Forgotten Females Found – The Story of Three Jewish Artists who were Censored by the Nazis and are being Rediscovered by the Art World
by Anna Niederlander
Being a woman pursuing a career in the art world has always been a struggle in past centuries and one could argue continues to be so today. Being a Jewish female artist during the time of the Second World War, when Nazi’s deemed modernism as “degenerate” was almost impossible. However, there are a few women who persevered, and their works are finally being acknowledged in a new exhibition at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.
The exhibition showcases works from over 60 female artists from the years of 1900-1938, and while a dominant amount are Austrian, many works from artists representing other nationalities are also featured. To put things into perspective, female students only were allowed to apply to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts starting from 1920. In 1910, frustrated by the sexist notions in the arts the Austrian Association of Women Artists (VBKö) was created. Female artists asserted themselves and actively shaped the arts scene at the beginning of the twentieth century. Just as many were starting to become respected and gaining deserved recognition, the Nazi regime not only drove many out of their countries, vandalized their works and studios, destroyed their current careers, but also successfully wiped out their names from the vocabulary of Art History for decades to come. In recent years there has been a strong push to increase research into the lives and works of many of these women, however their work are still vastly understudied and underappreciated. Three of these women are Friedl Dicker, Teresa Feodorowna Ries, and Broncia Koller-Pinell whose amazing stories and impact on the arts deserve to be remembered.
Friedl Dicker is one of the most inspiring but forgotten artists who was not only a painter, but also designed furniture, toys, textiles, costumes, and theater sets. She was also an educator who used art as a means of coping. She was born in Vienna on July 30th 1898, and from an early age pursued art studying at the Weimar Bauhaus under prominent professors like Paul Klee. Her works was very representative of the nature of Bauhaus art, in that it was not based on representing the pictorial reality of what was being depicted, but rather tried to seek the subject’s essence. This philosophy would be the guiding principle of Friedl’s own artwork and teachings. The cruel reality of the Nazi regime and its inner psychological effects on the victims can be seen in her work Interrogation I(1933), an expressive work with rapid and intense brush strokes.
On December 17th, 1942 her husband and her were deported to Theresienstad, a ghetto in the Czech Republic. With a baggage allowance of 50 kilos, Friedl choose to fill as much of it as she could with art supplies. The conditions in Theresienstadwere dreadful as starvation, illness and brutality were omnipresent. Children were forcefully separated from their families and made to live in overcrowded children homes. Though Friedl Dicker never had children, her compassion, enthusiasm and energy are what made her start her lessons where she set out to teach over 600 children in hope that art would provide an outlet to cope with the horrors of the Nazi regime. She noted that her purpose was less to “Unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure.” Before being sent to Auschwitz, Friedl packed 5,000 pieces of artwork into the 2 suitcases that she arrived with and hid them hoping they would be found after the war. Many of these drawings still remain today and to a great extent are the only thing that remain of most of Friedl’s 600 students, including herself as she was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. One of Friedl’s few students who survived the Nazi regime said,"Friedl's teaching, the times spent drawing with her, are among the fondest memories of my life… I think Friedl was the only one who taught without ever asking for anything in return. She just gave of herself."Forgotten for many years, art historians as well as the public have started to recognize that she was a martyr whose works of art tells a story that is just as important as what you read in history book and that through art she was able to find an outlet for the suffering.
Teresa Feodorowna Ries
One artist whose work is featured in the exhibition is Teresa Feodorowna Ries, a Jewish Russian Austrian artist who was known for her scandalous attitude. She was born in Moscow on January 30th1874. She was expelled from the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture for being disrespectful to a professor. Then at the age of 21 she decided to move to Vienna where she was first rejected by her desired mentor Edmund Heller stating, "it was pointless to teach women since they married anyway." She however persisted, and he finally agreed to become her teacher as it would grant him extra income. He soon realized her artistic talent and with his guidance she was able to showcase more works and gained more commissions.
In her first exhibition at the Vienna Künstlerhause she showcased a work that launched her career; a nude sculpture of a women clipping her toenails titled Witch Doing Her Toilette on Walpurgis Night. It caused a scandal and upset many art critics and colleagues. In her biography she noted one visitor saying,“That's the Ries ?! You should forbid her entry. How can she submit to making such a hideous grin out of a noble marble ?!” A quality like marble had been used for centuries to depict divine and beautiful beings like The Three Graces, however Ries did not just choose the subject of a witch, a figure that still made people uncomfortable, but one that was clipping her toenails, a mundane action that many deemed did not deserve to be depicted in any work of art, no matter what medium. Stefan Zweig, the famous Austrian novelist and playwriter describes the work: “the lascivious-expectant smile that dreams of the diabolical orgies, the sensuality that can hardly be restrained… A sultry, confusing, satanic mood is all realized in this one figure.”
In a world where women were not meant to think differently and where few were brave enough to take on the medium of sculpture, Ries broke all the conventions. Her fame was unparalleled to any woman at the time, and people such as Mark Twain commissioned her to produce busts of themselves. She even published a memoir called Die Sprache des Steines (The Language of Stone) in 1928. However, her career was constantly undermined by the blatant discrimination of women in the art world. The Nazi’s shut down her studio in 1938, however she still continued to work secretly in Vienna until 1942 when she was forced to flee to Lugano in Switzerland. Herworks have been largely lost or destroyed and her legacy of being one of the first women who was brave enough to stand up against misogynist prejudices has greatly been forgotten today.
The painter Albert Paris Gütersloh wrote in his obituary: “Because she was a woman, Jewish and rich, male and poor people could not acknowledge her worth”. Pinell was born on February 25th, 1863 to a Jewish wealthy family, who supported her talent and allowed her to start taking art classes at the age of 18. Unique at the time, she was allowed to travel around Europe as a young woman, frequently visiting Paris to study impressionist art. She is said to be the first to bring attributes of French Impressionism into Austrian painting, and her work became closely tied to the Klimt Group, Sezession, and Wiener Werkstätten.
She married Hugo Koller, a Catholic physician and physicist, at the age of 33, after she was already pregnant with his child and after she had already established her career in the arts. Her late marriage was seen as abnormal and her family did not consent of the marriage. The Kollers became influential patrons to artists such as Egon Schiele, as well as their salon became a popular haven for artists, musicians, scholars, philosophers, and others, amongst them Siegmund Freud. She often times painted landscapes, still life, genre and portraits and was known for her skill in woodcut prints. She made paintings of nude women which was still considered scandalous at the time, especially when made by a woman. She often times depicted women in their domestic households, but instead of showing the happy housewife, she exposed the claustrophobic and confined spaces that women were captured in and the reality of this gendered space. Her work Seated Marietta(1907), shows this in the unidealized nude women who sits awkwardly in her bed and confronts the viewer with her gaze. Another one of her most famous works that was purchased by the emperor was Harvest (1908) which depicted the reality of peasant life in a harmonious way.
She was distinguished, lively, extremely tolerant and always enjoyed the endless discussions that took place in her salon as she was never afraid of controversial subjects and heated arguments. Though she was scorned for her refusal to convert to Catholicism after marrying her husband and told that now that she married there was no need for her to continue her arts practice, she persevered and continued a career in the arts till her death on April 26th, 1934. Though she was in the midst of the artist circles of her time in Vienna and had a successful career by partaking in numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally, she was never accepted among many of her male colleagues for she was a woman and she was prosperous.
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