City of Women

On 25th January 2019 the Belvedere Museum formally opened its exhibition City of Women: Female Artists in Vienna, 1900-1938. The exhibition continues until 19th May. Presenting the work of no fewer than 53 women artists, it is an ambitious project that builds on and extends earlier exhibitions by the Belvedere; despite the unpromising title, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka (2015-16), for example, was a serious examination of the painters’ oeuvre in the context of changing gender identities and discourses of femininity.

There is much to welcome in this exhibition, and it represents an important step in challenging the traditional understanding of the Viennese art world. With two just notable exceptions, women artists in Austria have been largely ignored.[1] City of Women can be seen as part of a wider – and belated – recognition of the role played by women in the creative and intellectual culture of early twentieth-century Austria. It is only in recent years that due attention has begun to be given to their cultural achievements in place of the prurient fascination with aspects of the private lives.[2]

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Helene Funke: Dreams, 1913 – photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna

Amongst the artists presented in this exhibition are some figures that already enjoy some reputation, such as Helene Funke, Erika Giovanna Klien, Marie-Louise Motesiczky and Elza Kövesházi-Kalmár – the latter being better known in Hungary than in Austria. The vast majority of artists featured, however, have only a marginal place on the art historical landscape, and the curators and researchers of this exhibition deserve credit for their endeavours in tracking down and gathering the range of works on display here.

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Installation of City of Women with Teresa Feodorovna Ries’s Witch (1896) in the foreground

Apart from the fact that we are presented with the creative work of many hitherto unknown names, what else do we learn from the exhibition? One central message is communicated very powerfully: that the artists once had a prominence that their subsequent neglect had managed to erase from the collective memory. The first part of the exhibition makes clear, for example, that women were an active and central part of the Secession, not merely as muses and subjects of paintings executed by men, according to the traditional narrative of Viennese art, but as exhibiting artists in their own right. This was, moreover, in all areas of art, including the highly masculine domain of sculpture. One of the most interesting examples in this regard was Teresa Feodorovna Ries (1874-1950). Born in Moscow, she came to Vienna in 1895, and immediately made a stir; her marble sculpture Witch (1896) was exhibited in the Künstlerhaus and received scathing reviews from no less a critic than Ludwig Hevesi, but she received a sympathetic response from Stefan Zweig, and evidently the Künstlerhaus jury saw merit in it, too.

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Elena Luksch-Makowsky: Adolescentia, 1903 – photo @ Belvedere, Vienna

We also learn that to counter the numerous institutional barriers to women’s success, a network of associations, artists groups and institutions were set up to support women artists, such as the Vienna School of Art for Women and Girls (1897), the Austrian Association of Women Artists (1910), the Eight Women Artists (1912), the Free Association (1919) and Vienna Women’s Art (1926). In 1910/11 the Secession staged an exhibition, The Art of the Woman, devoted to the history of women artists since the Baroque. Vienna Women’s Art also organised a number of exhibitions between the wars, including How Does the Woman See? (1930) and The Beautiful Wall (1933).

These insights help alter our view of the Viennese artistic landscape, but the exhibition struggled to bring them together to form a more forceful or compelling narrative. This was particularly the case for its presentation of the period after 1918. We learn that women were among some of the most progressive artists of the interwar period, a claim borne out by some, for example, the photomontages and paintings of Friedl Dicker, and Erika Giovanna Klien’s seven-part mural design Walking through the Metropolis (1923). But many of the works lacked any framing context to help the viewer interpret them. The Austrian Republic of the 1920s and 1930s was a politically fraught time, with Social Democrats trying to advance a socialist vision of the new state in competition with the nostalgic and often reactionary conceptions of the Christian Social Party. Political life was entangled in violent conflict, with each side closely linked to its own paramilitary militia. This culminated in the short-lived civil war of February 1934. Yet with just one or two exceptions, none of the art on display even registered this situation, let alone addressed it. This stands in stark contrast with Berlin, for example, where Hannah Höch was one of the most politically articulate artists working at the same time.

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Helene von Taussig: Female Nude on a Blue Chair, 1920/30 photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna

Such a comparison invites the question, perhaps, as to what it meant to be a woman artist in Vienna in the first four decades of the previous century. How, too, did this relate to wider discourses about femininity (as well as masculinity)? There was no lack of debate about gender and identity; on the one hand there was a strong movement towards female emancipation, while, on the other, a strongly conservative outlook, underpinned by close ties to the Catholic Church, sought to emphasise the primary role of the woman as mother and nurturer. It is a pity that this exhibition does not explore this terrain, for it would help us position the artists. Indeed, it might help us, too, consider the criteria for inclusion. Because the dominant purpose of this exhibition is an archaeological one, i.e. undoing the ‘silencing of the past,’ as Julie Johnson puts it in the catalogue, it is sometimes difficult to discern why some artists have been included, other than because they were women.[3] Yet empirical facts alone are insufficient to ground a feminist re-reading of art, most especially because many of the works on display embody what feminist critics might refer to as a masculine subject position. In other words, women’s bodies are objectified in their images in exactly the same way as in works by their male counterparts. In this respect, whether the artist was a man or a woman is not particularly significant.

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Greta Freist: The Guard, 1938 – photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna

City of Women should perhaps be seen as the starting point of a much larger project, informed by a more purposeful and theoretically cogent investigation into gender and sexual identity in Vienna modernism, one which considers not only who was creating artworks, and under what institutional and social conditions, but also one which attempts to discern the kind of voice artists were trying to develop and how it was received. Against the claim that Vienna was the city of women, it is worth noting that in 1928, when the Social Democratic culture of the city was at its most powerful, the cosmetics company Elida ran a competition, The Most Beautiful Austrian Portrait of a Woman.

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Front cover of the catalogue of The Most Beautiful Austrian Portrait of a Woman, 1928

Despite the overt commercialism of the competition, 34 (exclusively male) artists submitted paintings, some of them leading figures of the Vienna art world. Their motivation must have been clear, for as the art critic Arthur Roessler wrote in the catalogue: ‘The thoughts and ideas of artists, above all, painters, circle ceaselessly around the enigma that is woman, even though women in general do not understand, appreciate or love art.’[4] Roessler was president of the Austrian Werkbund and vice-president of the Wiener Werkstätte. The prize also received the support of the Hagenbund, the Secession and the Union of Austrian Artists. It was in this environment, supported by many of the representatives of ‘progressive’ cultural politics, that women artists had to practice. Seen in this light, it might be seen as overly optimistic to term Vienna the ‘city of women.’ Nevertheless, this exhibition does an enormous service in outlining the parameters of a more self-critical reflection on Austrian art, one that may begin to dismantle much of the perceived wisdom of the artworld in Vienna.

Matthew Rampley

City of Women: Female Artists in Vienna, 1900-1938 (Belvedere, Vienna, 25 January 2019 to 19 May 2019)

[1] The exceptions are: Sabine Plakolm-Forsthuber, Künstlerinnen in Österreich 1897-1938 (Vienna: Picus, 1994) and Julie Johnson, The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 (West Lafeyette: Purdue University Press, 2012).

[2] See, for example, Bernhard Fetz, Berg, Wittgenstein, Zuckerkandl: Zentralfiguren der Wiener Moderne (Vienna, 2018); Helga Peham, Die Salonièren und die Salons in Wien (Vienna, 2014).

[3] Julie Johnson, ‘The Silencing of the Past,’ in Stella Rollig, ed. Stadt der Frauen: Künstlerinnen in Wien 1900-1938 (Vienna, 2019), 37-41.

[4] Arthur Roessler, ‘Einiges über Bildnismalerei,’ in Elida-Preis für das Schönste Österreichische Frauenporträt 1928 (Vienna, 1928), 1.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/B67EG

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