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In Oz again

16 Jan

First of all, let’s just dismiss the idea that any 12-to-15-hour flight in economy class can ever be “enjoyable,” or even comfortable.  It’s just something one has to endure if one wants to experience the Southern Hemisphere.  We arrived this time via Auckland, which just added to the amount of time spent in transit.  Too bad we couldn’t have stopped for longer in New Zealand–perhaps another time.

So here we are back in Australia, our second home (we’re dual citizens), still in jet lag, and me with an airplane-induced cold. But it’s summer in Australia, and we are in Pearl Beach, a very upscale beach community about an hour and a half to the north of Sydney.  Our friends Bruce and Diane Swalwell have lived here in one place or another since we first came to Australia in 1990; we met them 40 years ago, when we were all dorm parents while in graduate school in Philadelphia. Our kids grew up together.  Pearl Beach is the most perfect beach for children, since it has limited waves, and a beautiful strand to walk on, plus fascinating rocks and tide pools to explore.  It received its name from Arthur Phillip, Captain of the First Fleet, in 1788, when he spotted the cove while exploring this part of the coast; he said the waves breaking against the beach looked like a strand of pearls. And they do!

And it’s high summer in Australia!  No better place to experience essential aspects of Australian life than at the beach in January:  kids playing cricket in the sand, families with all their beach gear walking and biking down the road, wet bodies walking up to the showers or to their cars.  And there couldn’t be a more salubrious setting than Pearl Beach, with its jungle-like bush around, and its overwhelming number of birds and wildlife surrounding the beach.  And to hear kookaburras again is just music to my ears.

The Swalwells’ house is a block from Pearl Beach’s Arboretum, a lovely left-wild but well-cared for parcel filled with the most glorious red gums and ferns and cabbage trees. The paths are tended by the village’s residents; flyers on the trails list the “Birds of Pearl Beach,” which number more than 100.  We didn’t see any there this time, but the vegetation was as beautiful as ever.

Oh, to be able to live here! But alas, as with most of Australia’s East Coast, the house prices are obscene, even for falling-down fibros.  So we will have to look further afield, even for rentals. But aren’t we lucky that we can visit this wonderful place?

My son and sports

16 Oct

This week has witnessed the appallingly obscene depths to which the Republican candidate for President of the United States can sink. Everyone from Michelle Obama–in the most powerful speech of the year–to former NFL player Chris Kluwe have expressed disbelief, shame, and fear about assertions of sexual predation being dismissed by the candidate as  “locker room talk”. As so many people have stated, this grossly demeaning attitude is not only an abuse of women, but is an enormous slap in the face to men who play sports and spend time in locker rooms. My son Max, who has spent more than enough time in locker rooms, was disgusted enough to put up this note on Facebook:

I finally figured out my thoughts… Yes it is atrocious sentiments towards women, but it’s also demeaning to men and sporty men the most. We don’t talk like this… Ever. To imply we do and to equate it to playing sports degrades what is the purest outlet of physical expression and bonding we have. Locker room talk, in my experience, is more hopeful and joyous. All those endorphins make you talk about the future and the happy moments of the past. What you’re hopeful for and grateful for and why you’re happy to be hanging out with whoever you just squashed/ran/soccered with. Give me that back you shitty off brand pumpkin spiced dirt bag.

While these words made me proud of him for having grown into such an ethically decent human being, it also made me, as his mother, remember how important sports–or, as one says in Australia where Max did most of this athletic activity, sport–can be for young men. When we moved to Australia–where sport plays such a prominent role in public life and culture–Max was 7. The adjustment to this new place was difficult at first, not only because his first school was less tolerant of difference than it should have been, but also because he was just beginning to figure out what athletic competition was about, and which sports he would want to play. His first foray into cricket was a mistake–probably not the game to introduce an American-born child to before some other, less arcane, games were tried. In this, his father helped, by becoming a coach of t-ball, and then, baseball proper.  At the same time, Max began playing soccer, eventually becoming a referee, while we all started watching the big sports of the culture, Rugby League, Rugby Union, and Australian Rules football.

Through sport, Max became part of Australian life, and at the same time, learned to discipline emotions, how to be part of a team, and to enjoy athletic activity.  As fans, we all learned how to deal with disappointment with losses and with elation when our teams won.  I can still remember how proud Max was when he came home from soccer referee training, with his little pouch of penalty cards. He held up the red card, and said “Just think, Mom, a billion people fear this card!”  And I was immensely proud of him when he had to red-card a PARENT at an Under-12s girls’ game who was becoming abusive.  Sport, as he has said himself, taught him respect and tolerance and using good judgement. It also provided camaraderie, esprit de corps, and all those joyful things. In many of these exciting moments, his teams were coed, the girls being as much a part of the team as the boys.

He did NOT learn to consider obscenities or the demeaning of women to be part and parcel of an athletic life.  To this day, Max, who is now a husband and a father of a son, continues to love sports, both actively participating and watching competition as a fan.  I’m sure that if his son is interested, Max will impart all of those positive aspects that sports can provide for a boy. It’s a hard time for young men today. Let’s hope that sports can continue to offer the same kind of outlet for growing into healthy adults that it has provided for generations of men and women.  Thanks, Max, for reminding me of what you loved about locker room talk!

Things I’ve learned about Lisbon

14 Jan

Let me present some things I have now learned about this fascinating city, in no particular order:

–According to our new friend Paula, sardines have become a kind of new popular symbol for the city. “I don’t know why, or when this started,” she said. But we have found sardines in all shapes and sizes in all the shop windows. Above are two examples in ceramic and in fabric.


— Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, came to Lisbon in hopes of recovering from TB, wrote one of the only early descriptions in English of a journey to Lisbon , and then, unfortunately, died soon after arriving in 1754. And who knew that there has been a British Cemetery in this Portuguese city since an agreement between Cromwell and King João IV in 1654? The cemetery, appropriately called St. George’s, is charming and serene, with a lovely small church amidst the many graves. Along with those of British sailors and British residents in Portugal, the graves include ones in memory of Dutch prisoners of war from South Africa, and some other nationalities. No one knew exactly where Fielding was buried, although they know he was buried here. The memorial tomb was erected in 1830 by the British community in Portugal. We had to pay our respects.


–Portuguese TV (we have a TV with satellite dish in this apartment) consists of about 10 channels of local Portuguese content, mostly news and sports, then the rest is almost entirely American programs, presented in English with Portuguese subtitles. There are also a few French channels, and one in Russian. But none in German! All of the worst of the reality shows are here, and none of the PBS or HBO ones. It’s a good way to learn Portuguese, and people here say it’s how they learned English.



–Lisbon is a city of many neighborhoods, but all of them seem to have tons of tiny ”tascas”, cafes with about four tables and a bar. Here’s one in our neighborhood, with workers bellied up to the bar at noon.  They all serve a special of the day, um Prato do Dia, which is usually some kind of pork stew, feijoada (beans) and perhaps a fish or squid dish.


George with feijoada

To our surprise, Portuguese cuisine is not big on vegetables, despite having good ones in the markets. Alternative/new age food fads don’t seem to have made much of a dent here, either, and we haven’t seen any juice bars or signs for gluten free anything. There are some organic markets, but they’re fairly lacklustre. We have found only one ”supermercado”, a supermarket as we would understand one, and it is huge: part of a ginormous department store/mall called Corte Ingles. We found it by accident when we went up to see the Gulbenkian. The Metro stops within the shopping center. That’s where we have had to go to find goat’s milk and sheep’s milk yogurt. And this is the land of white bread–goodbye to the heavy German breads that we love.


My bacalhau

The only thing I knew about Portuguese food was bacalhau, which I thought referred to one particular dish, but which is just the word for salted cod, prepared in a variety of ways. This must be the ultimate comfort food, and I can imagine homesick Portuguese
longing for their mother’s beloved bacalhau meal. Here’s the version I had at the Museu Nacional do Arte Antiga. Sort of like a creamed tuna pie, with spinach.




Portugal has a deep and rich literary tradition, and they revere their writers, as the statues to Camoes and Ribeiro Chiado indicate. And there are statues to other authors all over Lisbon. Their most beloved modern poet is Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a fascinating character who wrote poems and prose in the voice of 4 distinct and separate identities, and wrote some of them in English. Growing up in South Africa, he returned to Portugal to go to university. Perhaps because of this experience as a Portuguese away from his homeland, he became committed to making the rest of the world aware of the Portuguese language and culture. After his death, scholars found in his manuscripts the outline of a tour guide to Lisbon, geared at the English-speaking traveler. Here he wrote ”For the average Britisher, and, indeed, for the average everything (except Spaniard) outside Portugal, Portugal is a vague small country somewhere in Europe, sometimes supposed to be part of Spain…” We are now checking out this guide, which has been recently published. George notices with glee that a lot of what Pessoa writes here seems to have been appropriated word for word from the Baedeker’s for Portugal from 1907.  He is checking on that right now!


Normally I find most public sculpture to be rather boring or formulaic, but I have found Lisbon’s sculptures to be elegant and evocative, if not downright erotic. Above a lovely sculpture in the middle of the pond at Jardim da Estrela and on the left an amusingly poetic paean to the writer José Maria de Eça de Queirós, apparently being inspired by a scantily clad Muse.  Lovely!

As I have been writing this, other monumental personal events have occurred–the birth of our first grandchild!–so I will have to continue these musings later!

Lisbon is uphill!

11 Jan


After a short week in Lisbon, we can make a few observations:

First of all, it’s obvious that we are now in a Latin country, with all the positive and negative connotations that such a blanket statement implies. The most attractive thing to us so far is that, while the city has made some concessions to tourism, tourist traps do not dominate; the city is still a city for its own people, with all the messiness that such a situation implies. The buildings are often in various states of dilapidation, but are still often inhabited; one will be beautifully restored next to a completely derelict-looking building. lisbon_condebarrao_derelictbldgThere is a sense of a bit of romantic decay everywhere, a distinctly different aesthetic than in Vienna or other Northern European cities. Perhaps we sense this now because we have an apartment in the Bairro Alto, the old working class part of town. There are no supermarkets here, just tiny little shops for meat, fruit, vegetables, tea, pastries, coffee, and anything else you might need, but not much variety, and lots of the so-called ”necessities” missing. But these shopkeepers are part of the community, and are the eyes of the street, too. There is no recycling bin, or even a garbage bin. We take the garbage bag out every night and leave it by the side of the house, and someone comes and picks it up every morning! The streetcar runs right up our little narrow street; it comes pretty often, but is never really on time, and sometimes you have to wait 20 or 30 minutes, and then 3 of them will come all at once. P1020719

The pace of life is definitely Latin–very casual, nothing rushed. Lots of noises in the neighborhood: dogs barking, music of all sorts coming out of the windows, boisterous singing on the street when the bars close, conversations overheard through the wall in the next apartment, the people above moving furniture around. But people do seem to be respectful of others after 10 at night or so, and people are friendly to each other. In this neighborhood, not everyone speaks English, and they will go to great lengths to correct one’s feeble attempts at speaking Portuguese–it may look a bit like Spanish, but it is pronounced completely differently!

And my God, is Lisbon hilly!  I am happy to say that while my legs and knees ache a lot, I have been able to make some pretty steep climbs, but I wouldn’t want to be an old person with limited mobility here.   But every turn reveals something new, some glorious architectural wonder, or poetic moment.

Just some of my thoughts about Lisbon at this point in our stay.



The Gulbenkian

9 Jan

When I thought that I would never see my camera again, I was afraid I would have to go to the Gulbenkian museums again to reshoot all the photos I had taken. But we were lucky: retracing our steps, we found the camera–at the administration building of the museum!! Still, I wouldn’t mind going back to this museum anyway.


Calouste Gulbenkian, as he looked when he moved to Lisbon, 1942.

Over the years, the name Gulbenkian is about the only association I had with Lisbon. That there was an interesting art collection here that had something to do with a person named Calouste Gulbenkian came to my attention at various times throughout my art history study and teaching, with occasional references to artworks being in Gulbenkian’s collections, and also something about activities of a Gulbenkian Foundation headquartered in Lisbon. When I worked at the Kimbell Art Museum, I think we also had loans for exhibitions that carried the name. Somehow the name always intrigued me, and I knew it had some mysterious connections to the Middle East–I got a vague ”Maltese Falcon”/Sydney Greenstreet mind-image whenever I heard it. What Gulbenkian, which having lived in the center of an Armenian community in California I knew was an Armenian name, had to do with Lisbon, I had never quite understood.

One of the first things I wanted to do in the city, then, was to delve into this mystery by at last visiting The Gulbenkian Museum. A short subway ride took us there. Surrounded by a lovely garden–green even now in what counts as Lisbon’s winter–the building is a typically 1960s concrete Brut Moderne.

The treasures inside are first-rate, and displayed in some of the most pleasantly laid out rooms I have seen. The awe-inspiring realization that these objects were all collected by one man (about whom I will write more in a minute) makes the experience even more engrossing.  Given Gulbenkian’s origins in the Levant, as my old professors used to call it, it lisbon_gulbenkian_egyptiancatsis not surprising that his works from Egypt, Persia, and the Islamic world are superb–enough so that I spent more time looking at these than I normally do. And there were Egyptian cats! (Although I am really skeptical that some of these are actually from the 26th Dynasty…)

One of the glories of the collection, appropriately enough for Lisbon, is a resplendent offering of Persian and Islamic tile work, installed in plaster walls. There are walls and walls of the most various styles and designs, including these two: a Persian star tile, and this remarkable 16th-century wall with the one tile at the top right deliberately installed assymetrically.

The rest of the Persian and Islamic ceramics were just as enthralling, with deep blue glazes and glass enameled with lions.




The rest of the rooms move through the canon of Western art history with stunning chronological predictability, each room containing some masterpiece by one of the big names from Dierck Bouts to Rubens to the Impressionists (Gulbenkian seemed to have favorites–a room full of Guardi, but no Canalettos, lots of Fragonard and very interesting Manets and Degas).  As a companion piece to KHM’s Helene Fourment, I had to get a copy of this Rubens, too:


And there was ANOTHER museum right next door:  the Centro de Arte Moderna, also funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation (this is where I left my camera). This building is the home for modern Portuguese painters, as well as changing exhibitions focussing on modern art with some relation to Portugal. We were delighted to find here an excellent show, ”O Circulo Delaunay,” looking at the works created by Sonia and Robert Delaunay while they were stuck in Lisbon during World War I, 1915-16 (not a bad place to be stuck!). The curator had reconstructed an entire wall based on a mural Sonia created for a Barcelona exposition.


Aside from some surprising works by both Delaunays, the best part of the exhibition for me was an introduction to works by Portuguese artists who worked with the pair while they were in Lisbon:  Eduardo Viana, Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and José Sobral de Almada Negreiros. Very sophisticated modernism by all three, artists whom I had barely heard of before. And who knew the Delaunays were stranded in Portugal during the war?


Negreiros, Diablo, 1918



Eduardo Viana, Revoltes, 1916




Amedeo de Souza-Cardoso, Windmills, 1916.

Finally, to get back to the story of Gulbenkian: I wasn’t completely off in my sense that there was a bit of the ”Maltese Falcon” vibe about him.  First of all, I learned that Armenians had been the leading bankers of the Ottoman Empire for generations. Gulbenkian came from a distinguished family of such bankers and businessmen, and married into another of the prominent Armenian families. Their influence extended to Egypt and, eventually through Calouste, to England and the rest of the Western world. His father acquired oil fields in Turkey before there were even automobiles, placing Calouste in an advantageous position once oil fields became THE prize investment. In the 1920s, Gulbenkian was able to use his clout to wrest the petroleum fields from the Turkish government, handing them over to the big Western oil firms such as BP and Shell.  In thanks for his efforts, the companies gave him 5 % of the profits from these investments, making him an extraordinarily wealthy man, and leading to his appellation as ”Mr. 5 Percent.”  He used his money to purchase art, which had been his passion since childhood.

Although he had become a British citizen in the 1920s, he sought refuge during World War II in Portugal–probably to avoid British taxes and to be able to oversee his far-flung business interests away from the fray. So he was only in Portugal for 13 years and never learned the language. When he died in 1955, his Portuguese lawyer saw to it that the Foundation Gulbenkian had envisioned establishing would be headquartered in Portugal, and brought together all of his widely dispersed artworks in Lisbon.  As António de Oliveira Salazar was still dictator of the country, the lawyer and foundation board had to do some heavy maneuvering to carry out the Foundation’s goals of supporting education and scholarship, with a strong emphasis on support for Armenians around the world. But the prize of his magnificent art collection was a tantalizing carrot to offer even to a dictator as entrenched as Salazar. The Gulbenkian Foundation continues to carry out important philanthropic work, in Portugal as well as in Great Britain and Ireland and among Armenians everywhere.

In any case, visiting the Gulbenkian museums are worth a trip to Lisbon itself.

The dilemma of Diehl: a forgotten artist, part I

16 Dec


In Vienna, we have been lucky enough to be able to stay in the apartment of our friends Wolfgang and Nora. This apartment was Nora’s before she married Wolfgang, and they have kept it through all their years of diplomatic travelling. It is ideally located near the Museumsquartier, and in what is now considered the hippest part of Vienna. Except for the three flights of stairs and no lift, we love it.

The apartment is filled with art, acquired by both Nora and Wolfgang, with an admirable collection of African masks and sculptures, and very modern paintings by Franz Ringel and others. And on the wall of the main room hangs the painting shown above. When I first saw it, in context with all the African art around it, I assumed it was a very modern painting, probably from the 1970s or 80s, making some kind of commentary about the post-colonial world: a native woman and child on one side of a cage, and chimpanzees on the other. Who is encaged, the people or the animals?

It wasn’t until I looked more closely that I saw the signature: diehl_pocoptg_signature

Intrigued by that rather historically significant early date and the name, I asked Nora about it, and learned that the painting was one of many artworks done by her grandfather Hanns Diehl (who–apparently in an attempt at a more distinctive moniker–also went by the name Hanns Diehl-Wallendorf). When I then met Nora’s older half-sister Heidi and saw a number of interesting paintings by Diehl in her apartment  (along with Heidi’s extraordinary collection of cat-related art objects!), I became even more intrigued, and began doing some searching about this artist I had never heard of but who had enough talent to produce works on a par with many better-known figures in German art of his time.

The sisters also told me that they had all of their grandfather’s records, information, and hundreds of works out at the house in the Kamptal countryside where Nora grew up. They both confessed that they wanted to do something to bring his work to light and had made some efforts in the past, but were now at a loss about how to proceed. At this point I offered to help–to go through what documentation they had, and to look at what art of his remains. My hope was to get at least a Wikipedia page up (although in English when it should be in German), and perhaps an article that would bring him to the attention of those interested in this period and this type of art. And so I waded in! Diehl’s art intrigued me, and I believe it does warrant more recognition.

Little did I know how much stuff about their grandfather they still had: their mother, Hanns’ daughter Ingeborg, saved everything, including receipts of Diehl’s sales and sketchbooks as far back as his student days. A trip out to the country hannsdiehl_palette_closeuphouse revealed that, along with hundreds of paintings and a trunk full of documents, they even still had his palette! I took some photos of the paintings out in the country, and then brought in to Heidi’s apartment the rest of the papers. I have now gone through a sizable chunk of this material, and have decided that a blog entry is an appropriate first step. We have already begun a Wikipedia entry, but it is not yet complete enough to be submitted; by writing this blog entry first, we’ll have a reference to cite in the literature section that will be acceptable to the Wikipedia administration. There are still gaps in what we know about him; all three of us have been hampered by the fact that despite a number of letters in his records, Diehl wrote in such difficult ”Alte Schrift”–old-style German handwriting–that none of us can read them easily! At this stage, I am going to present here what information I have, along with comments about his art, and interject throughout questions that I still have about his life and his works. Some of these may never be answerable, or I will have to speculate on possible motives or sequences of events.


The Diehl home in Pirmasens, Germany.

Diehl’s story epitomizes the confusing, and ultimately sad, trajectory that the political events of 20th-century history imposed on anyone involved in the artistic life of the German-speaking world. He began life, on March 13, 1877, as Hans Rudolph Diehl, the second son of a well-to-do family in Pirmasens, Germany, in the region of Rheinland-Pfalz. His father August, a mechanical engineer and factory owner, was commissioned to work on the Russian railways in Moscow, and so Hans spent his early school years in Russia, attending the Petri-Pauli Realgymnasium. Later he wrote that these years were some of his happiest memories, as he spent hours walking in the woods surrounding Moscow. He drew from an early age, encouraged by his mother, who he described as having a natural talent for hannsdiehl_russianchurchesdrawing. Some of his later paintings relate to his Russian life, and during World War I, he was able to use his Russian language abilities to serve as a translator.

diehl_photo_diehl at easel_ca1910


Diehl’s diploma from the Weimar Akademie, June 1896.

In the 1890s, the Diehl family returned from Russia and settled in Weimar, where Hanns then attended the famed Weimar Akademie für bildende Künste, studying under the genre painter Carl Frithjof Smith (1859-1917) and Professor Max Thedy (1858-1924), and then as a master’s student with Theodor Hagen (1842-1919), considered one of the founders of German Impressionism. Diehl received his diploma from Weimar in June 1896. From this time on, he always referred to himself as ”Akademischer Maler”–a sign that he was determined to be a professional artist, an academic painter.  It was also about this time that he began calling himself Hanns Diehl-Wallendorf; a review of his first art show in 1899 refers to him by this new name.


Catalogue for Diehl’s exhibition at the Bangel Gallery, Frankfurt, 1901. Now he is referring to himself as Diehl-Wallendorf.


QUESTION:  Why did he choose ”Wallendorf” as his second name? Was his mother’s family from Wallendorf, near the Luxembourg border?


To further his studies, Diehl went to Frankfurt, where he studied etching and other graphic techniques at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut with Bernhard Mannfeld (1848-1925), who became his close friend and confidant. Through Mannfeld, the younger artist met the grand man of German naturalist painting, Wilhelm Trübner (1851-1917), who inspired Diehl to establish himself as an artist. With Trübner’s recommendation, he participated in his first group show at the  Kunstsalon Bangel in October 1900. The critics in the newspapers were quite positive in their assessment of this new talent–we know this, because Diehl cut out all of his reviews and kept them carefully organized in folders. One critic praised his ”quiet landscapes” as imparting a sense of rumination on life and stillness:

”Er malt ein ‘stilles Land’, das fast wie ein Phantasiebild anmutet, in welches der Maler eigene Gedanken über Friede und Todesruhe und eigene Töne zu legen weiss, die ihm alles Reale der Landschaft nehmen.’’ [in ‘’Kleines Feuilleton,’’ Frankfurter General-Anzeiger, 11.October 1900].


An example of one of Diehl’s earlier landscape paintings.

While he was described here as a landscape painter–he certainly wanted to be taken seriously as an academic painter, and landscape was the genre he most preferred–he was already trying his hand at every kind of artistic medium, from etching to woodcuts and other prints, from sculpture to glass design to painting. Ambitious and energetic, he needed to find a way to make a living as an artist, so realized the need to use his talents in the applied arts as well, and to experiment with a variety of styles. Still in Frankfurt, he had prints published in art magazines, most of them in the Jugendstil-inspired illustrative style of the time.

diehl_print_illus melk_ca1907

An early illustration in a magazine, ca. 1910.


QUESTION:  In Frankfurt, was he married and had a child?  No one in the family talked about it, but in Diehl’s documents is a photo of him with a little boy on his lap. Do we know for sure if this was his child?


At the invitation of his mother’s brother August Herb, who ran a decorative glass-making company,  Diehl moved to Vienna in 1906. He was to become a designer of glass windows and other decorative elements


Logo for Herb & Schwab (his uncle’s company), designed by Diehl ca. 1906.

for the company. Here he also created ex-libris for clients, continued to produce prints for magazines, and also tried to carve out a niche for himself as an established artist. Family stories claim that he wanted to join the Secession, but was rejected, a fact that he bitterly resented. In these early years, it does appear that he is experimenting with a variety of styles, and had yet to find his own artistic voice.

His designs for the company’s glass windows–stained glass was all the rage in Jugendstil-era buildings–were beautiful and successfully rendered, but obviously this kind of work was not enough to satisfy Hanns’s artistic P1020519ambitions.








QUESTION:  At about this time, he also designed the cover for the art magazine begun by his brother Gustav Eugen Diehl. Moderne Revue was an important avant-garde cultural magazine, and Gustav Diehl was very diehl_modernerevue_coverdesign_1906involved in the art publishing world of Berlin into the 1930s. Gustav was definitely more modern than Hanns, who had a reactionary streak even at this early date. Do you know anything about their relationship, or why Hanns would not have gone to Berlin, or been part of Gustav’s artistic circles?


Diehl’s life and art now becomes more complex, and intriguing. For now, I will consider this introduction as part I of the saga, retrieving the life of a forgotten artist.

Spitzi, part II: her life

30 Nov


(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), spitzi_father_photoa 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. spitzi_unclealexanderShe 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.

belvederecat_gobelins1920In 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).


Josef Strzygowski (1862-1941)

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, 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.)


Peter Strudel’s altarpiece, Rochuskirche, Vienna, 1690.

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.


Double Portrait of Otto and Heinrich Benesch by Schiele, Egon (1890-1918); Neue Galerie, Linz, Austria; Austrian, out of copyright

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.)


Erwin Dominik Johann Osen, Alfred Stix, 1947, Belvedere, Vienna.

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.


The Albertina, March 1945.

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.”


Perry Blythe Cott (1909-1998)

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.spitzi_albertinacat_franzoesisch_1946

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.)


Agnes Mongan


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.


Spitzi being feted at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, October 1987.




Spitzi on the video, being interviewed at 90, 1993.

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!