Image, Identity and Change

The Austrian National Library presents a stunning collection of travel posters, offering a window into the country’s self-image over time

On The Town | Lauren McKay | September 2012

Photo: ÖNB

Graced with stunning landscapes and seasonal weather to suit all tastes, Austria has long been one of the world’s top tourist destinations. And it’s easy to see why in the vivid and often stunning exhibit of travel posters from the Austrian National Library collection on display through 28 October.

Welcome to Austria: A Summer Journey in Pictures (Wilkommen in Österreich: eine sommerliche Reise in Bildern) presents 70 tourism graphics from the Library’s archives, offering

a glimpse into the country’s evolving self-

image and cultural values across a century of change and upheaval.

Held in the Library’s baroque Prunksaal, the exhibit is dwarfed by some 200,000 priceless rare books that line the shelves along curving balconies reaching up to the ceiling. It takes several minutes to absorb the magnificence of the room – the frescoes on the ceilings, the inlaid panels over the cupola – before attention can finally drift back down to the exhibition itself. There is plenty to take in, the posters organised along six geographical and chronological themes, accompanied by brochures, guides and personal photographs. Running from the 1890s to the 1970s, the artwork can be roughly grouped into three eras, each with a distinctive style: pre-war, inter-war and post-war.

Pre-war: 1890s – 1913

Gustav Jahn’s Mittenwaldbahn is typical of this period. A Jugendstil border frames a valley and the mountains surrounding it. But although the poster is titled Mittenwald Train, and a diagram maps the route of the Staatsbahn, the train itself never appears. The focus is on the beauty of the Austrian countryside, a rugged mountain dominating the space, with a mouse hole of a railway tunnel cut out and tracks disappearing inside.

The message? A Mittenwaldbahn ticket buys you the discovery of this unspoiled landscape. The colours are muted, calming blues, greens and browns. There are no people: the railway is an escape from the pressures and bustle of urban life – and one that everyone can afford.


Inter-war: 1920 – 1938

After the disbanding of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919, and thus its imperial railway, the focus of the posters shifts. The landscape is still a prominent feature, but now the posters introduce images of the people enjoying it. The background of Bernd Steiner’s Holidays in Austria shows roughly sketched mountains enveloping a lake. But the poster is busy with people. Heads bob in the water. Families lie on the sand or stand chatting in bathing suits. Parasols and beach balls are the colours of the Austrian flag, as is the writing in red – the only text on the poster – at the very bottom: "Holidays in Austria". The image tells the whole story.

Posters from the late ‘30s and ‘40s conformed to Nazi standards. Swastikas appear, and the names of the provinces change, like Carinthia, which becomes the German South. And then after the war, due to shortages of paper and presses, the same posters are reused. Only the references to the Reich and the Aryans are covered up, either written over or just left blank.


Post-war: 1945 – 1970s

Until the State Treaty was finally signed in 1955, a hobbled Austrian economy was viewed as a Soviet puppet, and the Allies were wary of former Nazis in government. The Soviets stripped assets in Lower Austria and Burgenland; wages and prices were capped to stabilise the currency.

Austria’s surviving resources were that stunning landscape and a rich cultural heritage. These they sold to tourists, helping to create a new, positive image of Austria to replace the horrors of the war. "We need tourism," announced the aging Federal President Karl Renner, "so we will invite all of the world as guests."

A new set of posters emerged, in a playful, vivid, and almost cartoon-like style. Ilse Jahanass’ Charming Austria exemplifies this approach, featuring a typical lake and mountain scene, topped with blue skies. A dirndl-clad blonde is at the centre, proffering a bunch of flowers in one arm. Pastel colours, in her dress and in the background, represent happiness and new beginnings, and Austria is presented as a sweet, sedate retreat, full of picturesque towns and charming damsels to entertain.

As statistics show, this marketing campaign clearly worked. In 1950, 16.1 million overnight stays were recorded in Austria; within 20 years this had risen to 86.3 million. Austria was well on its way to becoming a prime holiday destination once again. But times were changing. The exhibit ends as tourism posters turn from graphic design and hand-drawn posters towards photography.

This is one exhibit that lives up to its promise; Welcome to Austria takes us on a journey through this country’s history, giving insight into the changing face of tourism and the enduring society behind it, all the more remarkable for the social and political changes endured along the way.

Today, Austria Tourism’s claim is "Vienna: Now or Never!" One leaves this exhibit wondering how that will sound in 100 years.


Wilkommen in Österreich

Through 28 Oct.

Prunksaal der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek 

1., Josefsplatz 1

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