Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, This Is What It Looks Like

Artwork of the Month, September 2020: This Is What It Looks Like, My Child, This World by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (c. 1933)

This is what it looks like, my child, this world, that is what you have been born into, there are those born to shear and those born to be shorn. That, my child, is what it looks like in this world of ours and that of other countries, and if you, my child, do not like it, then you will just have to change it.

Set above a busy photo-collage of a newborn baby surrounded by newspaper cut-outs, these words call out for action in a world of political tension. Together with the images below it, they show a violent and turbulent world in which the baby seems already lost in its first moments of life. Forming part of a series of six photo collages created in Vienna in the early 1930s, This Is What It Looks Like gives a glimpse into anti-fascist photographic work in interwar Austria.

This Is What It Looks Like (1933) by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: This Is What It Looks Like, My Child, This World, c. 1933. Photograph of a photo collage © Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna. Donation by Oswald Oberhuber 1979

Though little known today, the words and the photomontage itself were created by a woman who enjoyed much professional success, her life story only recently inspiring the book Aaron’s Leap: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898 –1944).[1] An artist and designer of Viennese-Jewish origin, Dicker-Brandeis studied at the Bauhaus before operating successful studios in Berlin and Vienna, as well as social projects such as workshops in furniture design for unemployed youth.[2] Becoming active in the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) in 1931, Dicker-Brandeis emigrated to Czechoslovakia after the rise of the authoritarian regime of Engelbert Dollfuß. In 1942, she was deported to the Terezín Ghetto. There, she organised theatre performances and art classes for children, trying to create some structure and comfort for the youngest in the camp. She was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 9 October 1944.

“Those born to shear and those born to be shorn” – posthumous reception and its flaws

Dicker-Brandeis’s work might have easily been forgotten. She often did not sign it and gave works away to friends and neighbours – many of her drawings, paintings, collages and interior designs were only found again in the 1980s. The most extraordinary aspect of her ‘rediscovery’ were the close to 4,300 children’s drawings made in her art classes in Terezín. They miraculously survived hidden in a suitcase while almost all of the girls who created them were killed, like their teacher. Now hosted at the Jewish Museum in Prague, the drawings have long formed the core of Dicker-Brandeis’s reception, presenting her as a dedicated pedagogue who saw art as a last refuge: ‘aesthetics is just another, thinner skin protecting against chaos … Aesthetics, last instance, means of escape, last motor capable of creating production, while defending man from forces over which he has no control,’ she wrote to her friend Hilde Kothny in 1940.[3] Tied to this concern of providing comfort through art, Dicker-Brandeis’s time at the Bauhaus (1919–1923) and her work as a designer and teacher of children’s art classes complete the image of a prodigious artist with great social commitment and strong dedication to art pedagogy.

The many different stages in Dicker-Brandeis’s life and her multi-faceted artistic production certainly make it difficult to see her work in its entirety. Tying together a successful career as an artist and designer with her illustrious but tragic biography, the artist’s links to the Bauhaus and her activities in Terezín have particularly lent themselves to interpretations in which artworks are dominantly read in conjunction with biographical detail. In this line of thought, the sculpture Anna Selbdritt (1921) from Dicker-Brandeis’s time at the Bauhaus symbolises her mourning about an abortion demanded by her business partner and lover Franz Singer, for example. Similarly, Dicker-Brandeis’s dedication to children’s education has been described as a substitute for her unfulfilled wish to become a mother.[4] Following a tradition in which women artist’s achievements seem inseparable from their biography, the rediscovery of Dicker-Brandeis’s work thus often takes on a one-dimensional character. While this singular focus has helped to re-establish her as an artist who often features as a trailblazer for the successful female avant-garde in central Europe, her achievements have only rarely been contextualised.[5]

With This Is What It Looks Like, we consider an aspect of Dicker-Brandeis’s work that has received only limited attention. This is most likely because it falls slightly outside the artistic categories that dominate the artist’s reception as a Bauhaus artist and art pedagogue. Moving beyond the close ties to biographical interpretation, however, This Is What It Looks Like represents an important example of leftist visual culture in interwar Vienna, intrinsically tied to radical shifts in Austrian politics in the early 1930s. As such, it not only offers a way of assessing Dicker-Brandeis’s contribution to central European modernism from a different point of view, but also points towards the cultural engagement of the Austrian left beyond the established tenets of Red Vienna.

Austria, ca. 1933: “This, my child, is what the world looks like”

The world in which Friedl Dicker-Brandeis created This Is What It Looks Like was a turbulent and violent one. Dated to 1933, this was not only the year Adolf Hitler became German chancellor, it also marked a decisive shift towards authoritarianism in Austria, when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss shut down parliament, leading to the country’s descent into fascism. In addition, the dire economic situation and the broiling conflict between the left-wing Schutzbund and right-wing Heimwehr paramilitary factions, culminating in the civil war of February 1934, transformed the country into a hotbed of radicalism that soon took over all areas of public life. For members of the KPÖ such as Dicker-Brandeis, the rounding up and persecution of close to 800 party members after the 1 May demonstrations in 1933 in particular meant that communication strategies and links to international communist networks had to be reinforced for counteraction.[6] This Is What It Looks Like falls precisely within this timeframe.

The image offers a strikingly complex view of the polarisation taking place at the time. Rather than showing one specific scene, it is arranged in a circular stream revolving around the baby, further enforcing dynamism through the monochromatic contrast of the individual clippings. At the centre, the screaming new-born floats in the void, ostensibly left alone in the turbulent world surrounding it. To its left, we see the ‘public faces’ of fascism, including Hitler, his vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen and SA chief Ernst Röhm, as well as cheering crowds and rallies which emphasise the growing militarisation of society. Above, to the left, a formation of airplanes suggests impending warfare, as well as the rapid mechanisation of modern life, particularly in connection with the cars and motorcycles placed close by.

In the space between the baby and the text, a number of forms above a human crowd draw in the viewer’s attention. They are so-called Meldungskarten, which were used to register the unemployed in Austria. Steadily increasing since the financial crash of 1929, their numbers had reached around 185 000 in Vienna alone by 1930, of which more than a quarter received no financial support. The collage points towards the desperate situation of those left without support with a simple newspaper clipping reading Massentodesurteile (Mass death verdicts). Diagonally above, dollar bills float among people sitting on the streets. Towards the right, the image traces the downward spiral of poverty, including prostitution in the form of a barely dressed lady, suicide in the form of grave crosses, and desolate housing at the bottom.

In line with the text, printed in a capitalised newspaper font across the top half of the image, the world in the image is divided into capitalism and fascism on the one hand, and those suffering from them on the other. However, while the text ends with a call for change with the words, ‘if you, my child, do not like it, then you will just have to change it,’ no such solution is offered in the image, leaving an uncertain future for the child at the centre. This also raises the question as to whom the text is indeed addressing. Dicker-Brandeis was childless herself, but her interest in pedagogy combined with her leftist political views, position the baby as a new-born member of the working class. It represents the future of the proletariat that was to be animated for resistance.

The image is complex at first sight, but it constructs a simple message in line with the text. In this combination, the precise image purpose remains unclear, as do details such as the original colour scheme, which might have made the work slightly more “legible”. While the work only exists as a glass negative (the original was most likely destroyed shortly after it was finished, when Dicker-Brandeis’ studio was searched in 1934), its dimensions suggest that it was conceived as a poster.  Yet along with the whole series that included five further works of a similar style and message, including Abundance of Goods (1933) and The Bourgeoisie Becomes Fascist (1933), the quantity of information required to get to the bottom of the work’s message meant it was certainly too complex to be used in public propaganda efforts. However, This Is What It Looks Like might have been used as wall charts in adult education programmes, a suggestion first put forward by Angelika Romauch.[7] Though it still remains unclear what kind of programme this might have been, this context links the work to some of the most prevalent debates of leftist photography at the time.

“if you, my child, do not like it, then you will just have to change it” – propaganda, the illustrated press and the camera as a weapon

Most of the clippings Dicker-Brandeis used for her collages can be traced back to two magazines: the Austrian social democratic illustrated Der Kuckuck (1929-1934) and the German Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ, 1924-1933), founded by the publisher Willi Münzenberg to raise funds for the famine in the Soviet Union and quickly becoming the most popular leftist illustrated magazine across central Europe. The two magazines followed the same goals: to promote a left-wing worldview and rally against fascism in the tabloid press with the aim of reaching a broad segment of the population. They were closely related to each other in the sense that the AIZ served as the design blueprint for Der Kuckuck. This particularly counted for its use of photography, building on two dominant strands: worker photography and photomontage.

Unemployed Family by Edith Tudor-Hart

Edith Tudor-Hart: Unemployed Family, 1930, Wien Museum – photo © Edith Tudor-Hart/Wien Museum

Originally, the purpose of worker photography was to encourage ordinary labourers to pick up the camera in order to create a realistic impression of the lives of the working class. This was reinforced through photo competitions and advice on camerawork, most famously in the AIZ, but also in Der Kuckuck. However, the worker or social photography movement, as it was also called, was also a popular genre among leftist photographers and it was their work which often filled the pages of illustrated magazines. Often better equipped and trained to forge the ‘right’ kind of reality in the service of leftist agitation, their main purpose was to create an image of the living conditions of the proletariat that looked spontaneous, with a snapshot quality to enforce a pronouncedly realistic view. Rather than being artworks in their own right, the most important task of these photographs was to act as instruments of political agitation, compounded in the popular slogan ‘use photography as a weapon!’ In Vienna, photographers following this call included Edith Tudor-Hart (nee Suschitzky, 1907–1973), who had studied at the Bauhaus before becoming a photojournalist and Montessori kindergarten teacher in Vienna. Tudor-Hart, who was also an active member of the KPÖ, also published her images in the AIZ and Der Kuckuck – and Dicker-Brandeis used them in her collages.

Set to the right of the uniformed motorcyclists in This Is What It Looks Like, Tudor-Hart’s Unemployed Family (1930) draws a direct visual connection to Viennese social photography with an image of emaciated parents looking onto their small child, which plays in a wooden box instead of a crib. Embedding this scene into a broader context, Dicker-Brandeis’s use of photographs that were themselves created as leftist propaganda draws a connection to a broader context of activist photography in interwar Vienna through the use of montage, the second important aspect of the genre.

Artur Stadler Cover of Der Kuckuck 1933

Artur Stadler: Photomontage on the front page of Der Kuckuck 5.7 (February 1933) – photo © Austrian National Library, http://anno.onb.ac.at

Indeed, at approximately the same time as Dicker-Brandeis created This Is What It Looks Like, photomontage became a more regular feature in Der Kuckuck, though it had been used sporadically since 1929. Anti-fascist photomontages by Artur Stadler, such as To The Third Reich (1933), thereby clearly adopted the model of the AIZ, where the political photomontage had risen to particular prominence.

John Heartfield: The Hitler Salute (1932)

Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, (16 October 1932), front page with a photomontage by John Heartfield – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Already in the early 1920s, the German Communist Party had debated the drawbacks of documentary photography, particularly in view of the fact that it could easily be misinterpreted by readers and political opponents. Photomontage presented a remedy to this issue: combining images to offer entertainment as well as strong political commentary on contemporary events, it became an ideal technique for the leftist populism of magazines such as AIZ. Its main representative, John Heartfield (1891–1968), designed over two hundred images for AIZ from 1930 onwards, making it the magazine’s most prominent feature. Rising to particular prominence at a time when National Socialism seemed unstoppable, Heartfield’s photomontages were a call to arms, which fuelled the creativity of artistic responses to political events.

“what it looks like in this place of ours” – Dicker-Brandeis’ photomontages beyond biography

Aside from the likelihood that Friedl Dicker-Brandeis would have encountered Heartfield’s work at the Vienna edition of the Film and Foto (FiFo) exhibition in 1930, her use of AIZ in her own montages are a clear indication that Heartfield was a point of reference. However, rather than directly drawing on his typical composition, which merged different image elements to create a single scene with a tailored, satirical message, Dicker-Brandeis used photomontage tailored to her own specifications. In this vein, This Is What It Looks Like is a much more difficult and serious image than any of Heartfield’s, which focuses on a broader social and political analysis of actions and consequences.

In this light, Dicker-Brandeis’ background links her montage to a further aspect of design that was developed in interwar Vienna: the Isotype language (International System of Typographic Picture Education) mainly developed by Otto and Marie Neurath (Reidmeister) at the Vienna Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Museum for Social and Economic Affairs, founded in 1924).[8] Designed to clarify scientific processes to a lay audience, Isotype was an early form of information design closely tied to the social reform programme of Red Vienna.

Kindergarten im Goethehof, 1932

‘Kinder im Goethehof,’ Der Kuckuck 4.22 (May 1932), p. 13, with interiors of the Montessori kindergarten in Vienna’s Goethehof, Schüttaustraße, designed by Franz Singer and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis © Austrian National Library, http://anno.onb.ac.at

At first sight, the unambiguous, straightforward messages of Isotype design hardly seem related to the chaotic spread of visual information in This Is What It Looks Like. However, the two coincide in their aim to focus on images for the education of a broad public, summarised in the Isotype Institute’s slogan ‘Words divide, pictures unite.’ Given Dicker-Brandeis’s activities as an art teacher and her interest in education design, including a Montessori kindergarten in Vienna, the use of the collage in adult education gains a further dimension. The spiral of bitter poverty, fascism and a predetermined division of ‘those born to shear and those born to be shorn’ in the image implies the cause and effect relations of capitalism/fascism with symbolically charged images. Though looking chaotic at first sight, each image chosen was clearly charged with symbols, such as uniforms, aeroplane formations, and grave crosses, which help to break down complex political and economic processes for a lay audience, underlined by a leftist political framing through the image-text combination. Moreover, through the use of images that had already been printed in illustrated magazines and circulated by the thousands, the individual fragments of the montage added a degree of recognizability based on a political network that linked artist, source materials and viewers.

As part of a visual culture in which political purpose and education stood at the forefront of creative production, it appears mismatched, unfitting even, to consider a work such as This Is What It Looks Like on the basis of artistic biography alone. Rather, Dicker-Brandeis’s photomontage contains intrinsic connections to a much larger movement of anti-fascist activism at a time when political tensions came to a head and photography rose to particular importance for the Austrian left.

Julia Secklehner

[1] Magdaléna Platzová, Aaron’s Leap, trans. Craig Cravens (London, 2014).

[2] See Sabine Plakolm-Forsthuber, ‘Dicker (Dicker-Brandeis), Friedl (Friedericke) (1898–1944), Designerin, Malerin und Kunstpädagogin,’ in Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon ab 1815, DOI:10.1553/0x003a25db

[3] Friedl Dicker-Brandeis to Hilde Kothny (9 December 1940), quoted in Elena Makarova, ‘Friedl Dicker-Brandeis,’ in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on September 10, 2020) https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dicker-brandeis-friedl .

[4] Elena Makarova, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Vienna 1898 – Auschwitz 1944 (Los Angeles, 2001).

[5] Exceptions include Angelika Romauch, ‘Friedl Dicker: Marxistische Fotomontagen 1932/33: Das Verfahren der Montage als sozial-kritische Methode” (MA thesis, University of Vienna, 2003), and most recently Julie M. Johnson, ‘The Other Legacy of Vienna 1900: The Ars Combinatoria of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis,’ Austrian History Yearbook 51 (2020), pp. 243–68. doi:10.1017/S006723782000017X.

[6] See Duncan Forbes, ‘Edith Tudor-Hart. Im Schatten der Diktaturen,’ in Duncan Forbes ,ed., Edith Tudor-Hart: Im Schatten der Diktaturen (Ostfildern, 2013), p. 12.

[7] Romauch, ‘Friedl Dicker,’ 10.

[8] Marie Neurath’s contributions have long been overshadowed by those of her male peers. However, in 2019, her designs were shown at the House of Illustration in London. Stuart Jeffries, “Before emojis: the utopian graphic language of Marie and Otto Neurath”, The Guardian, 27 August 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/aug/27/pictures-unite-graphic-design-vision-marie-otto-neurath

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/HWEFS

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