The inclusion of lesser-known modernisms into art history at large also calls for the introduction of lesser-known artists, and it is often left to smaller, regional galleries to take on this task and produce the groundwork. The recent exhibition Herbert Ploberger: At the Interface between Fine and Applied Art at the Upper Austrian regional gallery in Linz can be understood precisely in this light.
Herbert Ploberger (1902-1977) was one of Austria’s main representatives of New Objectivity painting (Neue Sachlichkeit), a movement that developed in reaction to Expressionism in 1920s Weimar Germany. Stripping paintings bare of personal feeling and emotion, artists of the New Objectivity forged a hyperreality that often bordered on caricature for its brutal and unforgiving depictions of modern life. The first large New Objectivity exhibition took place in Mannheim in 1925, and George Grosz and Otto Dix emerged as the movement’s foremost representatives. The movement took root in the Austrian cultural scene with the 1929 exhibition New Romanticism and New Objectivity in Upper Austria in Linz – displaying some of the typical ‘belatedness’ that Austrian interwar art has long been accused of. Nonetheless, Austria brought forward its own generation of New Objectivity painters with artists like Rudolf Wacker, Sergius Pauser and Franz Sedlacek, whose work would leave its traces on Austrian painting as inspiration for post-war magical realism. Together with Ploberger, these artists represented a strand of New Objectivity painting, paving the way for the return to conservative imagery in the 1930s.
In Ploberger’s case, however, this was only one part of his creative output. He was also a skilled costume and stage designer, whose work for theatre and film encompassed almost 160 productions over four decades. Occupying the whole second floor of the gallery, the retrospective exhibition matched the wealth and diversity of his work, accompanied by a richly illustrated monograph. Both the exhibition and the accompanying monograph serve a long-established, chronological narrative, tracing Ploberger’s life and work in painstaking detail, year after year, genre after genre.
Ploberger’s father was a wealthy factory owner in Wels, Upper Austria, and in 1916 commissioned Hermann Muthesius to build an English-style villa for the family, which today is the only intact building by the architect in Austria. However, fortunes rapidly changed with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. By the new Austrian Republic’s first birthday, the Adler company had gone bankrupt and the Ploberger family lost their wealth. Having enjoyed a classical gymnasium education, Herbert Ploberger went to Vienna as an impoverished student. He studied Philosophy, Psychology and Art History at the University of Vienna and attended classes at the School of Applied Arts. Produced while attending a course taught by the painter Franz Cižek (1865-1946), his Constructivist Sculpture (1923/24, now lost) shows that Ploberger closely engaged with progressive art movements and that he experimented with different media before settling on painting in his fine art production.
Constantly lacking money, Ploberger travelled to Paris in 1925 where he earned a living with painting the pavilions for the World Fair. During this stay, he produced his first paintings, which mark Ploberger’s early interest in New Objectivity painting. All the paintings exhibited come from around this time (1925-1929). Of these, Self Portrait in the Studio (c. 1926/27) and Self Portrait with ophthalmological Teaching Models (1929) are particularly striking: focusing on the act of seeing as a scientific exercise in self-portraiture, they pronounce the artist’s identification with New Objectivity painting as a quasi-scientific and emotionally detached genre that reacted against the emotiveness of expressionism.
With striking attention to detail, Self Portrait in the Studio masters visual storytelling, which seeps through the glossy surface of the painting. Money is displayed on the table in the foreground, while in the back a crate with the inscription “Caution, paintings” leans against the wall. With an almost empty glass of wine and a pipe set next to the artist, his eyes obscured looking downwards, the business of art is presented as a precarious profession, linked to monetary transaction and, in line with the artist’s piqued facial expression, high-brow connoisseurship. The artist’s skin, meanwhile, recalls pale, dead flesh, shrouding the business of art in a morbid light.
Pregnant with meaning, Ploberger’s self-portraits alone would easily have easily lent themselves to a critical interpretation of the artist’s work in line with his stays in interwar Vienna, Paris and Berlin. Neither exhibition nor catalogue use this potential, however, instead focusing on a closed-off approach from painting to painting, which allows no excursion off the beaten track.
The linear narrative only half-heartedly touches upon Ploberger’s work as a draughtsman. While most of his drawings are now lost, Ploberger published a number of prints in the Berlin cultural magazine Der Querschnitt which were included in this exhibition.
In the Laboratory (1926) shows the artist’s brother at work. It translates the precision of New Objectivity into drawing, rendering the scene in sharp single lines which leave no space for mistakes. Here, Ploberger’s abilities as a draughtsman come to the fore. Not least, Der Querschnitt also reveals Ploberger’s social position, as the magazine had an elitist, even snobbish, reputation by the mid-1920s. In contrast to the social criticism that marked the New Objectivity painting of its best-known representatives Grosz, Dix and Max Beckmann, Ploberger’s work was much less concerned with the social underbelly of the metropolis, instead favouring consumerism and high-brow entertainment.
Suddenly jumping from the late 1920s to 1943, the exhibition forged an unexpected, radical rupture with a shift towards Ploberger’s remarkable series of war paintings, produced in Berlin during the Second World War. Capturing horror and destruction, the images of the series are filled by haunting figures wrapped in bandages, unrecognisable, brutalised, and lost. The detachedness of Ploberger’s earlier work now offers a brutal insight into the effects of war, while the still lives of the series recall Ploberger’s education with Čižek, the ‘founding figure’ of Viennese Kinetism. Objects of everyday life are reduced to an unrecognisable heap in Rubble (1945/46), where beaten and bent material takes up the picture plane. As the movement introduced by the curved lines implies – just one more breath, and all falls to pieces.
For the purposes of an exhibition organised by genre and biography, the war paintings marked a convenient rupture: living in Berlin during the war, Ploberger’s studio was hit in an air raid in autumn 1943, destroying most of his work from the 1920s and 30s. From then onwards, he focused on stage and costume design, which the remainder of the exhibition was dedicated to.
Ploberger was introduced to stage design by the architect Clemens Holzmeister, who first employed the financially struggling artist in the late 1920s. The artist’s break-through as a costume designer was part of Holzmeister’s famed production for Faust at the 1933 Salzburg festival. His designs for this project borrowed the rounded figural forms from his painting, reworked as colourful and decorative images with a sense of finesse that recall Ploberger’s self-stylisation as an academic painter.
Through the production’s success and, not least, Holzmeister’s personal connections, Ploberger was hired on the spot by Luis Trenker. A trained architect, writer, photographer, film director, actor and superstar of the conservative Heimatfilm genre, Trenker engaged Ploberger for most of his film productions from 1933 onwards. Additionally, Ploberger began to work for UFA and Prag-Film in Vienna, Berlin and Prague throughout the Second World War. His first wife Isabella, meanwhile, trained as an architect with Holzmeister, before working in the offices of Ernst Petersen, another Holzmeister student, whom the Plobergers met through Leni Riefenstahl. While the exhibition was adamant that Ploberger was never a party member despite his professional success during National Socialism, these personal-political connections were neither questioned nor problematised. However, these biographical details are more than just brief anecdotal notes: they place Ploberger into a network of reactionary modernism, whose main figures came from Austria’s conservative elite and, with few exceptions, seamlessly advanced their careers from Austro-Fascism via National Socialism to the post-war era. In fact, Ploberger was one of several Austrian artists of New Objectivity painting whose career took a similar trajectory; Sergius Pauser is another example. In view of the continuities of reactionary modernism between the 1930s and the post-war era, Ploberger would certainly lend himself as a case study – a missed opportunity in the exhibition.
A sense of continuity is also evident in the formal quality of Ploberger’s work. While sometimes focusing more on stage design, sometimes more on costumes, Ploberger’s approach to his theatre, opera, television and film work changed remarkable little between 1930 and his final projects from the 1970s. Filling two large rooms in the exhibition, these works are, in bulk, finely executed and dynamic compositions, but overwhelming in quantity. In fact, the most striking of the designs are from the Faust production in 1933, where Ploberger’s renderings of the Walpurgis night and of masks and figurines introduce a playful, surreal element to his work.
Covering Ploberger’s oeuvre over a timespan of fifty years, the exhibition made evident that his work between the wars up until the war paintings were his most innovative and striking. Yet rather than creating a critical narrative, the biographical focus and detached image descriptions avoided further engagement with the larger questions emerging from this visual material. In many ways, a guiding red thread was missing, especially as the variety of exhibited works implied that Ploberger’s work was much less defined by New Objectivity than the current narrative suggests. In this respect, the exhibition implicitly pointed out the necessity to move away from a grand linear narrative. Rather than ending here, it now demands a continuation of engagement with Ploberger’s work to further explore what a ‘moderate modernism’ like Ploberger’s, which could so easily survive the precarious politics of the 1930s and 1940s, holds for a reassessment of interwar Central European art.
Exhibition: Herbert Ploberger. At the interface between fine and applied art (Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum – Landesgalerie Linz, Linz, 7 February to 26 May 2019)
Monograph: Ingrid Radauer-Helm, Herbert Ploberger: Leben und Werk (Linz: Bibliothek der Provinz, 2019)