Photography has long been a stepchild of art historical research in Austria, and only few publications, most notably Anton Holzer’s Fotografie in Österreich (Vienna, 2013), have provided comprehensive assessment of this topic. Talks about the first Austrian museum of photography are ongoing, however, and Vienna’s exhibition landscape has started to include an increasing number of photographic exhibitions into its schedule. This year, coinciding with the centenary of the First Austrian Republic in November 1918, several museums in Vienna are focusing on Austrian photography between the First and the Second World War, and offer diverse insights into the medium’s significance at the time.
In 1984 the Czech Institute of Art History commenced publication of a multi-volume history of Czech art from prehistory to the present. It was a massive undertaking, a comprehensive survey that was not completed until 2007, when the final two volumes on art since 1958 appeared. It represented a particular central European tradition in academic publishing, but as with many other such projects, its drawbacks were all too evident. During the 23 years of its gestation, art historical methods had changed considerably, especially given the ideological shifts brought about by the collapse of Communism. In addition, the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 meant that the meaning of ‘Czech art’ was no longer the same, and the later volumes could be seen as part of the self-redefinition of the new Czech Republic. Despite such caveats, it was still a major work of reference, but it was hampered by one single factor: it was only published in Czech. For linguistic reasons alone, therefore, its potential impact was limited.
To commemorate the centenary of the First Austrian Republic in 2018, the Upper Austrian regional gallery in Linz presented a cross-section of stylistic developments and institutional frameworks of fine arts produced in Upper Austria between the two World Wars. The exhibition was part of the historical exhibition Between War Times: Upper Austria from 1918 to 1939 at the Linz Palace Museum, which runs through to January 2019 with a focus on the federal state’s position in an Austria that suffered deeply from social and political upheavals in the 1920s and 30s, and was annexed to the Third Reich in March 1938. With these historical complexities discussed elsewhere, the exhibition in the gallery focused its efforts on painting, photography and the graphic arts of the region, paying no more than faint attention to socio-political developments.
Gustav Klimt remains undoubtedly the best known artist from Vienna and, along with Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser, largely defined the public image of Vienna as a centre of modern art, design and architecture. Yet his fame has also been a problem, completely overshadowing the many other artists active in the Austrian capital in the early twentieth century. Worse, still, his death in 1918, which coincided with those of Schiele, Wagner and Moser, seemed to symbolise the artistic and political demise of Vienna.