2019’s first ‘Artwork of the Month’ focuses on one example of how a ‘nostalgic modernism’ could look in interwar Austria. What it also stands for upon closer analysis is the malleability of the photographic image in turbulent social and political times. Not least, it also helps to introduce a trend of photography in 1930s Central Europe, which seemed to stand in diametrical opposition to the avant-garde experiments of the time: Heimat photography (‘homeland photography’). As it will turn out, the classically composed The Mother could be many things and fit within a series of developments that continued from the fin de siècle to the Second World War.
In some sense, The Mother is an unconventional family portrait: taken by the Austrian photographer Rudolf Koppitz (1884-1936), the image shows his wife Anna (1895-1989) and their daughter Lotte (1925-2011). Yet the way the two are presented is anything but personal. The image, sometimes also referred to as Mother and Child, anonymises the little family, while the positioning of Anna and Lotte recalls images of the Madonna and Child. Barefoot and dressed in white cloth, which strongly recalls classicist damp-fold draping, Anna becomes a timeless allegorical figure of the joyful, caring and beautiful mother. Set against a blurred background and emphasised by strong tonal contrasts, it almost seems as though she was floating. Lotte, meanwhile, plump, tanned and with rounded cheeks, is propped up in her mother’s hands as a perfect, well-nourished baby, prospering in its mother’s care. Together, Anna and Lotte are a romantic visualisation of the relationship between a mother and her baby, omitting references to any personal biographical notes.
Idealised and set outdoors, The Mother is strongly reminiscent of a carefully composed and prepared Secession photograph (pictorialism or Kunstphotographie) from the fin-de-siècle. The photograph was taken in 1925 – seemingly anachronistic at a time known for experimental avant-garde and New Vision photography. However, Koppitz was one of Austria’s most renowned photographers in the 1920 and 30s and an influential teacher at the School of Graphic Arts (‘Graphische’) in Vienna for most of the interwar years. With his strictly composed and retouched images, he represented modern yet conservative photographic practices in interwar Austria, which largely resisted avant-garde experimentation in favour of highly stylised and tightly controlled images, created with time-intensive developing methods and expensive printing techniques. For Koppitz, who had himself studied at the ‘Graphische’ with Karel Novák before the Great War, his photography of the 1920s and 1930s was a smooth transition from the Kunstphotographie he had practiced since the fin-de-siècle. The Mother conveys this sense of continuity through the symbolic representation of the mother and child, at once timeless and deeply embedded within Austrian visual history through its baroque, religious connotations.
Despite his continuing devotion to Kunstphotographie, Koppitz also adapted some of the features of modern photography, increasingly working outside and introducing strong tonal contrasts and sharply contoured outlines to his images. Merging dramatic, emotive methods of composition from the fin-de-siècle with the sharp outlines of 1920s New Vision photography, Koppitz formed an idiosyncratic visual language – not ‘too modern’ yet still up-to-date – that made him one of Austria’s most celebrated photographers.
While the romantic The Mother seems to share little with Koppitz’s more experimental movement studies from the 1920s, it nonetheless shares some of the defining features of his work: a timeless and symbolising composition, and a fascination with the ‘perfect’ human body. While the latter is usually conveyed by the nude bodies of professional dancers frequenting Koppitz’s studio or his own toned body in self-portraits, in The Mother, baby Lotte represents the cherubic body of a healthy child. And even though Anna is fully dressed in a flowing white gown, her glowing face and suntan recall the same sense of plenty, directly related to the outdoors softly rendered in the background.
The anonymised, idealised human figure in nature was a recurring feature in Koppitz’ work, celebrating a Körperkult (‘cult of the body’) of muscular men and waif-like women embedded in local landscapes. While several of these studies had already been taken in the 1920s, like The Mother, they also provided a neat transition to Koppitz’s ‘reinvention’ as one of the protagonists of Heimat photography by the 1930s. Characterised by sublime alpine landscapes and quasi-ethnographic genre portraits of Austria’s rural population, Heimat photography provided alternative ‘realities’ to the hectic life of the city, offering a sense of escape. At the same time, its dissemination and popularity heavily relied on mass culture and modern technology, so that Heimat photography was, in fact, more a product of, rather than an alternative to, modern life.
Even though it does not directly relate to an Austrian regional culture or landscape, The Mother nonetheless fits within the broadly defined genre of Heimat photography, because of its idealising way of depicting mother and child in the landscape. The image represents an easily decipherable dream of archaic family structures, lending itself to nostalgic ideas of Heimat more generally, and to the regressive ideology of the Austrian chancellor dictatorship initiated by Engelbert Dollfuß in 1933/34 specifically. Yet the façade of archaic life quickly crumbles with a look behind the scenes: Anna and Rudolf Koppitz met at the ‘Graphische’ during the Great War, where they both studied and worked at assistants. Anna was also a photographer in her own right and acted as Rudolf’s darkroom assistant in the studio they led together – which was founded by her in 1920. While we look at a traditional maternal figure therefore, Anna Koppitz was, in fact, an active and thoroughly modern woman, and an essential co-worker for her husband.
Largely because of Anna Koppitz’s activities behind the camera, the story of The Mother also does not end in the interwar years. While the political sympathies of her husband, who died in 1936, cannot be ascertained, Anna became an overt National Socialist sympathiser. She produced a series of photographs for the Reich Minister of Nutrition and Agriculture, Richard Walther Darré, with whom she also maintained contact in writing. Using clean and sharp compositional forms, similar to her husband’s works, she visualised the ideal ‘Aryan body’ to be disseminated on postcards and in books. The photograph of her and Lotte, meanwhile, was to be reworked for a set of stamps for the Third Reich. Even though the project never came to fruition, Anna Koppitz had already cropped the photograph to feature her and Lotte’s faces, outlined by a simple stamp-frame in different colours. The healthy and happy mother and child was not only a timeless motif therefore: its archaic composition and idealised bodies also fit perfectly as visualisations of racist National Socialist ideology.
Presenting an archetypal image of the mother and child, The Mother represented a ‘nostalgic modernism’ at the time of its production in the 1920s in that it referenced fin-de-siècle elements of Kunstphotographie and alluded to a traditionalist position of woman as mother and as intrinsically bound to nature. By the 1930s, the ‘ideal world’ it represented could be seamlessly incorporated into the visual repertoire of the Dollfuß regime, before being adopted by the National Socialists. In the end, the timeless ‘nostalgic modernism’ of The Mother visualised exactly the archaic social structures, Körperkult and organic rejuvenation of humankind that totalitarianism represented.
»Serving Racial Politics«. Anna Koppitz’s Photographs for Reich Minister R. Walther Darré. Edited by Magdalena Vuković. Salzburg: Fotohof edition, 2017.
Rudolf Koppitz 1884-1936. Photogenie. Edited by Monika Faber. Vienna: Photoinstitut Bonartes and Brandstätter Verlag, 2013.
Rudolf Koppitz 1884–1936. Edited by Monika Faber. Vienna: Christian Brandstätter Verlag, 1995.