We were a group of about 16 who went to Vienna for our Junior Year Abroad in 1969. Some of us were German majors, and we all had at least a bit of German study already, since all of our classes were to be conducted in German–or were supposed to be. But many of us were also interested in art history, so we were looking forward to visiting the legendary museums of the Habsburgs and examining the buildings and sculptures of the city. Only later were we to realize how unbelievably fortunate we were to encounter from the very beginning the most inspiring art historian that Vienna could have offered to a group of callow young women from America.
Anna von Spitzmüller had, it turns out, been teaching groups of Americans at the Austro-Amerika Institute since 1930. Everyone called her ”Spitzi”. We met her the first night we arrived in Vienna, just as we met the families with whom we would be living that year. She then accompanied us on a tour through Austria, during which she told us about all the monuments we were seeing, including, as I remember, one of the Carolingians’ thrones. She had amazing recall, spoke perfect English (and despite the mandate that our classes be in German, she often spoke to us in English instead, since she wanted us to understand the art), and was the most marvelous and charming guide one could ask for. On this trip, we went as far as Kärnten (Carinthia), which she particularly loved, since (as we learned later) she had actually traversed the province on foot in the 1920s as a young scholar to document the architectural monuments for the Dehio series of guides. As we rode through the Austrian countryside and mountains on a tour bus, she regaled us with anecdotes and stories, sang songs, and was always concerned about our well being. I remember that as we entered into the Carinthian Valley in the middle of the Alps, my roommate and I suffered terrible headaches–the only time I ever had a migraine–which Spitzi explained was because of the famous Föhn winds; all Austrians believe that the Föhn can lead to all kinds of ailments and explosive behavior. She wrapped us in scarves and let us have dinner brought to our rooms.
Nearly every day of classes we went to a museum or a monastery or walked around the city and looked at buildings. I don’t recall her giving a single lecture with slides in a classroom. She had been the first woman curator at the Albertina in the late 1920s, and then was at the Kunsthistorisches Museum from the 1950s until she retired–in the year she was teaching our group. She took us to the Kunsthistorisches Museum at least once a week, and would focus on one room or one painting or one collection each time. I can still see her standing in front of Rubens’ Portrait of Helene Fourment, and saying that she looked like she had just stepped out of the bath ”to her husband’s pleasure”, and we all blushed. She also knew everything about the history of the works in the Museum, and recounted how exciting it was when the conservationists cleaned Holbein’s Jane Seymour and they saw for the first time that she had a black headdress, and that the background was blue. ”It took a long time for this painting to speak to me, but she does now,” she said, and we silly little girls from the Midwest and California thought she was a little daft. When she noticed our attention flagging, she would say ”Time for Apfelstrudel!”, and we would go to the cafe for treats. When we took excursions to old churches and monasteries, still not heated and most of them chillingly cold, she would bring a whole suitcase of sweaters for us mini-skirted ones, so that we wouldn’t be uncomfortable. If we were on extended Ausflüge, she would bring along her beloved dog Asi, and when we had stopped for coffee, she would often fall asleep–very briefly–into her Schlag, and then wake up and continue talking as if nothing had happened.
After a few weeks of visits to the museums, she began to walk us around her beloved city (she still referred to Prince Eugene of Savoy, the hero of the battle against the Turks in 1683, as ”our beloved Prince Eugene”), and would explain the architectural history of every building. Soon she would ask us, ”so what is it?”, meaning who built it and when. When we would blink unknowingly, she would explain that the building was a Renaissance structure with a Baroque facade, and she would tell us how we could know that from the features that we could see. This analysis was the very best training a budding art historian could have received.
We had never met anyone like her. She was obviously the daughter of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of privilege–two categories about which we suburban girls only had the vaguest concept. We admired her incredible Baroque garnet earrings and brooches, which, she told us, were inherited from her grandmother or mother. As American girls just trying to figure out in German when to use the formal Sie and the informal Du in addressing people, we were shocked when she talked to one of the Institute’s secretaries, a much younger, mousier woman who used Du with Frau Dr. Spitzmüller! We then learned that both Spitzi and the secretary were of the aristocracy, and so would have been allowed such usage by tradition. This fascinated us tremendously.
She knew everybody and everything about Viennese art and its collections, and we only later realized how unbelievably privileged we had been in getting to meet such important cultural figures and to have experiences that only Spitzi could have arranged. She once managed to have for us a display of many of the Kunsthistorische Museum’s amazing Rudolphine gadgets–all the clockworks and mechanisms made out of precious jewels and with intricate cogworks made for Rudolph II of Prague in the 16th century. I can still see them, ticking across the floor of the Kunstkammer, tingling and chiming and twirling away!
Spitzi took us to meet a real princess–a British woman who had married a Habsburg (or was it a Liechtenstein?) who lived in a Renaissance Palais and served us tea in Biedermeier cups (we were terrified we were going to break them). And 1969 and 1970 saw one of the first ”rediscoveries” of Klimt and Schiele, over which we all swooned–and so Spitzi took us to meet Christian Nebehay, the son of Klimt’s dealer who still owned and sold in his gallery the major works available by both artists. She was also a great pianist herself, and knew the musical world very well; she took us to the home of the principal violinist of the Wiener Philharmoniker, who had a substantial collection of manuscripts and modern prints as well. And then there was her apartment, on the Windmühlgasse, where she had lived since 1913. She invited us to visit there because–to our complete amazement–on her living room walls were major works of art by Schiele, Toulouse-Lautrec, and lesser known but just as wonderful artists such as Ludwig Jungnickel. Most of us had never been in a home that had REAL art on the walls, by artists whose names we knew!
After our semester ended in May, I stayed on in Vienna through the summer, and continued to see Spitzi; I was now certain that I wanted to be an art historian, and I wanted to take advantage of my time in the city for as long as I could. Spitzi was so helpful, or at least I think it was because of her status that I, a lowly undergraduate, was allowed to sit in the Albertina Studiensaal and ask the attendants to bring me whatever I wanted to see. They obliged: I held in my hands one of Dürer’s woodblocks, and I looked at all of the drawings and watercolors of Schiele (which, I later learned, had been brought into the collection through Spitzi’s efforts). In all the years since, I have never had such free-rein access to such masterpieces in any collection. It could have been the times, before institutions became strict about such things, but I really do think that being her student played an important part in allowing me such privileges.
When I came back to Vienna with George in 1980 to complete my dissertation research, Spitzi was still there, still teaching students at the Institut. She would invite us over to her apartment–the same apartment, needless to say–with all those artworks still on the walls; we would have endless cups of tea, and broken pieces of Manner-Schnitten that she bought at the day-old shop. She was as open and friendly to George as she was to me. And when a few years later I had my first art history position at Lawrence University and had contributed to an exhibition on Viennese art that came to Hope College (one of the colleges that came to the Austro-Amerika Institut every year), I was asked to give a lecture in her honor at the college. Spitzi was there–Hope had always been her favored school–and I was able to thank her for inspiring me and so many other students over 50 years of interaction with bright-eyed, baby-squirrel Americans.
That was the last time I saw her. When I decided to write about the German-speaking women who have had an impact on my life, Frau Dr. Anna von Spitzmüller was at the top of the list. Now that I am in Vienna again, I have been able to do some research into her life. The next installment will include more about her extraordinary life. These are just my reminiscences of a remarkable woman.