Julie Johnson’s book The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 is wonderful. She writes:
The Memory Factory, refers to Vienna as a site for fabricating history. Vienna was indeed a place where intellectuals and artists ‘thought with history,’ and participated in providing their own historical narratives (P 3, quoting Schorske 1998).
I’m working on writing something on Vienna, and everything written about fin-de-siecle Vienna is about men. Men, men, more famous men. There are some mentions of the women who stand by them but mostly those who betray them. God, that Alma Mahler. There is a sprinkling of mothers. It wouldn’t be surprising if women couldn’t flourish in the arts in such a climate of misogyny as Johnson details on these pages (and that is detailed on many another page, believe you me).
But they did. A splendid few, their work is amazing. This is a book that looks both in depth at their work, its connections to a wider modernist movement and to the art of Vienna of the period, an art book. But it also looks at how these women have been removed from the canon, removed from accounts of Vienna, removed from galleries, and erased from our understanding of the past. She quotes Trouillot’s work on the erasures of the Haitian Revolution, which is one of the books I love most. That is about erasure of resistance to Empire and white supremacy. There is a whole field of work on the erasure of women I did not yet know. There is Joan W. Scott, who
believes all history writing depends upon identification — a selective delving into the past–in a process that uses fantasy to create coherence out of chaos. The repetitions or ‘echoes,’ of history are part of this process: there are inevitable distortions that occur over time and over the generations, but identification is required for these repetitions to take place. This is as true for the established canon as it is for new research on women artists. (4)
These repetitions are key in building understandings of history. The amount of work on certain artists and pieces adds to their aura and position, which can become so exaggerated that others are erased. The Memory Factory.
Such examples from the discipline of art history support the proposal of some historians that memory is by definition repetition. (4)
There opens a memory gap where women’s participation slowly becomes invisible — how else to explain the false understanding that women did not exhibit art publicly in fin-de-siecle Vienna when arguably they were more prominent then than they often are now? That astonishes me, actually. This is not a project rescuing competent artists who were never enough appreciated because of their gender, though that would be worth doing. Nor is it fighting for wider appreciation of more ‘feminine’ and interior domestic scenes as high art the way Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin’s separate spheres model is used to explain the aesthetics of Morisot and Cassatt. In Vienna, it is a project uncovering works of astonishing strength and power that were much admired and displayed and copied in their time. It’s uncovering modernist art of landscapes, nudes, still lifes, challenging portraits…nothing in short, that does not achieve excellence within the very male canon.
Their loss from descriptions of Vienna’s fin-de-siecle glory is rooted not just in misogyny, but also in Vienna’s antisemitism and all of WWII’s erasures. A fascinating example of how much was lost is that in 1977 an exhibition of women artists from the Renaissance to the 1950s was held in Vienna, that was
credited with launching new research that has led to changes in the canon, now visible in the inclusion of women artists in survey books and virtual memory systems for students of art history.
It took them 5 years and the women described it as starting from scratch. In 1910 a very similar exhibition was held and very successfully, bringing together art from around Europe as well as showcasing working artists. It was put together in only 6 months…between these two dates there was clearly an erasure, not least of the documentation of the earlier exhibition.
So it is not just in the processes of creating memory we must look, but on the processes that erase it, how women have been excluded.
Another interesting note? Over one-third of the Kunstschau exhibitors in 1908 were women, as were members of Schiele’s Neukunstgroup in 1909. (164) For Museum of Modern Art’s International Survey of Painting and Sculpture in 1984, only ten percent were women. (247)
The exclusion of women from art’s history appears to have been favourable for men’s prominence in major exhibitions.
There are some interesting concepts of identity and the way gender parallels race as well:
Kutluh Ataman, one of many contemporary artists who deal with how race is represented, has put it aptly: “I do not think identity belongs to the individual. Identity is like a jacket. People you never see will make it and you wear it. Identity is something other than you, outside of you. It’s a question of perception. You can be aware of it and manipulate it, play with it, amplify it, or mask it for infinite reasons.” (10)
For Eleanor Heartney, identity
is like a reflection in still water–it is only clearly visible until you reach out and try to grasp it in your hand.
I rather like those two, I need to think more about them.
I also realised I will throw around the words modern and Modernism occasionally, but have never been entirely sure what official (and I am sure contested) definitions of those might be as it is not especially my field. So I found it interesting that Vienna is
characterized as birthplace of modernism, but only in fields outside the history of art–in cultural studies, philosophy, science, music, psychology, architecture, and literature… By Modernism with a capital M, I refer to the doctrine articulated best by Clement Greenberg: that the best art is self-critical about its own medium and is autonomous.(10)
Thus material takes precedence over subject, so for Greenberg Manet is the 1st Modernist painter as the paint came first for him — Klimt on the other hand uses allegory, combination of abstraction and naturalistic bodies.
By “autonomy” Greenberg meant freedom from social context and politics. This is why the white cube space of the art gallery is so well suited to sowing modernist works–it removes them into an aesthetic vacuum, where the works relate to each other in a historical progression. (11)
Freedom from context and politics… that is quite fascinating as a definition as well, that wouldn’t have occurred to me though in thinking about art for arts sake and views of the life and role of the artist I see it has been there lurking in my head to some extent all the time. Aesthetically some of the most prominent women, Koller, Luksch-Makowsky, Funke and Blau are clearly part of and pushing the modernist canon, though as women they have been systematically left out of it.
The idea that women were not part of Modernism, and only became important public artists in the postmodern phase, had become a truism in the history of art by 1986. This study aims to correct that misperception. (13)
And it does, artist by artist.
She had a significant public exhibition record, was given a studio in the prater (a beautiful central park) where the World Exhibition had been held together with another (male) artist named Schindler, in 1879 it became all her own. She was singled out by Prince Regent Luitpold and he regularly visited her there.
It’s important to remember that artists in Vienna never saw themselves as breaking away politically from anything at all. As Johnson remarks later.
Unlike Berlin, where a rift between the avant-garde and the government was an expected part of life, in Vienna the approval of the emperor was a crucial endorsement.
Tina Blau won this endorsement, thus she was envied by her peers and former teacher Shaeffer (who again and again is seen to be working to denigrate his female students and bury their work away from public gaze). He even describes her in a rather nasty review as the student of Schindler, when he knew better as her actual teacher that the artists had simply shared studio space. She was innovative and brought impressionism to Vienna, had pictures rejected by the Kunstlerhaus as being too progressive, drew amazing landscapes, was very successful in Paris — yet never seen as part of movement. Johnson argues part of that was the mythologies created by the secession artists themselves around father-son relationships, and brotherhood. They couldn’t bear the idea of a mother-son relationship in art, so Blau could not be seen as an early forerunner of their movement or part of Modernism itself.
Yet Spring in the Prater — and all of her paintings — are wondrous. This was bought by the emperor.
Above all I love that her paintings show women in public space and unlike the men, she shows they could inhabit public space without being whores. A number of the artists who are women do that. I wonder if that was infuriating.
She was retiring, never wanted her work associated with gender, but did attempt in her 50s to correct misperceptions of her life and work. She taught at the Art School for Women and Girls, and one of her students was Rosa Mayreder, one of the most well-known feminists of the time, who published a wonderful review of her work. Tina Blau responded thus, in a way that breaks my heart a little but emphasises why reviewing people’s work is very important indeed even beyond the highlighting of excellence and the repetitions that ensure work is known and remembered:
…no one has written like you have, and I will read your article again when I am sad and depressed about the lack of success that I was supposed to get used to and that I did get used too: and then I would agree with you, that my way of being carries some of the blame. (37)
A street was named after her. When she died in 1916, numerous celebrations of her life were held, and in 1933 there was a retrospective exhibition.
Then in 1938 all her paintings removed from galleries as she was a Jew. The street name changed, her name was erased. And then there were those constructing the histories of art in this period, influential art critic Julius Maeier-Graefe for example:
A woman with genius? The thought gives one the shivers. Unhealable sickness, a kind of elephantiasis. (26)
She had her own signature block as part of secession group of artists — her husband was a member and she worked to all intents and purposes as one also, though without voting rights. She was on their hanging and design committees for the Raumkunst installations, her work always appearing there.
She also participated in art collectives Wiener Kunst im Hause and the Wiener Werkstatte.
She was responsible for an entire issue of their in-house magazine Ver Sacrum showing her amazing woodcuts — though somehow this is an issue not reproduced in glossy collections. She drew on Russian folktales and stories for these, along with broadsheets and a whole array of crafts. This is one of her more famous paintings, and it is arresting, below is the painting as it was integrated into the 17th secession exhibition:
For all of these women, for a time, Johnson argues Vienna was cosmopolitan and diverse and actually did offer possibilities for women working as public artists. Pictures such as this one were celebrated.
And ‘public art’? These wonderful friezes:
She moved with her husband to Hamburg, and during difficult times of inflation and war, Luksch-Makowsky trapped rabbits, gardened, harvested, made everything at home.
She too excluded from histories — Johnson points out not by the Klimt group itself, but by contemporary historians.
…when she was rediscovered in the 1980s, she was described as a “painting housewife”
Johnson writes, yet
…she was a serious artist who presented her work in no fewer than forty-six art exhibitions…
Koller was a member of Klimt’s artist association (Kunstschau group), a founding member of Egon Shiele’s New Secession. She was often to be found at the Cafe Museum with Klimt, Wagner, Moser, Hoffman et al, and noted as one of ‘the greats’ in at least one diary. Her focus was much more on interiority — named by Schorske as
a key component of the aesthetic of Vienna 1900, and links developments in interior design to the psychological discoveries of Freud and innovative interior monologues of Arthur Schnitzler.
Interesting that in the 1980s, the label of domesticity and decoration seen as opposite of modernism — of interiority? They were seen as secluded, cocooned, away from the outside world and its risks. Away from the crowds. This is a difference between art emerging from Vienna and that of other key centres — for the artists of Vienna, it was all about art in life, art as part of life.
Klimt, in his opening speech for Kunstschau 1908, declared the unity of his group and their belief that:
no area of human life was too insignificant or narrow to offer space for artistic striving, that in the words of Morris, even the most unseemly thing, when it is perfectly made, adds to the beauty of this earth, and that progress in culture is founded on permeating life with artistic intention.
Yay Morris (himself intensely political in this belief, which is also curious in the way that seems to be dropped — a true act of ‘Modernism’?). Interesting too that for Klimt, and prominent critic Bahr, studio space, quiet space was
where reason prevailed, unlike the crowds of the street. In Bahr’s scenario, the interior was gendered as masculine and calm while the exterior figured as feminine and unruly, dominated by the unknowing masses. This is the opposite of the Baudelairean vision of public and private, masculine and feminine domains… (134)
Again to return to the interesting division between this kind of view and its inclusion of craft and decorative detail and that of more traditionally understood ‘Modernism’ (I know I need to dig more here into how other people understand this) as opposed to this, where instead:
the decorative, the add-on, the nonessential, and the detail’ as ‘the foil for Modernism, which was seen as adventurous, daring, out in the world, and an art that is avant-garde, autonomous, essential, and self-critical’
For Koller there was no such binary really. And look at these:
The female nude was a genre that allowed the avant-garde to distinguish themselves from conservative artists in the nineteeth century. It became a vehicle for making claims to the new, which Modernist artists often did…
I love this painting, how different this slightly awkward pose, this returned gaze between model and artist — not about sex but just, ‘is this the pose you want?’ Maybe a little, ‘are you done yet?’
How better to challenge the genre? I love this one too:
The book looks at how these pictures influence Shiele, Erwin Lang, how influences of women’s art upon men are never acknowledged.
Funke was part of Matisse’s circle in Paris, lived in an apartment building there with Gertrude and Leon Stein. She enjoyed great success in Vienna, but survived the years of inflation and war by becoming a cleaning lady. Fauvist art is not perhaps my favourite, but she was a brilliant artist on the cutting edge of that tradition working there in Vienna, exhibiting there in Vienna, celebrated in Vienna. Then forgotten.
I love this one though, playfully responding to the art of male gazes and women on display.
Ries’s fortune was made when the emperor himself singled out her statue of ‘The Witch’ during an exhibition, and asked to speak to her. Critics quickly changed their opinions of a female sculptor.
The witch is uncanny and truly splendid.
Her Eve is beautiful as well.
The Prince of Lichtenstein allowed her to use a grand suite of rooms next to his picture gallery as her studio. Being Jewish, this studio was later plundered, her history erased, and her statues hacked and defaced.
Better to remember the ugliness of which fascists are capable, but Teresa Ries at her best. Her Lucifer, sculpted years before Rodin’s Thinker:
Like here in her studio with Mark Twain.
There was Olga Wisinger-Florian, an accomplished impressionist painter herself after a career as a pianist was cut short by an injury to her hand. I love this painting:
More women in public space, talking amongst themselves, not being whores. Wisinger-Florian exhibited widely both in Vienna and Europe, and worked tirelessly to promote the exhibition of women’s paintings. With Marianne Eschenberg she formed the ‘8 Women Artists’ in 1901, curating a highly successful exhibition at the Salon Pisko. They would hold annual exhibitions. She was also active in the Association of Women Writers and Artists of Vienna (VSKW) founded in 1885, formed to ‘promote professional interest and eventually to offer a pension plan for women artists in need.’ This parallel the self-help offer of men-only artists unions.
There was the Art School of Women and Girls, where Tina Blau and a number of secessionist artists taught. Its graduates formed the Radierclub Wiener Künstlerinnen, or Print Club of Women Artists in 1903, ‘to promote the arts of printmaking in Austria and “win new friends” for the graphic arts by publishing original hand-pulled prints in affordable portfolios.’
I adore their logo.
There was the Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ), founded in 1908 and recognised and supported by the State as an art association. Interestingly, many of the women, both in the exhibitions held by the VBKÖ and ‘8 Women Artists’ felt ambivalent about them, hoping they would act more as a key to opening up the men-only artist groups to women’s membership rather than remaining as separate and gendered institutions. As Johnson writes of the VBKÖ, ‘The group wanted to prove that being separate was a mistake…If the exhibition were successful, the VBKÖ would “no longer be necessary.”‘ (278)
They faced a great challenge, however, despite the success of some in exhibiting alongside men. Above all the strange layers of misogyny floating around Vienna at the time. One of the most curious that of Otto Weininger, who wrote Sex and Character as a thesis that barely passed, but became a huge publishing success in 1903. He had a strange, partly even possibly progressive argument that everyone had some masculine and feminine essence within them through gendered plasma particles coursing through the bloodstream (crikey), but that genius and intellect alone belonged to the male. So successful women ‘were actually dominated by the “M,” or masculine, substance. Something in between a man and a woman.
There were other ideas about how painting was similar to applying makeup, which attracted women to it and defined their painting technique. There is also the narcissism of themselves on display, the love of gaudy colour and fabric. One reviewer of the 1910 retrospective of women’s art described how the pictures seduced the ‘unsuspecting male’.
He credited members of the installation committee with “feminine slyness and clever calculation” in their ability to “capture the visitor…Before a critical word has formed on the lips, a conciliatory, friendly, receptive mood has been awakened in the spectator. (318)
Adolf Loos himself in his polemics against the ornamental and decorative wrote:
Whenever I abuse the object of daily use by ornamenting it, I shorten its life span . . . subject to fashion, it dies sooner. Only the whim and ambition of women can be responsible for the murder of this material. (322)
Which makes you hate him. But then, surprisingly, he also comes around with the argument that:
Ornament is something that must be overcome…But we are approaching a new and greater time. No longer by an appeal to sensuality, but rather by economic independence earned through work will the woman bring about her equal status with the man. The woman’s value or lack of value will no longer fall or rise according to the fluctuation of sensuality. Then velvet and silk, flowers and ribbons, feathers and paint will fail to have their effect. They will disappear. (80)
This conversation ended with the Nazis. Johnson writes by 1945,
approximately three generations of women artists had been — for racist or political reasons, rarely aesthetic ones — erased, driven into exile, deported to concentration camps, their works removed from museum walls and public settings. (337)
This was the destruction of both women’s artwork, and women themselves, as well as the history of women as public artists. Only in 1988 did Austria recognise it was not just a victim of the Nazis, but participated in their cleansings. Given that many of the same collaborating artists, museum personnel and critics continued operating there was little hope of recuperating and recovering women’s art removed from walls and studios, much less that of Jewish women. It seemed that it has been many of their children who have worked hardest to save what could be saved, and to bring their work to the public once again.
The highlighting and constant repetition of certain stories of art in Vienna, the functioning of the memory factory, meant the silencing of others. There is so much here both in terms of extraordinary art, but also around memory and forgetting, historiography, identity… wonderful.
[Johnson, Julie M. (2012) The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900. West Lafayette, IN: Perdue University Press.]