Why are outstanding women often forgotten or overlooked? Fortunately, Trude Fleischmann is not quite a secret anymore due to an extensive and masterfully-presented exhibition at Vienna’s Wien Museum—which thoroughly solidified her position as one of the most important Austrian and Jewish female photographers, as well as showcasing her 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 Vienna’s Institute for Photography and Reproduction Techniques, 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 even stated that women brought “the moral seriousness of art into absurdity”.
The exhibition, Trude Fleischmann –The Self-Assured Eye (Der selbstbewusste Blick), covered Fleischmann’s Vienna period from 1920-1938, highlighting her exceptional studio portraits along with Alpine landscapes and street photography. The portraits show Fleischmann’s mastery of her art and a unique identification and understanding of her subjects. Her studio (at Ebendorfer St. 3 near City Hall) was the scene of many parties for her well-connected circle of friends, and frequented by the many artists, performers and intellectuals whom she photographed.
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 World War I, 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 Fleischmann gave shape to this new self-assured woman with 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 not only her subjects’ images onto the printed photograph, but their personality and essence as well. 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 captured. One notable example–and one of my favorites–is an image from 1930 of Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus, 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’ (sounding like a ballet that would’ve enthralled Edward Gorey). 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 2011 exhibition, a larger-than-life image of the nude and relaxed Bauroff adorned the outside of the Wien Museum, in a casual defiance of history.
The exhibition followed Trude Fleischmann’s flight from Vienna to New York City, following the Anschluss in 1938 (Hitler’s annexation of Austria), when the studios of other Jewish women photographers began to be “Aryanized” or their names and identities “deregistered.” These contemporaries included other successful Viennese photographers such as Edith Glogau, Grete Kollin, Trude Geiringer and Edith Barakovich, who were also shown in the exhibition, giving a taste of what yet lies to be discovered. In 1940 Fleischmann opened a studio in Manhattan’s theater district at 127 West 56th Street, successfully adapting to her new home and expanding into street portraiture. Just two years later she became an American citizen. Eventually she relocated out of the city into Putnam County, in the village of Brewster, New York. Now more than twenty years after her death in 1990, this was 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 was the continuation of a movement begun in the 1980s and 90s to recover the remaining 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. While much of the culture from that time has been lost there is still much to rediscover as we continue to reaquaint ourselves with these distinctive women, such as Trude Fleischmann, and the expressive lifestyles of those she photographed.
* This piece was adapted from an article I wrote for The Vienna Review.