Artwork of the Month, May 2023: Photomontage at the Paris World’s Fair by Robert Haas (1937)

Es ‘steht ein kleiner Pavillon, und welches Wunder, er ist fertig schon[1] – ‘There stands a little pavilion, and what a wonder, it’s already done’ – sang the cabaret artist Hermann Leopoldi on the occasion of the opening of the Austrian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in June 1937. He had thus taken his share in the ‘image construction’[2] of the Austrofascist regime, by hailing one of its landmarks. While civil war was shaking Spain, Stalinist terror was raging in the Soviet Union, and fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had suppressed almost all resistance, Austria appeared consolidated and peaceful. The uprising of the Social Democrats in February 1934 had been crushed, all parties since been banned, the rule of law been eliminated. Nevertheless, communists and socialists continued to resist, and illegal, yet tolerated Nazis successfully undermined the state. The Austrian ‘Ständestaat,’ the Corporate State, as it called itself, was unable to completely control cultural activity; while censorship and repression were nevertheless present, best described in Robert Musil’s words as an ‘evil spiritlessness.’[3] But even if a subliminal counter-reformation, with its emphasis on the Baroque and the sacred, was the state’s cultural leitmotif, a moderate modernism remained possible. The hesitant toleration of it, combined with a recourse to the imperial past, furthered the contradiction between defining Austria on its terms and seeing it as the better Germany, characterised the ambivalence of Austrofascist cultural politics.[4]

Robert Haas: Panorama in the Austrian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, 1937, model made for the exhibition of Robert Haas's typographic work in the Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, 1983

Robert Haas: Panorama in the Austrian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, 1937, model made for Haas’s retrospective at the Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, 1983 – photo: © Robert Haas; Wien Museum


The building designed by Oswald Haerdtl (1899–1959) for the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 illustrated this balancing act: here, post-republican, anti-liberal Austria presented itself with a distinctly modernist structure. Probably the most ingenious presentation in the edifice was an oversized montage of an Alpine landscape: fictitious, although composed of real elements. Like Leopoldi, the photographer Robert Haas (1898–1997) had thus created an icon of the authoritarian system by using a contemporary medium while simultaneously conveying the retrograde ideology of the Ständestaat. Neither the pavilion nor the photomontage have survived. However, in 1983, Haas had a model of the panorama made for an exhibition on his typographic work in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna[5] with an approximate scale of 1:8.

The spectacular installation marked the end of a series of Austrian exhibitions abroad that were intended to specify the small state’s trademark. As late as 1929, democratic Austria could not bring itself to erect a pavilion of its own for the Expo in Barcelona and had merely rented some space. The uninspired juxtaposition of the objects on display showed that there was no idea as to how the young – and unwanted – state might present itself.[6]

By the mid-1930s the political situation had deteriorated: After the turn to authoritarian rule in 1933, the image of the Alpine state was sullied, and the country was internationally isolated. Yet despite the support of fascist Italy and authoritarian Hungary, the regime sought further allies in its struggle with Nazi Germany. The Austria in London exhibition, held in Dorland Hall in the spring of 1934, provided an opportunity to bring Great Britain closer to the ‘new Austria’ and to make the latter palatable to well-heeled British tourists. In May 1933 Nazi Germany imposed the ‘Tausend-Mark-Sperre’ (Thousand Mark Ban), an economic sanction whereby Germans travelling to Austria had to pay their government 1000 Marks. This had led to a considerable drop in the number of German tourists and a drastic loss of income to the Austrian budget. Consequently, a new target audience was sought out.

Ferdinand Kitt: Schützenfest in Tirol

Ferdinand Kitt: Schützenfest in Tirol, 1934, reproduced in Die Bühne, No. 376 (1935), p. 24.

In many respects, the London exhibition, designed by Clemens Holzmeister, resembled a sales fair, meandering between frumpish images of ‘old Vienna’ and rural idylls. The information carriers were not as much modern media as classical landscape paintings. Yet there still was a recognisable concept. Tourist attractions were propagated through a map ‘which by a mechanical device brings into optical relief in turn the principal cities, spas and resorts, and cable and mountain railways’[7] or through slide shows with titles such as Alpine Flying or Motoring through Austria.

Erich von Wunschheim: Österreich (Austro-Daimler Schienenautobus VT36), poster, 1935 Österreichische Verkehrswerbung

Erich von Wunschheim: Österreich (Austro-Daimler
Schienenautobus VT36), poster, 1935
Österreichische Verkehrswerbung, private collection

Only slowly had the Alps emerged as a metaphor for Austria. For a long time, they were considered a topographical barrier, associated with hard work. In Austrofascist imagery, the mountain landscape became positively, and above all ideologically overloaded. For the Austrians, ‘the law of the landscape’[8] applied. In other words Austrian nation-building, identity in Austrofascist nomenclature, was to rely less on history and more on natural resources, on honouring the scenery of the country, and the customs related to it. For that, the Alps thereby produced new motifs: mountain roads, hotel buildings, cable cars or hydroelectric power stations. ‘Heimat was something simple and traditional, yet, in the sense of its professional touristic marketing, something modern, too.’[9]

The principle of this Alpine modernism came into full effect with the Brussels World’s Fair in 1935. Although there were initial attempts to present Austria as a baroque Disneyland or a rustic theme park, the call for tenders for the pavilion design already indicated a different direction. Finally, Oswald Haerdtl’s design was selected from 170 submissions. Photos reminiscent of a montage, a relief map with the sights and a representation of the recently completed road to the country’s highest mountain, the Großglockner, were presented in the pavilion. Illusionist techniques provided exhibition visitors with an impression of the monumental panorama road, moving cars were projected onto a large-format painting of the Glocknerstraße, beneath which ran a slide show on several adjacent screens with the most beautiful views.[10] Even if the pavilion was declared to be one of ‘the most beautiful at the world exhibition,’[11] criticism also referred to the problems of the concept: ‘One drowns in photographs that almost only have the effect of a wallpaper, the cultural side is pushed into the background by the advertising techniques of the “tourist industry” and is treated only as a staffage.’[12]

Oswald Haerdtl, Draft for the Austrian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair”, 1937

Oswald Haerdtl: Sketch for the Austrian
pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, 1937, Architekturzentrum Wien, Nachlass
Oswald Haerdtl, WV 127 – photo © Architekturzentrum Wien

Financing gaps, the limited time available, and the late handover were also criticised. As a result, the submission to the Paris Exhibition in 1937 was prepared more professionally. Again, the jury chose Haerdtl’s concept. His design eluded the monumentalist-classical design language of the pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and stood with the pavilions of Finland, Czechoslovakia and republican Spain on the restrained, ‘democratic’ side.

Julius Scherb: View into the Austrian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, 1937

Julius Scherb: View into the Austrian pavilion at the Paris
World’s Fair, 1937, Wien Museum – photo: Wien Museum; © Julius Scherb

Placed on a pedestal with a huge glass wall consisting of 15 panels, the eye was drawn to the photomontage by Haas. The interior of the building, with the textiles on the sides of the glass wall, designed as curtains, simulated the view from a living room and thus took away the functionalist-cool distance from the pavilion, lending it a cosiness, even a provincial quality.

Julius Scherb: View from the Austrian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, 1937, Wien Museum

Julius Scherb: View from the Austrian pavilion at the Paris
World’s Fair, 1937, Wien Museum – photo: Wien Museum; © Julius Scherb

One entered the pavilion through a hall in honour of outstanding Austrians in art, literature and technology. A staircase led to another hall, where Austrian products were presented in front of the Alpine panorama: a Kaplan turbine, models of electric locomotives and Danube ships, a Steyr motorcycle.[13] Switzerland already had installed a similar mountain panorama in Liège in 1930 and in Brussels in 1935. Only the dimension and the seamless merging of several subjects into one composition was new here. From a technical point of view, it went beyond conventional standards. Just over 8 metres in height and 30 metres long, it was the largest photomontage that had ever been completed.[14]

View of the pavilion from outside by Julius Scherb

Julius Scherb: External view of the Austrian pavilion at the Paris
World’s Fair, 1937, Wien Museum – photo: Wien Museum; © Julius Scherb

At the time he was hired, Haas was already a successful photographer, working for the Sunday supplement of the daily newspaper Der Tag, an important platform for innovative photojournalism in the 1930s. Born in Vienna in April 1898, he had fought in World War I, completed his studies in electrical engineering in 1922 and then had turned to typography. Together with the painter Carry Hauser (1895–1985) he founded the Atelier Officina Vindobonensis, which sought to revive traditional techniques of printing in book and poster design, bookplates, and stationery.

Trude Fleischmann: Robert Haas, 1930s

Trude Fleischmann: Robert Haas, 1930s, Photoinstitut bonartes

Between 1930 and 1932, Haas learned photography in the renowned studio of Trude Fleischmann (1895–1990) in Vienna. In 1936 and 1937 he was the official photographer of the Salzburg Festival, with his approach giving it a cosmopolitan touch.[15]

Robert Haas: Car in Front of the Hotel de l’Europe, Salzburg, 1936

Robert Haas: Car in Front of the Hotel de l’Europe, Salzburg, 1936, Wien Museum – photo: © Robert Haas, Wien Museum

However, for the montage, Haas did not use his own photographs; rather, he used those of the Österreichische Lichtbildstelle (Austrian Photographic Agency). Divided into three parts, each one was dedicated to a mountain road built in the 1930s: in the centre the Großglockner High Alpine Road, on the left the road over the Pack Pass between Styria and Carinthia, and on the right the road through the Gesäuse Valley. There is no indication as to why these were chosen, since with its job creation program, the Ständestaat had initiated several other projects. Some of these – such as the Höhenstraße in Vienna – were even more prestigious than the two shown on the side, but also politically charged and therefore possibly more prone to conflict.[16] On the other hand, the Großglockner Road was a real show-piece: Its vision had become firmly anchored in the mental imagery of the crisis-torn land, compensating for lost riches, standing for the modernisation of Austria.

Logo of the Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße

Logo of the Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße – Großglockner-Hochalpenstraßen-Aktiengesellschaft

Two and a half metres off the floor, nearly nine metres high and more than thirty metres long, the Haas triptych showed every detail of these roads. The images were enlarged and copied into fields measuring 1.20 by 1.30 metres.[17] Haas thereby took plenty of liberties: ‘He enlarged the mountain flowers in the foreground, highlighted the Grossglockner Road and cars, and combined them seamlessly with the glaciers in the background. Above the horizon, he mounted a strip of fabric dyed light blue on which he airbrushed dramatically fringed clouds.’[18] In a letter to his brother, Haas commented: ‘A lot of it is completely false, some parts shifted from left to right, copied in reverse etc., but a good overall impression.’[19]

The huge photographic wallpaper certainly can be seen as an anti-urban, patriotic image of Austria, but the combination of an archaic landscape, interspersed with asphalt, concrete and cars, must also have been impressive for its time. It was aimed at the perspicacious guest, who arrived by car and experienced the mountain ranges as a city dweller. It contradicted the pastoral ideals propagated by the Austrian state, and showed, instead, a landscape that had been modified and tamed by engineering. The credo of Austrofascism, the valorisation of the organic rural community, became background scenery for an urban milieu, fantasies of progress were mixed with the imagery of a baroque Austria. Although Haas’s panorama showed an urban understanding of the countryside, it did not stand at odds with the genre of Heimat-photography. In that sense, the triptych satisfied an ‘upper-class, aristocratic demand for symbolic goods – specifically for a technically and culturally developed nature, for a consumable, enjoyable landscape.’[20]

'Austria’s mountain roads at the ParisWorld’s Fair,' Die Bühne, No 447 (Erstes Maiheft), 1937, pp. 32–33

‘Austria’s mountain roads at the Paris World’s Fair,’ Die Bühne, No 447 (Erstes Maiheft), 1937, pp. 32–33

The idea of resolving the contradictions on which the three-part image is based, where rural population, hikers, tourists and urban motorists, untouched nature and urban lifestyle supposedly find each other, ultimately could not work, and did not create national unity. Already the presentations in the pavilion undermined this approach. Although Vienna, still impaired by the ‘contamination’ of having been ‘Red’ before 1934, was given its own exhibition area, it was also embedded in rural landscapes, surrounded by the Vienna Woods, and the Rax and Schneeberg mountains, just as the writer Anton Kuh (1890–1941) had ironically described it in his essay of 1923, ‘Wien am Gebirge’ (Vienna in the Mountains).[21]

Robert Haas – just like Hermann Leopoldi – was an expression of the ambivalence of those years. As Jews, in the sense of the Nuremberg Laws, they represented those Austrians who, without being active supporters of the regime, nevertheless saw in it a protection against Nazism. But Robert Haas’s left-wing commitment that permeates his photo reports, as well as his tacit arrangement with Austrofascism, surfaced in a surprising way: the socialist resistance against the dictatorship produced booklets on Beautiful Austria with almost the same images as in the exhibition and placed them – camouflaged as a tourist advertisements – in the pavilion.[22] However, the booklets did not provide information about the beauty of Austria, but rather about the suppression of the worker’s movement. We will ‘keep an eye on the matter,’[23] reported the Austrian embassy to Vienna. Not without reason, since, graphically, this brochure was more eye-catching than the dull official guide, in which the writer – and illegal Nazi – Friedrich Schreyvogl (1899–1976) described in a cumbersome and long-winded manner what Haas had managed to sum up much more succinctly and, above all, visually.[24]

Robert Haas was never to see his work finished. Haerdtl called him one day: ‘Herr Ingenieur, I don’t know what to say, but they found out that you are a Jew. […] Would you be willing to take on an Aryan assistant?’ And so Günther Baszel (1902–1973) – ‘he was a charming person’ – helped him to ‘glue the pictures together.’[25] Haas received the Grand Prix but, as a result of the Anschluß with Germany in March 1938, it was never presented to him. He left Vienna in September 1938 for London.[26] Here, he decorated a department store with a photomontage of an imaginary view of London from the air. On the reverse of the image of this order it reads: ‘John Lewis Dept. Store. Sloan Square 1938. Received 100, which paid my Atlantic crossing ticket on the Queen Mary, March 23–March 28 1939.’[27] He quickly gained a foothold in the USA and became a successful photographer, inspired by innovative American artists, documenting everyday American life. The genre of photomontage, however, did not lose its fascination for him: He designed another one for the Child Welfare exhibition in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1940, its main elements reminiscent of Otto Neurath’s (1882–1945) method of visual communication developed at the Österreichische Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Red Vienna.

Robert Haas: Photomontage for the Exhibition 'ChildWelfare,' Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 1940, Wien Museum

Robert Haas: Photomontage for the Exhibition ‘Child
Welfare,’ Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 1940, Wien Museum – photo © Robert Haas, Wien Museum

Leopoldi also emigrated but never came over his homesickness. In 1946, he returned to Vienna and died there in 1959. Haas stayed in the United States, teaching calligraphy at various American universities. He died in Valhalla, New York State, in 1997. In 1991, in an interview with his daughters he said: ‘Oh, my God, how homesick I have been for Vienna. That is my hometown, there I grew up. I received all my education there, all my friends were from Vienna.’[28]

Béla Rásky

Béla Rásky is an independent, free-lance historian. He served as Managing Director of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute from January 2010 to September 2020.

[1]     ‘Pariser Weltausstellung 1937,’ in Leopoldiana: Gesammelte Werke von Hermann Leopoldi, ed. Ronald Leopoldi (Vienna, 2011) pp. 470-474.

[2]     Christian Glanz, ‘Anmerkungen zur Rolle von Hermann Leopoldi im Austrofaschismus,’ in (K)ein Austrofaschismus: Studien zum Herrschaftssystem 1933–1938, ed. Carlo Moos (Vienna, 2021) p. 104.

[3]     Robert Musil, Tagebücher, vol. 1, ed. Adolf Frisé (Reinbek, 1976) p. 897.

[4]     Barbara Feller, ‘“Oh, Du mein Österreich:” Aspekte der austrofaschistischen Kulturoffensive am Beispiel österreichischer Präsentationen im Ausland,’ in Politik der Präsentation: Museum und Ausstellung in Österreich 1918–1945, eds Herbert Posch and Gottfried Fliedl (Vienna, 1996) p. 56.

[5]     Hanna Egger, ed., Robert Haas, Schrift. Druck. Photographie (Vienna, 1983) p. 23.

[6]     ‘Alpenländische Moderne: Österreich auf der Weltausstellung Brüssel 1935,’ in smart Exports: Österreich auf den Weltausstellungen 1851–2000, eds. Ulrike Felber, Elke Krasny and Christian Rapp (Vienna, 2000) p. 118.

[7]     Austria in London: Austrian National Exhibition of Industry: Art, Travel, Sports (Vienna and London, 1934) p. 43.

[8]     Guido Zernatto, Die Wahrheit über Österreich (New York and Toronto, 1938) p. 19.

[9]     Elizabeth Cronin, Heimat Photography in Austria: A Politicized Vision of Peasants and Skiers (Vienna and Salzburg, 2015) p. 87.

[10]   Georg Rigele, Die Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße. Zur Geschichte eines österreichischen Monuments (Vienna, 1998) p. 197.

[11]   S.S., ‘Der österreichische Pavillon,’ Profil: Österreichische Monatsschrift für bildende Kunst, August 1935, p. 376.

[12]   Stefan Plischke, ‘Wir freuen uns und sind stolz! Die österreichischen Pavillons in Brüssel 1935 und Paris 1937,’ in Kunst und Diktatur: Architektur, Bildhauerei und Malerei in Österreich, Deutschland, Italien und der Sowjetunion, ed. Jan Tabor (Baden, 1994) p. 314.

[13]   ‘Der österreichische Pavillon der Pariser Weltausstellung 1937,’ Österreichische Kunst 7.6 (1937) p. 14.

[14] Anton Holzer, ‘Artist with Camera: Robert Haas: A Photographer between Vienna and New York,’ in Robert Haas: Framing Two Worlds, eds. Holzer and Frauke Kreutler (Berlin and Vienna, 2016) p. 14.

[15]   Astrid Mahler, ‘An Air of Sovereign Elegance: Trude Fleischmann’s Portraits 1920–1938,’ in Trude Fleischmann: The Confident Look: A Self-Assured Eye, eds. Anton Holzer and Frauke Kreutler (Vienna and Ostfildern, 2011) p. 55.

[16]   Georg Rigele, Die Wiener Höhenstraße: Autos, Landschaft und Politik in den dreißiger Jahren (Vienna, 1993).

[17]   ‘Eine Photomontage wie noch nie: Österreichs Bergstraßen auf der Pariser Weltausstellung,’ Die Bühne, No 447 (Erstes Maiheft), 1937, p. 32.

[18]   Holzer, Artist with Camera, p. 15.

[19]   Letter to his brother, April 19, 1937, Robert Haas Archive and Collected Papers at the Wien Museum; quoted in Holzer, Artist with Camera, p. 15.

[20]   Siegfried Mattl, ‘Architektur der feinen Unterschiede,’ in: Oswald Haerdtl: Architekt und Designer: 1899–1959: Aus der Sammlung Architekturzentrum Wien (Vienna, 2000) p. 73.

[21]   Anton Kuh, ‘Wien am Gebirge,’ in: A. K., Zeitgeist im Literatur-Café. Feuilletons, Essays und Publizistik, ed. Ulrich Lehner (Vienna, 1983) pp. 108–9.

[22]   ‘Beautiful Austria,’ Verein für Geschichte der ArbeiterInnenbewegung, Illegale Flugschriften, Karton 3, Mappe 10.

[23]   ‘Bericht der Österreichischen Gesandtschaft über angebliche Übersiedlung der AZ nach Paris’ [Report of the Austrian Embassy on the alleged relocation of the Arbeiter-Zeitung to Paris], Austrian State Archives, Neues Politisches Archiv [ÖStA, NPA] 503 Frankreich 33/8 Pariser Weltausstellung 1937 1. Teil Zl. 37.250-13.

[24]   L’Autriche à l’exposition international de Paris 1937 (Vienna, 1937).

[25]   Robert Haas, ‘Schrift – Druck – Fotografie,’ in Anna Auer, Fotografie im Gespräch (Passau, 2001) p. 153.

[26]   Archive of the Jewish Community of Vienna (On Loan at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute), Auswanderungskartei, A/W 2590,85.

[27]   Flip side of the photograph ‘Fotomontage John Lewis & Co. Department Store, London’: Wien Museum, 302693/4.

[28]   Holzer, Artist with Camera, p. 131.

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