Artwork of the Month, January 2021: Japan – The Land of Contrasts by Alice Schalek (1925)

‘How much does the Austrian President Masaryk receive as his salary?’[1] Alice Schalek (1874–1956) was asked this question by a Japanese reporter in Tokyo during her journey there in 1923–24. Perceptions changed a lot after the First World War. The enterprising and renowned traveller Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) had evidently been more successful with his countless diplomatic trips and obtained more publicity than the actual leaders of the first Austrian Republic, such as Karl Renner (1870–1950) or, later, Ignaz Seipel (1876–1932). And this might as well describe Schalek’s mission and the purpose of her trips: venturing into political affairs and social events in foreign countries and utilising them to promote herself (and, to a lesser extent, the interests of Austria). For this, the journalist and photographer Schalek literally had to explore new ways of entrepreneurship, especially as a woman travelling the world on her own.

Alice Schalek, Japan, front cover

Alice Schalek, Japan – The Land of Contrasts: A Winter Journey through Japan, Korea and Manchuria with 193 of her own photographs, front cover

The life and work of Alice Schalek can be considered a model case of a female travel writer – a role that looks back on a rich tradition in Austria, given the achievements of the popular author Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858). Schalek strived for success as a writer early on, initially as a novelist under the pseudonym of Paul Michaely, but the enthusiastic alpinist, ice skater and mountain climber soon found her destiny as a professional tourist.[2] Coming from a wealthy, bourgeois Jewish family, she turned to her career out of a relish for travel, adventure and sporting activities – which also propelled female emancipation. Her first novellas are about an independent woman on a cruise ship.[3] Out of this personal interest Schalek soon embarked on her own tours halfway around the world, first to Scandinavia (1903), then to North Africa (1905), India (1909) and finally to East Asia (1911). She quickly published articles about her experiences in newspaper articles and, back home, in travel books. After her first trip to Asia, she also appeared as a photographer for the first time. In 1914, Schalek gave slide presentations with her own photographs in the series Around the World with a Camera (Mit der Kamera um die Welt), at the famous Viennese Institute for public education Urania, which itself deserves further consideration as a centre of visual culture.[4] She was the first woman to give a lecture there, and at a later event in March her presentation included no fewer than 750 pictures. This genre of visual travelogues makes her an interesting case for art history.

Travelogues, photography, and art history

Travel literature is a huge field of research, but as a visual medium it has still been little explored, especially for the era between the wars. Only recently have cross-border travellers such as Karel Čapek (1890–1938) begun to receive much attention.[5] Travelogues routinely use a pictorial language, and are often illustrated or stocked with photographs.[6] Alice Schalek took all the photographs for her publications herself and was a multi-talented individual who, in combination with her writing, strove for a journalistic and ethnographic record of foreign lands. Over 6,000 of her photographs have survived. They were kept in 30 photo albums in a small Presbyterian congregation in New York, where Schalek, who was forced to emigrate in 1938 due to her Jewish origins, spent the last years of her life. These albums were acquired by the Austrian National Library in the late 1970s.[7] She initially used a normal 8.5 × 10 cm plate camera, and in the 1920s she added a smaller travel camera. She probably only used one lens with an average focal length and relied on fast exposure times.[8] Schalek’s photos seem like press photographs and thus more conventional. They make no claim to be artistic images, and seem to offer more a kind of documentary testimony. She takes them on location without extra lighting, just to record events. She did not use any special focal points and only when she took group portraits was there any hint of the images being staged. She photographs crowds in the streets at random, or depicts new buildings and cityscapes, and sometimes nature outside the metropolis. Less frequently, she takes staged individual portraits in which, similarly to August Sander (1876–1964), she sociologically examines specific occupational or religious groups. Some of the photos are integrated into newspaper articles, thus directly illustrating what is reported, some get picked for the travel books, some are used in the slide presentations. Schalek’s photography can be understood as an extensive documentary practice that mostly abandons the exoticizing gesture of older imagery in favour of a more diverse representation of her experience and the social life in the places she visits.

Japan in particular was a popular destinations for travellers, as they were motivated after the war by the continued rapid modernisation of the country, and as ever by the rich cultural heritage.[9] For the generation of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) Japonisme had been widespread in the arts and popular culture, and this was still remembered in the interwar period.[10] As a successful travel writer before the war, the main goal of Schalek’s second stint in Japan in the 1920s was to draw comparisons with the time before the war and experience the advancements and transformations the country had gone through since. She wanted to record these phenomena as realistically as possible and accompanied by her camera.

Japan – The Land of Contrasts

The densely illustrated, 400-page book was published in 1925 and was based on her trip to Japan in 1923–24, dealing mainly with the capital Tokyo and her several trips into the surrounding countryside. Of the total of twelve chapters, eleven are devoted to experiences on the mainland of Japan, which are loosely narrated chronologically but rather arranged thematically. The last chapter then describes a train journey through Korea and Manchuria in a luxury carriage, which she undertook shortly before returning home to Austria. The book begins with an information panel containing the most important Japanese words in the text and a map of Japan, providing the feel of a travel guide. Schalek then begins with the arrival in Kobe, Japan’s main harbour for foreign ships, and the diplomatic circumstances after the First World War. At the same time, she starts reporting on living conditions in the big cities in Japan. She constantly voices her displeasure at the dirty, unpaved streets, poorly heated rooms and ossified manners that made everyday life disagreeable.

Alice Schalek, Ginza, Tokyo

Alice Schalek: Ginza, Tokyo’s main shopping street – photo: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienna: Pk 3694, 16, 14

The paradoxes between, on the one hand, the seemingly unchangeable ancient traditions (such as, for example, the very strict and specific rules for clothing and manners) and, on the other, the rapid adoption of a western lifestyle interested Schalek the most. These problems are not necessarily directly addressed in the photos, but often pointed out topographically in the city, as in the example of Ginza, Tokyo’s main shopping street, where she is permanently lost due to poor signage. This way the reader becomes familiar with different parts of the city and aspects of society.

Alice Schalek, Asakusa

Alice Schalek: The entertainment district Asakusa – photo: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienna: Pk 3694, 16, 21

These critical observations become repetitive tropes throughout the 400 pages and show her belonging to the tradition of the critical traveller. Her main motifs derive from the problems and curiosities of a society in transition between East and West, between tradition and innovation, which have existed since Japan opened up in the Meji or rather the Bakamatsu period after 1853.

Alice Schalek: A priest of the Nichiren Buddhist sect

Alice Schalek: Priests of the Nichiren Buddhist sect – photo: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienna: Pk 3694, 16, 28

She wanders through all sub-sectors of society, visits factories, cinemas, newspaper offices, entertainment districts, hospitals, schools and universities, and meets official representatives from all these areas. She mainly demonstrates the political and social dimensions of that process and the overall modernization in the ‘land of contrasts’ through street scenes and pictures of buildings, sensibly interrupted by portraits of citizens in traditional clothing, such as members of the Buddhist Nichirin sect. The aptly chosen title ‘Land of Contrasts’ alludes to the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, and to the juxtaposition of old and new. Schalek presents this as a large-scale, photographic walk through society.

Women’s rights movement and marketing

Schalek pays special attention to the role of women in society, to whom she dedicates a separate chapter, their difficult living conditions in the face of traditional manners and rites a recurring theme. She makes a point of meeting pioneers and early activists for women’s rights, such as Tsunako Gauntlett (1873–1953) and her circle, who campaigned for a more modern life as well as more rights, and for instance rebelled against the tradition of the geishas, who played a major role in Japanese society as noble prostitutes. During Schalek’s stay in Japan, women were still seen as appendages and servants of men. The process of women’s emancipation was still in its infancy, and many failures were made when planning political actions and seeking allies. Therefore, Schalek vacillates between admiration and harsh criticism during her entire stay and especially during visits to the women’s rights activists.

Alice Schalek, The Women Pioneers of Tokyo

Alice Schalek: The Women Pioneers in Tokyo – photo: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienna: Pk 3694, 16, 4

These are the most prominent themes. The text was not produced on the spot but written back home based on notes and newspaper articles that she had already published in Japan or in Austria. She was an experienced long-time reporter for the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna and frequently sent possible articles back to Europe.[11] The decisive factor to understand Schalek is her media strategy, already on site in Japan, where everything she experienced was utilised in articles and contributions to some media outlet such as Tokyo Nichi Nichi, one of the biggest newspapers in Japan. Thus, Schalek explored the foreign country as a society traveller on predetermined paths in the style of a diplomat, politician or foreign correspondent and tries to get to know state officials, politicians, and reform circles. It is a numbers game, and her camera collects the evidence of her manifold activities.

Artistic ideas

In Japan – The Land of Contrasts Schalek recalled her first visit in 1911, stating: ‘Years ago I was full of longing for Japanese nobility, for Japanese art and beauty, for dainty geishas […]’.[12] In view of the political situation, however, she had lost this interest. More recently, Japan’s imperialist behaviour had damaged the positive perception of the country. The statement was also directed against the fashionable interest in Japan in the wake of works such as Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) Madame Butterfly or the glorification of the country by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the great mediator of Japanese culture, or its presence in popular culture such as Hermann Bahr’s (1863–1936) play The Yellow Nightingale (Die gelbe Nachtigall, 1907). Unlike the Prague artist Emil Orlik (1870–1932), who was explicitly mentioned and travelled to Japan at the turn of the century and honoured it in his images, Schalek was more critical about this path in the 1920s. Japonisme is not mentioned, nor even the appreciation of the near-functionalist houses in Japan, with their sliding doors and practical furnishings, which Hermann Muthesius, Bruno Taut and other modernist architects praised so highly.[13] On the contrary, Schalek’s account of a stay in a traditional Japanese house seems downright damning. When Schalek mentioned a building positively, it is a hybrid object like Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867–1959) Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which mixes Japanese and Western elements. In short, architecture is evaluated according to western living standards and the technical interior, with no interest in any Japanese ideals or qualities.

Alice Schalek: Fujiyama

Alice Schalek: Fujiyama from the banks of the Fuji Kawa River – photo: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienna: Pk 3694, 16, 32

In the five page long section on modern painting in Japan, Schalek also discusses the pitfalls of cultural exchange. She recognizes the pictoriality of Japanese life, which she comments on when she attends the No Theatre. In view of the actors’ gesture-rich but extremely restrained acting, she writes: ‘After all, the Japanese are born as painters and their imagination creates image after image with the slightest hint. For him, poetry lies in what is not really said, not really done’.[14] For Schalek the Japanese, with superior artistic skills and well versed in drawing and other crafts, started copying Western art and thus created only dull substrates devoid of any independent life. They were, according to Schalek, ‘the faithful imitation of some European secession.’[15] In so doing, Japanese artists squander their special talent. A Swiss painter, who is her neighbour in Tokyo, copies the traditional, often serial, art of the Japanese, who are famous for their ever-same views of Mount Fujiyama – and finds enormous success in doing so.[16] Such paradoxes characterise many aspects of cultural contact between East and West; for art history in the interwar period, one can note by reading Schalek’s travelogue the waning of the old exoticist Japonisme and the emergence of new hybrid forms. The beauty of nature, especially the sight of Mount Fujiyama, make her praise the personal experience as a photographer: ‘You can probably buy it in an artistically ideal execution in any shop, but there is no joy to beat that of recording it yourself’.[17] Perhaps it is in these rare moments, when she can escape the big cities, that she can find happiness through her own art.

Continuity and rupture

Another recurring aspect of her book is her backward-looking view of Europeans in the face of Japanese reform efforts. When Schalek meets Japan’s reform circles and feminists, she describes their utopian idealism regarding social change and compares it to the attitude of the intellectuals in Europe before the war. At one of the dozens of meetings with some progressive circle (the youth circle of Madame Tsurumi encouraged unrelated men and women to sit right next to each other and engage in conversation), she writes: ‘What comes out of it in terms of learned phraseology reminds me of the social policy of our do-gooders before the war, when no one could yet appreciate what a wealth of consequences the words revolution, socialisation, democracy and communism encompass. […] We too believed in ideals fifteen years ago, we too invited social politicians as trappings in the days of our pre-war political-literary salons and, while now, over this tea, I feel transported back fifteen years, I ponder whether this “group” too will get fed up with politics in as short a time as we did […].’[18] The First World War destroyed this idealism in Europe, and after the war everything was only about political and social reality. Through her experience of this foreign country, Schalek repeatedly reflects on her own social conditions at home. On the one hand, she consistently perceives the Japanese as backward; on the other hand, in view of ultra-modern institutions of the welfare state such as girls’ schools or kindergartens, she wonders whether something like this might already be possible in Vienna or in Austria. It is this awareness of disparity, and the experience of continuity and rupture through the war, that is reinforced by her visit to Japan.


How should we evaluate Schalek’s extensive travelogue, only a few parts of which can be presented here? The text figures as a hard-hitting, journalistically professional contemporary analysis that presents large parts of the social reality of Japan and can thus almost be considered a sociological or ethnographic study. Unlike the consistently critical tone of the text, they very rarely show scenes of misery. In total, the photographs never seem to achieve the punch of the bitingly delivered text. Schalek’s photographic practice is derived from the utilisation of pictures in contemporary newspapers and for anecdotal reference in her slide presentations.

Ethnographic journeys have been little studied in interwar art, travels that lead to rich accounts like Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski’s (1888–1961) book about Slovakia, examined by Julia Secklehner on our blog. Those publications proceed in a less artistic manner, but they do not least appear with an interest in visual culture of the specific region. At a time when Margaret Mead (1901–1978) was also beginning to make her great discoveries, or Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942) was setting out for Australia with the Polish artist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939), the ethnographer Schalek was partly following their footsteps. And to some degree her detailed book about Japanese society is in places reminiscent of the Austrian sociologist Marie Jahoda (1907–2001), a Viennese social psychologist who was active in the youth and workers’ movement. At the same time, the early 20th century is considered the golden age of travel, especially for women like Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) or Freya Stark (1893–1993). It is precisely the comparison with the Slovenian Alma Karlin (1889–1950), who has received increased attention in recent years and pursued a more individual and above all poorer form of travel, who could serve as the main comparison. In contrast, Schalek was a professional tourist, busy going on chartered tours through society, filled with planned excursions, parties and meetings. Most of the excursions into the surrounding countryside take place on already culturally well-trodden paths, lead to well-known vantage points or sights, and all are equally met with the stern judgement of the Austrian writer. Exactly by that always critical and rather imperious tone, Schalek herself sometimes comes across as being imperialistic, which becomes particularly clear in the last chapter when travelling through South Korea and Manchuria.[19] The supposedly gentle and informal penetration of Korea by the Japanese occupiers after the First World War is more or less welcomed by her, and their civilising achievements for the backward, still primitive Korean people are accentuated. This is the legacy of Alice Schalek and her book on Japan, which ventures into the world of media driven politics and social change, away from the old romantic idea of art and exotism before the war.

Christian Drobe

[1] Alice Schalek, Japan – Das Land des Nebeneinander: Eine Winterreise durch Japan, Korea und die Mandschurei mit 193 eigenen Aufnahmen (Breslau: Ferdinand Hirt, 1925) p. 49.

[2] Elke Krasny, Marcus Patka, Christian Rapp and Nadia Rapp-Wimberger, Von Samoa zum Isonzo: Die Fotografin und Reisejournalistin Alice Schalek (Vienna, 1999).

[3] Paul Michaely [Alice Schalek], Auf dem Touristendampfer: Novellen (Vienna 1905).

[4] Elke Krasny, Christian Rapp and Nadia Rapp-Wimberger, ‘Auf den Spuren einer Abenteuerin. Bemerkungen zur Fotografie und Reisejournalistin Alice Schalek (1874–1956),‘ in Von Samoa zum Isonzo, p. 13.

[5] Mirna Šolić, In Search of a Shared Expression: Karel Čapek’s Travel Writing and Imaginative Geography of Europe (Prague, 2019).

[6] Giorgia Alù, Sarah Patricia Hill, ‘The Travelling Eye: Reading the Visual in Travel Narratives,’ in Studies in Travel Writing 22.1: Travel Writing and the Visual (2018) pp. 1–15.

[7] Krasny, Rapp and Rapp-Wimberger, ‘Auf den Spuren einer Abenteuerin,‘ p. 9.

[8] Krasny, Rapp and Rapp-Wimberger, ‘Auf den Spuren einer Abenteuerin,‘ p. 17.

[9] Recently see: Central Europeans in Korea: Alice Schalek, Alma Karlin, Fritz Hansgirg, and Many Others, ed. Andreas Schirmer (Vienna, 2020); Sarah Lemmen, Tschechen auf Reisen: Repräsentationen der außereuropäischen Welt und nationale Identität in Ostmitteleuropa 1890–1938 (Köln, 2018).

[10] Peter Pantzer, Hidden Impressions: Japonisme in Vienna 1870–1930 (Vienna, 1990).

[11] See also Elke Krasny and Christian Rapp, ‘Weltbilder einer Extremtouristin: Alice Schalek (1874–1956),‘ in Weltreisende. ÖsterreicherInnen in der Fremde, eds Irmgard Kirchner and Gerhard Pfeisinger (Vienna, 1996) pp. 110–117.

[12] ‘Vor Jahren war ich voll Sehnsucht nach japanischen Edelrittertum, nach japanischer Kunst und Schönheit, nach zierlichen Geishas […]‘ – Schalek, Japan, p. 41.

[13] Inga Ganzer, Hermann Muthesius und Japan: Die Rezeption und Verarbeitung japanischer Vorbilder in der deutschen Raumkunst nach 1900 (Petersberg, 2016). See Bruno Taut, People and Houses of Japan (Tokyo, 1937).

[14] ‘Kommt doch der Japaner als Maler auf die Welt und seine Phantasie entwirft bei der leisesten Andeutung Bild um Bild. In dem, was nicht wirklich gesagt, nicht wirklich getan wird, liegt für ihn die Poesie.‘ – Schalek, Japan, p. 120.

[15] ‘[D]ie getreue Nachahmung irgendeiner europäischen Sezession‘ – Schalek, Japan, p. 212.

[16] For the Japanese tradition see Wolfgang Kemp, Von Gestalt gesteigert zu Gestalt: Hokusais 100 Ansichten des Fuji (Berlin, 2006).

[17] ‘Man kann es wohl in künstlerisch idealer Ausführung in allen Läden kaufen, aber keine Freude geht über die, es selbst aufzunehmen.‘ – Schalek, Japan, pp. 296–297.

[18] ‘Was da an angelesener Phraseologie herauskommt, erinnert mich an die Sozialpolitik unserer Weltverbesserer vor dem Kriege, als noch niemand ermessen konnte, welche Fülle von Folgerungen die Worte Revolution, Sozialisierung, Demokratie und Kommunismus umfassen. […] Auch wir haben vor fünfzehn Jahren an Ideale geglaubt, auch wir haben in der Zeit unserer politisch-literarischen Vorkriegssalons Sozialpolitiker als Aufputz eingeladen und, während ich mich jetzt, bei diesem Tee, um fünfzehn Jahre zurückversetzt fühle, denke ich darüber nach, ob auch diese ‚Gruppe‘ in so kurzer Zeit wie wir die Politik satt bekommen […] wird.‘ – Schalek, Japan, pp. 188–189.

[19] Christian Lewarth, ’An Austrian Photojournalist in Korea, 1911 and 1923: Alice Schalek,’ in Central Europeans in Korea, pp. 183–205.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/M76X3

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