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The Radical Women Artists of Turn-of-the-Century Vienna

A new exhibition challenges the tired story of an artistic avant-garde pioneered by men

In his memoir, The World of Yesterday (1941), Stefan Zweig describes the prolific cultural climate of his home city: ‘For the genius of Vienna – a specifically musical one – was always that it harmonized all the national and lingual contrasts. […] Whoever lived there and worked there felt himself free of all confinements and prejudice.’ Published three years after the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938, Zweig’s book was already an elegy, lamenting a flourishing artistic milieu that fell into swift decay during the war. This picture of Vienna at the turn of the century – a golden age uplifted by art nouveau, expressionism, psychoanalysis and the modern design vocabulary of the gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) – has been evoked in many recent exhibitions, including shows at Vienna’s Leopold Gallery, MAK Vienna and London’s Royal Academy. With 2018 marking the centenary of numerous endings – the deaths of Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Egon Schiele and Otto Wagner, the close of World War I and of the Hapsburg Monarchy – these shows have largely circumscribed Viennese modernism to the activities of a few male protagonists. As art historian Griselda Pollock stressed in Frieze Masters last year: ‘It is half a century since women art historians challenged the myth of a women-free art history and made visible both the women and the men who co-created not only impressionism but modern art as a whole.’ Yet, again and again, we hear the same, discredited story of an artistic avant-garde pioneered by men.

‘City of Women. Female Artists in Vienna 1900–1938’ – a major exhibition at Vienna’s Belvedere – challenges this tired narrative. Like Zweig’s ‘world of yesterday’, it describes a milieu that changed irrevocably in 1938, when the Anschluss (annexation) forced many Jews – including about one-third of the artists shown here – to flee Vienna, withdraw from public life or face deportation and murder. As art schools, associations and patronage declined, so, too, did the city’s cultural infrastructure. Since 1945, art history has retraced a partial picture of Viennese modernism, largely overlooking the women who helped shape it. ‘City of Women’ is a step towards filling this gap. Drawing on research that began in the 1990s, notably by the show’s curator, Sabine Fellner, and art historian Sabine Plakolm-Forsthuber, the exhibition brings together works by 56 artists, many of which are on view for the first time in three generations. It charts a cultural context in which women forged avant-garde artist groups, realized public commissions, published work in the prestigious magazine Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring, 1898–1903) and participated in seminal exhibitions on equal footing with men. (At the legendary 1908 Kunstschau, for instance, presided over by Klimt, more than one-third of participating artists were women.)

Greta Freist, The Guard, 1938, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Belvedere, Vienna 

This does not mean that their ambitions were met without resistance. The exhibition opens with a sculpture by Teresa Feodorowna Ries, Witch Doing Her Toilette on Walpurgis Night (1895), which was shown at the Künstlerhaus in 1896 on the invitation of Klimt. From a contemporary perspective, the artist’s choice of subject – as a woman ‘intruding’ in the hallowed halls of marble sculpture – certainly resonates with an iconography of women’s liberation. The work infuriated critics, who disdained both its subject – a nude witch clipping her gnarled toenails with garden shears, broomstick at her side – and Feodorowna Ries’s inclusion in the show. At Belvedere, the witch’s tensed, lively bearing, suddenly alert to a faraway call, finds a counterpoint in the artist’s listless Sleepwalker (1894), her drooping lids, limbs and gown succumbing to the weight of the marble. This latter work exemplifies the artist’s resourcefulness, featuring her maid as a model at a time when women were barred from life classes. Like many female artists, Feodorowna Ries also sought private tutelage, as Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts did not admit women until 1920. 

This duality between systemic exclusion and the bold, prominent artwork realized by women nevertheless resounds throughout the show. While Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, sparked a vital discussion on the challenges that such exclusion posed historically, focusing on propriety often obscures a more complex picture of the past. Faced with limitations, figures such as Feodorowna Ries, Elena Luksch-Makowsky and Helene von Taussig depicted powerful, often provocative nudes, while in the 1930s the work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Trude Waehner took a deeply critical political stance. The drawings and prints of Mileva Roller struck me in particular. Shown in exhibitions such as the Kunstschau and the pages of Ver Sacrum, Roller’s works were part of an emerging discourse on the body and women’s liberation. Involved with the fin-de-siècle fashion reform and expressionist dance – both of which rejected the corset and embraced uninhibited movement – Roller placed the bare and candid female body at the centre of her compositions. Her Witch (undated) foregrounds the eponymous in a square-format linocut. Naked and holding a patterned shawl she dances wildly, her limbs and torso bending and twisting as they push at the picture’s edges. With her she takes the damned, as a vampiric head – severed by the clergy who stand in the background – bites onto her streaming hair.

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‘City of Women, Female Artists in Vienna 1900—1938’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Belvedere Museum Vienna

An explicit feminist statement was made in 1910, with the founding of the Austrian Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ). While a number of groups already admitted women – notably Eight Women Artists, founded in 1901, the Bund Österreichischer Künstler and Egon Schiele’s Neukunstgruppe – the VBKÖ had a profound impact on Vienna’s exhibition landscape, holding regular shows which featured up to 400 works by female artists. Their inaugural exhibition at the Secession, ‘The Art of the Woman’, was the first major international survey of its kind, including works from 1600 to 1910 by figures such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Judith Leyster and Berthe Morisot. A comparable show was not realized until 1976, with Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris’s ‘Women Artists: 1550–1950’.

The German artist Helene Funke made her Austrian debut at ‘The Art of the Woman’. At the VBKÖ’s next major show, in 1911, her work was a special focus, with 19 pieces installed across four rooms. Funke’s paintings are amongst the most arresting works at Belvedere. Along with Von Taussig, she was credited with having introduced fauvism to Austria, which she encountered during her time in Paris from 1905 to 1913. In Paris, Funke was part of Henri Matisse’s circle and shared an address with Gertrude and Leo Stein; as Julie M. Johnson argues in a 2008 article for Woman’s Art Journal, her work had a profound – if overlooked – influence on Austrian art, transmitting a more formalist modernism that departed from allegorical content. Her still lifes are particularly experimental – so often true of that format – pulsating with energetic lines and electric colours that almost obscure the subject. In Still Life with Pheasant, Hunter’s Head and Dog (1922), for instance, the bird oscillates between back- and foreground, its tessellated plumage blending with the flora. 

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Helene Funke, Pfirsich Stilleben (Peach Still Life), 1918, oil on canvas, 52 × 70 cm. Courtesy: Belvedere, Vienna

In 1938, the VBKÖ and all other women’s associations were Aryanized and forced to merge as the Künstlerverband Wiener Frauen, with Stephanie Hollenstein as president. The political climate of this period was deeply divisive. Hollenstein painted prolifically, her bucolic landscapes and village scenes chiming with the sentimentalism of Nazi propaganda. Her politicized idealism contrasts with the more overt statements made by Dicker-Brandeis and Waehner, whose works expressed a firm anti-fascist stance. Waehner’s drawing Future of This Youth (1932) conveys the violence of Nazism in no uncertain terms, depicting four skeletons in soldier’s attire, their helmets emblazoned with swastikas. Both she and Dicker-Brandeis trained at the Bauhaus and were active in the anti-fascist resistance upon their return to Vienna, organizing counterfeit identity documents for victims of racial and political persecution. An official inquiry into Dicker-Brandeis’s activities informed Interrogation I (1934) and Interrogation II (1934–38), which convey the trauma and loss of boundaries that this experience inflicted. Her only known self-portraits, these expressionist paintings are less about describing the woman than they are breaking her down: in the latter, the artist appears with eyes blacked-out and palms outstretched, her blood-stained flesh dissolving into the background.

World War II changed the face of Europe, leaving its mark on the present and how we understand the past. We no longer think of history in terms of progress, as an incremental series of definitive events. Rather, as feminist, queer and postcolonial approaches have shown, history is a living process, one that we are constantly recovering, reassessing and rewriting. ‘City of Women. Female Artists in Vienna 1900–1938’ presents a more egalitarian view of modern art, which repositions the women who helped shape it. While art history has long placed these women on the margins, their art tells us a different story.

Main image: Helene Funke, Dreams, 1913, oil on canvas, 115 × 135 cm. Courtesy: Belvedere, Vienna

Caroline Marciniak is editorial coordinator of frieze and is based in London. 

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