Book Review: Julie Johnson’s The Memory Factory

The Memory Factory reveals an astonishing picture of women artists thriving in fin-de-siècle Vienna

TVR Books | Kate Ferguson | Vienna 1900

Art Through Women’s Eyes

If you were a painter or sculptor living at the turn of the 20th century, Vienna was an exciting place to be. And not just for men. Aspiring women artists could study at the prestigious Wiener Kunstschule, an art academy exclusively for women, and while closed out of the conservative Viennese Association of Artists at the Künstlerhaus, the most talented had their work displayed at the Secession, the dramatic exhibition space of the progressive artists surrounding Gustave Klimt. Many – like Tina Blau and Teresa Feodorowna Ries – were household names at the time, whose work was widely popular and internationally recognised.

Today these names are largely forgotten, and their legacy eroded by decades of scholarship focussed almost exclusively on the men who dominated the field. And as many were Jewish, they were systematically erased by the Nazis from Austrian cultural history.

In The Memory Factory, Julie Johnson digs into the archives to reveal an astonishing picture of these women artists thriving in fin-de-siècle Vienna. In a quest to resurrect their lives and work, she considers the "remarkable gap between their fame and subsequent oblivion," as contrary to widespread belief; men and women artists of the period were not confined to separate spheres. Or at least not entirely.

Life for women artists in Vienna had much in common with the economic model of game theory, Johnson suggests, in an analogy as apt as it is surprising – that is, "a field in which players learn rules and how to manoeuvre them to their advantage." While they were officially excluded from prestigious all-male art societies, women still managed to have their work displayed in esteemed surroundings, and many gained recognition abroad. Vienna’s art world behaved a lot like its monarchy, she writes, governed by the principle of "absolutism mitigated by sloppiness".

Johnson writes crisply with none of the pretensions common in academia and progresses neatly between telling the individual stories of five women artists (Chapters 1-5) and examining in greater detail the culture in which they first flourished and were later obscured (Chapters 6-8). Illustrations of paintings and sculptures, distributed generously throughout, inject life into the stories behind them.

One was the Moscow-born sculptor Teresa Feodorowna Ries (1874-1950), who, in Johnson’s words, was "an art star who fashioned over life-size figures in marble, stone, plaster, and bronze – a nude witch sharpening her toenails, a Lucifer, a sculpture entitled Death, and an Eve in a Fetal Position." Among Ries’ fans were Mark Twain, of whom she made a bust, and Stefan Zweig, who profiled her in a book on genius. Her work was showcased in exhibitions in Rome and Paris and her sculptures were displayed at the Secession.

Despite enormous success during her lifetime, Ries’ work has been largely forgotten. While fin-de-siècle Vienna played host to her glittering career, it was the Third Reich that destroyed her legacy and much of her work. In 1938, Ries’ studio was Aryanised, taken over by an associate of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. She moved to the 7th District and finally emmigrated to Lugano, Switzerland in 1942, leaving her work behind. After the war, a few pieces that had survived were returned to the Museum of the City of Vienna (now the Wien Museum) and those that had been vandalised were restored in the 1990s. However, her work is rarely displayed.

Another artist whose work suffered a similar descent into obscurity was the landscape painter Tina Blau (1845-1916). Encouraged by her Jewish parents, she began to take art classes at the age of 15 under the tutelage of August Schaeffer, a member of the prestigious group of Künstlerhaus artists. Blau’s style, characterised by thick brushstrokes that obscured murky impressions of the landscape and figures lurking beneath, was emblematic of an innovative modernist aesthetic which others later emulated.

In 1882, at the first international art exhibition at the Künstlerhaus, the jury initially dismissed her light and airy Frühling im Prater (Spring in the Prater), claiming that it caused there to be "a hole in the wall". Others defended her, like French Minister of Fine Arts Antonin Proust, who immediately pronounced it "the best picture in the whole room". The large oil on canvas evokes figures in the Prater, the beautiful Viennese park where Blau had a studio and took daily walks. Clouds hang low over bare trees and three figures; two well-dressed ladies and a child stand by the bank of a stream protected by a parasol, their figures casting shadows across the grass. It is an accomplished piece of Stimmungsimpressionismus (atmospheric impressionism) and perhaps Blau’s most impressive work.

In later life, Schaeffer became jealous of his pupil’s critical and financial success and accused women artists of imagining that"in their efforts they are more rousing and dashing than the men" and of taking advantage of this position "for all they’re worth."

While being a woman certainly limited the reception of Blau’s work, it was on account of her religion that years after her death in 1916, her importance – comparable to the the French painter Marie Cassat – was brutally erased from the modernist canon. While Spring in the Prater was shown at the 1934 London exhibition, only four years later, it was removed from Austrian museums by order of the National Socialists. The Wiener Kunstschule für Frauen und Mädchen, the art school Blau had co-founded with writer and women’s rights advocate Rosa Mayreder and others, was closed down on the premise that since many of its pupils were Jews, it "could be considered a Jewish educational institution."

In spite of this, Johnson maintains that "Tina Blau applied paint differently on the canvas because of who she was" rather than "the fact that she was a woman and a Jew".  This is what Johnson finds problematic in the treatment of women artists: The tendency to subsume discussion of their individual experience in one on gender.

A case in point is Broncia Koller (1863–1934), who created graphic woodcuts which were taken up and displayed by the Klimt group. When after decades of obscurity, her work attracted new interest in the1980s, critics dismissed her domestic themes as the work of a "painting housewife" – effectively ignoring a career had included 46 major exhibitions, among them the prestigious Kunstschau in 1908. Far from representing female confinement, Johnson saw her penchant for interiority as at one with the ambitions of the Klimt group: to permeate life with art.


The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900

by Julie M. Johnson,

Purdue University Press (2012), pp. 368

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