A War in the Distance: Exhibition

Stories and Histories

The exhibition A War in the Distance does not aim to represent the full history of Austrian or Styrian art. Instead, it is a statement about the current historical moment through constellations of works from different epochs. Its approach is typically historical; heritage works are not necessarily included because they are masterpieces, or because of their so-called quality—a highly problematic notion that implies unchanging criteria defined by an unquestioned authority.

Rather, they have been selected by the curators because they consciously or unconsciously reveal something important about their time and ours. Some of these works express colonialist or right-wing views typical back then. To show them in a critical way and to contextualize them, the curators researched the specific histories of some lesser-known artworks in the exhibition, focusing on hidden political meanings and forgotten political contexts. These are local or particular stories, sometimes tragic, sometimes amusing. Together, they constitute a larger history.

Krzysztof Glass, the Fugitive

Krzysztof Glass, Taming (1979), oil on canvas, 130 × 108 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

Krzysztof Glass, born Bolesław Bzdyl in Kraków in 1944, came to Graz in 1979 for the Internationale Malerwoche (International Painting Weeks), where, among other things, he created the large-format canvas Taming. In 1968, Bzdyl was imprisoned for six months for protesting against the communist regime. Unable to continue his studies in Poland, he left for Vienna in 1973, where he asked for political asylum, changed his name, and enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts to study stage design with Lois Egg and later sculpture with Bruno Gironcoli.

Glassʼs works critique political corruption and often contain references to literary sources, including Franz Kafka. The cycle to which Taming belongs is called The Glass Menagerie and probably alludes to the famous play by Tennessee Williams. The pictures in the cycle feature grotesque animal figures, characters in police and military uniforms, and conservatives in Tyrolean hats and lederhosen.

In their striking manner, they can be read as mirror images of postwar Austria, which had not yet come to terms with its complicity in Nazism. The reclusive Glass moved as an astute observer through this society, earning a doctorate in political science in 1994. In addition to paintings, prints, and woodcuts, the artist also (self-)published poetry and a series of cultural and political writings on Poland, Austria, and Central Europe. Glass died prematurely in 2000 and remains largely forgotten today.

Dragoš Kalajić and His Stolen Corpse

DRAGO (Dragoš Kalajić), Cross (1968), oil on canvas, 115 × 80 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

Made in 1968, the painting Cross by Serbian artist DRAGO (Dragoš Kalajić) entered the collection of Neue Galerie Graz after the completion of the annual residency program Internationale Malerwochen (International Painting Weeks), part of steirischer herbst at that time. Kalajić was a member of Mediala, a group of artists who sought a return to allegedly traditional values, and whose work often fused elements of Renaissance painting and fantasy.

In the late sixties, Kalajić was already well-known as a radical nationalist and Eurocentric who believed that US cultural dominance had doomed Western civilization. As a painter, he developed his own peculiar mixture of figurative painting and Pop Art. He dubbed it “Hyperborean Realism,” in reference to the mythical Nordic race championed by esoteric fascist philosopher, painter, and poet Julius Evola, whom Kalajić knew personally and greatly admired.

Kalajić also wrote poems, essays, and novels and hosted television programs such as The Mirror of the 20th Century (1979), a program about contemporary art, and Mont Blanc (1996–97), where he presented his vision of a new Europe without the EU. In the 1990s, his column in the biweekly magazine Duga, owned by the Serbian state, spread his trademark toxic mix of nationalism, Eurocentrism, and anti-Semitism.

Kalajić was influential not only in Serbia but also among Russian fascists such as Aleksandr Dugin. When Kalajić, who identified as a pagan, died in 2005, his corpse was purportedly stolen by his nationalist colleague Dragoslav Bokan and brought to a Serbian Orthodox church to prevent his soul from going to hell.

Georg Eisler and the Graz Police

Georg Eisler, Belfast (Street Fight) (1971), oil on canvas, 131 × 150.3 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

Georg Eisler’s Belfast (Street Fight) from 1971 shows a confrontation between heavily armed police and protesters who are about to throw stones. Made only a few weeks before the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, in which fourteen civilians lost their lives, the large-scale painting served as a bleak forewarning as well as a press report of sorts. The painting has long been on loan to the Graz police headquarters, where it is seen as a symbol of orderly police work, despite its clear activist character.

Eisler, the son of composer Hanns Eisler and singer Charlotte Eisler (née Demand), grew up in a Jewish-Communist household.  He fled Austrofascism together with his mother in 1936. When he came back to Vienna in 1946, he was able to find his place within a small but influential group of returning artists including Alfred Hrdlicka, Fritz Martinz, and Rudolf Schönwald.

What they shared was a particularly critical sense of realism, focused on an unembellished interpretation of the world. Eisler’s painting concentrated on concrete events, often using press photographs as models. His work from the 1960s and 1970s includes numerous sketches of the student protests in Paris and Berlin, the suppression of the Prague Spring, and the civil rights movement in the United States.

Franz Yang-Močnik and a Political Quid Pro Quo

Franz Yang-Močnik, President of the Provincial Parliament Ökonomierat Josef Wallner​ (1978), oil on canvas, 90 × 75 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

Franz Yang-Močnik was at the beginning of his career when he was commissioned to make seven portraits of former presidents of the regional Styrian parliament. The commission came to Yang-Močnik via Wolfgang Schaukal, with whom he studied and whose assistant he was from 1971 to 1980.

Schaukal—an artist himself—had produced biting caricatures of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring in the 1940s. After the war, he was actively involved in adult education, heading the refounded Urania institute, which had been subject to Nazi Gleichschaltung. He was approached to paint the former presidents by steirischer herbst founder Hanns Koren, but passed the commission on to his protégé.

The portraits, most of which are posthumous, were painted after photographs, in a style atypical of Yang-Močnik’s later work. All but two of these conservative politicians had been members of the Nazi party and were nonetheless able to rise to high offices after the war. In the end, the regional parliament declined to hang Yang-Močnik’s paintings, under the pretext that their framing would be too expensive.

The portraits ended up in storage at Neue Galerie Graz, where they are now exhibited for the first time all together. It is not clear why they did not meet the politicians’ expectations. Their style may have appeared as deliberately simple and naive, consciously “popular,” activating a critical and even political potential that might have been considered too rebellious.

→  Franz Yang-Močnik

Alois Krenn, an Artist Next Door

Alois Krenn, Friedrich Strohmeier (1981), oil pastel on primed fiberboard, 140 × 110 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

The works of Alois Krenn, who died in 2021, have been largely forgotten despite his great talent and initial success. After studying with Wolfgang Hutter at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, Kreen returned to Graz and had several solo exhibitions in both cities in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who knew him tell of a highly reclusive person who suffered from severe depression and, above all, increasingly withdrew from the art world, preferring to live in the countryside.

Krenn’s pastels, chalk drawings, and oil paintings mostly depict neighbors and acquaintances. Their everyday settings paint a bleak picture of postwar Austria. Despite the bright color palette, the images seem oppressive; the subjects avoid the artist’s gaze and stare blankly into the distance. In Krenn’s works, the rural parlors, gardens, and orchards do not become signifiers of an ideal world oblivious to history, but rather prison cells heavily weighed down by the Nazi past.  All this reflects the prison he always believed he lived in.

The artist created the large-format oil painting Psychiatric Hospital to impress his father, who did not want to recognize his artistic talent. His choice of subject suggests that Krenn or some of the people he portrayed may have spent some time in the building depicted.

In Graz artist Joachim Baur, Krenn found a patron who supported him with smaller exhibitions. It was on his advice that many of the surviving pastel works were acquired by private collectors. Neue Galerie Graz, which had already obtained one of the portraits in 1981 as part of the Internationale Malerwochen (International Painting Weeks), holds Krenn’s major works. To date, there is no catalogue raisonné for Alois Krenn.

Zea Fio and Her Aboriginal Self

Zea Fio, I, Trees, Earth (1983), oil on canvas, 162.5 × 207 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

I, Trees, Earth is a self-portrait by artist and conservator Zea Fio. Together with her husband Dušan Minovski, she was a representative of the so-called Nova Slika (New Image), an eclectic Neo-Expressionist movement in 1970s and 1980s Yugoslavia that corresponds to the Transavanguardia in Italy or the Neue Wilde in Germany. In most of her paintings—all of which share poetic and autobiographic titles and were painted with fingers—she represents herself as an abstract anthropomorphic figure in the center, framed by others.

Fio’s distinctive reference to elements of aboriginal art from Africa and Australia reflected her need to express her innermost states of thought and feeling, her escape from the constraints of the art academy, and her starting a family. It is telling that most contemporary (male) critics interpreted her style as an appropriation of Picasso rather than of African art directly.

Fio’s staggering assumption of an allegedly exotic identity also has a political dimension. As she retrospectively admits, Yugoslavia’s political and economic decline, tensions between ethnic groups, and the feeling of an imminent war overshadowed her work in these years. I, Trees, Earth was created during the Internationale Malerwochen (International Painting Weeks) in Graz in 1983, remained in the collection of Neue Galerie Graz, and has rarely been exhibited since. It testifies to an intense but short creative period for Zea Fio, which ended with her move to Vienna.

→  Zea Fio

Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez and the End of Empire

Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, The Castaways (1920), oil on canvas, 110 × 147 cm, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez was an Austrian naval officer, diplomat, and missionary. Descended from a French noble family that can be traced to medieval times, he spent much of his life traveling in service of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. His great passions were ethnography and scientific drawing. As an attaché to the Austrian East India Company, Ransonnet-Villez traveled widely throughout Asia and was able to pursue his hobbies unhindered. He is known not only for his large collection of taxidermy animals and scientific sketches, but also for his impressive underwater paintings, which he made with the help of a diving bell he designed himself.

The painting in the collection of Neue Galerie Graz is a late work from 1920. The Castaways depicts the dramatic demise of a group of shipwrecked sailors, repeating the iconic motif from Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19). Purportedly, Ransonnet-Villez often drew upon the motif of shipwrecks toward the end of his life. In the center of the group, a monk raises his cross to the sky. The figure next to him might be the artist himself. The painting was created the same year that Ransonnet-Villez’s wife Agathe died. However, it most likely represents, in an emblematic fashion, the fall of the empire he had served for half a century.

Szolnok and Artistic Colonialism

Tina Blau, Szolnok (ca. 1873/74), oil on wood, 22.5 × 36.5, Neue Galerie Graz / Universalmuseum Joanneum

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Europe saw an explosion of artists’ colonies—usually situated in scenic surroundings suitable for plein air painting. The most famous of these was in the village of Barbizon on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest, where Parisian painters sought rustic surroundings and subjects. It was not uncommon for artists, mostly urbanites, to move from one colony to the next in search of new settings and motifs. They adopted a bohemian lifestyle—a term romanticizing the nomadic Romani who were thought to come from Bohemia.

For many Viennese artists of the late 19th century, the area around the Hungarian town of Szolnok and its artists’ colony was an important destination. At the height of the European fashion for all things Oriental, Szolnok and its resident Roma community became a focus for Orientalist fantasies. Accessible by train from 1855 onward, the town provided a welcome change from the familiar motifs of genre painting, especially for those Western European artists who wanted to spare themselves an exhausting voyage across the sea. Here, an image of the imagined East presented itself, with Roma standing in as models for Black people too. To early 20th-century commentators, Szolnok was some sort of Marrakech or Egypt right next door, where Roma roamed the landscape as “Bedouins of the Great Plain.”  

The area was discovered by Viennese artist August von Pettenkofen, who had visited it as a military painter during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and appreciated its picturesque qualities. He would return regularly for more than thirty years. In addition to Pettenkofen, several other Austrian artists settled in Szolnok: Leopold Carl Müller, known as “Egypt-Müller” or “Orient-Müller”; Tina Blau, the most important woman Impressionist; and Johann Gualbert Raffalt, whose paintings have an almost religious character, mixing the Hungarian puszta with the Holy Land.

Little changed in the exoticization of the Roma when Hungarian painters founded an art association in the colony at the end of the 19th century, thus creating the oldest surviving cultural center in Hungary. To some extent, they even used the same models as Pettenkofen. More than 4,000 paintings and all the colony’s papers were destroyed in World War II. Beginning in 1944, the Roma population of Szolnok was rounded up for forced labor, deportation, and extermination in Nazi concentration camps.

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