Tag Archives: Women’s history

Image-making

21 Apr

Bear with me as I try to make a point about the media’s construction of “Image” and its manipulation of the visual record–whether aesthetic or historical or both. Theory has never been my strong suit as a thinker or teacher, so I may be reinventing the hermeneutic wheel here in a flat-footed way; and it could be that my comparisons here are stretched beyond persuasiveness, but current events have contrived to bring these ideas together for me right now.

This is the article that began this rumination:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/17/mary-beard-cut-us-version-civilisations-fearing-slightly-creaky/

 

If she is to be believed, the eminent scholar Mary Beard, pictured above, was largely deleted from the American presentation of the ambitious new “Civilizations” series, because, according to her, PBS Boston thought her appearance wouldn’t appeal to an American audience. She tweeted: “Can’t help think that there is something about a creaky 63 year old grey haired lady that doesn’t quite fit the bill. But I am probably smelling a rat where there isn’t one!” Beard also indicated that the American edits veered the narration of the series much more directly toward Christian views, and turned the episodes into an “anodyne” version that critics have noted in a rebuke of the productions’ “value free” approach to the subject.

While Beard may indeed be placing blame for the cuts on the wrong culprit, that such edits were made at all is a dismaying indictment of U.S. media’s interpretation of what American audiences want or should be exposed to–as if we can’t deal with another culture’s approach to history and art. Such micromanagement of what the American public sees smacks of the most egregious kind of censorship:  insulting an entire culture’s intelligence. Personally, as a “creaky old lady” myself, I tend to believe that Mary Beard is right:  her physical appearance doesn’t fit the mold of female talking head in America.  As if anyone watching a series with as lofty a goal as explaining “civilization” would be put off by a female presence not as attractive as the weather girls on local television stations!

The second image (which I don’t seem to be able to edit into place, so will have to place it  at the bottom of this discourse) is a screen shot from the scholar Thomas Elsaesser’s film about his family, “Sonneninsel”, “Sun Island” in English.

http://www.3sat.de/mediathek/?mode=play&obj=72067

As I have written before (https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/a-book-proposal/), Elsaesser serendipitously discovered my blog about Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, one of my “Three German Women”, and contacted me because Kern and her husband H.G. Rexroth figure in his film! (An indication of what a godsend Google can be for researchers!) He quite graciously sent me photos of Fr. Kern, as she appeared in the 1940s, and we have been sharing information ever since.  I was thrilled that he brought his film to USC this week, where we were able to see it yesterday and to meet the man himself.  “Sun Island” is a fascinating documentary based on home movies that tells a complex story of family, but brings up many other intellectual strands, having to do with architecture, the birth of the Green movement, memory, and revelations about everyday German life before, during, and after World War II.

After the film’s presentation and insightful discussion by extremely clued-in film students (they are, after all, at one of the most renowned film schools in the world), one of the faculty members wanted Elsaesser to address the “dilemma” raised by the film showing images of family members in Nazi uniform. The argument seemed to center on the fact that American audiences would not be able to read these images as anything but meaning that Elsaesser’s family were indeed Nazis, and that while Elsaesser does mention the appearance of people in uniforms, he doesn’t explain clearly enough what these depictions “mean”.  There was much back and forth about whether such images should be deleted for an American audience that wouldn’t understand.

Such concerns, to my mind, are exactly why such images of Germans in the 1930s and 1940s should be shown–to give a realistic presentation of what living in Germany at this tumultuous time meant.  Everyday life went on, people continued to make gardens, have friends over for tea, went for strolls in the gardens or swims in the lake.  Just like today, most Germans were, if not apolitical, neither Nazis nor leftists. As the war proceeded, men were drafted and sent off to the front. There wasn’t much they could do about it no matter how they felt about the military forces in charge of the country, unless they were immensely courageous and refused to go. Americans should also try to remember that Germans were not receiving the same kind of news that the Allies received; as far as most Germans knew, they were winning victories, they were fighting for the Fatherland, and life went on.  By the mid-40s, having a family member in uniform was as normal as seeing an American in uniform during the Vietnam war, and the feelings about their presence were as complex and emotional as were ours during that time.

But for the media,  what IMAGE is presented and how it will be interpreted is of utmost importance.  The awareness by professional documentarians and filmmakers of the inevitable self-censorship that happens with any film-making must always, I think,  be informed by film’s educational possibilities, even when dealing with “the market”, as the film-watching public is considered to be. Too often, however, those market forces seem to take precedence over the opportunity to educate.  That Elsaesser has such access to this amazing vernacular footage provides a brilliant opportunity to expand the interpretation of German life, to broaden the expected image of GERMAN that the world has created. As the people in this film reveal, they embraced neither one ideology nor the other; their visualized story presents a much more mundane picture of human beings going about the living of their lives, unaware that they were experiencing what has now become history.  Elsaesser’s desire to eradicate some stereotypes and misinterpretations of this past is the main reason I’m writing my book, too:  each of my German Women had to deal with the exigencies of this miserable history as it was happening, and none of them fit neatly into any of these black-and-white models of politics or ideology.  The concern about “accepted” presentation–whether of the supposedly desired female image for TV or the assumed meaning of a Nazi uniform–is not what is important to me or, I would hope, to most intelligent viewers or readers.  This “creaky old lady” just wants these stories to be told as factually yet evocatively as possible.

 

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A screen shot from Thomas Elsaesser’s “Sun Island,” showing a family member sitting in German uniform at a family gathering during WWII.

Frauengeschichten: Women on the Rahlgasse

24 Nov

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When at MAK the other day, we went into its very hip gift/bookshop, where I found this book offering walks through Vienna focussing on women in the city’s history. Written by an ”academic feminist,” the informative and quite readable stories are written in an anecdotal style and lead you through different parts of the city to experience sites of important moments for Viennese women.  Since our neighborhood figured in several of these stories, I decided to go take a walk in some fascinating, if at times predictably sad, footsteps.

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Rahlgasse from the steps down from Mariahilfestrasse.

Rahlgasse–named for a 19th century academic painter Carl Rahl–is a one-block street at the city end of Vienna’s main shopping street Mariahilfestrasse, very near the Museumsquartier; one has to walk down a flight of elegant stairs from Mariahilfestrasse to get there. On the east side of the street stands what is today called the Bundesgymnasium und Bundesrealgymnasium Rahlgasse,

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The entryway to the Rahlgasse Mädchenschule.

a coeducational progressive high school, but which began as the first gymnasium for girls in Vienna–and this only happened in 1892, after years of struggle to allow advanced education for women. (A Gymnasium in German is an advanced high school, like a college in Australia.) Until this time, women had to be taught at home, and were of course not admitted to the university. Marianne Hainisch (1839-1936) began to work toward this goal in the 1870s, against fierce opposition from men in authority.

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Maria Hainisch (1839-1936), founder of the Mädchenschule and activist for women’s rights.

A plaque in her honor appears on the school’s facade. vienna_rahlgassegymnasium_hainisch&herzog_hauser

Just think of the amazing number of incredibly brilliant women who taught here, and those who began their careers here! In her video interviews that I have just listened to at the Albertina, my art history professor Anna Spitzmüller recounts that her parents moved to this side of Vienna in 1913 because of the educational opportunities provided here. This must have been the school that she was referring to, since she lived very near by, on Windmühlgasse.

The other plaque shown here honors another of the school’s brilliant graduates, Gertrud Herzog-Hauser (1894-1953).

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Gertrud Herzog-Hauser (1894-1953), in a painting by her husband Carry Hauser.

While her real passion was for classical philology and philosophy, no possibility of an academic appointment for a woman existed, and so Herzog-Hauser became an influential teacher of girls, as well as a writer of textbooks for the school curriculum. In 1937 she was named director of the Rahlgasse Gymnasium, only to be kicked out the next year when the National Socialists came to power. Although a convert to Christianity–she was also married to the Expressionist painter Carry Hauser–she was forced to flee Austria as a Jew. Their 4-year-old son was shipped to England as part of the Kindertransport, while she managed to live through the war in Holland. She returned to Vienna after the war, but still experienced anti-Semitism and was never able to re-establish a career. She died at only 59, in 1953.

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The other plaque on the side of the school honors yet another graduate and another story of struggle for recognition despite formidable achievements, that of Marietta Blau (1894-1970).

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Marietta Blau, ca. 1925.

As the plaque states, Blau was a physicist, ”a groundbreaking researcher in the development of photographic methods of particle theory. Her techniques led to the discovery of nuclear ‘stars.”’ Despite her tremendous contributions to nuclear research, Blau suffered the same fate as Herzog-Hauser; the plaque ends with those stark words, ”Blau was forced to leave Austria in 1938.” She, too, returned to Vienna after the war, but despite some belated recognition, was never able to be appointed to an academic post, and died in penury. A very sad period for women, for Jews, for humanity, indeed.

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Casa Piccola, Mariahilfestrasse 1a.

Turning around and back up the stairs to Mariahilfestrasse, women’s stories continue at the other end of the cultural spectrum, in the world of fashion and theater. On the corner at the top of the stairs one finds the building still called Casa Piccola. In the 19th century and into the early 1900s, the building was the site of a beloved cafe, frequented by the more bohemian figures of Viennese literary and artistic life.

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Casa Piccola, 1900.

The owner of the cafe at this time was Karl Obertimpfler, whose daughter Lina, a famous beauty, became the architect Adolf Loos’s first wife.

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Lina Loos (1882-1950). She wrote witty and pointed commentaries about women and the men who love them.

After a disastrous scandal leading to her lover’s suicide, Lina Loos left Adolf, fled Vienna and became a well-known actress and writer, both in the U.S. and then back in Europe, and finally in Sievering in Vienna’s 19th district. As the plaque on the side of the Casa Piccola describes her, she was always open to ”the new”.vienna_casapiccola_emiliefloege&linaloos I think today she would have been a famous hippie beauty or a movie star.

And the other woman on the Casa Piccola plaque is one better known to some of us: it was in this building that Emilie Flöge (1874-1952), along with her sisters, had their famous Modesalon, designed by Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann as the epitome of the Secession era’s artistic and fashion reform movement.

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Emilie Flöge (1874-1952), ca. 1904.

Flöge, of course, is more famous as the ”life partner”–the main squeeze, the muse–of Gustav Klimt, for whom she designed his flowing robes and for whom she posed for some of his most famous and sensuous paintings, but she was an influential designer and artist in her own right. floege&klimt

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Gustav Klimt, Emilie Flöge, 1904.

 

Klimt died in the flu epidemic of 1918; Flöge ran her shop in the Casa Piccola until the Depression and then the Anschluss forced her mostly Jewish clientele to flee. She lived until 1952, but as Petra Unger writes in Frauenspaziergänge, her last years were spent in obscurity. She never wrote about her years as Klimt’s muse.

 

Finally, my own thoughts on the subject of women in Vienna: I think it is telling of the inequalities that women in the 20th century have had to endure that in my research on Anna Spitzmüller–the first woman curator in Austria, a decorated scholar, a participant in the events that have made the ”Monuments Men” so famous–I have found no photos of her in any Viennese collections or archives, and only a very few notices on her death, while photos and notices of her father and her uncle–and of many far less influential men–abound. Only my own observations, but there does seem to still be tremendous gaps in the recognition of women’s accomplishments and their part in the cultural history of this city.  But I’m very happy to find this book; I’m going to take the other walks described here, to find out more about these women who made their mark, and whom I am just getting to know.