Tag Archives: Anna Spitzmüller

The Book and the process

22 Dec


As many of you know from reading this blog, I have been working on this book as a labor of love for several years now. It is so exciting that I finally have it in my hands! The title is Three German Women: Personal Histories of the Twentieth Century. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (CSP) in the U.K., the book, I now realize, would probably not have found as comfortable a home for publication anywhere else. CSP is known for publishing academic works, but ones that authors would otherwise not have been able to publish because they fill a minority niche. Here’s a great article about how they do it:


As the article points out, CSP is peer-reviewed, but decisions to publish are not based on profitability, but on whether the title fulfills some academic research need. As the article says, “We put our authors at the heart of everything we do.” They keep overhead down, so that their profit margins are small, but they publish so many books that in aggregate, they stay afloat financially. They publish out of Newcastle — not a traditional hub of English publishing! — and all processes are done locally. Their method of printing also contributes to their success, as their Chief Executive explains:

Print on Time works by doing short-run digital print which makes sure we hold a small stockholding, based on our calculations of how many titles are likely to sell. We direct-supply our US distributors, quicker and much more cost-effectively than an on-the-ground US warehouse could supply. That’s not supposition – we tried it, and we disintermediated it, and it worked. We don’t get stock-outs, or pulped stock, or returns, because we fulfill an order the same day, and get it to the distributor faster than a local warehouse can. That means we don’t have to worry about the intersections in the supply chain – which is where things always go wrong – or have a manager managing those intersections, reporting on them, and having meetings about them. Nothing is ever ‘out of print’. If someone buys a book we haven’t sold a copy of since 2013, we will very likely have one or two on the shelf, and if we don’t, we will print and ship it the next day. We don’t have boxes and boxes of books gathering dust on a shelf that we will never sell. If it’s older or slower-moving, we hold them in ones and twos. If it’s newer and quicker-moving, we measure their movement in weeks, not years. We keep the margins that printers and warehousers take. We don’t tie up cash in stock and watch it sit and depreciate every day.”

I have been astonished at how quickly CSP can get a shipment of books to me: within a week from the U.K. to California. I have been pleased with the freedom I was given to write as I wanted to — my book is quirky, a bit memoir, a bit women’s history, a bit German history — and that the process of publishing went so smoothly, much more smoothly than my previous academic books.

That being said: CSP is not a publisher for books requiring much graphic design or elaborate illustrations. Being used to publishing in art history, most of my other publications have required lots of illustrations and thought about pleasing design. While I did include black and white illustrations in this book, all of the “design” — what passed as design! — was my job. (I was thrilled, after much searching, to find the Kirchner painting of three German women for the cover!) The typesetters did aid a bit with formatting, but for the most part, the look of the text and placement of photographs within the text were my responsibility as the author. The final product is clear and clean, but not at all adventurous graphically.

Finally, and most unfortunately to my mind, such a simple publishing philosophy, and one that involves taking some risks on a variety of titles that will not necessarily sell well, means that the prices of the volumes are very high. My book costs in the U.K. £62, which translates to about $US83. This is an enormously high price for the people who I would like to have read the book. I am hoping that people will request orders from their local libraries, so the book will be available for those who want to read it but can’t afford the cost. Currently, the book is offered on Amazon.com at $US100! (It sells for €58 on amazon.de).  There is talk that in a few months, CSP will be able to print the book as a paperback, and it is apparently also now available as an e-book for academics who have access to ProQuest. In the meantime, I have been ordering copies at my author’s discount, then passing on those savings to my friends who really want to read the book now. At the moment, I think it is still possible to order the book on the CSP website with a 25% promotional discount, by using the code PROMO25. Here’s the link to the CSP page:


I am just happy that the book is out there, and hope that anyone interested in stories of intellectual women persevering in the turmoil of 20th-century Central Europe will find it interesting.

My next blog will include some of the research and documents that I received too late to include in the book! This always happens…..

The book is here!

25 Nov

As many of you now know, the book that I began as blog entries on this site, and where I have posted numerous updates as I did the writing (https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/book-proposal-accepted/), has now arrived! I am glad that I continued to search for the cover image until I found the one that looks right. I’m really pleased with how zappy it looks. The contents look better than I had expected, and now I wish I had included more images than I have.

What can I say? This book was a real labor of love, about women I knew, who lived through the most turbulent times in Central Europe, and managed to persevere and survive. This is my most personal work, not at all like the academic books and articles I’ve written in the past: a bit memoir, a bit women’s studies, a bit German history, it’s very hard to decide where it fits in book publishing categories. I do think it is important in recovering from obscurity the lives of intelligent, professionally active women who made contributions to their culture. Personally, I’m proudest of my translation (after transcribing, with the help of Adobe, from German Fraktur) of the marvelously evocative “Autobiografie einer jungen Frau” that Irmgard Kern wrote in 1934 (Appendix I). This series, presented over several weeks in the renowned Frankfurter Zeitung, was perhaps Kern’s finest writing, and presents such a vivid picture of the life of a privileged Catholic girl growing up in early 20th-century Berlin. I’m grateful as well that Maria Steinberg’s family allowed me to include some of the writings of Maria’s brother Jan, describing in fascinating detail their life on a farm estate outside of Berlin (Appendix II). A world now completely gone.

As happens with small publishing houses now, the book price is outrageously high, in my opinion, but it can’t be helped. While it is now available on Amazon.com, I have found that it is cheaper and faster to order directly from the British publishers, at this site: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/products/978-1-5275-5697-3

For the moment, I think you can still get a 25% discount using this code PROMO25. I have also been assured that in six months, they will publish a paperback and e-Book at a lower price. My other suggestion for those who would like to read it but don’t want to buy it is that you request that your library purchase a copy! Most libraries, if they have any funding at all, are pretty amenable to patrons’ requests.

I would be most grateful to anyone who could suggest possible publications that might review such a book. There are tales here of those who had to flee the Nazis, stories about a woman who worked with The Monuments Men to save European art treasures, and rediscoveries of forgotten writers who got lost in the aftermath of World War II. The book is dedicated to the late film historian Thomas Elsaesser, whose own discoveries about his family’s history overlapped with the biography of one of “my” women. He was immensely helpful and enthusiastic about this project. I hope I have done justice to these women, who were such inspirations for this American.

Update: Three German Women

13 Aug


Maria & Bobby, ca. 1954


As I am just completing the first chapter for my Three German Women book (Maria’s chapter), I thought it would be a good time to recap where I’ve come to on this project, and where it’s going. This has been such a tumultuous year for us, so my writing regimen has been no regimen at all. But I have been making progress. Good news: I have made contact with Maria’s relatives, the children of her twin Gusti. They have given me lots of personal information about Maria and Bobby’s life together (and photos, like the one above).  The narrative has expanded exponentially, as I have learned of Maria’s connection to several other prominent people, most notably the historian George L. Mosse, who became a close personal friend of her family. I have also received permission to publish parts of Maria’s brother’s memoirs, in which he describes in great detail their lives on their country property at Löpten, outside of Berlin. This recounting captures very vividly a rural German lifestyle–prosperous country squire and family improving the lives of impoverished villagers–now completely gone, for better or for worse.  Maria’s story has been the happiest of my trio, and the easiest to write.

Of the other subjects:  Irmgard Kern’s story is the most complicated and harrowing, and has many gaps. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit with her son Vincent Rexroth as I had hoped to in May, and he has not been at all forthcoming with any responses to my queries. (What was the name of her beloved dog in the 1970s?) Thomas Elsaesser, who is hoping to republish Irmgard’s husband’s magnificent book (H.G. Rexroth’s Der Wermuthstrauch), is also waiting for further information, and has had to put his plans for that book on hold. I will try to tackle the writing of Irmgard’s chapter next, and hope that I can pull together what I already have accumulated about her fascinating life.  Her amazingly insightful “Autobiografie,” published in 1934 in the liberal newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, is really my main motivation for wanting to see this book materialize. I have transcribed and translated the segments, and think this will be a major contribution to literature about the life of women in Germany.

Finally, Anna Spitzmüller, my AUSTRIAN German Woman, will shift my story from Berlin to Vienna. Here, too, I had hoped to fill in many gaps (what was her aristocratic mother’s name???) when we were in Vienna. While we had to cancel that planned trip, I am now hoping that I might be able to travel there for 10 days in October to complete some necessary research. Fingers crossed that my recovery from surgery is complete, and we can afford for me to take the trip.  I am also finding that my research skills are failing me somewhat: Spitzi had great interaction with the Monuments Men at the end of the War, but I have been lax in trying to wade through the daunting layers of official documentation at the National Archives and elsewhere to get any substantiation of her claims about these events. I need to be more dogged in figuring out how to tackle online these documents, not all of which are available digitally.

My biggest concern now, however, is the tone of the book, and what to include in the introductory chapter.  As my blog essays show, I wrote about these women who I had known purely for personal interest, and then, for reasons that I can no longer really clarify, decided that I should expand their stories into a book.  I chose to submit the book proposal to Cambridge Scholars Press simply because I knew the people there, and was pretty certain they would accept the book for publication.  Now I find that this very academic press may not have been the best choice for presenting these stories. Their formats are extremely boring, geared for densely textual manuscripts, with little interest in any kind of graphic design.  For the first time in my writing career, I am writing something that is meant to be presented in a more readable, less academic, format. I have spent my life avoiding the inclusion of “I” and “my” in my writing, and now have to figure out how to be more personal while still including all the information.  And I do want photos, which does not appear to be that desirable for this publisher’s rigid format instructions.

As for my introductory chapter, I have also had to remember that I am not obliged to be comprehensive–I’m not writing a dissertation, or trying to get tenure!  Since the literature on German history of the 20th century is vast, I have decided that I am going to write this chapter as a kind of bibliographic essay, referring only to the themes I want highlighted–the history of German women, women’s education, German responses to modernity and their relationship to the tumultuous events of their history. By emphasizing what I was looking for in the sources that I used to verify my opinions and themes, I don’t have to justify why I did not look at whatever materials others feel I “should” have included, if this were an academic exercise. As my first attempt at writing in a more intimate, journalistic style, and not about art historical topics per se, I am still grappling with how to divest myself of all those years of academic training!

So that’s where I am now, two weeks after major surgery, and with a new deadline from the publisher for the end of January 2020.  Wish me luck!  And please send any information you have about “my” women!


Book proposal accepted!

14 Mar


So my book proposal, Three German Women:  Personal Histories from the Twentieth Century, has been accepted by the press to whom I sent the proposal!  EEEK!  Now I really have write it!  I am excited, and not yet daunted.

Here’s the blog I wrote about the topic:  https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/a-book-proposal/

I have changed the deadline to September 2019, just to be safe, but I hope I will have it finished by next Spring at the latest.

And here’s the “blurb”, as the publishers call it, that I just sent back with the contract:




This book presents the life stories of three women of the German-speaking realm whose lives inspired the author directly: mathematician Maria Weber Steinberg (1920-2013);  journalist Irmgard Rexroth-Kern (1907-1983) ; and Viennese art historian Fr. Dr. Anna von Spitzmüller (1903-2001).  The lives of these three women serve as emotional mirrors to the cultural transformations and tumultuous history of the 20th century. Their stories tell of the hardships, struggles, and victories of intellectual European women in this era. Each was related to men who played a role in European cultural life, men who received some prominence in history books; these women, in contrast, received very few public accolades for their important achievements. Placing them in the cultural context of the times in Germany and Austria, the author  highlights the traumatic choices imposed on ordinary people by political and social circumstances over which they had no control. Along with the women’s individual stories, the chapters focus on overarching themes: intellectual women’s roles in European society , the fate of Jewish culture in Germany and Austria, and specific historical background describing the incidents affecting their life trajectories (e.g., Irmgard Kern’s involvement in Berlin’s literary world,  Dr. Spitzmüller’s work with the Monuments Men, and Maria Steinberg’s father’s position in the Reichstag of the Weimar era).

As you can see, I simply cobbled together aspects of my original proposal.

And now I put out the call:  anyone who has any information about any of these women and their families–photographs, too!–please contact me, either here in the comments or through email at esauboeck@gmail.com.

Now back to work!  Right now I’m converting Fr. Kern’s “Autobiografie einer jungen Frau,” published in 1932 in a German newspaper in Fraktur, into readable text; then I will translate it.






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, 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.)


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!




Spitzi, part I: My memories

13 Nov

viennagroup1970004We 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.


Portrait of Hélène Fourment (Het Pelsken), c. 1638 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


Jane Seymour , 1537 Hans Holbein © Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien oder KHM, Wien

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.


A sculpture of Prince Eugene of Savoy, in his palace, the Belvedere.

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!


Ludwig Jungnickel, Study for Paradies der Tiere freize, Palais Stoclet, 1903. This may be the very drawing that Spitzi had in her apartment.

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.


The exhibition that opened at Hope College in 1987. That’s a Romako on the cover.

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.