Faded Brushstrokes

The estate of artist Grete Wolf-Krakauer - featuring portraits and landscapes mainly from Vienna and Mandatory Palestine, along with correspondence and clippings - sheds light on an exciting, albeit nearly forgotten life story

Grete Wolf-Krakauer, an established and successful artist in Vienna, arrived in Palestine with her 2-year-old daughter, Trude, in late 1924. She was following in the footsteps of her husband, artist-architect Leopold Krakauer, who had won an architecture competition in the country and shortly thereafter joined Alexander Baerwald's firm in Haifa.

Portrait of Trude with a doll, 1929

Wolf was part of the social circle that made Vienna a thriving and fascinating city in the early 20th century; like many members of this group, she was Jewish. Her circle shaped the reality of the period, and believed in promoting art, Bildung (education ) and the possibility of creating a new society.

Born in Moravia but raised in Vienna from infancy, Wolf studied with a leading Austrian female artist of that period, Tina Blau (a subject of renewed interest in recent years ), at the Kunstschule fur Frauen und Madchen (art school for women and girls ), where almost the entire faculty was Jewish. During World War I she studied with Johannes Itten, was on friendly terms with Egon Schiele (and also the subject of two portraits painted by him, in 1913 and shortly before his death in 1918 ), and was both a student and friend of Adolph Hoelzel - a towering artist and an authority on contemporary European art at the beginning of the last century.

Wolf studied in Vienna, Munich and Stuttgart, establishing herself as an independent artist, working mainly in portraiture and on a variety of graphic projects. Photographs from the period capture her metamorphosis: from a young girl in a lace dress, corset and frilly hat, to an artist with bobbed hair in a painter's smock, standing beside an easel bearing a portrait of a black man, and looking proudly at the camera.

The Wolf-Krakauer estate, now in the possession of her daughter, Prof. Trude Dothan (an Israel Prize laureate in archaeology ), contains a treasure trove of portraits, mainly from Vienna and Mandatory Palestine, along with landscape paintings, including urban scenes. Lovingly preserved letters, books and magazines tell an exciting life story that is also a typical emigration story, without a happy end. Indeed, Wolf, who died in 1970, remained to the end estranged from the surroundings in which she spent half her life.

Wolf's first solo show took place when she was 23, in 1913, at the gallery of Hugo Heller, a publisher and bookstore owner who was Sigmund Freud's publisher until the 1920s. She herself was close to the circle of psychoanalysts around Freud (which was exclusively Jewish until Carl Jung joined in 1907 ), and liked to recount that Freud asked her to illustrate his essay on Michelangelo's "Moses" (omitting the fact that he was disappointed with her work and ended up using drawings by Max Pollack ).

After World War I, Wolf worked with Dr. Alfred Adler, who pioneered the psychological treatment method that bears his name, and taught painting to his patients as part of their therapy. She also painted a portrait of him, rendered in strong lines with Cubist inflections.

Wolf, from a bourgeoisie family that lived comfortably off the profits of an alcohol distillery, was affiliated with the socialist circles whose rise to power in the municipality of Vienna spelled the brief, golden age of a social-cultural welfare system, between 1919 and 1925; the city was referred to at the time as Red Vienna.

Wolf was involved in one of the most fascinating educational experiments of the early 20th century: the foundation of a society for rearing postwar orphans and abandoned or indigent children. Wolf painted portraits of most of the teachers involved in the organization's school, including sociologist and philosopher Prof. Max Adler, who was a prominent figure among Austrian Marxists; his wife Dr. Jenny Adler, who specialized in public health, then a new discipline (and also founded a Jewish women's organization in Germany and Austria ); and Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of German Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels.

In 1919 Wolf married Leopold Krakauer, whom she had met when both exhibited work at an exhibition at the Vienna Secession; she was 29, which in those days was considered quite an advanced age for marriage. She continued to pursue her career in art and when her daughter Trude was born, in 1922, she created a moving series of drawings following the baby's development.

It is doubtful that Wolf-Krakauer thought in late 1924 that Palestine would become her permanent home, and indeed she stayed in touch with her family and friends in the Viennese art world after arriving. (After the Anschluss, in 1938, the couple succeeded only in getting Leopold's mother out of Austria; Grete's mother was murdered in Theresienstadt, as did Leopold's two sisters, although Grete's sister escaped with her husband to London. )

In a self-portrait from 1926, "Grete in Nazareth" (of which all that remains in her estate is a snapshot ), she is seen looking doubtful, perhaps ironic, with an urban landscape behind her.

Wolf-Krakauer exhibited work at the Tower of David in Jerusalem that same year, and in 1927 was invited by United Israel Appeal (Keren Hayesod) to create an album of engravings depicting Jezreel Valley settlements. The numerous works she created suggest that she was in contact with artist Baruch Agadati, photographer Shmuel Joseph Schweig and Prof. David Shor, a pioneer in musical education.

A personal toll

Grete Wolf-Krakauer is today a forgotten name today, known, if at all, to historians of Israeli art as Krakauer's wife. The combination of the German-speaking community's exclusion in those years from mainstream Israeli culture, her failure to master Hebrew despite years of trying, and gender discrimination - all took their toll.

Grete and Leopold Krakauer had an uneasy relationship. Although they corresponded intensively whenever they were apart, there was also a fair amount of tension in their daily life. A near-chronic lack of money undoubtedly contributed to this situation, particularly as, according to Dothan, there were periods when Wolf was the primary breadwinner, thanks to her work as a portrait painter and graphic designer. But, Leopold reaped the glory as the creative artist-architect.

In the spring of 1927, Joseph Zaritsky, the pivotal Israeli painter, published a column in a Hebrew theater and art journal, entitled "A Year of Exhibitions in Jerusalem." He wrote with exceeding brevity about Wolf. When reading it today, one notices more than a hint of envy: "In many of the landscape pictures, especially from the [Jezreel] Valley, the striking thing is the great knowledge of art of the line. There is no concealing the fact that in quite a few works, the expression of color is powerful. [Wolf's] most characteristic pictures are the portraits of children."

It is difficult to think of a more effective method of excluding a female artist from the cultural mainstream than identifying her with children's portraits. And while Zaritsky himself could not deny Wolf-Krakauer's adeptness with line and color, reducing her world to this stereotypical characterization led to her marginalization.

The portraits she painted in Israel depict society in cosmopolitan Mandatory Jerusalem - one of dreamers and utopianists, Jewish and Christian pioneers and builders, alongside a veteran and devout population (mainly Jewish but also Muslim and Christian ), the vestiges of Ottoman society and British officials. Her portraits contain an element of intimacy. Among others, Wolf-Krakauer painted the striking Frieda Orender, a couturier who emigrated from Vienna to Palestine, and writer Moshe Ya'akov Ben-Gavriel (Eugen Hoeflich ), whose journals described his settling in Jerusalem in 1927 as the realization of his every dream. She painted artists such as dancer Yardena Cohen (2010 Israel Prize laureate for lifetime achievement ) and viola player Genia (Jenny ) Schmertzler, Trude's teacher, whom Wolf-Krakauer depicted while playing. A sense of intimacy also exists in her portrait of Yihye Hussein, an elegantly dressed man with a dapper beard and a sad look, about whom nothing is known.

Her first trip abroad after coming to Palestine was in 1929, to Cairo, then a city no less cosmopolitan than Jerusalem. There she had a solo exhibition at the bookstore H. Friedrich Ltd. The invitation to the exhibition was printed in German, English, French and Arabic; a reflection of the rare cultural moment that existed then in the Levant.

She spent 1931-32 in Vienna and Amsterdam, with her daughter. The exhibition catalog for the Leopold Krakauer retrospective at the Israel Museum in 1996 (curated by Meira Perry-Lehmann and Michael Levin ) states that that trip "was probably occasionsed not only by a desire to resolve marital tensions, but also from Grete's wish to affect a breakthrough in her husband's artistic career, and help him renew contacts with the cultural-artistic milieu from which he had severed himself." In other words, she was presented as the classic artist's wife who promotes her husband's affairs.

Actually, Wolf-Krakauer was busy resuming activity in local intellectual circles and promoting her own career; indeed, in Vienna she went back to exhibiting under her maiden name. In October 1931, her works were displayed in a solo show at Galerie Wurthle, which was considered a venue for linking local Viennese art with that of Paris and Berlin, and which showcased among others Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Alfred Kubin. (The Wurthle made the news recently in connection with a case involving payment of $19 million in compensation to the heirs of Lea Bondi Jaray, the gallery's owner, who was forced during the 1930s to sell a painting by Schiele to a Nazi art collector ).

A home abuzz

In 1933, a stream of European refugees began arriving in Palestine, and the Krakauers' social world was transformed. Relations with their German Templar "friends" ended abruptly when one of them gave Wolf-Krakauer a copy of "Mein Kampf." In 1939 poet and playwright Else Lasker-Schuler, who had visited the couple before, emigrated to Jerusalem. The relationship between them was close but turbulent: On more than one occasion Lasker-Schuler, whom Trude Dothan recalls as being rather intimidating, came to stay at the Krakauer home only to leave in a huff after being offended by something. The tiffs usually ended with Lasker-Schuler sending the Krakauers postcards, addressed to "near the three trees on Ben Maimon Boulevard." Wolf-Krakauer nursed Lasker-Schuler when she was on her deathbed, and painted her delicate portrait on a white hospital pillow.

Dothan remembers her parents' home as a social salon that hosted long evenings of conversation - in German. Her mother painted the couple Paula and Martin Buber, who came to Palestine in the late 1930s, and Erich Mendelsohn, in 1936, not long after he opened an architectural firm in Jerusalem. She also painted his wife, Louise, in 1945, when the couple, who were then living in the United States, came for a visit. In 1934 she took part in an exhibition of portraits at the Bezalel Museum (alongside Ludwig Blum, Avigdor Stematsky, Avraham Melinkov and others ). She also painted two portraits of photographer Lou Landauer, who made an attempt to set up a photography department at Bezalel - yet another nearly forgotten female artist.

The Cubist approach in some of Wolf-Krakauer's early portraits was eventually replaced by a fairly Realist style, removed from the Austrian Expressionist overtones evident in her earlier works.

On top of her intensive painting activity, Wolf-Krakauer founded and invested great energy in a puppet theater, founded in the 1930s. Grete Krakauer's Marionette Theater, as it was called, mounted a production of Mozart's opera "Bastien und Bastienne," which she co-directed with a woman named Katinka Ginsburg (about whom nothing is known save for this fact and a lovely portrait of her preserved in the estate ). The musicians were conducted by Joseph Grunthal (Josef Tal, later a renowned Israeli composer ). The theater closed down after three years, due to financial difficulties.

As is evident in correspondence found in the estate, Wolf-Krakauer was in close contact - particularly about the goings-on in her theater - with writer Arnold Zweig, who had fled Germany for Haifa, where he lived unhappily until he returned to East Germany in 1948. One particularly interesting series of portraits Wolf-Krakauer left behind is of people outside her own social milieu: members of various ethnic groups, whom she painted without the heroic biblical overtones that characterized the Bezalel school of artists. She painted women with tattooed faces, men with head coverings - figures that are generally absent from the artistic legacy of Mandatory Jerusalem.

Later in life, Wolf-Krakauer had a handful of solo exhibitions: in 1946 at the Jonas Gallery in Jerusalem, and in 1968 at Beit Manya in Tel Aviv and at the Eilat Museum. In the 1950s she took part in a few group shows at the Jerusalem Artists' House and at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. But her work had been forgotten. In the 1960s, when she was in her 70s, she realized an old dream by taking several trips to the Far East (and also exhibited her work in Bangkok under the auspices of the Israeli Embassy there ).

In general it may be said that Wolf-Krakauer's oeuvre was not part of the Israeli artistic mainstream. It did not belong to the New Horizons style or the Social Realist school - and failed to arouse interest; although in 1969, the year before her death, she received the Jerusalem Prize for painting. The prize committee was headed by Miron Sima, an artist who had fled Germany, but who, like her, despite all the years he lived in Israel, never became a true citizen of the local art world.

This article is based on a doctoral dissertation being written at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the guidance of Prof. Gannit Ankori.