Problematic Patriotism: Stephanie Hollenstein's World War I Drawings and Paintings

By Kain, Evelyn | Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Problematic Patriotism: Stephanie Hollenstein's World War I Drawings and Paintings


Kain, Evelyn, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military


The World War I drawings and paintings of the Austrian artist Stephanie Hollenstein (1886-1944) represent a short but intense episode in a productive, forty-year career. One of few painters ever to have emerged from the province of Vorarlberg with more than regional significance, she is the only female artist in present-day Austria with an exhibition space which is named after her and maintained by public money. The Galerie Stephanie Hollenstein in her hometown of Lustenau, founded in 1971, houses most of her extant work: no less than 1,114 numbered items. Furthermore, the Historical Archive of Lustenau preserves a substantial amount of Hollenstein's non-art legacy including writing and extensive correspondence, most of which is yet to be transcribed and interpreted. (1)

Born to a peasant family in 1886, Hollenstein began life as a cowherd on the family farm, and rose to become, as president of the National Association of Austrian Women Artists, the most powerful woman artist of her day in Vienna, albeit under the Nazi regime. The favorite subjects of her mature and late periods were views of villages and mountains, although she also did portraits and still lifes, especially of flowers. Her signature style of the 1920s and 1930s exhibits a colorful painterliness and spatial distortion that earned her the nickname "Schiefmalerin," or Crooked Lady Painter. She died prematurely of a heart condition at fifty-seven.

A paradigm of the modern artist, Hollenstein did everything expected of a painter of her generation. She got a formal art education, won scholarships and prizes, joined a wide variety of both local and national artists' organizations and initiatives, developed a distinct painting style, produced a substantial body of work, exhibited and sold widely both at home and abroad, traveled extensively, and got her work reviewed countless times by critics who invariably categorized her as a radical, expressionist, modern artist. Nevertheless, she remains unknown in Austria today, and not only because of her gender, geography, and class which, in themselves, would have sufficed to banish any artist to the margins of late 20th century art history writing. The additional factor which has--understandably--doomed her to obscurity was her paradoxical association with the Nationalist Socialist (NS) Party. One of my main challenges in writing her biography therefore is to understand what attracted this thoroughly modern woman and modern artist to a reactionary ideology that theoretically branded her as "degenerate" on at least two counts. The probability of her same-sex preference would have been a further liability.

Hollenstein was educated in Munich where she arrived in 1904. Remarkably, on the basis of drawings done as a cowherd, she was accepted into the teacher certification program of the Royal School of Applied Arts. Having graduated in 1908 with distinction in what was considered record time, she immediately founded and ran her own art school for two years. Dissatisfied with the limitations of her schooling, however, she decided to become a fine artist. The earnings from her pupils went to pay for academic lessons in oil painting.

Hollenstein's education also went on outside the studio classroom, for Munich was a major site of artistic ferment in the first decade of the twentieth century. Schwabing, the bohemian section of town where she lived, housed artists associated with the vanguard of the German Expressionist Blue Rider movement such as Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter, and Paul Klee. In addition, the works of leading post-impressionist and early modern painters such as Van Gogh and Picasso were regularly on view. Munich was, at the same time, the birthplace of the Nazi party. The beery halls of Hollenstein's student days eventually set the scene for Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch. When Hitler moved to the Bavarian capital in 1913, he lived in Schwabing. …

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