A new exhibition celebrates the work of three Austrian artists who escaped their country as Nazis took over and created daring work in the years after
Written by: Nadja Sayej
9 April 2021
In 1938, Nazi troops invaded Austria, subsuming the country into the Third Reich in an event known as the “Anschluss”, bringing official antisemitism, along with political violence, to the small, German-speaking nation.
A new exhibition in New York features artworks by three Jewish artists who fled Vienna during the Anschluss, survived and flourished as commercial artists. Armed with their pens, they used their wit, talent and resilience. Their best works are on view in a group exhibition, Three With a Pen, at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, proving that art can be used as a weapon against fascism.
Artists were fighting fascism with political satire almost 100 years ago, and yet, their work still resonates. “History doesn’t 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 hate in society, where people are intimidated systematically, this should be a warning sign,” he said. “After what these artists experienced, we know the outcome.”
The artists are Lily Renée, Bil Spira and Paul Peter Porges, whose comic books, drawings, editorial cartoons and caricatures are on view. They are being shown alongside photos and ephemera that help illustrate their biographies.
“All three artists have this history of escaping Nazi-occupied Vienna, then made their careers and fame – two in New York and one in Paris – elsewhere,” said Haider. “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 who celebrates her 100th birthday this year, got out through the “Kindertransport”, a humanitarian effort that allowed Jewish refugee children to escape to England. Luckily, she reunited with her parents in New York in 1940.
There, she worked as a graphic artist and illustrator, and became known for her heroine Señorita Rio, protagonist of a 1940s comic book that followed a Hollywood starlet who fought 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 on view by Renée include drawings from her Señorita Rio comic strip, created in bright colors, alongside illustrations from her children’s book Red Is the Heart.
“Lily was living in an upper-middle-class family in Vienna. She wouldn’t under normal conditions end up in comic art. She wanted to be a serious artist working in fashion design,” said Haider. “Had there been 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 advertisement that was looking for comic artists.
“She was so good, she was allowed to make her own characters,” said Haider. “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 the 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,” said Phillips. “But whether consciously or not, an enormous part of her output showed 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, that riffed on western society. Like Renée, he also escaped Vienna through the Kindertransport to England, but was later kept in an internment camp in France as a teenager.
In the exhibit, there is a photo of the artist holding up a self-portrait he drew during his time in the US army in the early 1950s, which shows his approach to exaggeration of physical features. There is also a drawing of Sigmund Freud and some of traffic in midtown Manhattan.
The exhibition also features 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 harrowing images of angry guards and forced labor workers.
“He drew in the concentration camps, but if the guards saw it, he would be executed,” said Haider. “He was documenting what he saw in the camp. He hid it.
“When the Russians who liberated the camp burned all the belongings of the prisoners, everything he owned was gone,” he said. “The only original drawings were the ones other inmates smuggled out. Spira also made copies of other drawings he already drew, later on, from memory.”
His editorial cartoons from the 1930s are also on view, including a satire of Hitler and drawings of the Austrian actor Hans Moser, as well as the American playwright Sinclair Lewis.
“Bil Spira is an unbelievable story,” said Haider. “He was already published in social democrat newspapers, actively fighting Nazis. He left Vienna in 1938.”
Spira didn’t get a visa to enter the US, 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,” said Haider. “They all have unique biographies. They all had promising lives until 1938.”
The Anschluss provided a tragic disruption but they each miraculously survived and kept making artwork. These drawings on paper are a testament to their survival, armed with only their pens.
“We wanted to honor the works of art of all three artists, to show they were great artists, despite the fact that they were survivors,” said Sabine Bergler, who co-curated the exhibit at the Jewish Museum Vienna with Michael Freund, in 2019.
“On the other hand, we wanted to show they were survivors too,” said Bergler. “We tried to show the people behind the artworks, to see them each as independent artists, and how the Holocaust was the fate of their work.”
Three With a Pen is showing at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York until 3 September