Es ‘steht ein kleiner Pavillon, und welches Wunder, er ist fertig schon’ – ‘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’ 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.’ 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.
2019’s first ‘Artwork of the Month’ focuses on one example of how a ‘nostalgic modernism’ could look in interwar Austria. What it also stands for upon closer analysis is the malleability of the photographic image in turbulent social and political times. Not least, it also helps to introduce a trend of photography in 1930s Central Europe, which seemed to stand in diametrical opposition to the avant-garde experiments of the time: Heimat photography (‘homeland photography’). As it will turn out, the classically composed The Mother could be many things and fit within a series of developments that continued from the fin de siècle to the Second World War.