30 July 2013

Rediscovering Broncia Koller

Modernism is a story men tell themselves.  Told often enough, the story takes on the status of history.
The standard narrative of the new art in early 20th century Vienna is especially egregious  in ignoring the women who participated  considering how many of them there were.  The invisibility of patrons like Sonja Knips or Lili Waerndorfer is easier to understand than that of artists who, after all, leave works behind with their names on them.   Which brings me, for the second time in these columns, to Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934) .   

Sometimes referred to only by her married name of  Koller, she was an established artist of thirty-three when she married.  Koller worked in all the major genres of Modernist art: portraits, nudes, landscapes, interiors, and still life.  Schooled at the Academy of Art in Munich, a city with its own Secession group, she studied woodblock printing in Vienna with the accomplished Adolf Bohm around 1900.  Like her teacher, Koller adapted the recently discovered Japanese medium of the ukiyo-e print to local imagery.  

Instead of  pure japonisme or stock symbols of Art Nouveau (think: swans, lotus blossoms, etc.), Koller created strong images of Austrian landscape and working women, even the extremely specific  Roof Of The Vienna Theater From A House At Weinseile Number 6.  Koller’s work moves away from the Jugendstil toward the even newer spare modernism.
Although women were not official members of the first Vienna Secession, many women did exhibit with the group and Koller was first among them.  For the Secessionists, the interior was a psychological space, permeable by the public life, and gender was not a negative attribute of the interior.    The term decorative also alluded to the use of the picture plane, a tending toward abstraction.  Their statement in the 1908 Kunstschau catalog read : “To permeate life with art is something altogether different from hanging it with art products.”  
At the 1908 Kunstschau, a celebration of Emperor Franz Josef’s 60th jubilee, Koller had a great success,   In one gallery was a group of  her paintings and in another  a wall was devoted to her woodblock prints.  It was there that Egon Schiele first saw Koller’s portrait of her mother, the model for his portrait of Hans Massmann.

Koller exhibited frequently, at the Kunstschau in 1908 and again in 1909. and elsewhere.    In  1911 Koller had a joint exhibition with Heinrich Schroder at Carl Moll’s  Galerie Miethke. In 1919,  Koller participated in the debut exhibition of the Aquarius group  in Salzburg.  She also made  the all-important hanging decisions  for the Sonderbund at Galerie Miethke.  It is interesting to compare Koller's  Arco with Moll's House Of Therese Krones in Dobling-  Vienna (c.1912-14, de Grosz Collection, Vienna).  Painted at about the same time, how  the similar elevated street views, how different the results between Koller's exuberant brushwork and fauvist style palette from Moll's delicate colors and restrained realism, and each impressive in its own way.   Beware  over-generalizations in art; it is a mirage created by our desire for a neat story.
Koller kept an apartment in Vienna and a studio at Naschmarkt. Among her close friends were Lou-Andreas Salome, whose portrait Koller painted,  and Alma Mahler.   Broncia’s brother  Friedrich became Salome’s lover. and the foursome was often together.   The wealthy Pinell family maintained a country home at Oberwaltersdorf that Broncia inherited, and where she painted  Harvest, one of her most popular works. When the Emperor purchased  Harvest for the Belvedere, friends reported to Koller on the excitement that greeted its public debut there. 

Alma Mahler  who often visited the Kollers’s summer home in  Oberwaltersdorf with her daughter Anna .  Koller’s son Rupert and Anna married, briefly in 1921,  but when Anna left Rupert Koller the friendship disintegrated, not helped at all by a plat Bocksgesang (Goat's Song), written  by Alma's new partner Franz Werfel, a poorly-disguised chronicle of  the unhappy marriage in five acts.  Other frequent summer guests were Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, and Egon Schiele.

Broncia Koller  was a friend and  mentor, to the younger painter Schiele.  In 1918 Koller painted a double portrait of Schiele and his wife Edith.  This was also the year of the influenza epidemic that took both Schieles, within days of each other.   Edith Schiele was already so ill that she had been unable to attend the funeral of their friend, Koloman Moser, who had died at age forty-nine from throat cancer.  
Months before he died, Schiele made a watercolor drawing of Koller's daughter Silvia.  As an adult, Silvia Koller (1898-1963) became a successful painter.

Koller-Pinell was Jewish;  her husband Hugo Koller was not.  For her, the increasing anti-Semitism in the Kunstschau after 1932 began  the erasure of her artistic reputation.   In the decades after Koller’s death, the importance of her work was minimized even by men who had praised and supported her in life. It takes repeated acts of rediscovery to keep art alive and available. 

For more about Broncia Koller.

1. Broncia Koller - Still Life With Parrot, 1910, Austiran national Museum, Lower Belvedere, Vienna.
2. Broncia Koller - Rooftop Of the Vienna Theater From A House At  Weinseile 6.
3. Broncia Koller - Woman Carrying Food, undated, Medaille College, Buffalo.
4. Broncia Koller - Arco, c. 1910-12, Eisenberger Collection, Vienna.
5. Broncia Koller - Anna Mahler With A Parrot -undated, courtesy of Austrian Art Net.
6  Broncia Koller - Portrait Of Egon and Edith Schiele, 1918, Austrian National Library, Vienna. 
7. Silvia Koller - Still Life With Oranges, 1956, private collection. 
8. Egon Schiele - Portrait Of Silvia Koller, 1918, private collection.
9..  unidentified photographer - Broncia and Silvia Koller At Oberwaltersdorf, 1915, Getty Archive, Los Angeles.