Artwork of the Month: Monument to Ferdinand Lassalle by Mario Petrucci (1928)

On 6 May 1928 the ceremonial unveiling took place of a monument to Ferdinand Lasalle in Vienna. Located in the north-eastern suburb of Brigittenau, and placed in front of the recently built Winarsky Hof, a communal housing project built by the municipality, the monument commemorated Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864). A native of the German city of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), Lassalle had no obvious connection to Austria. He was, however, a leading figure in Socialist politics in the 1840s and 1850s, having been imprisoned for his support for the 1848 revolution. It was in recognition of his commitment to socialist politics that in 1863 he was appointed the first president of the General German Worker’s Association, forerunner of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). It was for this reason that the monument was erected to him in Vienna some 60 years later, for Vienna city council was dominated by Social Democrats, whose social and cultural policies earned the capital the name of ‘Red Vienna.’

Wien 20. Winarskystraße 17/19

Mario Petrucci: The Memorial to Ferdinand Lassalle, Vienna, 1928 – photo: Austrian National Library

Before discussing the monument itself, it is worth considering its location. It was originally meant to be erected in front of the Lassalle Hof, another tenement project, but the Winarsky Hof was eventually deemed to be a more suitable site. Named after Leopold Winarsky (1873-1915), the first Social Democrat mayor of the Brigittenau, the Winarsky Hof was constructed to the plans of some of the leading modernist architects and designers of the time: Peter Behrens, Josef Hofmann, Josef Frank, Oskar Strnad and Adolf Loos. A monumental structure comprising 534 separate apartment dwellings, it epitomised the municipality’s concern not only to address the acute housing shortage in the city but also to reshape the cityscape with a functional and practical type of building that created a symbolic distance from the flamboyant and grandiose historicism associated with the Vienna of the Habsburg Empire. As the official brochure published by the municipality to accompany its inauguration stated:

With this work the architects wanted to demonstrate how the cubic effect of the structural masses, the lack of pitched roofs, its peaceful horizontal orientation, the space and scale of its blocks and courtyards, the complete omission of decorative additions to the walls and gables, can express everything that would meet the goal of creating a truly modern, consciously democratic image of the metropolis.[1]

The Winarsky Hof was one of many similar public housing projects built in the 1920s, of which perhaps the most famous and spectacular was the Karl-Marx-Hof. Often named after personalities rooted in social democratic political traditions, these developments were the product of a concerted effort by the council to redefine and rebuild the identity of the former Habsburg capital following the traumatic defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War.

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Siegfried Weyr: ‘We’ve Managed 60,000 So Far. It’s going to Be 80,000.’ Poster celebrating the housing achievements of Vienna city council, with Otto Hoffner’s 1929 bronze sculpture The Sower and, in the background, the Winarsky Hof and the Karl-Marx-Hof (1932) – photo: Wienbibliothek

The Monument to Lassalle was part of a parallel attempt to populate urban space with sculptures that would counter the memorials to the heroic figures of the Habsburg past that dotted the streets and squares of Vienna. The year 1928 marked the 10th anniversary of the post-war Austrian Republic, and even though the federal government was, by then, governed by the Christian Socialist Party, the monument was nevertheless a symbol of a state that had been initially set up by Social Democrat politicians. That anniversary was formally celebrated later, in November 1928, with the unveiling of Anton Hanak’s Monument to the Republic located on the Ringstrasse by the Parliament building. This time, different figures were celebrated: Jakob Reumann, the Social Democratic mayor of Vienna from 1919 to 1923, Viktor Adler, founder of the Austrian Social Democratic Party in 1888, and Ferdinand Hanusch, one of the leading Social Democratic politicians involved in the founding of the Republic. There was, nevertheless, a connection with the Lassalle Monument; for the author of the bust of Hanusch on the Monument to the Republic was Mario Petrucci (1893-1972), sculptor of the Lassalle Monument.

Petrucci was born near Ferrara in Italy, but studied in Vienna at the Academy of Art, and stayed in the city, making a name for his public sculptures and monuments. Most of these were produced in the 1940s and 1950s, and included, for example, a monument to the victims of fascism (1947), a monument to the nineteenth-century plant geneticists Gregor Mendel and Erich Tschermak-Seyssenegg (1955), as well as busts of the 1848 Vienna radical Robert Blum (1953) and, in the same year, the Social Democrat and trade unionist Anton Hueber (1861-1935). The Lassalle Monument was one of the few works by Petrucci to be executed during the First Republic, and, along with his later works, it is testament to his commitment to the leftist politics of the interwar municipality.

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Mario Petrucci: Monument to Anton Hueber, Vienna, 1953 – photo: Wikimedia Commons, Paechterstadl

The monument enjoyed only a short life. In 1933 the brief Austrian experiment in republican democracy came to an end as the Christian Social chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934) assumed dictatorial powers. The Social Democratic presence in social and political life was gradually suppressed, culminating in the brief Austrian Civil War of 12-16 February 1934, when Dollfuss strengthened his grip on power and inaugurated the corporate state of the specifically Austrian model of interwar Fascism. In 1936 the Lassalle Monument fell victim to this ‘cleansing’ of the city of the symbols of Social Democracy, and was removed. A copy of the bust is now on display in the ‘Red Vienna’ exhibition in the Karl-Marx-Hof, but the original bronze figure, and the obelisk on which it was mounted, was destroyed.

As a public work of art that was so closely associated with a specific political tradition, its fate was perhaps inevitable, given the ideological tenor of the times. Yet although one might decry the act of vandalism that brought about its end, the work cannot be regarded as one of the finest examples of public art in the service of progressive communal politics.

The bust sat awkwardly on the stone obelisk, like some decapitated head, which was emphasised by the progressive attenuation of the column of the obelisk. The head was also out of scale with the rest of the obelisk. The rusticated stonework of the column seemed ill-chosen, since it hardly communicated the progressive modernity that the Social Democratic council sought to embrace, and it sits at odds with the sobre, functional design of the tenement block behind it.

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View of the Lassalle Monument from the North East – photo: Austrian National Library

One might attribute such failings to the limitations of Petrucci as an artist, but they signal something else, too. For they symbolise the difficulties that progressively-minded artists experienced in devising a compelling visual language that might match their political vision. Despite the political calamity of the First World War, Vienna continued to be a major intellectual and cultural centre, but it has often been remarked that it rapidly lost its artistic pre-eminence. Whereas, in Berlin, the chaos and trauma of the immediate post-war period led to some of the most powerful art of the twentieth century: the paintings of Otto Dix, the drawings and lithographs of Georg Grosz, the Dadaist montages and ensembles of Hannah Höch, there seems to have been a lack of artistic conviction in Vienna. There is no shortage of striking public monuments to radical politics from the period: the 1926 monument in Berlin to the murdered Communists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by Mies van der Rohe is a powerful example of the way that the vocabulary of public monuments could be redefined and given new purpose.

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Anton Hanak, Mario Petrucci, Franz Seifert and Carl Wollek: The Monument to the Republic, Vienna, 1928 – photo: Wikimedia Commons, Brücke-Osteuropa

The Monument to Lassalle, as well as that to the Republic in the same year, struggled to achieve the same. It is as if they embody the wider doubts and hesitations of Social Democratic politics more generally. For as Janek Wassermann has argued, throughout the 1920s and the 1930s, the Social Democrats were never entirely certain how to engage with the Republic.[2] This stemmed from the fact that so many were ambivalent about the very existence of the Austrian state, once the framework of Habsburg dynastic rule had collapsed. But it reflected, too, an uncertainty over how to respond to the challenge of conservative radicalism and, in extremis, home-grown fascism. Should they build on the success of the city council and work within the framework of democratic politics, or should they embrace revolutionary activism? The founding of the Schutzbund, the leftist Republican militia, in 1923, suggested the latter, but the Social Democratic party was equally split over its relation to that. In such a time of ambivalence and uncertainty, it is perhaps understandable that a convincing visual identity failed to emerge. The communal architecture of Red Vienna could look to well established paradigms of modern housing as a model for progressive practice, yet even here criticisms were voiced, ironically, by those who were its leading exponents. Josef Frank, one of the most prominent architects of interwar Vienna argued that the housing developments were too similar on the designs of the urban palaces of the Habsburg era.[3] The Lassalle Monument is a symbol, therefore, of a particular historical moment and of its conflictual cultural politics; its limitations as a work of art tell us as much about that moment as they do about the achievements of Petrucci, its author.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Die Wohnhausanlage der Gemeinde Wien Winarskyhof (Vienna, 1926).

[2] Janek Wassermann, Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City 1918-1938 (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2014).

[3] Josef Frank, ‘Der Volkswohnungspalast. Eine Rede anläßlich der Grundsteinlegung, die nicht gehalten wurde’ (1926) in Frank, Schriften in zwei Bänden, ed. C. Long (Vienna: Metro, 2012), Vol. 1, 254-67.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/5X4ZY

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