IIn 1938, Nazi troops invaded Austria, subsuming the country in the Third Reich in an event known as the “Connection”Bringing official anti-Semitism, along with political violence, to the small German-speaking nation.
A new exhibition in New York features works of art by three Jewish artists who fled Vienna during the Anschluss, survived, and flourished as commercial artists. Armed with their pens, they used their ingenuity, talent, and stamina. His best works are exhibited in a group exhibition, Three with a pen, at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, demonstrating that art can be used as a weapon against fascism.
Artists fought fascism with political satire nearly 100 years ago, and yet their work still resonates. “History does not repeat itself, but there are certain phenomena that are at least reminders,” said Michael Haider, director of the forum.
“Once you have a certain level of racism, organized hatred in society, where people are systematically bullied, this should be a warning sign,” he said. “After what these artists experienced, we know the result.”
The artists are Lily Renée, Bil Spira and Paul Peter Porges, whose comics, drawings, editorial cartoons and caricatures are on view. They are displayed alongside photos and ephemera that help illustrate their biographies.
“All three artists have this story of escaping from Nazi-occupied Vienna, and then they made their career and fame, two in New York and one in Paris, elsewhere,” Haider said. “When I saw this exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2019, I thought, ‘Now let’s take this to New York.’
Lily Renée, an artist born in 1921 who turns 100 this year, came out through the “Kindertransport,” a humanitarian effort that allowed Jewish refugee children to escape to England. Fortunately, he was reunited with his parents in New York in 1940.
There, she worked as a graphic artist and illustrator, and became known for her heroine Señorita Rio, the protagonist of a 1940s comic book that followed a Hollywood star who fought Nazis at night as a secret agent. He signed his comics as “L. Renee“Many readers thought it was a man.
Some of Renée’s exhibited works include drawings from her comic strip Señorita Rio, created in bright colors, along with illustrations from her children’s book Red Is the Heart.
“Lily lived in an upper-middle-class family in Vienna. Under normal conditions, she wouldn’t end up in comic book art. I wanted to be a serious artist working in fashion design, ”Haider said. “If there had been no Anschluss, she would have studied art and became a designer.”
As a Jewish refugee in New York, she had to earn money to help her family. He got into comics after his mother found an ad looking for comic book artists.
“She was so good that she was allowed to create her own characters,” Haider said. “But she only did comics to earn money. Back then, comics were looked down upon. “
She was also one of the few women who entered the field at that time. “My mother never used the word ‘feminism’ to describe herself or her work at any time,” said Renée’s daughter, Nina Phillips.
“In fact, she objected to being called a feminist, as she thought modern feminism was too ideological and went too far,” Phillips said. “But whether consciously or not, a large part of his production featured female characters in traditionally male roles.”
Paul Peter Porges was an artist who lived from 1927 to 2016 and created political cartoons for Mad Magazine and The New Yorker, which poked fun at Western society. Like Renée, he also escaped from Vienna via the Kindertransport to England, but was later held in an internment camp in France as a teenager.
On display, there is a photo of the artist holding a self-portrait that he made during his time in the United States Army in the early 1950s, showing his approach to exaggerating physical features. There is also a drawing of Sigmund Freud and some of the traffic in midtown Manhattan.
The exhibition also features striking drawings made inside a concentration camp by Wilhelm “Bil” Spira, an artist who lived from 1913 to 1999. Spira drew while at Auschwitz in 1944. They include heartbreaking images of angry guards and forced laborers.
“He drew in the concentration camps, but if the guards saw him, they would execute him,” Haider said. “He was documenting what he saw at the camp. He hid.
“When the Russians who liberated the camp burned all the prisoners’ belongings, everything he owned disappeared,” he said. “The only original drawings were those smuggled out by other prisoners. Spira also made copies of other drawings that he drew later from memory. “
His editorial cartoons from the 1930s are also on view, including a Hitler satire and drawings by Austrian actor Hans Moser, as well as American playwright Sinclair Lewis.
“Bil Spira is an incredible story,” Haider said. “It was already published in social democratic newspapers, actively fighting against the Nazis. He left Vienna in 1938. “
Spira did not obtain a visa to enter the United States, he was taken over by the Gestapo, survived the concentration camps and later lived in Paris, where he became a famous cartoonist working for French and Swiss newspapers.
“All of these artists are different,” Haider said. “They all have unique biographies. They all had promising lives until 1938. “
The Anschluss was a tragic disruption, but each miraculously survived and continued to make works of art. These drawings on paper are a testament to his survival, armed only with his pens.
“We wanted to honor the artworks of the three artists, to show that they were great artists, despite the fact that they were survivors,” said Sabine Bergler, co-curator of the exhibition at the Vienna Jewish Museum with Michael Freund, in 2019.
“On the other hand, we wanted to show that they too were survivors,” Bergler said. “We try to show the people behind the works of art, see each of them as independent artists, and how the Holocaust was the fate of their work.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism