One of Austria’s most established cultural highlights each summer is the Salzburg Festival of music and drama. Taking place annually since 1920, the festival was the brainchild of the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929) and the director Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), who sought to give a new lease of life to Austrian culture after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. In his ground-breaking analysis of the festival’s early days, the historian Michael P. Steinberg has shown that Hoffmannsthal conceived of the event as an affirmation of a new Austrian identity, which aimed to merge a cosmopolitan outlook with a deep Catholicism and sense of greater German identity. This sense of ‘national cosmopolitanism’ as a new Austrian culture was also anchored in the turn away from the old imperial capital Vienna – located Austrian identity instead in Salzburg, a former independent prince-archbishopric and Baroque city in the Austrian alps. The festival thus manifested a different kind of modernity in Austrian interwar culture – one that embraced conservatism and nationalism as a significant part of its post-imperial identity.
The Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, founded in 2003 in the Upper Austrian regional capital, is closely tied to its home city: the name Lentos, coming from the celtic and meaning ‘close by the river’, was the linguistic predecessor to the city’s name ‘Lentia’ during Roman times. The museum’s location by the Danube, housed in a modern building designed by Zurich architects Weber+Hofer, faces and mirrors the city’s Ars Electronica Centre (AEC), a museum dedicated to the electronic arts, on the other side of the river. Together, the Lentos and the AEC buildings have not only served to transform Linz’s industrial riverside into a location of culture, they also visually shift attention away from the Nibelungen bridge connecting the city core to the suburb Urfahr and the Upper Austrian North, leading on to the Czech Republic. Built between 1938 and 1940, the bridge was part of a large national socialist redevelopment project, building on plans Adolf Hitler had first sketched out in the mid-1920s. Today, the Nibelungen bridge still counts as one of the main connectors between Linz and northern Upper Austria – serving as an uneasy reminder of the country’s national socialist past, which the Lentos is now confronting head-on.
The inclusion of lesser-known modernisms into art history at large also calls for the introduction of lesser-known artists, and it is often left to smaller, regional galleries to take on this task and produce the groundwork. The recent exhibition Herbert Ploberger: At the Interface between Fine and Applied Art at the Upper Austrian regional gallery in Linz can be understood precisely in this light.
Herbert Ploberger (1902-1977) was one of Austria’s main representatives of New Objectivity painting (Neue Sachlichkeit), a movement that developed in reaction to Expressionism in 1920s Weimar Germany. Stripping paintings bare of personal feeling and emotion, artists of the New Objectivity forged a hyperreality that often bordered on caricature for its brutal and unforgiving depictions of modern life. Continue reading
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.