Artwork of the Month, November 2021: Portrait of Ilse by Rudolf Wacker (1926)

Rudolf Wacker (1893–1939) is considered one of the most intriguing painters in Austria during the interwar period. Based in Bregenz in Vorarlberg, the westernmost province of Austria, he strongly oriented himself to the German art world. In his landscapes, portraits and still lifes, he analysed his close surroundings and the local reality in Austria utilizing a razor-sharp realism. As a prisoner of war in Siberia from 1915 to 1920, however, he also experienced ‘exotic’ worlds, which influenced his paintings throughout his whole career, not least in the form of memorabilia and souvenirs. The portrait of his wife Ilse (1926) reveals an important example of this phenomenon in the 1920s.

Rudolf Wacker: Portrait of Ilse, 1926

Rudolf Wacker: Portrait of Ilse, 1926, vorarlberg museum, Bregenz – photo © vorarlberg museum/Austria, Markus Tretter

Wacker depicted his wife next to a large art print showing a Chinese woman in traditional dress. If and how both are linked to each other is not obvious. This invokes concepts such as ‘exoticism’ or ‘primitivism’, debated terms used to describe the influence of other, mostly non-European cultures, which widely impacted on modernist art since the turn of the century.[1] This and the many other objects in this carefully composed portrait also pose a riddle at first. How he employed them to problematise our perception of the image will be examined more closely here.

Rudolf Wacker

Wacker was born in Bregenz in 1893. He took drawing lessons at an early age at his local school. When the Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926) became a professor at the art academy in Weimar in 1911, Wacker followed him and studied with him until 1914. However, he soon distanced himself from his teacher, whom he accused of a basic opposition to modern art. In 1913, Wacker began to write a diary in which he critically commented on his experiences as an artist.[2] Soon after the beginning of the First World War, he enlisted for military service. In 1915 he fell into Russian captivity in Poland and spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Tomsk in Siberia – a formative time for him. As a graduate of an art academy, he ended up in a rather comfortable officers’ camp, but only found his way back to his art after some time of struggle. The landscapes, the alien feel of the region and the lively exchange with other prisoners and local Russian officials helped him pick up his artistic production.[3] After returning from captivity, he lived alternately in Bregenz and Berlin from 1921 to 1924. He was very much aware of current discussions in the German art scene, debates that revolved around the search for a new style of art. Around 1923, having been painting in a broadly Expressionist vein, Wacker began working in an idiom closer to that of German New Objectivity, of which Wacker is regarded as the main representative in Austria. New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) was a neologism created by the museum director Gustav F. Hartlaub (1884–1963), who used it in response to realist trends in German art after 1918 and presented them in a major exhibition in Mannheim in 1925. Wacker’s portrait of his wife Ilse, painted in September or October 1926, is a typical example of this style. In this work the artist also tested his new painting technique – tempera underpainting with thin layers of resin oil paint applied on top – and developed it further. The turn to old-master methods was also quite common in New Objectivity. Wacker’s attempts to establish himself as an artist in Austria were largely unsuccessful. He had to keep his head above water as a drawing teacher and by selling flower still lifes and landscapes. In the meantime, he studied Marxism again and again, and professed his support for the peace movement. With the rise of National Socialism, his political pronouncements became increasingly critical.[4] Wacker later openly criticised the Degenerate Art exhibition staged by the Nazi regime in Munich in 1937. He gained success as an exhibitor in the Austrian pavilion at the 1934 Venice Biennale, but this did not lead to a professorship in at the Art Academy in Vienna, as he had hoped. That honour was awarded instead to the painter Herbert Boeckl (1894–1966). After the Anschluss in 1938, events came to a head. Following a house search and interrogation by the Gestapo, Wacker suffered two heart attacks and died shortly afterwards in 1939.

The portrait

Wacker met his future wife Ilse Moebius in the early 1920s in Berlin, where she worked in the applied arts. They married in 1922 and she often sat for him as a model. The portrait shows her sitting indoors at a table with her arms folded. Her gaze seems worried, as if she was not entirely comfortable with the portrait situation, or as if she felt generally ill at ease. Objects are arranged around her in a circle – until the view is drawn to the left to a picturesque view onto Lake Constance. There, the image tilts and makes the view feel ambiguous and slightly uncomfortable. Wacker leaves it open whether it is a window or a painting, a mere depiction of the lake. Despite the disruption, the objects around Ilse appear in a sharply realistic manner: in addition to the prominent Chinese print, Wacker placed two peaches in front of her, then a columbine to her left and anti-wrinkle cream from the Frankfurt company Mouson to her right. Another addition is a reference to the art world. On the table in front of her lies Wilhelm Hausenstein’s (1882–1957) new book on the German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940), titled Kairuan, which appeared in 1921.[5] Hausenstein was a prolific art critic of the time, and his books were popular, attracting wider audiences. Additionally, a fuchsia can be seen on Ilse’s striped blouse, placed exactly between her breasts. This puzzling arrangement, as well as the oblique view of the landscape tilting backwards, initially confuse the viewer. Here, Wacker depicts things of everyday life with the utmost sharpness, but they nevertheless hold a greater significance. With the contrast between the flowers and the manufactured objects, some scholars suggested that the combination of things formulates a peculiar ladder from nature to culture, and nothing short of a feast for advanced hermeneutics – a call to the observer to decipher the work.[6]

The large print to the right with the Chinese woman shows one of the main Russian memorabilia that Wacker brought back from Siberia.[7] Mitrofan Poljakov (1885–1925), a Russian artist from Tomsk with whom he had a lively exchange about art, gave the artwork to him. It demonstrates the interest in Chinese culture in Eastern Russia. Wacker describes the print twice in his diary, as a Chinese girl with an umbrella box, and in 1926, describing the painting as a whole, he mentions the background with the image of a Chinese girl.[8] Wacker depicted this important souvenir as early as 1925 in Still Life with Oil Can and Picture of a Chinese Woman, where it appears prominently in the middle of the painting. There we also get a better impression of the colourfulness and the details, such as the Chinese dragon in the background. Next to playing cards, a wine bottle, a paraffin lamp and plants, it seems just as hermetic as in the portrait of his wife Ilse.

Rudolf Wacker: Still Life with Oil Can and Picture of a Chinese Woman, 1926

Rudolf Wacker: Still Life with Oil Can and Picture of a Chinese Woman, 1926, Oesterreichische Nationalbank, Vienna – photo © Collection Oesterreichische Nationalbank

Many artists in the twentieth century regarded everyday objects around them as something more significant than mere things. The furnishings and objects of a studio or flat outline their artistic worldview. The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) is an extreme example on how the jars and mugs around him shape his still lifes. As a prisoner of war, Wacker brought impressions from abroad with him, which stimulated him artistically and later led to the depiction of ‘exotic’ masks and puppets from Africa and Asia, but also from folk traditions at home and commercial products like toys. After the initial despair caused by the horrors of war, he slowly absorbed his surroundings in the POW camp in Tomsk through drawings of fellow prisoners, locals, self-portraits, erotic scenes and of the camp and the nearby landscape.

Rudolf Wacker: Self-Portrait in Uniform, Smoking, 1917

Rudolf Wacker: Self-Portrait in Uniform, Smoking, 1917, vorarlberg museum, Bregenz – photo © vorarlberg museum/Austria

This not only helped his mental well-being – the Self-Portrait in Uniform, Smoking (1917) shows him as a confident artist again – it also encouraged a lively camp economy. Soon there were exchanges with other artists in the camp, many of whom came from the Austrian-Hungarian army, as well as with local Russian art enthusiasts, who supplied him with books and art prints and sometimes purchased works.[9] This even led to small art exhibitions in the POW camp and the city of Tomsk. This degree of freedom was quite common for officers’ camps in the First World War. Wacker’s drawings of this period deal with the Russian countryside and the people in Siberia, but not necessarily with Chinese culture. Yet, the print of the Chinese woman represents his manifold exchange with Russian officials that kept him alive as an artist and for which he remained grateful throughout his life. Six years later, in his home environment, he incorporated it prominently in the portrait of his wife.


The significance of the Chinese woman could, of course, be extended. Not necessarily meant as a complementary figure to his ‘prosaic’ wife, Wacker seemingly wanted to display his thoughts about the integration of such objects in ordinary life. Hence, by their shape, he relates the two peaches to Ilse, for they are possibly alluding to her breasts, which are also emphasised by the fuchsia. The peaches could overall appear as a symbol of fertility. Here, the ‘naturalness’ of the woman is presumably alluded to, as well as her sexuality, and that maybe explains Ilse’s puzzled facial expression. Wacker articulates a strong, warm erotic curiosity towards his wife in his diaries. Yet, the moisturiser next to his wife might ironically point towards what aids were used to maintain beauty. This way, controversially, Wacker maybe contrasts his wife with the Chinese woman in the print, whose posture, clothing and ‘colouring’ present her as an artistic (and artificial) figure. Hence, he highlights differences in the perception of art pieces and real persons, who eventually, in the case of his wife, become art themselves. This not only alludes to separate forms of cultural appropriation, as the two women are of different ethnicities, but also to the manufactured nature of their appearance.

Questions of exoticism

This divisive comparison points towards a more reflective exoticism that can be further interpreted in light of the book by Wilhelm Hausenstein. He was a well-known art critic at the time, who endeavoured to popularize modern art in many publications. The book Kairuan appeared in 1921 and alludes to Paul Klee’s trip to Tunisia in 1914, during which the artist developed his original style, mostly utilizing simple, planar yet colourful shapes. Klee, who became a Bauhaus teacher in the 1920s, was a product of the Munich scene and the ‘Blue Rider’ Expressionist group. Children’s art influenced him a great deal, as he tried to find a new, unencumbered pictorial language. Inspirations of primitivism, exoticism, children’s art and modernism are prototypically united in his oeuvre, without making it about simple realistic depictions. By integrating Hausenstein’s book into the picture, Wacker constructs a context that can be related to his experiences in eastern Russia and as an artist – as formative years, where he found his style despite the horrors of war.

Wilhelm Hausenstein: Kairuan oder Eine Geschichte vom Maler Klee und von der Kunst dieses Zeitalters (Munich, 1921)

If one follows Wilhelm Hausenstein a little further, one could speak of a renewed enthusiasm for the ‘exotic’ in the interwar period. One year before Kairuan, in 1920, Hausenstein’s book Exoten (The Exotic Ones) was published, and one year after the Klee book, in 1922, Barbaren und Klassiker: Ein Buch von der Bildnerei Exotischer Völker (Barbarians and Classics: A book about the image-making of exotic people) appeared. It is the repeated attempt to orientate non-European art to the concepts of Western art. During his time in Berlin, Wacker was close to the circle of Expressionists around Erich Heckel (1883–1970), a founding member of the Brücke art group, and he often visited the Ethnological Museum (Völkerkundemuseum) in Berlin. Travel mostly continued during and after the Great War, which conserved the problematic exchange of artistic goods all around the world. Depicting prints and other objects from Asia in still lifes and portraits had been a popular activity since the late nineteenth century. These could be souvenirs of prestigious journeys, but also symbols of new stylistic influences artists embraced, as it was the case with Japonisme. Art from Japan became available more commonly after the opening of the country in 1853 and the simple, flat style influenced countless artists in Western and Central Europe.[10] This was for example prominent in the work of Emil Orlik (1870–1932), a painter from Bohemia, who travelled extensively to Japan, East Asia, Russia and Egypt. He emulated the style of Japanese prints and also integrated objects of Japanese culture into his naturalistic paintings. In the interwar period, artists tried to integrate ‘exotic’ items into the new realistic tendencies, often in contrast to objects of everyday life. In Wacker’s case, a kind of aesthetic emerges that inaugurates a reflected relation to the things around him. He stated in his diary:

I want to paint people (as well as all things!) in such a way that they appear ‘tangible’ to the viewer of the painting, that they literally frighten him with their reality. We want to unveil things, their naked reality is mysterious enough. And: preserving the vision of the moment, making a strict and firm painting that does not tempt to dream and leaves no gap for the imagination![11]

Wacker was fascinated with supposedly banal everyday objects; he described himself as an ‘advocate of unnoticed humble things’ or a ‘portraitist of objects’. This view was very common in New Objectivity, because artists modelled themselves after reporters or journalists and wanted to depict life factually – as explored before on our blog. In reality, this remained highly ambivalent, as everyday things could easily take on a different meaning or for instance hold a certain personal value. Wacker’s experiences in Tomsk and how he developed there as an artist – as for Paul Klee in Tunisia – remained an emotional matter for a long time. After the war, he married his wife Ilse and his life slowly returned to normal. At first glance, the portrait seems to highlight this ‘natural’ relationship and their private bliss. Yet, the depiction of the Chinese Woman is one of many things that alter the supposedly idyllic scene. Even though Wacker does not focus directly on ‘exotic’ culture, the art print, like the tilted landscape view of Lake Constance on the other side, refers to the artificiality of the scene. The atmosphere of the whole arrangement suggests that despite the sharp realism something different can lurk beneath the surface. Cultural differences belong to a reality that we can only perceive in a mediated way – through other objects and images of them.

Christian Drobe

[1] Frances S. Connelly, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics 1725–1907 (University Park, PA, 1995); Colin Rhodes, Primitivism and Modern Art (London, 1997).

[2] Rudolf Wacker, Tagebücher 1913–1939 (Vaduz, 1990).

[3] Wacker im Krieg: Erfahrungen eines Künstlers, eds Andreas Rudigier and Jürgen Thaler (Salzburg, 2018).

[4] Elio Krivdić, ‘Künstlerschicksale: Artur Nikodem, Rudolf Wacker, Johannes Troyer, Alfons Walde und Leo Putz: Fünf Ausnahmesituationen,’ in Zwischen Ideologie, Anpassung und Verfolgung: Kunst und Nationalsozialismus in Tirol, ed. Wolfgang Meighörner (Innsbruck, 2018), pp. 296–308.

[5] Wilhelm Hausenstein, Kairuan oder Eine Geschichte vom Maler Klee und von der Kunst dieses Zeitalters (Munich, 1921).

[6] Tendenzen der Zwanziger Jahre, ed. Stephan Waetzoldt, ed.,  (Berlin, 1977), p. 263.

[7] Wacker im Krieg, p. 28.

[8] Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 1, p. 293 and Vol. 2, p. 494.

[9] Na Sibiř! Německočeští výtvarní umělci v první světové válce na východní frontě a v sibiřském zajetí/Nach Sibirien! Deutschböhmische bildende Künstler im Ersten Weltkrieg: an der Ostfront und in sibirischer Gefangenschaft, ed. Anna Habánová (Prague, 2015).

[10] Peter Pantzer, Hidden Impressions: Japonisme in Vienna 1870–1930 (Vienna 1990); Japonisme in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, eds Mirjam Dénes, Györgyi Fajcsák, Piotr Spławski, and Toshio Watanabe (Budapest, 2020).

[11] ‘Ich möchte Menschen (wie schließlich ebenso alle Dinge!) so malen, dass sie für den Betrachter des Bildes “wie greifbar“ vor ihm stehen, dass sie ihn förmlich erschrecken durch ihre Wirklichkeit. Wir wollen die Dinge entschleiern, ihre nackte Realität ist geheimnisvoll genug. Und: die Vision des Augenblicks bewahrend, eine strenge und feste Malerei machen, die nicht zum Träumen reizt und der Phantasie keine Lücke lässt!‘ Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 2, 15 February 1926.


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One thought on “Artwork of the Month, November 2021: Portrait of Ilse by Rudolf Wacker (1926)

  1. The Soul of Art says:

    The objects featured in Wacker’s work suggest something hermetic, a hidden message that the viewer must decipher. But what is the message in the portrait of his wife?

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