Keep on Traveling, Away from Death

Die Presse (06/17/2008)

Keep on Traveling, Away from Death
Barbara Petsch

Jewish Museum. “Modernists on the Run“ focuses on artists who were expelled by the Nazis. Another exhibition is dedicated to the Hakoah Sports Club, to which Friedrich Torberg also belonged.

Erika Mann appears as a tourist guide. In a short film sequence (1932), Thomas Mann’s daughter speaks in glowing terms of an adventure she had in Morocco. Beaming, she reports about the voyage and having come across a caravan. Despite the exuberance, there was something uncanny about the advertising spot: The exhibition shown in the Jewish Museum is called “Modernists on the Run.” When Erika exclaims, “keep traveling!,” the viewer knows that many of these travels took place under circumstances in which lives were imperiled.

Michael Curtiz’s famous melodrama “Casablanca,” filmed in 1942 with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, was not only a U.S. propaganda film against the Nazis, but also featured the many refugees at that time. A scene taken from the film is part of the exhibition: A glamorous woman asks the waiter whether he can persuade Rick, owner of the coffee house played by Bogart, to come join her at her table. No, says the waiter. Rick never drinks with guests. Even not with an important banker? No, they are sitting around here a dime a dozen, says the waiter…..

Otto Bauer, Walter Bondy, Willy Eisenschitz, Lisette Model, Trude Fleischmann, Lilly Joss Reich – many of the names today have been forgotten. Not all of them fled to France because of the Nazis but emigrated because of the arts scene. With NS occupation, the country soon lost its charm and was no longer able to offer any security. There were very few artists that devoted their art to confronting the catastrophe. One exception was Lilly Steiner and her apocalyptical painting of the Anschluß. Under a dull and dismal sky, a woman is suddenly confronted with flaming red poppies jumping out at her; in the background stands Stephansdom. The painting is entitled, “Baroque Composition,” from the year 1938.

The Best Are the Photos

The selection of paintings and artists appears somewhat arbitrarily. Human fate touches one more than the paintings. It is the photographs that captivate the viewer the most. Art creates freedom for the woman in Steiner’s painting. Dora Kallmus painted famous portraits of Franz Werfel, Karl Kraus, the dancer Anna Pawlowna, as well as the bestseller (“Gigi”) Colette (1837-1954), who with tightened lips and unkempt hair stares mask-like into the camera, creating an especially bizarre-like effect. After the war Kallmus made poignant photographs of refugees and their despair and produced a series of strange slaughterhouses.

In a ghost-like black and white painting, Hans Popper depicted the Hippodrome in Prater. Edmund Engelmann photographed Sigmund Freund’s study taken from Vienna’s Freud Museum in the Berggasse. From occupied France, many succeeded in fleeing to the U.S., such as Lisette Model, who caused a furor over her strange photos, like the one of a dry, harsh-looking lady with veil taken in San Francisco in the year 1949, or that of a grotesque 150 kilo woman from Nice taken in 1934.

Paintings reflect trends of the time and one of the most famous artists is the surrealist, Wolfgang Paalen. Like many of his colleagues, he comes from an upper middle class milieu. Together with Marcel Duchamp, Paalen put together an exhibition entitled ‘International Surrealism,’ held in the Galerie des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1938. A huge black hill fills the painting, “Forbidden Country” (1936/37); on top of a range of mountains is perched a gaunt female bird and a green stalagmite. On the other side of the mountain are flaming bullets hurling through the air. Following an odyssey which leaves its impression on many of the biographies presented in the exhibition, Paalen committed suicide in 1959. Very few artists returned to Vienna after the war.

Painter Robert Kohl died in one of the Auschwitz concentration camps; Walter Bondy, depicted in a melancholic self-portrait, died in 1940 after refusing to take insulin for diabetes. Out of fear of being arrested by France’s police, he slept in bed with his clothes on.

Saved by the Foreign Legion
Among the more or less prominent personalities captured in the catalogue is also that of a very simple Jewish shoemaker named Leon Österreicher. He sought asylum in France, worked on farms, joined the Foreign Legion, eked out a living by becoming a miner and was finally interned, an event that ruined his health. He was only forty-one years old when he died in Lyon in 1951.

Another exhibition held in the Jewish Museum is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Sports Club, Hakoah (meaning “strenghth” in Hebrew). During the years when the first Austrian team of Hakoah football players went to the U.S. tournament in 1926 and 1927, the club offered training for all types of sports. To this day Hakoah plays a very important role in community life. One of the most important members was writer and critic Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979). Beginning September 17, 2008 until February 1, 2009, the Jewish Museum will dedicate an exhibition celebrating his 100th anniversary.