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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Blau specified that she had never been granted any major public commissions, despite the fame of such work as her 1882 canvas “Springtime in the Prater,” an idyllic depiction of a venerable public park in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district which was purchased for the city’s Belvedere picture collection. This occurred, Blau informed Schaeffer, because of her work’s “outstanding painterly qualities” and not because its setting was a local sentimental favorite. Indeed, the high soaring trees in “Springtime in the Prater,” dwarfing a woman and young girl who have paused beneath them, seem to express energetically exuberant aspirations, not mere gemütlichkeit, that cheery coziness which is a key element of Viennese kitsch sensibility.

As for Koller, a painter of interiors who focused on domestic subjects, she was no mere “painting housewife” as she was dubbed by art critics, any more than Pierre Bonnard or Edouard Vuillard were painting house-husbands. A friend of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, Koller won rave reviews from the noted critic Berta Zuckerkandl, who was born in Vienna of Galician Jewish origin. In 1911, Koller painted a monumental portrait of the contralto Emilie Bittner, the wife of the Austrian composer Julius Bittner, a close friend of Gustav Mahler’s. In this splashily decorative painting, which juxtaposes the sitter against wildly patterned wallpaper, Bittner expresses Gertrude Stein-like sedentary solidity, cradling her belly with her arms.

Koller’s “My Mother,” an oil on canvas from 1907, is rather more mysterious and cryptic than “Whistler’s Mother” despite being a side-view of a maternal figure, like that famous 1871 painting. Instead of being an idle object of filial adoration like Mrs. Whistler, Koller’s mother is hard at work on embroidery, with three-quarters of her face turned away from the viewer. “My Mother” shows an Austrian Jewish woman defined by labor, whose personality and identity seem so totally absorbed in what she is working at that the most essential aspect of any portrait, her face, becomes of secondary importance.

Much as she innovated in portraiture, Koller imaginatively renewed another traditional genre in a 1910 “Still Life with Fruit and Parrot” which mixes inanimate objects, including pears and grapes, with a definitely animate bird which may contain a measure of self-identification. After Koller died of ovarian cancer in 1934, a painter friend described in a published obituary how he had not long before painted her, “palette in hand, white haired, with the face of a merciless bird who inspects the fruit of still life.” Whatever her subject matter, Koller’s inspired view of interiors had a quasi-religious aura, as she wrote to her husband in 1909: “My house is like a temple. Peace and quiet surround me here. May God preserve it. That is often my wish.”

By the time the 1938 Anschluss destroyed any such sacred tranquility, Koller and Blau were already dead, and Ries had fled to Lugano, Switzerland where she survived the war but never again returned to Austria. Even before the Nazis eliminated all evidence of Jewish creativity, these three artists had long worked in a parallel sinister context of rank misogyny. Johnson cogently points out: “As a woman and a Jew, [Blau] was doubly Other in the city where Otto Weininger’s ‘Sex and Character,’ which popularized theories of the inferior creative potential of women and Jews, had been a bestseller.” Such theorists abetted the continued postwar oblivion of Ries, Blau, and Koller, as did art historians who inadvertently also buried the subject. That a change is overdue is one of the valuable lessons offered by Johnson’s book.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.