 October 2018 to 17 February 2019)