Jewish Female Artists Around 1900: „Female Modernism“ in Vienna

Der Standard, December 28, 2016-12-28
German original:

An exhibit at the Jewish Museum worth seeing with the slightly provocative title „The Better Half“ devotes itself to the rediscovery of Jewish female artists before 1938

Vienna – If interested in female artists, who worked in Vienna round 1900, one quickly ends up at the Austrian Association of Female Fine Artists, founded in 1910 by Tina Blau, Teresa Feodorowna Ries, Ilse Conrat-Twardowski and others. It still exists today in an attic apartment in Vienna’s First District.

The inglorious part of its institutional history is the collaboration with the national socialist regime and the fact that all Jewish artists were expelled starting in 1938. The rehabilitation of this chapter of history is very important today, but in tune with its founding principles, the Association is mostly working to promote contemporary artists. This means one can find information on the Association’s pioneers, but not their works.

„Outrageous Doll Business“

It is all the more joyous that the Jewish Museum in Vienna, not too far away from the Association’s headquarters, is showing a commendable exhibit of such works.

The curators, Andrea Winklbauer and Sabine Fellner, named the exhibit in a slightly provocative manner “The Better Half.” While still being in the staircase one can already adumbrate how this self-confident „arrogation“ came about. There, no other than Viennese architects Adolf Loos and Oswald Haerdtl are cited, defaming the artists as „dilettante daughters of court counselors,“ and calling the Wiener Werkstätte an „outrageous doll business“ because of the women working there.

Expressive Ceramic

But it was the Wiener Werkstätte that produced Vally Wieselthier, a ceramist renowned beyond the Austrian border. The exhibit shows some of her sculptures, which expanded the thinking on traditional domestic pottery early on, not just because the pieces were very expressive and some were over a meter high, but also because Wieselthier depicted scenes like „Prater Wide Boy with Prostitute“(1928).

During the 1920s, Wieselthier was one of the few, next to painter Lilly Steiner or graphic artists Bertha Tarnay, who emigrated to New York, London, or Paris – only a few years before the Nazis forced into emigration or murdered the group of 44 female artists. Among them was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was arrested in 1934 as a member of the Communist party of Austria (KPÖ). After her release, she painted one of her most impressive works. It is mostly abstract, but the expressive colors and the title, „Interrogation II“ (1934), give testament to the fact that the Gestapo did torture her and beat her face bloody.

Within the exhibit she is among those artists, who concerned themselves with international art trends and founded a female modernism in Vienna. Like Frieda Salvendy, she was close to German Avantgarde artists, while Helene Taussig was close to the French Fauves and the painters Louise Motesiczky or Bettina Ehrlich-Bauer were attendant on the New Dispassion.

Before Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece followed her husband into exile to London, she did have his entire body of graphic work shipped there, but this „better half“ left behind almost the entire body of her own work in Vienna. For the exhibit, a self-portrait only available in black and white was colored digitally.

Elaborately Researched

Indeed, no efforts and costs were spared in background research, as well as  in the acquisition of originals (ranging from Tina Blau to Bronica Koller-Pinell): This way, visitors learn, for example, that early art education of women was thanks to the Jewish bourgeoisie, or that public commissions to female sculptors were awarded relatively early, starting in 1900.

In a digital synopsis of the works of Ilse Twardowski-Conrat for instance, the funerary monument of Johannes Brahms surfaces. The crowning finale of the informative and dense walkabout is a work created by sculptor Teresa Feodorowna Ries in 1895: „Witch at personal hygiene for Walpurgisnacht” is the title of the apparently contemporary „Frauensperson“ (female person), who is clipping her toenails with an evil eye and without shame (Christa Benzer, 28.12.2016).