The Better Half: Jewish Women and European Art

Grete Wolf-Krakauer
Untitled (Composition II), 1917
Oil on canvas
90.5 x 81 cm
Jewish Museum Vienna, inv. no. 21787
Photo by David Peters

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

In considering the function of the European Jewish museum, I wrote last month that part of its mission ought to be to “focus on, highlight, and augment the Jewish perspective and the Jewish contribution to national or European life and culture.” Even better, the national Jewish museum should pick out an aspect of Jewish history or contemporary Jewish life that the outsider as visitor – and most visitors to Jewish museums are outsiders, in one way or another – would not otherwise know about, had they not chosen to set foot inside the exhibition.

It is highly unlikely, for example, that tourists and visitors to Vienna would know about the role of Jewish female painters and sculptors in the early days of the modernist movement in the city, were it not for the eye-catching new exhibition currently running at the Jewish Museum Vienna, “The Better Half: Jewish Women Artists Before 1938.” Nor, to that end, would the work of the Austrian photographer and journalist Michael Horowitz be accessible to us, save in the form of that very same museum’s current photographic exhibition.

Bettina Ehrlich-Bauer
Selbstporträt, 1928, zeitgenössische Fotografie nach dem verschollenen Gemälde (nachkoloriert)
© Archiv des Belvedere, Wien,
Foto: Bruno Reiffenstein

What “The Better Half” welcomingly alerts us to is that among the women who, at the turn of the twentieth century, were able to pursue an artistic career – in doing so overcoming numerous social conventions, restrictions, and societal prejudices – a disproportionate number came from assimilated Jewish families. This is, evidently, an important trend, and yet as the exhibition is clear to state, most of these Jewish female artists have been forgotten, and therefore there is something of a duty to restore them to their rightful position within the history of Austrian and indeed European art.

The pioneer was Tina Blau. The first woman in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to pursue a professional career as an artist in the mold of her male counterparts, Blau belonged to a loose collective of artists known as the ‘mood impressionists,’ a movement that began to develop in 1870. Noted for her craft, composition, and use of color in landscape paintings including 1902’s “Krieau in the ‘Prater,’” her contemporary, the painter and critic Adalbert F. Seligmann, said in 1909 of Blau, “She is the first among us who saw and made light and air modern at a time when even our most famous and well-known landscape painters stuck to certain traditional coloristic formulas.”

Following Blau, in the early twentieth century, Jewish female artists formed an integral part of a Viennese avant-garde, with Broncia Koller contributing to the field of abstract art. Margarete Hamerschlag became known for her expressive woodcuts, Lilly Steiner produced watercolors and oil paintings notable for their intense use of color, while Friedl Dicker pushed boundaries with her socio-political photo collages and bold approach to life drawing, then regarded as something of a taboo topic for women. The likes of Hermine Heller-Ostersetzer and Marie-Louise Motesiczky became attracted to tackling and reacting to big societal changes in their work, including industrialization, poverty, and repression.

It should be remembered that at this time, women were not allowed to study at the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. (The prohibition existed until 1920.) Thus for Jewish female artists of the period, other institutions grew in importance and were in receipt of patronage from prominent Viennese Jewish families, including the Kunstschule für Frauen und Mädchen (later renamed the Wiener Frauenakademie).

Just as they were beginning to make an impression on the Viennese art scene, particularly in the 1920s, a dispersal of this band of Jewish female artists began: some to the New York such as Vally Wieselthier, known for her work in ceramics; some to Berlin; others to London, Italy, Switzerland, Brazil, and on and on. Artists like Lili Réthi, who drew pictures of construction sites, built new lives for themselves overseas, in this case New York, where she became widely known for her depictions of bridges and dams, and illustrations for books, newspapers, and magazines. The year 1938 hastened this scattering, and brought the curtain down on this period in Austrian cultural history.

Helene Taussig
The Dancer Harald Kreutzberg, 1930/40
Oil on canvas
63 x 41 cm
Privately owned

It seems more than a little trite to say that, touring the exhibition, one comes away with a feeling of a budding movement of female artists stamped out before it had an opportunity to come into full bloom. Perhaps, then, the original revelation of “The Better Half” is the astonishing multitudes that artistic Jewish women managed to produce and show, not only within a brief window of time, but in a period when their participation in the artistic world was less than welcome. From landscape to photography, sculpture to engraving, Jewish female artists at the turn of the twentieth century were not only prolific and prodigious but bold, too.

“The rediscovery of these outstanding artists,” the exhibition concludes, “is long overdue.” Indeed it is.

At the present time, the Jewish Museum Vienna is also playing host to an exhibition of the photographs of the journalist and writer Michael Horowitz, who among other achievements founded the magazine freizeit, printed by the Austrian center-left daily newspaper Kurier. The exhibition is broken up into two rooms: the first of which focuses on his black-and-white photographs from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s; the second introduces color and therefore more contemporary work, not only from Austria but around the world.

As a collection, Horowitz’s photographs move between the ordinary and the extraordinary; between the faces of Leonard Bernstein, Andy Warhol, and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, the hopeful visages of beautiful young women, and the tired expressions of everyday Viennese people living in what was thought of, in the 1970s, as the end of the world. He captures not only the monotony of life but also the unusual and eccentric to be found within it, while his recent work elucidates the ways in which Vienna has changed and is changing, be it multiculturalism or the rise of political radicalism.

“The Better Half: Jewish Women Artists Before 1938” runs at the Jewish Museum Vienna on Dorotheergasse until May 1. “Horowitz: Fifty Years of Portrait Photos” runs at the Jewish Museum Vienna on Judenplatz until May 28.