Iin 1938, Nazi troops invaded Austria and undermined the country the Third Reich in an event known as the “Anschluss”, which brought 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 under the Anschluss, survived and flourished as commercial artists. Armed with their pen, they used their humor, talent and resilience. Their best works can be seen in a group exhibition, Three With a Pen, at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, showing that art can be used as a weapon against fascism.
Artists fought for fascism with political satire almost 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, of organized hatred in society, where people are systematically intimidated, this should be a warning sign,” he said. “From 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 can be seen. They appear along with photos and ephemera that help illustrate their biographies.
“All three artists have this story of fleeing Nazi-occupied Vienna and then making their careers and fame – two in New York and one in Paris – elsewhere,” Haider said. “When I saw this exhibit at the Jewish Museum Vienna in 2019, I thought, ‘Now let’s bring this to New York.'”
Lily Renée, an artist born in 1921 celebrating her 100th birthday this year, came out through “Kindertransport,” a humanitarian effort that enabled Jewish refugee children to flee to England. Fortunately, she reunited with her parents in New York in 1940.
There she worked as a graphic designer and illustrator and became known for her heroine Señorita Rio, the protagonist of a 1940s cartoon that followed a Hollywood star who fought with Nazis at night as a secret agent. She signed her comics as “L. Renee, ”so many readers thought she was a man.
Some of the works displayed by Renée include drawings from her Señorita Rio cartoon, created in bright colors along with illustrations from her children’s book Red Is the Heart.
Lily lived in a family from the upper middle class in Vienna. Under normal circumstances, she would not end up with comic book art. She wanted to be a serious artist working in fashion design, ”said Haider. “If there was no Anschluss, she would have studied art and become a designer.”
As a Jewish refugee in New York, she had to earn money to help her family. She got into comics after her mother found an ad looking for comic artists.
“She was so good that she was allowed to make her own characters,” Haider said. “But she only made comics to make money. Back then, comics were looked down upon. ”
She was also one of the few women who entered the area at the time. “My mother never used the word ‘feminism’ to describe herself or her work at any point,” said Renée’s daughter, Nina Phillips.
“In fact, she protested against being called a feminist when she thought modern feminism was too ideological and went too far,” Phillips said. “But whether consciously or not, a huge portion of her production showed female characters in traditionally male roles.”
Paul Peter Porges was an artist who lived from 1927 to 2016, creating political cartoons for Mad Magazine and the New Yorker that came out on Western society. Like Renée, he also fled Vienna through Kindertransport to England, but was later kept in a detention camp in France as a teenager.
In the exhibition, there is a photo of the artist holding a self-portrait he drew during his time in the U.S. 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 Manhattan.
The exhibition also includes shocking drawings made inside a concentration camp by Wilhelm “Bil” Spira, an artist who lived from 1913 to 1999. Spira drew while in Auschwitz, in 1944. They include shocking images of angry guards and forced laborers.
“He pulled into the concentration camps, but if the guards saw it, he would be executed,” Haider said. “He documented what he saw in the camp. He hid it.
“When the Russians liberating the camp burned all the prisoners’ belongings, everything he owned was gone,” he said. “The only original drawings were the other inmates smuggled out. Spira also made copies of other drawings, which he later drew from memory. ”
His editorial cartoons from the 1930s can also be seen, including a satire on Hitler and drawings by the Austrian actor Hans Moser as well as the American playwright Sinclair Lewis.
“Car Spira is an incredible story,” Haider said. “He was already published in social democratic newspapers and actively fought for the Nazis. He left Vienna in 1938. “
Spira did not obtain a visa to enter the United States, was taken by the Gestapo, survived 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. ”
Anschluss caused a tragic disturbance, but they each miraculously survived and continued to make art. These drawings on paper are proof of their survival, armed only with their pens.
“We wanted to honor the works of art of all three artists to show that they were great artists, despite being survivors,” said Sabine Bergler, who co-curated the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna with Michael Freund, in 2019. .
“On the other hand, we wanted to show that they were also survivors,” Bergler said. “We tried to show the people behind the works of art, to see them individually as independent artists, and how the Holocaust was the fate of their work.”