Artwork of the Month, June 2019: The Seipel-Dollfuss Memorial Church by Clemens Holzmeister (1933-1934)

This is the second in our Artwork of the Month series to focus on Clemens Holzmeister (1886-1983). (See the previous one here.) The modest church building, now known as the parish church in the 15th Vienna suburb of Rudolf-Neufünfhaus, was one of his most important state commissions undertaken between the wars.

Thomas Ledl photo of Memorial Church

Clemens Holzmeister: The Church of Christ the King (formerly Seipel-Dollfuss Memorial Church), Vienna, 1933-1934 – photo: Thomas Ledl, Wikimedia Commons

Vienna is primarily associated with the large scale municipal housing projects sponsored by the Social Democratic council during the early 1920s (see our post on the Monument to Ferdinand Lassalle) but to focus on these buildings alone would be to tell only one side of a complex story of interwar cultural politics. For in 1934, once the democratic government of the First Republic was replaced by the authoritarian state of Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934), public building took on a different character. In 1934 the long-serving Social Democratic mayor of Vienna, Karl Seitz (1869-1950) was deposed and the city council dissolved, and the administration of the city passed into the hands of Richard Schmitz (1885-1954) former Christian Social vice-chancellor of the defunct Republic. Under Schmitz, and with the support of the central government, the focus of building moved away from large-scale municipal housing towards alternative projects that were meant to encapsulate the cultural values of the new state. In the place of the large-scale housing estates were built low-density settlements, with individual houses and gardens, that promoted self-sufficiency, or housing blocks for short-term rent only, meant to discourage ‘dependency’ on state social support.[1] Lack of funds in depression-era Austria meant that these were not on anything like the same scale as the housing estates of the 1920s, but they were a symbolic marker of the new government’s attempt to impress its own moral and political vision on the cityscape.

The Seipel-Dollfuss memorial church can be seen in this context, since it was meant to serve as a symbol of the new state identity that was being crafted. In fact, the idea for the church preceded the creation of the dictatorship, but it was closely bound up with it. August 1932 saw the death of Ignaz Seipel (1876-1932). Seipel was a Catholic prelate who had dominated Austrian politics in the 1920s. After the First World War he re-founded the Christian Social Party (chairing it from 1921 to 1930) and served as Austrian chancellor between 1922 and 1924 and again between 1926 and 1929. He was also one of the chief ideologues of the party, writing a number of books on political theory.[2]

1926 Potrrait of Holzmeister by Josef Trčka

Anton Josef Trčka: Portrait of Clemens Holzmeister, 1926 photo: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after his death, Hildegard Burjan (1883-1933), founder of the Catholic charitable association Caritas Socialis, proposed building a memorial chapel for Seipel, an idea that gained a positive response from Dollfuss, who helped raise finance for the project, and Clemens Holzmeister was commissioned to design the church. Burjan died in June 1933, but the project continued, and the first stone was laid in September 1934. By this time, political events had rapidly accelerated and overtaken the original purpose of the church. In March 1933 Dollfuss had taken advantage of political indecision and discord in the parliament to dissolve the National Council and with it, the Republic, in order to assume dictatorial powers. In July 1934 he was murdered by Nazis in an attempted, but failed, putsch and was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg (1897-1977) who ruled as dictator of Austria until the Anschluss of 1938. Dollfuss was declared a martyr to the cause of Austrian independence and his death helped form a state-orchestrated theologico-political cult of remembrance and national identity. At his funeral in St. Stephen’s cathedral, for example, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna, compared the murdered Dollfuss to Christ on the Cross. Dollfuss also became associated with the myth of Marco d’Aviano (1631-1699), a Capuchin prelate in Vienna who in 1638 had allegedly led the defenders of Vienna to victory against the besieging Ottoman army with nothing but a cross.[3] As Innitzer later stated:

Marco d’Aviano and Engelbert Dollfuss, the one avowing his faith, the other a martyr – may they both be our sponsors, the advocates at God’s throne for our poor, beset Austria, may we soon be the recipients of the good from on high for which they both laboured, struggled, suffered and fought: the peace, honour, freedom and independence of a Christian, happy Austria! Amen.[4]

With the rapid creation of the political cult of the assassinated chancellor, Holzmeister’s church became the Seipel-Dollfuss memorial church and, until 1939, its crypt contained the sarcophagi of the two figures side by side. The meaning of the church thus changed; no longer just a memorial to an eminent statesman, it became the focus of an attempt by the state to create the site of a national cult.

Andreas Praefke Dolffuss Relief

Hans Schwathe: Memorial plaque depicting Engelbert Dollfuss, Vienna, Church of St Michael, 1934 – photo: Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia Commons

Holzmeister’s building was in fact one of a number of such churches that were either built or rededicated to the memory of Dollfuss, in Hohe Wand (in Wiener Neustadt), Laßnitzhöhe (near Graz), Neusiedl (Burgenland) and Pressbaum (Rekawinkl near St. Pölten). Elsewhere, too, there was an attempt to create a state iconography of Dollfuss: in the Church of St. Michael opposite the Hofburg in the centre of Vienna, for example, a plaque by Hans Schwathe (1870-1950) depicting a praying Dollfuss was installed in the tower chapel in the south side in 1934. Yet it is Holzmeister’s church that has drawn the most attention. Its design and location merit comment.

Given its importance, its location may at first sight seem surprising; rather than choosing a prominent site in the city centre, the commission overseeing it selected a location in the non-descript suburb of Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, to the west of the city centre. There was, however, a logic to this. The area was a densely populated working-class neighbourhood that had seen rapid growth since the 1860s, and up to that point had no church, for the Catholic Church had not been able to keep up with the rate of urban expansion. Indeed, this was a common issue and led to the creation of numerous temporary ‘emergency’ churches (‘Notkapellen’). Often little more than sheds, these were supposed to serve the pastoral needs of the new parishes that had arisen due to nineteenth-century urbanization but, crucially, they were also meant to underpin the presence of the Catholic church in areas that were otherwise under the influence of the Social Democratic party. Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus also had a considerable Jewish population – its synagogue was destroyed in the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938 – and the memorial church might also be seen as an attempt to Catholicise the suburb. Although the interwar Austrian government did not pursue the strongly anti-Jewish policies of neighbouring Hungary, anti-semitism was widespread and the Church, together with the government and right-wing intellectuals, sought to lessen so-called ‘Jewish influence’ in public life.

WolfganG GLOCK photo of Memorial Church

Clemens Holzmeister: The Church of Christ the King (formerly Seipel-Dollfuss Memorial Church), Vienna, 1933-1934 – photo: Wolfgang Glock, Wikimedia Commons

It has often been noted that the cultural policy of the state was driven by a nostalgic hankering for the past; Baroque art and architecture came to be fetishized between the two world wars as emblems of Austrian identity and as coded expressions of such nostalgia, even by fairly liberal figures.[5] Holzmeister, however, avoided the overblown rhetoric associated with baroque revivalist currents. Instead, the church is a low-level and low-key structure; its simple unornamented whitewashed walls, while reflecting an interest in Viennese modernism – one might think of Adolf Loos, for example – evoke the humble medieval monastery rather more than the grandiosity of the city’s Catholic heritage. This, too, was deliberate, since it was linked to the purpose of the church. Given the involvement of Caritas Socialis, the complex of buildings included not only the church and crypt housing the sarcophagi, but also spaces for the charity to undertake its work. The symbolism of the architectural language employed was recognised by contemporaries. As a commentator in the newspaper Die Stunde noted:

Prof. Clemens Holzmeister has been especially sensitive to the dual function of the building. On the one hand creating, with the crypt and the church above it, a political centre, on the other, making possible modern charitable assistance, especially for the poorest of the poor, the unemployed. The principle was thereby established of foregoing any external grandeur or florid decoration. The smooth white walls of the church, which achieve their effect through their lovely proportion, breath the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. The nave of the church is imposing in its breadth, the high altar has been positioned in keeping with liturgical prescriptions, so that it can be seen from any point in the space. Despite its simplicity, which sometimes reminds us of the time of early Christianity that was so strong in its faith, there is space for a series of works of art created by modern young artists – doing justice in a wider sense to the ideas of Dr Seipel and Dr Dollfuss: to provide people with the opportunity to work.[6]

The design was not only in keeping with the sombre purpose of the church, and perhaps with the financial constraints, it was also informed by political calculations. For although the Social Democratic party had been supressed as a social and political force by 1933 – its defeat in the Civil War of February 1934 merely confirmed its weak and disorganised state – there was still a recognition amongst the Catholic hierarchy of the need to foster some kind of allegiance and loyalty in working-class neighbourhoods. Indeed, in January 1933 the Social Democratic newspaper Die rote Fahne had criticised the fact that funds were being raised for the church rather than for unemployed workers.[7]

The church was thus designed to be a focal point but one that was not overbearing or an explicit visualisation of Church power. Holzmeister acknowledged that a conservative cultural revolution would be undermined by the adoption of Catholic triumphalism. Once inside, however, this egalitarian message was undone by the hieratic mosaic of Christ the King by Karl Sterrer (1885-1972), added in 1936, which evoked church authority and hierarchy, the truncated crosses around Christ reminiscent, too, of the symbol of the Fatherland Front, the ruling political organisation of the corporate state.

Sterrer Christ the King mural

The interior of the church with the mosaic by Karl Sterrer – photo: Thomas Ledl, Wikimedia Commons

Lack of financial means as well as its curtailed life of only four years meant that the Austro-Fascist regime in Austria failed to impose itself on architectural practices in the way that, for example, Mussolini’s government did in Italy or Hitler in Germany. But the memorial church indicates the kinds of design solutions that gained official approval, ones that integrated certain lessons of modern architecture – Holzmeister’s building is no exercise in historical revivalism – with a pious sense of tradition and faith. It is a prominent example of the conservative modernism with which the Catholic Church reached an accommodation in the interwar years. Yet because it does not fit easily into accepted narratives of modern architecture, with their emphasis on an ideology of functionalism, technological development and socially progressive politics, it has generally been ignored in standard histories of modernism. Its socio-political significance, however, suggests the need for those histories to be rethought.

Matthew Rampley

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/YHMP4

[1] On the housing policy of the authoritarian state see Andreas Suttner, Das schwarze Wien: Bautätigkeit im Ständestaat 1934-1938 (Vienna, 2017).

[2] See, for example, Nation und Staat (Vienna, 1916); Wesen und Aufgaben der Politik und der gegenwärtige Stand der Weltpolitik (Innsbruck, 1930); Der christliche Staatsmann (Augsburg, 1931).

[3] Martin Luksan, Hermann Schlösser and Anton Szanya, Heilige Scheine: Marco d’Aviano, Engelbert Dollfuß und der österreichische Katholizismus (Vienna, 2007).

[4] Cardinal Innitzer, Reichspost 12th September 1934, p. 5.

[5] See Michael Steinberg, ‘The Ideology of the Baroque, 1860-1938,’ in The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival: Austria as Theater and Ideology, 1890-1938 (Ithaca, 1990) pp. 1-36 and Matthew Rampley, ‘From Potemkin Village to the Estrangement of Vision: Baroque Culture in Austria, before and after 1918,’ Austrian History Yearbook 47 (2016) pp. 167-87.

[6] ‘Seipel-Dollfuss Gedächtnisbau,’ Die Stunde, 8 August 1934, p. 4.

[7] ‘Heraus mit der Sammelbewilligung für Grünbach,’ Die rote Fahne, 3 January 1933, p. 3.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/YHMP4

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2 thoughts on “Artwork of the Month, June 2019: The Seipel-Dollfuss Memorial Church by Clemens Holzmeister (1933-1934)

  1. Dr. Inge POdbrecky says:

    I am an Austrian art historian and have recently finished a manuscript on architecture during the Austro-fascist era, concentrating on the invisibilty of the period in the Vienna cityscape (although quite some projects were realized during the period). As Austro-Fascism is considered a neglectable, even harmless predecessor to the Nazu era in the public narrative of Austrian history – outside the historians’ community-, buildings are strangely “invisible” and their political connotation is rarely recognized. E.g. the Dollfuß portrait in Michaelerkirche which still lacks a highly necessary commentary.

  2. Matthew Rampley says:

    Thanks for your message. I agree. The writing of interwar art and architectural history is highly selective. It’s one of the issues we are trying to address.

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