Lisl Weil: The ABC of Women, 1933

Artwork of the Month, October 2023: The ABC of Women by Lisl Weil (1933)

Found under the heading ‘The ABC of Women,’ nineteen women feature across a double page spread, some appearing to pose for a portrait sketch, others  following activities such as dancing, painting, giving manicures or milking a cow. Dressed in clothing that varies from folk costumes to turn-of-the-century reform dress, sportswear, show costumes and fashionable fur coats, they come from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds, are of different ages and follow different professions. The cartoon depicts numerous possibilities of what women could look like in the early 1930s, playing with stereotypes in a good-humoured and non-malicious manner.

Lisl Weil: The ABC of Women, 1933

Lisl Weil: The ABC of Women (‘A-B-C der Frau’), Die Bühne 347 (1933) pp. 10-11 – photo © Austrian National Library,

Published in the fashionable illustrated Die Bühne in March 1933, The ABC of Women is one of many works by Lisl Weil (1910–2006), a twenty-three-year-old artist at the time, who had been drawing cartoons and caricatures for the magazine on a regular basis since her teenage years. Throughout, her work offered new perspectives on modern life in Vienna and simultaneously developed a style of drawing, which reinterpreted 1920s definitions of a ‘Viennese style’ as building on light humour, folk culture and fantasy for the pages of the popular press.[1] The ABC of Women is a particularly apt example to show how Weil achieved this, because it plays with different stylistic features to visualise various ‘types’ of women. With its focus on modern life that set women’s perspectives in focus, the cartoon represents a central topic of Weil’s wider body of work, which merged social commentary with artistic experimentation through the highly visible platform that Die Bühne represented at the time. As this essay argues The ABC of Women brings into focus an understudied form of interwar Viennese modernism, which appeared in print and chronicled the lives of the Viennese middle class  through a humorous lens, building on the insider perspective of a young socialite.

Modern society through women’s eyes

The drawing starts with Anna, the chef, and ends with Zenzi, the milkmaid, both voluptuous figures following manual professions. Even though most of the characters are at home in Vienna, like Mizzerl, the famous ‘sweet Viennese girl’ stereotype of a suburban maid-prostitute, others, like Zenzi, belong to the countryside. As is typical for Weil’s cartoons, The ABC of Women includes a limited amount of text, which poignantly reinforces the message of the drawings. In the ABC, this pertains to the names given to each woman representing a letter, accompanied by a one-word description of either their profession, social status, mood, or location of origin. In doing so, the drawing offers a wide panorama of women ‘types’ in the early twentieth century, which merge stereotypes of the New Woman with celebrity culture and location-specific variants that show the artist’s acute observation skills.

Lisl Weil, The ABC of Women, detail

Lisl Weil: The ABC of Women, detail

If we look more closely, the cartoon reveals the artist’s close attention to detail that brings out a range of cultural nuances that, in sum, emphasise the heterogeneity of women  in Austria’s public and private spaces. Moving far beyond reductive female ‘types’ that had become established in popular culture since the turn of the century – such as the vamp, the child-woman, and the spinster – The ABC of Women offers an unprecedented panorama of women in modern society. Anna, for example, is distracted by her work reading Frauen Zeitung, an illustrated Catholic journal for women published in Klagenfurt, Austrian Carinthia, between 1924 and 1938. She might thus be Carinthian and represents a woman who moved to Vienna looking for work.[2] Moreover, the association with Catholicism in a cosmopolitan magazine such as Die Bühne alludes to an air of conservative provinciality, commonly associated with the Austrian countryside at the time. Between Anna and Zenzi, there are showgirls (Dolly and Doddy), designers (Etta and Fella), a sportswoman (Inge), the divorcee Tilde and the chemistry student Vera. Each of them is characterised in a particular style building on an economy of lines and exaggeration of selected physical characteristics or items of clothing that emphasise social position, profession, or – as in the case of the nervous Nora in a reform dress (‘a misunderstood woman’), a specific mental predisposition. The presentation of Nora might also be a reference to Henrik Ibsen’s famous character from A Doll’s House (1879), a play regularly staged in Vienna and mentioned in Die Bühne. In line with the magazine’s focus on theatre and film, therefore, Weil also incorporated nods to film and celebrity culture in the image.

Lisl Weil: The ABC of Women, detail

Lisl Weil: The ABC of Women, detail

A second example of the latter is Greta, referring, we might assume, to the actress Greta Garbo. She is the most abbreviated figure in the cartoon, vamp-like with a body that consists only of a rough outline, while her face is dominated by overpowering lashes. Other figures are more local, including Böschke from Budapest, for example, whose figure is surrounded by Hungarian words and phrases, and Waltraute, one of the nine Valkyries and a character in Richard Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (1876), perhaps as a reference to German national culture. Meanwhile, Etta and Fella – which satirise stereotypical names of modern women designers – are constructed by abstract patterns that recall the designs of the Wiener Werkstätte. In the case of Henriette (‘the intelligent woman’) her apparent confusion, indicated by a hand raised to her head, is reinforced by the wavy, nervous pattern of her rollneck sweater. Finally, the cartoon also includes personal elements, such as the reference to Weil’s grandmother Karoline-Ottilie-Ulrike, depicted as a baby, held by a woman in Hungarian folk dress, and Cilli-Sali, described as ‘aunt’.

The ABC, in this sense, is a typology of women from different cultural backgrounds, merging local and international figures, relatives, celebrities and fictional characters in an image that sets different elements traditional and modern lives side by side. Tilde, for example, is a proud and content-looking divorcee, while Zenzi clearly represents a farmer’s woman or milkmaid living in the countryside. Regardless of these differences, the figures appear side by side and – with the exception of Nora perhaps – appear equally content. The figures are drawn in a bandwidth that stresses the Weil’s knowledge of artistic, (pop-)cultural and historical developments, as well as her careful use of different drawing styles to express this within the different women she shows. Rather than showing group dynamics per se, therefore, as the artist would in other cartoons, here, her attention moves towards a broader reflection of women’s representations in modern society. Using fashion and gestures to emphasise age, class and geographic differences, Weil plays with a wide range of female stereotypes to draw a complex image that stresses her talent in mediating social insight in an interplay between popular culture and its translation into a light-hearted drawing style.

The ‘Wunderkind’ of interwar popular illustration

Lisl Weil was born in Vienna as Ilse Elisabeth Weisz to a couple of Hungarian-Jewish origin. When she was still a young child, her parents separated and her mother married her father’s best friend, the successful businessman Isidor Weil. He adopted her and, by the artist’s own accounts, this shift in family circumstances came with a move from a modest household to an upper middle-class apartment in Vienna’s eighth district with all its luxuries, including a maid, a chauffeur, a new school and luxury household items such as a radio.[3] As an interview with the artist conducted in the 1990s indicates, this change raised the artists’ awareness for her particular social position as a member of the Viennese middle class, and much of her teenage years were dedicated to coming to terms with her position as an ‘ugly girl’ (Weil suffered some facial paralysis as a consequence of childhood illness) in a society expecting young women to be attractive and elegant. We might also mention, in this context, the fact that her sister Olly Medina, almost a decade older than her, was a fashion journalist for the Prager Tagblatt newspaper, while her mother was known as ‘one of the most beautiful women in Vienna’. The starting point of her interest in women’s fashion and popular culture was closely related to her position as an insider/outsider.[4]

Our Illustrator Lisl Weil (‘Unsere Zeichnerin Lisl Weil’), Die Bühne 308 (1931), p. 30

Our Illustrator Lisl Weil (‘Unsere Zeichnerin Lisl Weil’), Die Bühne 308 (1931) p. 30 – photo © Austrian National Library,

Weil’s take on the expectations that young women should be beautiful and follow strict social etiquette was not, however, a singular case. Annemarie Selinko’s (1914–1986) popular, humorous novel I used to be an ugly girl (Ich war ein hässliches Mädchen, 1937) focused on a similar topic, for example, telling the story of a young girl presented as ‘ugly’ in Viennese cosmopolitan circles and her quest to overcome this with an excruciating beauty regime.[5] In other words, Weil’s concern with the roles of and demands placed on (young) women in Viennese society corresponded with a bigger concern that was addressed by different artists and writers of her age and social status.

Lisl Weil: Die Bühne des Humors: Das Wunderkind, Die Bühne 389 (1934) pp. 64-65

Lisl Weil: The Stage for Humour: The Wonder Child (Die Bühne des Humors: Das Wunderkind), Die Bühne 389 (1934) pp. 64-65 – photo © Austrian National Library,

Weil’s approach to these issues in illustration stemmed from early support for her drawing practice, particularly as her ‘new father’, as she called him, made great efforts to support his daughter’s talents. This set the young Weil amid the tenets of Viennese modernism, including dance lessons in the school of the expressionist dancer Grete Wiesenthal (1885–1970) and art classes with the educator and reform pedagogue Franz Čižek (1865–1946). Aged sixteen, Weil was accepted to study at Vienna’s Academy of Applied Arts, where she specialised in drawing and heraldry, before attending the architecture classes of Josef Hoffmann. She graduated in 1930 after winning the Eitelberger Preis, awarded annually to students whose artistic work had been particularly impressive.[6] She began as an illustrator for Die Bühne and the daily Die Stunde in her final year at the academy, owing her position, not least, to her father’s personal connections with the magazine’s founder Imre Békessy (1887–1951), a prominent figure in interwar Vienna’s boulevard publishing landscape. On Weil’s own accounts, she quickly came to be known as a child prodigy of illustration, and from the early 1930s on, Die Bühne hosted a special section in which Weil humorously commented on Viennese social events, or used personal experiences such as a study visit to Paris, in double page spreads titled ‘The Stage for Humour’ (‘Die Bühne des Humors’).[7] Weil’s prominence would later help her emigration to the United States when the National Socialist regime came into power in Austria in 1938. Gaining the attention of an American businessman who supported visas for people of ‘particular interest’, Weil left Vienna in 1938 for New York, where she would live until her death in 2006.

New perspectives on Viennese modernism: Art, entertainment and the illustrated press

In many ways, Weil and her illustrations fall into a marginalised category when it comes to discussions of Viennese modernism in the interwar years. She was considerably younger than most of the artists who have been the focus of research on Viennese art and design after 1918, and her forced emigration in 1938 meant that her career in Austria was cut short, never to recuperate. Moreover, women cartoonists were far from the norm at this time. Indeed, as David Kunzle has noted with reference to the caricaturist Marie Duval (1847–1890) ‘“Women’s nature” was considered antithetical to the aggressive polemical and critical nature of so much journalism in general and caricature in particular’.[8] Still, it would be wrong to say that Weil was a complete exception in interwar Vienna.[9] Her career finds parallels to that of a number of contemporaries, such as Lily Renée (1921–2022), Emmy Sagai (1906–1985), Erni Kniepert (1911–1990), and Paula Keller, who had considerable success during their lifetime, yet often were forgotten after their death or as a consequence of emigration: as many of them were of Jewish origin, they were forced to flee Austria in 1938, and few returned after 1945 or followed different careers after. Weil, for example, became a children’s book writer and illustrator in the United States, and hosted educational concerts and television shows.[10]

Aside from issues related to gender and emigration, Weil’s main line of work, magazine illustration, continues to be a genre uneasily wedged between the fine and the applied arts and, despite its wide circulation in Viennese popular culture at the time, is still only rarely assessed in (art) historical accounts of the period.[11] Due to the fact that histories of design and visual culture in early twentieth-century Vienna still tend to focus on major figures connected to the Academy of Applied Arts and the Wiener Werkstätte, the careers of illustrators and graphic artists working beyond this nexus remain largely invisible. As Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel has pointed out, newspaper illustrators only slowly came to be considered as artists proper in the first half of the twentieth century, and they often perceived cartoons and drawings as ‘bread work’ themselves, rather than as artistic output.[12]

Yet the work of illustrators working more or less exclusively for newspapers and magazines gives insight into a form of artistic production that stood at the interface of fine art and popular culture. At the turn of the twentieth century, the American illustrator Caroline A. Powell (1852–1935) noted: ‘of all kinds of artwork, that which is most familiar to us is the illustrations in our popular magazines. Most people look at the pictures, even if they do not always take time to read the articles.’[13] As the case of Weil shows, the immediacy of these drawings also reveals new perspectives with regards to the work of young women artists, journalists and designers, who made use of the open publishing policy of Die Bühne to give their work public visibility in a popular outlet, and to comment on modern culture in a way that was closely tied to their own experiences as young cosmopolites.[14]

In stark contrast to the laments that have characterised much research on interwar Austrian culture, figures such as Weil, the painter Lisel Salzer (1906–2005), and the writers Hilde Spiel (1911–1990) and Selinko, constructed a positive image of modern Austrian culture from the perspective of emancipated young (middle-class) women. Humorous self-presentation thereby played just as important a role as social commentary: a photograph and a self-portrait of Weil published in Die Bühne in 1931 with the title ‘Our illustrator Lisl Weil… how the photographer Fritz Löwy sees her… and how she argues she actually appears’, for example, juxtaposes a beautiful young woman in a fashionable costume with a caricature that emphasises the artist’s hands and mismatched proportions. Showing herself in a disproportionate body with a focus on her drawing practice with the prop of a pen and a clear sense of humour in a light-hearted self-portrait, the page not only asserts Weil’s position as a well-known illustrator for Die Bühne, it also suggests, with some confidence, that she could play a jester-figure in line with her role as a humorous social commentator.

The artist as a social observer

In her recent analysis of Weil’s illustrations, Pokorny-Nagel has argued that Die Bühne’s focus on fashion, celebrity culture and modern lifestyles was a perfect fit for the young artist who drew on these topics as a form of social critique directed at the idea of the New Woman.[15] However, given that Weil herself was deeply entrenched in the social and cultural networks of Viennese cosmopolitan circles, it may be argued that her work trod a thin line between critique and humorous chronicling, largely reliant on her style of drawing which was always playful and relied on light humour rather than showing any sense of the maliciousness that often represented a strong aspect of the caricatures of her day, adding to this the fact that her cartoons avoided political siding of any kind. Given, moreover, that her drawings were social commentary from within the very circles that Weil addressed, the artist’s cartoons chronicle the heydays of a particular social strata: the Viennese middle-classes of the 1920s and 30s.

Lisl Weil: Venice ('Venedig’), Die Bühne 361 (1933) pp. 12–13

Lisl Weil: Venice (‘Venedig’), Die Bühne 361 (1933) pp. 12–13 – photo © Austrian National Library,

The audiences and figures addressed in Weil’s caricatures often merge, recalling Leslie Newton’s analysis of ‘smart magazines’ such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, in which she identifies light humorous cartoons as part of a new magazine culture growing in the 1920s and 30s, which spotlighted and affirmed ‘the modern cultural, social, and economic capital’ of its readers.[16] In Weil’s case, this included summer trips to Venice, in which different holiday-makers, from an English Mrs Dearling to the French emancipated woman. Maud brush shoulder on shoulder, as well as French lessons for Viennese readers, structured by stereotypes about love, affairs and jealousy.

Lisl Weil: Learn French (‘Lernen Sie Französisch’), Die Bühne 294 (1930) p. 16

Lisl Weil: Learn French (‘Lernen Sie Französisch’), Die Bühne 294 (1930) p. 16 – photo © Austrian National Library,

Weil used a simplified style of depiction, which at time played with black and white abstraction in alignment with modernist drawing styles (for example, in the cartoons about French lessons), and at other adopted a naïve formal language, or even rough sketches, as in ‘Ici Mona Lisa’, which records visitor reactions to the Louvre’s most famous painting. Throughout, Weil preferred a focus on group dynamics rather than individuals, always aiming to distil a bigger social picture in which women are at the centre of attention. ‘The ABC of women’ is no exception in this case.

Lisl Weil: Five Minutes "The Mona Lisa is Here" (‘5 Minuten “Ici Mona Lisa”’), Die Bühne 301 (1931) p. 20

Lisl Weil: Five Minutes “The Mona Lisa is Here” (‘5 Minuten “Ici Mona Lisa”’), Die Bühne 301 (1931) p. 20 – photo © Austrian National Library,

Ultimately, ‘the ABC of Women’, like Weil’s other illustrations for Die Bühne, took the position of humorous observation, and they held up a mirror to readers of the magazine. In this sense, her work followed a highly popular trajectory of caricature and cartooning as a part of ‘smart magazine’ culture. In doing so, Weil also played with her own position as a young socialite, forging an imagery whose ostensible playfulness and naivety betrays acute insight into modern Austrian society. Paying more attention to this ‘female gaze’ would, no doubt, enrich accounts of interwar Austrian modernism and the history of cartooning alike.

Julia Secklehner

[1] For example, see Marie Dormoy, Exhibitionsition des arts décoratifs, Paris, 1925: Dentelles de l’Europe Centrale (Paris, 1926) p. 2.

[2] Erna Appelt, Von Ladenmädchen, Schreibfräulein und Gouvernanten: Die weiblichen Angestellten Wiens zwischen 1900 und 1934 (Vienna, 1985).

[3] Lisl Weil and Gregor Weiss, AHC Interview with Lisl Weil, 1998 LBI AV Collection (Tapes) AHC 678,

[4] Lisl Weil and Gregor Weiss, AHC Interview with Lisl Weil.

[5] Annemarie Selinko, Ich war ein hässliches Mädchen (Vienna, 1937).

[6] Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel, ‘Die Illustratorin Lisl Weil und ihre Vorstellung von einer emanzipierten Gesellschaftskritik,‘ in Elana Shapira and Anne-Katrin Rossberg, eds, Gestalterinnen: Frauen, Design und Gesellschaft im Wien der Zwischenkriegszeit (Oldenbourg 2023) pp. 165–166.

[7] Lisl Weil and Gregor Weiss, AHC Interview with Lisl Weil.

[8] David Kunzle, ‘Marie Duval: A Caricaturist Rediscovered,’ Woman’s Art Journal 7.1 (1986) p. 28.

[9] Heidelinde Resch and designaustria, ed, 14 Grafikerinnen im Wien des 20. Jahrhunderts (Vienna, 2013).

[10] Julia Secklehner, ‘Cartoons and dancing poetry between Vienna and New York:

retracing the transatlantic career(s) of Lisl Weil,’ Creativity from Vienna to the World (online),

[11] Exceptions include ‘Lisl Weil,’ Museum Zinkenbacher Malerkolonie,; Lisa Silverman, ‘A Delicate Balancing Act. Fashion, Gender, and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Vienna before 1938,’ in Elana Shapira ed, Design Dialogue: Jews, Culture and Viennese Modernism (Vienna, 2018) pp. 281–298; Christian Maryska, ‘”Hoffentlich gefällt’s Ihnen bei uns in Wien“: Jüdische

Gebrauchsgrafikerinnen bis 1938,‘ in Andrea Winklbauer und Sabine Fellner eds, Die bessere Hälfte. Jüdische Künstlerinnen bis 1938 (Vienna, 2017) pp. 135–147.

[12] Pokorny-Nagel, ‘Die Illustratorin Lisl Weil,‘ p. 164.

[13] Caroline A. Powell, ‘Methods of Magazine Illustration’, The American Woman’s Journal, 7.5

(February 1894), p. 189. Cited in Jo Devereux, ‘Introduction’, in Jo Devereux, ed, Nineteenth-century women illustrators and cartoonists (Manchester, 2023) p. 9.

[14] Marie-Noëlle Yazdanpanah, ‘“Gut Weekend. Das Wochenende ohne Männer“? Zur Inszenierung von Geschlechterrollen im Magazin „Die Bühne“’, zeitgeschichte 50.1 (April 2023), pp. 19–42.

[15] Pokorny-Nagel, ‘Die Illustratorin Lisl Weil.‘

[16] Leslie Newton, ‘Picturing Smartness: Cartoons in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Esquire in the Age of Cultural Celebrities,’ The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 3.1 (2012) p. 65.

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