Turn of the century Vienna was hardly a hospitable place for women. They were discouraged from taking part in public life except as mothers and playthings of men, subject the inconsistencies of a double standard reinforced by untreatable venereal diseases. The obstacles must have seemed enormous but there were women who persisted. Although women were barred from the Viennese Academy until as late as 1920, young women like Broncia Koller-Pinell studied art privately.
Bronislawa Pineles was born on the 23rd of February 1863 in Sonak in Galizia, now part of Poland. The family moved to Vienna in 1870, changing their name to Pinell and becoming part of a growing prosperous Jewish community. Already artistically inclined, Broncia received her instruction at age seven from sculptor Robert Raab. She studied painting with Alois Delug in Vienna and then the Art Academy for women in Munich from 1885-1887. Her early paintings were well received by Viennese critics. After that first successful exhibition in 1885, she would exhibit her work at the legendary Kunsthaus Vienna in 1908 and 1909.
She was introduced to Dr. Hugo Koller (1867–1949) a physician and physicist, by composer Hugo Wolf. Before the marriage, Hugo Koller had to withdraw from the Catholic church because mixed marriages were not permitted between Jew and Catholics at the time. Holy Blood, dedicated to her mother-in-law, suggest that Koller-Pinell may have converted to Catholicism, at least formally or perhaps it is a tribute of affection. (The miniature at the top left corner of the painted frame is a portrait of Frau Koller.)
After their marriage in 1891, Hugo Koller, who was also a collector and art patron, promoted Broncia's career. The couple knew the Secessionists and, later, the members of the Wiener Werkstatte. Like other artists around Gustav Klimt, Koller-Pinell (as she now called herself) worked in the flat, decorative manner of the Secession. The bookplate she designed for Hugo reveals the obsessive book collector who owned several thousand volumes, many of them rarities.
In 1904 the couple inherited a house in Oberwaltersdorf and commissioned Josef Hoffmann to renovate it in the Secessioonst style. The interior was designed jointly by Broncia Koller and Kolo Moser. The Koller home became a popular meeting place for artists and intellectuals including Franz von Zulow and a young Egon Schiele.
Daringly, for her time, Koller-Pinnell painted nudes, most memorably Mariette, sometimes called Seated Nude (at top). Marietta, from Trieste, may look familiar as she often posed for Gustav Klimt. Koller’s arrangement
of bold rectangles as her background includes a golden one behind the model’s
head, perhaps an allusion to the golden mean of the Renaissance.Marietta sits, relaxed yet attentive, a model at work with an artist, not a symbol but
a real woman.
In 1907, Koller-Pinell painted The Artist's Mother seatedin profile, which has been compared to James McNeill Whistler's portrait of his mother - high aesthetic praise indeed. Koller-Pinell's nudes radiate a spirit of self-possession; they are not positioned as offerings to the viewer. In common, both portraits have the flattened backgrounds and geometric designs of Secessionist style. Also, Koller-Pinell's woodblock prints are usually square, the shape associated with the influential Jugenstil journal Ver Sacrum.
Frequently she painted her daughter Sylvia and also Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav Mahler, at least twice Yet Koller-Pinell's name rates no mention in Henri de la Grange's monumental biography of the composer which also gives short shrift to Anna herself. On the pictorial evidence, both girls liked parrots. One wonders about the relationship between the painter and the young girl who went on to become a professional sculptor.
The Vienna Kunsthaus art show of 1908 was recreated at the Galerie Belvedere in October of 2008. The original epoch making event featured Koller-Pinell's work within the circle of fellow artists: Emil Orlik, Otto Prutscher, Maximilian Kurzweil, and those already named. So far as I can tell, her work was not given its proper place in the recreation.
Elena Luksch Makowska, Tina Blau, Olga Wisinger Florian, and Marie Egner were other successful artists but none equalled Koller's Pinell's curiosity, experimentation, and sure sense of what she could achieve with her art.
Broncia Koller-Pinell died on the 24th of April 1934 in Oberwaltersdorf, before the full horror of National Socialism.
Paintings by Broncia Koller-Pinell: Mariette, 1907, Vera Eisenberger collection, Vienna. Sylvia With Birdcage, undated, Vera Eisenberger collection, Vienna. The Artist's Mother, 1907, Galerie Belvedere, Vienna. Anna Mahler With A Parrot, 1910s, Kunsthaus Hieke, Vienna. View Of The Karlskirche-Vienna, undated, Dorotheum, Vienna. Photograph of the opening of the Vienna Kunstschau, 1908, Bildarchiv, Vienna.