Turn-of-Century Vienna Artists Deserve Second Look

Three Forgotten Jewish Women Made Bold Statements

The impressionist artist Tina Blau was known for her idyllic landscapes.
Wikimedia Commons
The impressionist artist Tina Blau was known for her idyllic landscapes.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published January 12, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
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When writing of great Viennese artists, influential historians such as Carl Schorske in his landmark “Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture” do not even mention sculptor Teresa Ries (1874-1956), Impressionist landscape painter Tina Blau (1845-1916), and figurative artist Bronica Koller (1863-1934). But posterity can play strange tricks. And now, in “The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900” author Julie Johnson makes a strong argument that these once-celebrated Jewish artists have been unjustly overlooked.

Johnson, a University of Texas art historian, notes how all three women shared a strong sense of self-worth and a penchant for making bold statements, and not only artistic ones. The Russian-born Ries was expelled from the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts for scolding a teacher who did not evaluate her classwork. After she was established as a celebrity sculptor in Vienna, Ries — whose admirers included Stefan Zweig and Mark Twain, who sat for a portrait — penned her 1928 memoirs, “The Language of Stone,” a powerful, feminist document. In it, Ries dismissed critics and museum-goers who claimed that her heroic, sometimes tormented marble carvings were influenced by Auguste Rodin: “That is often the first impression of lay people, somewhat in the way that for Europeans, all blacks look alike.” Ries further dismissed the “opinion that the man is necessarily the inseminator, also in art,” and added that her works, especially a once-famous statue of “Lucifer” actually preceded Rodin’s “Thinker,” which supposedly influenced it.

In a 1902 self-portrait, an oil on canvas now in The Vienna Museum, the statuesque Ries, garbed in her artist’s smock, strikes a haughtily prideful pose, challenging the viewer much as she challenged readers in her autobiography. The artist’s fiery temperament can be deduced from another passage from “The Language of Stone,” describing her 1909 marble sculpture “Eve” which depicts the Bible’s first woman in a cowering fetal posture: “I could not understand why the woman could not gain a better position in history, that the secondary role in the history of humankind seemed to suffice — woman, in whose womb humanity begins and ends! I could not understand why the women of my time were content to rely on the moody love-whims of men. And yet, this seemed to be the fate of women since the time of Eve, since the first sin.”

Blau, whose exuberantly soaring depictions of trees in Vienna parks brought a light-drenched palette to subject matter usually dealt with in somber Old Master fashion by contemporary male painters, was less public in her statements. Yet like Ries, she possessed a firm conviction of her own value.

In a 1900 letter to Auguste Schaeffer, a friend and teacher, Blau wrote: “If I were not a woman, my works would be viewed not only as independent but also ahead of their time in Vienna, just as they were in Paris and Munich. I am valued by my colleagues, but nonetheless when it really counts for me to be treated as an equal, to be honored and included because of the value of my work, I am always left out.”


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