The Self-Assured Eye

Trude Fleischmann: expressive and bold, sensitive and delicate, personal and serious, bringing her subjects onto the printed image

Jewish photographer Trude Fleischmann’s 1930 work, Karl Kraus | Photo: Wien Museum

The current exhibition at the Wien Museum, solidifies Trude Fleischmann’s position not only as one of the most important Jewish female photographers of Austria, but as one of the most significant photographers of the 20th century.

Fleischmann launched her career at a time when Austrian women had just begun to assert themselves socially and professionally; she began her four-year course of photography studies in 1913 at the Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Photographie und Reproduktions-verfahren, just five years after the institute had opened its doors to women in 1908. Photography was an overwhelmingly male-dominated field, and leading photographers often disparaged women’s contributions:  Influential Viennese photo-journalist Hermann Clemens Kosel proclaimed that women brought “the moral seriousness of art into absurdity.”

The exhibition, Trude Fleischmann – The Self-Assured Eye, covers Fleischmann’s Vienna period from 1920-1938, highlighting her exceptional studio portraits along with street photography and Alpine landscapes.  The portraits show Fleischmann’s mastery of her art, and a unique identification and understanding of her subjects.  In her studio at Ebendorferstraße 3 near the Rathaus, she photographed the artists, performers and intellectuals who frequented there, as well as the scene of many parties for her well-connected circle of friends.

Fleischmann and her colleagues were in touch with the social, political and artistic movements afoot in Europe at the time. A significant part of this was the emerging status of women, growing out of necessity. During the Great War, with workers scarce, women took over traditionally male professions. After the war ended, these women, many of whom were Jewish, continued their careers, exerting their independent spirit. Trude Fleißchmann gave shape to this new self-assured woman, in the revealing portrayals of her contemporaries, the success and popularity of her studio, and the devotion to her craft.

At times expressive and bold, sensitive and delicate, personal and serious, Fleischmann brought her subjects onto the printed image. She deftly combined her finely-tuned sensibility with the emerging technology, notably in her choice of composition and cropping to accentuate personal or identifying characteristics of those photographed. One notable example is an image of Karl Kraus from 1930, in which the writer’s hands take precedence, his enigmatic face off to the left and largely cropped out of the frame.

Outstanding among her portraits are the motion studies of modern dancers, capturing the dynamic, sculptural poses and avant-garde costumes of this era of expanding female liberation, as the women proudly express their emergent personal and artistic freedoms. The portrait of Austrian stage actress, the Countess of Carnarvon Tilly Losch (née Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Losch) is particularly enthralling, posed as ‘Princess Teablossom in the ballet, Whipped Cream.’ The exhibition also includes the provocative nude portraits of the of dancer Claire Bauroff photos considered scandalous in their time; upon public presentation in Berlin in 1925, they were censored and confiscated by the police. Advertising the exhibition today, a larger-than-life image of the nude and relaxed Bauroff adorns the outside of the Wien Museum, in a casual defiance of history.

Fleischmann’s Aktstudie (1925) | Photo: Wien Museum

The exhibition follows Trude Fleischmann’s flight from Vienna to New York City, following the Anschluss in 1938, when the studios of other Jewish women photographers began to be “Aryanized” or their names and identities “deregistered.” These contemporaries included Edith Glogau, Grete Kollin, Trude Geiringer and Edith Barakovich, other successful Viennese women photographers also on view.  As shown in the section on street portraiture, Fleischmann successfully adapted to her new home and in 1940 opened a studio in Manhattan’s theater district at 127 West 56th Street.  Just two years later she became an American citizen.

Now more than twenty years after her death in Brewster, New York, in Putnam County, in 1990, this is the first major exhibition of Fleischmann’s photographs, described by co-curator Anton Holzer, as one of leading “forgotten women photographers.”

“Strange as it sounds,” Holzer explains,  “Trude Fleischmann was recognized in her time, but today as a reference point for young photographers, she is still a secret.” In the aftermath of World War II and the diaspora of Jews throughout the world, the pre-war lifestyle and culture that had flourished in Vienna was lost, as was even the memory of their very existence not only with the destruction of photographs and negatives, but with the lost lives of the friends, family and relatives who knew the women and their work.

The exhibition is an inspiring glimpse into the Wien Museum’s significant collection, along with photographs from various other museums, galleries and private collectors. It is the continuation of a movement begun in the 1980s and ‘90s to recover the re maining and underrepresented contributions of Jewish culture in the years between the wars, as Austria then began to deal with this dark chapter of its history.

“Forgetting is not a natural process,” Holzer emphasized, and while much Jewish culture from that time has been lost, there is still much to be rediscovered, as illustrated in this impressive portrait of a distinctive woman in the 20th century and the expressive lifestyles of those she photographed.


The exhibition Trude Fleischmann – Der selbstbewusste Blick runs through 29. May 2011 at the Wien Museum, Karlsplatz

Catalog available online or in museum shop: Anton Holzer, Frauke Kreutler (eds.): Trude Fleischmann. Der selbstbewusste Blick. The Self-Assured Eye, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2011, 27 Euro at the exhibition
Ausstellungsgespräch: Sonntag, 10 April, 15 Uhr – Wolfgang Kos [exhibition ideas and concept] im Gespräch mit Elfie Semotan (Fotografin), “Besuch bei einer Kollegin”

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