The Female Jewish Artists Whose Feats Were Credited to Everything but Their Skills

For decades, women artists were excluded from the modernist canon. A new exhibition in Vienna fixes that

Helene Funke's "Dreams," 1913.
Johannes Stoll / Belvedere Museum Vienna

The multidisciplinary artist and designer Friedl Dicker, whose expressionist and political work between the world wars rivaled those of her German colleagues George Grosz and Otto Dix, has been overshadowed by those greats. Her “Research 1” and “Research 2,” which she painted in Prague, where she fled in 1934, reflect the persecution she suffered in Vienna for her anti-fascist activities. They’re on display until May 19 as part of the “City of Women” show at Vienna’s Belvedere Museum – the exhibition celebrates female artists who toiled in the Austrian capital between 1900 and 1938.

Prof. Julie Johnson of the Art & Art History Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio is a leading female researcher on modernism in Vienna. She writes in the exhibition’s catalog that the two paintings draw on Dicker’s two stylistic languages for creating work that powerfully depicts dread and a loss of inhibition.

Dicker, who at one time studied at Germany’s Bauhaus school in Weimar, also shared her immense knowledge when she taught children at Theresienstadt, to which she was deported by the Nazis in 1942. She was killed at Auschwitz two years later, and many of her female colleagues were Jewish or of Jewish origin.

Broncia Koller-Pinell, whose art was rescued from obscurity in 1961 thanks to a retrospective based on works her daughter saved from the Nazis, is still far from receiving the recognition she deserves. Over four decades until her death at 71 in 1934, Koller-Pinell took part in more than 50 exhibitions around the world and became a leading figure in shaping Vienna’s art scene.

She painted alongside Gustav Klimt, established the New Secession group with Egon Schiele, and didn’t hesitate to take new directions, even after she was well-established. Koller-Pinell was a clear example of a phenomenon that the American cultural critic Lili Loofbourow has analyzed in the Virginia Quarterly Review: the tendency to attribute women’s achievements – whether in pop music, television or science – to anything but their talent.

While male artists receive generous praise for their greatness, women’s achievements are sometimes attributed to factors such as happenstance, the help of a sophisticated man or her socioeconomic status.

Friedl Dicker's "Portrait of a Young Woman with Lace Collar," c. 1942.
Friedl Dicker

Koller-Pinell and her husband, industrialist Hugo Koller, were major art patrons in Vienna who commissioned work by the city’s best artists. It’s undoubtedly true that these connections helped Koller-Pinell get noticed, but they were also used as ammunition for anyone seeking to cast doubt about her talent. After her death, one of her male colleagues acknowledged that she had always been unjustifiably disparaged because she was a woman, a rich one at that.

The curator of the exhibition at the Belvedere, Dr. Sabine Fellner, told Haaretz that early-20th-century Austrian society was so conservative that for a woman to leap the patriarchal hurdles of the Vienna art scene, she almost always had to already enjoy economic and social privilege. So, for example, without having the chance to study at an art academy, female artists just starting out preferred to take private lessons or study abroad at a high level. Paris and Munich were the destinations of choice. The major artist associations, whose exhibitions conferred prestige, didn’t accept women as regular members.

The art world was an old boys’ club in which women were only invited to display their work as guests, reducing their chances of gaining notice and advancing their careers. Their lack of connections from art school and professional associations also made them more dependent than their male counterparts on financial backing and social networking from their families. With few exceptions, the art world excluded women outside such social circles.

Women as consumers, not partners

“Witch Doing Her Toilette on Walpurgis Night” by sculptor Teresa Feodorowna Ries created a storm when it was shown in 1896 at the Austrian Artists’ Society’s prestigious Kunstlerhaus gallery. Ries sculpted the marble figure of a naked woman clipping her toenails and looking around smiling with confidence. This work shattered the conventions for the depiction of women.

A year later, in 1897, Ries gave Lucifer similar treatment in a sculpture where she depicted the demon naked with legs crossed in a feminine manner. Art critics were taken aback by the sculptor’s boldness. “It’s a pity she suffers from the delusion that she can do men’s work,” scoffed critic Ludwig Hevesi.

Friedl Dicker's "Train Station," painted sometime before her death at Auschwitz in 1944.
Friedl Dicker

Another critic, the painter Adalbert Franz Seligmann, frothed at Ries’ “repulsive” use of a lofty material like marble. A decade later, once the Vienna Succession movement ushered in new rules for aesthetic legitimacy, both critics were praising Ries’ work.

“It’s pointless to teach women because they get married anyway,” opined the acclaimed sculptor Edmund von Hellmer. Still, when he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, he accepted Ries as a private student when she came to town from Moscow in 1894 and provided her with a studio (at an institution that until 1920 remained closed to women).

Hellmer knew that Ries was an excellent artist and even had her take over two commissions he had received. One, the sculpture “Lamp Carrier,” was submitted in his name to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, where it won a gold medal. Such appropriation of someone’s work wasn’t unusual, including with male students, and was considered a mark of honor.

But it also illustrates how the gender gap functioned in terms of networking. Once Ries was established as a sought-after artist, she was in great demand from locals and foreigners alike. But when she was just starting out, Hellmer played a key role helping her forge ties with the art world.

Then as now, whenever innovative ideas came from women, they were labeled with “female” characteristics. Landscape painter Tina Blau, who in the 1860s was a pioneer of early European modernism and a leader of the progressive Impressionist movement in Austria, was accused of giving her work “too much brightness.” In 1913, when Helene Funke, who had studied in Paris, brought the avant garde style to Vienna, art critic Arthur Roessler described her paintings as “crudely” done. A review in a Swedish newspaper derided the colorfulness of her work by calling it “shrill,” a common pejorative applied to women.

“Given all these barriers, it’s incredible to see how present in the city’s art scene these women artists who were active in the early decades of the 20th century were,” Fellner says. In the exhibition’s catalog, Johnson notes how these artists tend to be overlooked, citing a 2014 BBC documentary that portrayed early 20th-century women as consumers of Vienna’s cultural abundance but hardly as partners in its creation.

Broncia Koller-Pinell painted her mother in 1907.
Johannes Stoll / Belvedere Museum Vienna

In 1908, for example, more than a third of the works in an exhibition curated by Klimt were by female artists. Two years later, the first major association of women artists in the city, the Austrian Association of Women Artists, was founded. Its debut exhibition, “The Art of the Woman,” was a retrospective of works by female European artists from the Renaissance through the early 20th century.

“Not just in art, but in writing and research too, women in Fin-de-siècle Vienna created the tools to craft a new language that would break the patriarchal language,” says Dr. Elana Shapira of the Design History and Theory Department at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. “The 1910 exhibition proved that there is a rich history of art made by women.”

Abandoning the old order

Two and half years ago, the Jewish Museum Vienna held an exhibition on several of the Jewish female artists active in the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the exhibition depicted how, since 1938, these artists had been removed from the Austrian canon and thus from the historiography of art. Many of these artists are also included in the current exhibit at the Belvedere.

This is no coincidence – many of the female artists from the Viennese modernist art scene were Jewish or had a Jewish background, Johnson found. As Shapira said when we met in Vienna, Jewish families from the upper middle class expected their artistic involvement to win them cultural prestige in the Austrian capital. Modernism offered Jews, women in particular, what they believed could be a cultural platform free of the burden of the old order.

Contrary to the findings of the Jewish Museum exhibit, and contrary to the spirit of the current exhibit’s catalog, the Belvedere exhibit hardly mentions that a main reason these artists were forgotten is their Jewish origins. The loss of their works due to war, exile and murder is part of what Johnson calls “the historiography of forgetting.” Ries managed to flee the Nazis to Switzerland, where she sank into anonymity. Many of the sculptures she left behind in Vienna, including “Lucifer,” were either destroyed or badly neglected and damaged.

Broncia Koller-Pinell's "The Harvest," 1908
Belvedere Museum Vienna

“It was important to us to show that they were involved in the Vienna art scene,” says Fellner, who was also a curator of the Jewish Museum exhibition, explaining the decision to keep the identity issue out of the Belvedere exhibition. “The question of their Jewishness only became problematic in the late 1930s. Before that, no one cared if they were Jewish or not. What mattered was their gender.”

Shapira strongly disagrees. Outside the art world, anti-Semitism was a part of daily life for decades before the 1930s, she says, and these artists also had to contend with the negative implications of their Jewish identity. This was often expressed in their work, in part by “challenging hegemonic Western conventions regarding beauty, femininity, color and decorativeness,” she says.