(Having now listened to three hours of a 1993 video interview with Spitzi at the Albertina, I feel at least somewhat informed about the details of her long and illustrious life, enough to begin her biography. I have still found very few photographs, and hardly any obituaries, so I am hoping this short essay may prompt others who remember her to send along some images and their remembrances, too.)
Anna Spitzmüller was born on September 6, 1903, in the Moravian town of Znaim (now Znojmo, Czech Republic) as the daughter of an old Austro-Hungarian military family. Her mother also came from aristocratic background, and her ancestral home still stands in Znojmo. Her father was Amadeo Spitzmüller von Tonalwehr (1871-1945), a high-ranking officer in the Imperial Army, and her ”beloved uncle” was Alexander Spitzmüller , Freiherr von und zu Spitzmüller-Harmersbach (1862-1953), a well-known economist and banker who was the last imperial finance minister for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She had one brother, born in 1909, who died tragically in the 1930s. Her grandfather originally came from Bukovina, one of the furthest regions of Austro-Hungary, now divided between the Ukraine and Romania. She was, then, the privileged product of a far-flung multicultural state that encompassed at least 14 ethnicities and languages, and which prized elegant behavior, education and cultivation. As Lucia Gunz, a colleague at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, wrote in her obituary: ”Etwas von diesem Übernationalen der alten Monarchie, ein für alles kulturell Andersartige offenes Fluidum und wienerischer Charme gehörten zum besonderen Charisma von Anna Spitzmüller” (roughly translated: Something of this multicultural internationalism of the old monarchy, a fluidity between cultural differences and Viennese charm defined the special charisma of Anna Spitzmüller).
As her father was stationed throughout the Empire, she spent her earliest years in Prague, then a while in Olmütz (now Olomouc, Czech Republic); she learned to speak Czech among her many other languages. Her father was then stationed permanently at the War Ministry in Vienna, and the family moved in 1913 to Windmühlgasse 13, where Spitzi would live for the rest of her life. She described her upbringing as ”completely free and open,” with ”sehr gesellige Verkehr”–lots of social life. Dinner conversations were learned and scholarly; her father was very educated, and her mother was very musical. She was privately tutored as a girl, and learned French and English from governesses. When the family moved to Windmühlgasse, she was able to attend the Rahlgasse Mädchengymnasium (see my blog entry for 24 November), the first school of higher education for girls in Vienna. She was educated by the first generation of women teachers, who, she said, were tremendously gifted; she received there an excellent educational grounding, to become one of the first Austrian women to attend university. The end of the monarchy after World War I was a difficult time for families so linked to the Imperial machinery that had governed their lives; Spitzi’s father, as a military officer, received very little pension from the new republican government, and suffered from ”nerve problems” until his death in 1945. Her mother died in 1938; I remember her telling me, in one of the only times she talked about her family, that when the Nazis entered Vienna, her mother simply gave up and died of a broken heart.
In 1920, after attending and being impressed by an exhibition of tapestries at the Belvedere, Anna announced to her astonished family that she wanted to study art history and to become an art historian. She enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1921, as a student of the renowned Josef Stryzgowski (1862-1941), controversial antagonist of the so-called Vienna School of Art History led by Max Dvořák (1874-1921) and Julius Schlosser (1866-1938).
She described Stryzgowski’s lectures as ”höchst interessant”, despite his reputation as being contrarian and, as she described him, ”anti-Italian, anti-Renaissance.” But she also praised Dvořák’s work, especially his efforts to establish a network whereby graduates found work upon completion of their degrees. She would have been at the department at the time of the major ideological battles and personality clashes that ensued after Dvořák’s untimely death. (See the entries for Stryzgowski, Dvořák, and Schlosser in Dictionary of Art Historians, https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/index.htm) In July 1926, she received her degree, with her dissertation topic, “Die Brüder Strudel als Plastiker. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Hofkunst Kaiser Leopold I.” (Paul and Peter Strudel were the late 17th-century sculptors who created the oldest artists’ academy in Central Europe.)
Her first project after finishing her degree took her to Kärnten–Carinthia, the southernmost province of present-day Austria. Here she was to make an inventory of the major monuments of the region for the famous Dehio Handbuch der deutschen Kunstdenkmäler Österreichs. (The Kunsthistorisches Institut first published her findings in 1929 as a separate volume, Die Kunstdenkmäler des politischen Bezirkes Villach). In her Albertina interview, she talks about this experience as an important one for her personally: since there were very few cars or even busses there at this time, she had to travel between monuments by foot, and stayed at peasant houses overnight. This was her first exposure to these kind of country people and a simpler, uncultivated way of life. She was to be forever impressed and affected by these encounters with the working class and peasants–what she called ”echtes Leben,” real life. In the 1930s, she would travel by train in what was then a ”4. Klasse”, almost free and with wooden benches, because she liked to hear all the languages and dialects which she said were ”wie Chinesisch” to her.
Back in Vienna in the fall of 1926, she first tried to find a position at the Nationalbibliothek. Then one day, walking across the Burggarten, she remembered a chance meeting years before with Otto Benesch (1896-1964), who had been at the Albertina since the mid-1920s.
She decided to go see him, walked into his office, and as she recounts in her interview, said ”Gruss Gott, ich möchte hier arbeiten!” (hello, I would like to work here). Benesch hired her–or, rather, allowed her to work there, since she was essentially a volunteer at first with no remuneration (a normal occurrence at museums in those days). She became thereby the very first woman curator in Vienna (she maintained that a Frau Steiner, who was a curatorial secretary, was actually the first. She became the wife of Otto Benesch, Eva Benesch.) Spitzmüller worked under the Albertina’s famous director Alfred Stix (1882-1957), in one position or another, for the rest of her career (she described him as ”ein sehr bequemer Herr,” a comfortable man, more like a bank manager than a curator.)
With Stix, she prepared the complete catalogue of the Albertina’s drawings (Beschreibender Katalog der Handzeichnungen in der graphischen Sammlung Albertina ), working on all six volumes, but especially responsible for volume 6, Die Schulen von Ferrara, Bologna, Parma u. Modena, d. Lombardei, Genuas, Neapels u. Siziliens–the Italian works.
By the 1930s, she obtained a real civil service appointment at the Albertina, and loved her work there. She travelled to do research and to purchase art for the collection, met interesting and important people in many countries, and, most significantly, worked to make the Albertina’s collections more accessible to the public. She became good friends with the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum Campbell Dodgson, and told amusing stories about being called to meet Princess Cecilie of Prussia (Spitzi had little truck with Germans in general, and said of the royal request, ”Es ist nicht meine Art mit Hoheit herumzugehen”–it’s not my style to pal around with Her Majesties). When Stix was appointed to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1934, her position at the Albertina became a more important one. She continued to organize exhibitions and to work on catalogues of the collections, as well as articles about individual drawings or sets of prints.
And then the Nazis and the war came. In the video interviews with her at the Albertina, Spitzi seems a bit reluctant to talk about this period. This reluctance is understandable, since it is not a pleasant time to remember, and because those who want to see things in black and white–as good on one side and evil on the other–would perhaps cast her as a collaborator with the National Socialist regime, despite all evidence to the contrary. She did remain in Vienna and at work in the museums, while both Stix and Benesch were removed from their positions. Benesch, whose wife was of Jewish background, went to America, where he taught at Harvard and Princeton. Stix stayed in Vienna, and worked, apparently sub rosa, with Spitzmüller in the Albertina collections. Nazi directors were appointed at all the Viennese museums, but according to her memory, they were simply figureheads who had little impact on the running of the institutions. ”We continued our research, but couldn’t publish anything,” she recalled. (She did have some articles published during this period, both in the Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien and in the more popularized and unfortunately named Kunst dem Volk.) In 1939, she had to get special permission from Berlin to attend an art history conference in London, where she was able to see many of her former Jewish colleagues who had been able to escape. Still, she returned to Vienna and to the Albertina, feeling obligated to stay in Austria.
Her first task, once the Anschluss happened in 1938 and it was evident that war was imminent, was the secure storage of the priceless collections of the museum. (In the taped interview, she also talks of the removal of those works deemed by the Nazis as ”entartet”–degenerate–and their ultimate retrieval after the war.) Spitzmüller was chiefly responsible for bringing these objects to safety in the salt mines of the Salzkammergut; she was particularly dismayed that, despite the Albertina’s meticulous documentation of their holdings, the Americans after the war ignored these documents and took all the objects to Munich, where she, quite fortunately, had to go to sort through all of them. According to her statements on the interview tapes, objects belonging to Jewish families and collectors were also stored here in separate sections.
After 1943, as the war dragged on and the Kunsthistorisches Museum closed, the Albertina continued to have in-house exhibitions. But the conditions became increasingly bleak, and finally, on March 13, 1945, an Allied bomb hit the Albertina itself. The Albertina’s cellar, which had been thought to be the most protected bomb shelter in the city, proved to be less than safe, and for the rest of the bombing campaigns of the war, the staff had to shelter in the Augustinerkirche, which Spitzi described as ”extremely unpleasant.” At the end of the war, Vienna was in shambles, and the people were part of a defeated nation.
These were surreally difficult times, which she describes in horrifying detail. ”Our hearts were broken,” to use her phrase. She saw horses being shot and flayed in the Burggarten, and people throwing all of their priceless belongings out of destroyed houses. She saw a head roll out of a pile of rubble in the ruins of the Albertina’s bastion, right next to the statue of Albert von Saxe-Teschen. To get water, people had to go to a pump am Hof and pump it. Spitzi was lucky to have a small Schrebergarten where she grew some vegetables, which she was able to trade for other goods. And most directly for her and her colleagues, they had to find a way themselves to repair the enormous hole in the roof of the Albertina’s building. She recalled how she and Alfred Stix scrounged what materials they could and were personally up on the roof patching it, dressed in their shabbiest clothes, when in walked an elegantly dressed American officer. This was Perry Blythe Cott, one of the group of scholars now known as ”The Monuments Men.”
With Cott, Spitzmüller went to Munich to retrieve the paintings and graphic art that had been stored before the war. At that time, she was able to see where many of the Jewish artworks confiscated by the Nazis had been hidden and were retrieved.
The Americans brought the artworks back to Vienna by boat, and Spitzi and her crew unloaded these treasures. They were housed with other retrieved artworks on the Hohe Warte until the Albertina’s building could be rebuilt. During the war, she had also met with Otto Benesch’s family and through his father Heinrich, an important art dealer and friend of Schiele, had secured for the Albertina the Roessler collection of Schiele’s graphic art. She had not been idle during these dark years, and was prepared to continue energetically as soon as the war ended. In retrieving more hidden artworks in Zwettl, she saw storks again, which she took as a good sign.
During the occupation of Austria by the four allied powers, Spitzi spent much time in the French zone, organizing exhibitions and finally travelling to France to reestablish contacts with the art world there. As early as 1946, she was able to mount a cooperative exhibition with the French, highlighting artworks in the Albertina’s vast holdings. Her little catalogue of the show, Französische Phantastik, was one of the first art publications produced in Vienna after the war.
In 1948, she was appointed to the highest level of Curator in the governmental rankings, and remained at the Albertina until 1954. During this time, she worked on some of the first ”little guides” to the Albertina’s collections, part of her ongoing efforts to make the collections more accessible to school groups and the wider public. But she began also to have conflicts: in 1947, Otto Benesch returned from the USA and was once again made director. As Spitzi told her interviewer, from then on she was always ”Nr. 2.”
In 1953, she obtained a 3-month fellowship to travel to the United States to study graphic collections in American museums, during which time she once again saw Perry Cott, and became lifelong friends with Agnes Mongan (1905-1996), the renowned Curator of Drawings at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, whose story of becoming the first woman curator so closely mirrored Spitzi’s own experiences. ( I remember speaking to Ms. Mongan at a Bryn Mawr event, and how fondly she spoke of her ”great friend” Utzi, as Spitzi’s especially close friends called her.)
Upon returning to Vienna, Spitzi left the Albertina to move to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. When asked why this change occurred, she admitted that the circumstances with Benesch had become too difficult to continue there. His ego was such that, despite being immensely talented, he simply could not bear working with a woman as an equal. At the Kunsthistorisches, she took over the Führungsabteilung–essentially the Public Programs Department–and worked energetically to open up the Museum to the public, to encourage school visits, and to sponsor symposiums and lecture series. She worked at the Museum until her mandatory retirement age forced her to retire in 1969. When she retired, she was given the title of ”Hofrat” and made an Honorary Member of the Österreichischen Kunsthistorikerband, and in January 1970, she received the Chevalier ribbon of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Someone as dynamic and vivacious as Spitzi, of course, did not fade into a German-style Ruhestand. She had been teaching American groups of students through the Austro-Amerika Institut since the 1930s, and as soon as World War II ended, she appeared in its offices to offer her services again. She established a long-standing relationship with Hope College in Michigan, which brought groups of students to Vienna for a summer school from 1950. She admired the fact that American students would be open enough to admit that they didn’t understand something, and she found that teaching them was immensely enjoyable. She continued teaching groups of students, like my Junior Year Abroad group from Temple Buell College (Colorado Women’s College), well into the 1980s. In 1987, Hope College honored her and paid tribute to her services to the College, in conjunction with an exhibition of Viennese art at the school’s Art Center. At this time, I was able to give a lecture with her in attendance, and thank her for her 50 years of teaching American students.
In 1993, the Albertina, as part of a video history of the institution, interviewed her with special focus on her time there. She was then 90 years old. Her recall was still great, although she was by this time a bit impatient about answering some questions. I found it particularly interesting to hear her answer when the young woman interviewing her asked her to comment about the role of women in the cultural life of the country. This incredibly cultivated woman who had had to fight patriarchal systems all her life, who confronted hide-bound misogyny and sexist barriers throughout her career, and had been a founder of ZONTA, the Austrian academic women’s organization–she would have none of the feminist stance of subjection or submission or discrimination. Her response was to say that women probably had a better feeling for ”das Zeichnerisch”, the quality of drawing!
As reported in a moving tribute to her by a former colleague at the Museum, Anna Spitzmüller died on September 25, 2001, a few weeks after her 98th birthday, ”cared for at the Heim der Kaufmannschaft in the XIX.District” of her beloved Vienna.
Finally, my own opinion: that this woman of distinction, of intellect and accomplishment does not appear in any dictionaries or encyclopedias of art historians, that photos of her military relatives abound while none of her can be found in any archives, and that I have only been able to find two obituaries for her in professional publications certainly signifies a level of neglect that can only be a result of her gender. Some of this invisibility may be attributed to her own modest character, but I want to see the work of women like her heralded as much as their male colleagues have been. Soon Anna Spitzmüller will at least have a Wikipedia page!