Artwork of the Month, July 2021: Logo of the Salzburg Festival by Poldi Wojtek (1928)

One of Austria’s most established cultural highlights each summer is the Salzburg Festival of music and drama. Taking place annually since 1920, the festival was the brainchild of the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929) and the director Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), who sought to give a new lease of life to Austrian culture after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. In his ground-breaking analysis of the festival’s early days, the historian Michael P. Steinberg has shown that Hoffmannsthal conceived of the event as an affirmation of a new Austrian identity, which aimed to merge a cosmopolitan outlook with a deep Catholicism and sense of greater German identity.[1] This sense of ‘national cosmopolitanism’ as a new Austrian culture was also anchored in the turn away from the old imperial capital Vienna – located Austrian identity instead in Salzburg, a former independent prince-archbishopric and Baroque city in the Austrian alps. The festival thus manifested a different kind of modernity in Austrian interwar culture – one that embraced conservatism and nationalism as a significant part of its post-imperial identity.

Poldi Wojtek, Logo of the Salzburg Festival

Poldi Wojtek: Salzburger Festspiele 1928, poster, Archive of the Salzburg Festival © Archive of the Salzburg Festival

When the festival celebrated its centenary last year (cut short by the pandemic), debates about the reactionary side of the event found new heights. Following an initiative by the artist Konstanze Sailer, whose virtual project Memory Gaps remembers forgotten artists murdered by the National Socialist (NS) regime and calls out the NS-past of others, discussions focused on the festival’s main visual identity: its logo, designed by Leopoldine (Poldi) Wojtek (1903–1978) in 1928. As Poldi Wojtek became an ardent National Socialist in the succeeding years, a historical commission, headed by eminent Austrian historian Oliver Rathkolb and the design historian Anita Kern, was set up to consider whether it was still appropriate to use the logo, concluding:

The poster for the Salzburg Festival is a graphic product typical of its time and was probably created under the influence of the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, where Wojtek had completed her studies two years previously. The emblem was not used between 1938 and 1945, as it did not fit with the aesthetic of the Third Reich and was too closely linked to the Max Reinhardt era.[2]

Thus, based on the fact that the artistic origins of the design were rooted in the artist’s education at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule), an institution tied to progressive art movements such as Viennese Kinetism in the interwar period, the commission distinguished between the logo and the artist’s later political convictions.

Book cover designed by Poldi Mühlmann, née Wojtek

Karl Springenschmied and Poldi Wojtek (Mühlmann), Eine wahre Geschichte: Worte und Bilder von zwei Deutschen aus dem Auslande (Stuttgart, 1937)

Moreover, it found that Wojtek’s work completed during the years of national socialism, including illustrations for the anonymously published children’s book A True Story: Words and images from two Germans in a foreign country (1937) and a gobelin design with a swastika, had departed from her modernist mode of working from earlier years.[3] Locating the logo in a different period, which could be distinguished on the basis of a stylistic rupture, the report concluded that the logo could continue to be used, and promised that the artist’s ‘uncomfortable past’ would be addressed. This essay is prompted by the start of the 2021 Festival and focuses on Wojtek’s design, revisiting some of the points raised in the report of the historical commission. Yet where the latter drew a line between Wojtek’s earlier commitment to modernism and her subsequent turn to reactionary politics, this essay argues that these two aspects were more entwined than is often acknowledged, a comment one could make of interwar Austria more generally.

Branding the Salzburg festival: a modern visual identity

In 1928, the Commission of the Salzburg festival opened a competition to find a new poster design to advertise it. Wojtek’s entry was part of a group of late submissions by former students of Vienna’s School of Applied Arts encouraged to take part by the commission. Her design was ranked second after a (now lost) work by Hanns Erich Köhler (1905–1983), but through personal intervention by the head of the Festival’s marketing bureau and, later, Wojtek’s husband, Kajetan Mühlmann (1898–1958), her entry emerged as the winning design.[4] The poster in question was a simple graphic composition, which combines key elements of the festival’s identity: on the top left, a red and white flag represents the colours of the federal state of Salzburg. The Flag also functions as a stage curtain, behind which a classical theatre mask emerges. Finally, at the front of the picture Salzburg’s historical landmark, the Fortress Hohensalzburg, anchors the poster geographically in the town and its long history.

Anita Kern pointed out in her report on Poldi Wojtek and the design that the transformation of the poster into a logo was an unusual practice, but that its simple design lent itself to easy adjustment to forge a coherent visual identity for the festival.[5] By the late 1920s, the festival had gained growing international publicity. In 1926, the conductor Peter Bechert noted in an extended review of the event for the Musical Times, for example, that ‘what began modestly under the name of the Salzburg Festival five years ago […] has since developed into a big and apparently firmly established summer institution.’[6]  As part of this international attention, it also became increasingly important to give the festival a recognisable ‘brand’, which could also stand in for a ‘new’ Austrian identity overall as modern, yet that was also rooted in tradition. [7]

Wojtek’s design encompassed these aspects and provided a layout that could easily be adapted for wider use, offering a sense of coherence that the Festival has drawn on up to the present: in 2013 the Innsbruck design company Circus remodelled the poster so that the white lines intersecting the golden background at the top, initially used as a text line, came to represent staves in reference to music as another significant aspect of the Festival.[8] Such easy adjustments, enabled by a pared-down visual language, enabled a smooth transition from a poster to a logo when Wojtek’s work was announced as the winning design: as the original gold background was too expensive for printing, for example, it was replaced by a matte ochre, while the shading and text from the original were reduced to emphasise the design’s main elements. As the other entries to the poster competition have been lost, it is impossible to compare them. When asked about her competitors in an interview in 1978, Wojtek said that the other entries were ‘overly Salzburgian motifs. Mine was not so Alpine, it was […] the most austere and therefore also the most effective and as a motif it was quite neutral.’[9] Aside from the artist’s personal connections to the selection committee, which seems to have had some influence on her success, Wojtek’s comment indicates that the Festival’s marketing bureau also chose her entry because it paid equal attention to modern design as to Salzburg’s historical roots.

Modernism, opportunism, artistic networks

A key figure in this respect was her future husband Kajetan Mühlmann. An art historian, he became the head of the Festival’s marketing bureau in 1927. Today, he is mainly known for the crimes he committed under National Socialism: as an SS-officer, he was involved in the looting of art in Poland and the Netherlands, including the Mannheimer collection, which was to become part of Adolf Hitler’s Führermuseum in the Upper Austrian town Linz.[10] When exactly he became a party member is uncertain. Indeed, Oliver Rathkolb notes that when Mühlmann gained his position for the Salzburg Festival, he was known as a well-connected social democrat.[11] This turn from social democracy to national socialism was, in fact, far from unusual in early 1930s Austria. Especially after the crushing of the February Uprising in 1934, many supporters of the social democratic party became radicalised and turned to the illegal Communist and National Socialist parties. In Wojtek and Mühlmann’s case, the report of the historical commission implies that political opportunism played a significant role in their support for national socialism, though Mühlmann already made contact to the party when it still operated clandestinely in Austria before the country’s annexation to the Third Reich in 1938.

When Mühlmann took up his post as the head of the marketing bureau in 1927, he was a loud defender of a historically rooted modernism – precisely in keeping with the ideals of the Salzburg festival. Together with his brother Josef, also an art historian, Mühlmann had previously encouraged the founding of modern artist associations in Salzburg under the lead of the painters Felix Albrecht Harta (1884–1967) and Anton Faistauer (1887–1930). As early as 1919, they founded the artistic group Der Wassermann (‘Aquarius’). When the group dissolved after Harta’s return to Vienna, Faistauer followed up in 1925 with the Sonderbund Österreichischer Künstler (‘Special Association of Austrian Artists’), an association with the aim of promoting contemporary art in Salzburg, working closely with the Festival organizers.

Given the close collaboration between Kajetan Mühlmann and Wojtek, who was a Sonderbund member from 1925 onwards, the Festival’s marketing bureau made clear efforts to integrate the visual arts into its concept. Aside from supporting the poster competition from which Wojtek’s logo originated, Mühlmann also introduced elaborate guides to the Festival, for example. In the same year that she won the competition, Wojtek was also responsible for the guide’s layout.

Kai (Kajetan) Mühlmann and Poldi Wojtek: Guide to the Salzburg Festival, 1928

Kai (Kajetan) Mühlmann and Poldi Wojtek: Salzburger Festspielführer (Salzburg, 1928)

On the cover, she used a capitalized serif-font type in a simple design, in which thick red lines in an otherwise black-and white layout appear as variations on the Salzburg flag, which also features on the logo. At the centre of the page, a photograph by Bruno Reiffenstein shows the Felsenreitschule.[12] Rather than showing a scene from the play, however, the square on the photograph is empty, framed by a rounded archway. Adding symbolic significance to the location itself by incorporating this photograph, Wojtek applied a similar approach to the guide’s design as for the poster/logo. As the two closely correspond with each other in style, they underline the aim of giving a specific – modern – visual identity to the Festival without resorting to Alpine ‘kitsch.’ Moving beyond Wojtek’s poster/logo design as a single instance in which she supported the branding efforts for the Festival, the guide shows the integrative efforts that arose from a collaboration between Mühlmann and the Sonderbund artists. Indeed, Wojtek already began to contribute various art and design work for the festival in the preceding years as a multi-valent artist and craftswoman. Given the various projects she was involved in, Wojtek represents a model example for a different kind of modernity in Austrian interwar art, one that merged political conservatism with aims for artistic renewal.

Wojtek, the modern designer

Born into a German nationalist family in Brno in 1903, Poldi Wojtek attended a school for girls in Salzburg and, after training at the Professional School of Ceramics in Znojmo/Znaim (1919–1922), in Czechoslovakia, went on to study at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna, which she completed in 1926. Whilst a student there, Wojtek studied the theory of ornamental form with Franz Čižek (1865–1946) and attended architecture classes taught by Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956). At this point in time, the School of Applied Arts had close ties to commercial luxury design with the Viennese workshops and was home to experimental teaching practices and painting through Čižek’s efforts. In both branches, several of the school’s female students, such as Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957), Vally Wieselthier (1895–1945), and Mathilde Flögl (1893–1958) became successful artists and designers and counted among the most progressive representatives of Viennese modernism at the time.[13] While the careers and fate of these women, many of whom were of Jewish origin, seem a world away from that of Wojtek, they not only had the same artistic education, but also developed their careers in parallel.

Kai (Kajetan) Mühlmann, ‘Die Gobelins im Salzburger Festspielhaus‘, Die Bühne 95 (1926), p. 12.

The gobelins of the Salzburg House of Mozart reproduced in Kai (Kajetan) Mühlmann, ‘Die Gobelins im Salzburger Festspielhaus‘, Die Bühne 95 (1926), p. 12 © Austrian National Library, Vienna

Klien, for example, who studied at the school at the same time as Wojtek, was a prominent representative of the short-lived art movement known as Viennese Kinetism. Klien’s related painting A Walk Through the Metropolis (1923) was discussed on this blog by Matthew Rampley. Like Wojtek, Klien moved to Salzburg after graduating, where she taught at the Elizabeth-Duncan-School until emigrating to New York in 1929. Yet while Klien quickly became frustrated with life in Salzburg, complaining, in her letters, about its conservatism, Wojtek’s career flourished in the city. While still a student in Vienna, she joined the Sonderbund, which launched her career as a modern Salzburg artist working within the orbit of the Salzburg Festival.  

Julius Leisching, ‘Salzburg’s derzeitige Kunst,‘ Österreichische Kunst, 1.9 (1930), p. 21

Paintings by Poldi Wojtek in the Salzburg Postal Hall, reproduced in Julius Leisching, ‘Salzburg’s derzeitige Kunst,‘ Österreichische Kunst, 1.9 (1930), p. 21 © Austrian National Library, Vienna

In 1926, for example, Poldi Wojtek was part of a group of artists that executed Faistauer’s monumental fresco for the foyer of the Festival Hall, which had just been remodelled by the architect Clemens Holzmeister (1886–1943). She also contributed plant and flower studies to the gobelin designs for the hall, where she assisted Anton Kolig (1886–1950) and Robin Christian Andersen (1890–1969).[14] Thanks to Mühlmann, Wojtek’s contributions were frequently mentioned in the press even when she only took on a supporting role. In the subsequent years, Wojtek accepted numerous commissions in Salzburg, including several fresco paintings such as the columns for the city’s new postal hall (1930), which have now been lost.[15] Aside from architectural decoration, Wojtek was also an active as a member of the Gewerbeförderungsinstitut (‘Institute for the Promotion of the Industrial Arts’), where she designed exhibition posters and decorative souvenirs in the 1930s.[16]

Poldi Wojtek: Poster fort the collective exhibition of applied arts in Salzburg, 1920s

Poldi Wojtek: Poster for the collective exhibition of applied arts in Salzburg, 1920s © Salzburg Museum, Salzburg

Facets of Austrian modern art and design

The diverse nature of Wojtek’s contributions to art and design illustrates the Salzburg cultural scene, which straddled modernity and tradition: though Wojtek was clearly aware of contemporary developments, referencing, as Kern has pointed out, elements of the New Objectivity and Marie and Otto and Neurath’s Isotype signage system, even her most experimental work, such as the Posthalle frescos and the logo for the festival, only does so in a toned-down manner. Yet rather than seeing this as an augury of her later work under National Socialism, this kind of modernism – ‘moderately modern through and through’, as one reviewer called it at the time – was prevalent among most Salzburg artists at the time.[17] Even Faistauer and the architect Clemens Holzmeister, the most eminent figures associated with modern art and architecture in Salzburg, embraced a conservative form of modernism, whose main aim was to reconnect with tradition and spirituality.[18]

Souvenirs by Poldi Wojtek reproduced in ‘Geschmackvolle Reiseandenken’, Profil. Österreichische Monatsschrift für bildende Kunst 6 (1935), pp.281-283

Souvenirs by Poldi Wojtek reproduced in ‘Geschmackvolle Reiseandenken’, Profil. Österreichische Monatsschrift für bildende Kunst 6 (1935), pp. 281–283 © Austrian National Library, Vienna

As for Wojtek, both her training and her diverse work from the 1920s resemble that of many other female designers who trained at the School of Applied Arts, even though her politics distinguish her from more progressive women artists, such as Erika Giovanna Klien, who are usually the focus of research.[19] Simultaneously a modern artist who trained alongside some of Austria’s most progressive cultural figures at the time and a reactionary figure who, after 1938, capitalised on the persecution of former colleagues, Wojtek and her work highlight some of the contradictions of modern Austrian art and design between the wars.[20] In relation to the circumstances under which the logo of the Salzburg Festival was created and selected, Wojtek’s diverse artistic engagements and her wide networks in interwar Salzburg emphasise once more that the relationship between modernist-progressive and conservative-reactionary factions in interwar Austria was rather more complicated than one might like to admit. There is no doubt that the logo represents the most important aspect of the Festival’s visual identity. Not only that: tied to Wojtek’s design for the Festival guide, it was part of an effort to construct a distinct image of the Festival in line with modern advertising strategies. Rather fittingly, the logo and its continued use also stand for the conflicted histories of Austrian modern art and design and the complex narratives behind them. Beyond asking whether the logo should still be in use today, therefore, it raises the question what further blind spots and misconceptions of Austrian interwar art ought to be addressed in order to forge a more nuanced picture.

Julia Secklehner

Following the report of the historical commission on the logo, a discussion based on its findings will take place as part of the programme of the Salzburg festival this year: ‘Art & Ethos,’ 12 August 2021, Great Hall, University of Salzburg

Poldi Wojtek on the  website of the Memory Gaps project:

[1] Michael P. Steinberg, Austria as Theater and Ideology: The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival (Ithaca and London, 1990).

[2] Oliver Rathkolb, Anita Kern and Margarethe Lasinger, The Salzburg Festival’s logo and its designer Poldi Wojtek (Salzburg, 2020), p. 114.

[3] [Karl Springenschmid], Eine wahre Geschichte: Worte und Bilder von zwei Deutschen aus dem Auslande (Stuttgart, 1937).

[4] Rathkolb et al, The Salzburg Festival’s Logo, pp. 12–13.

[5] Rathkolb et al, The Salzburg Festival’s Logo, p. 114. See also Anita Kern, Österreichisches Grafikdesign im 20. Jahrhundert (Salzburg, 2008).

[6] Peter Bechert, ‘The Salzburg Festival,’ The Musical Times 67.1004 (1926), p. 941.

[7] On nation branding in Austria see Oliver Kühschelm, ‘Promoting the Nation in Austria and Switzerland: A pre-history of Nation Branding,’ in Branding the Nation, the Place, the Product, eds. Ulrich Ermann und Klaus-Jürgen Hermanik (New York, 2018) pp. 143–160. Steinberg, Austria as Theater and Ideology.

[8] Rathkolb et al, The Salzburg Festival’s Logo, p. 38.

[9] Interview with Wojtek, Informationen, Issue 11 (May 1978), p. 21. Quoted in Rathkolb et al, The Salzburg Festival’s Logo, p. 115.

[10] Jonathan Petropoulos, ‘Art Historians and Nazi Plunder,’ New England Review 21.1 (2000), pp. 5–30.

[11] Rathkolb et al, The Salzburg Festival’s Logo, p. 19.

[12] Thanks go to Victoria Morino of the Salzburger Festspiel Archiv, who helped to correctly identify this view.

[13] Die Frauen der Wiener Werkstätte / Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, eds. Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Anne-Katrin Rossberg and Elisabeth Schmuttermeier (Basel, 2020).

[14] Kai Mühlmann, ‘Die Gobelins im Salzburger Festspielhaus,‘ Die Bühne 95 (1926), p. 12.

[15] Julius Leisching, ‘Salzburg’s derzeitige Kunst,‘ Österreichische Kunst 9 (1930), p. 21.

[16] ‘Geschmackvolle Reiseandenken,’ Profil. Österreichische Monatsschrift für bildende Kunst 6 (1935), pp. 281-283.

[17] -ei-, ‘Ein neuer deutschösterreichischer Künstlerbund‘, Neue Freie Presse, 15 September 1919, p. 2.

[18] Anton Faistauer, Neue Malerei in Österreich: Betrachtungen eines Malers (Vienna, 1923).

[19] Die Frauen der Wiener Werkstätte, eds. Thun-Hohenstein et al.

[20] Wojtek took over the studio of the Jewish artist Helene von Taussig (1879–1942), who was murdered in the Izbica Ghetto in 1942.


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