isIn 1938, Nazi troops invaded Austria, encompassing the country in the Third Reich in an event known as the “Anschluss”, bringing official anti-Semitism, as well as 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 wit, talent and resilience. Their best works are on display 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 fought fascism through political satire almost 100 years ago, and yet their work still resonates. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are some 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 intimidated, that should be a warning sign,” he said. “After what these artists went through, we know the result.”
The artists are Lily Renée, Bil Spira and Paul Peter Porges, whose comics, drawings, editorial cartoons and caricatures are on display. They are presented with photos and ephemera that help illustrate their biographies.
“All three artists have this history of escaping Nazi-occupied Vienna and then made their careers and their fame – two in New York and one in Paris – elsewhere,” Haider said. “When I saw this exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2019, I was like, ‘Now let’s bring this to New York.’”
Lily Renée, an artist born in 1921 who is celebrating her 100th birthday this year, stepped out of Kindertransport, a humanitarian effort that allowed Jewish refugee children to escape 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, protagonist of a 1940s comic book who followed a Hollywood starlet who fought the 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 presented by Renée include drawings from her comic strip Señorita Rio, created in vivid colors, as well as illustrations from her children’s book Red Is the Heart.
“Lily lived in an upper middle class family in Vienna. She wouldn’t end up under normal conditions in the comics. She wanted to be a serious artist working in fashion design, ”said Haider. “If it hadn’t been for Anschluss, she would have studied art and become a designer.”
As a Jewish refugee in New York, she had to earn money to support her family. She got into comics after her mom found an ad that was looking for comic book artists.
“She was so good, she was allowed to create her own characters,” Haider said. “But she only did comics to make money. Back then, comics were looked down upon.
She was also one of the few women to enter 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 labeled a feminist because she thought modern feminism was too ideological and went too far,” Phillips said. “But consciously or not, much of his production has shown 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 influenced Western society. Like Renée, he also fled Vienna via Kindertransport to England, but was later held in an internment camp in France as a teenager.
In the exhibit, there is a photo of the artist holding a self-portrait he drew during his time in the US military in the early 1950s, which shows his approach to exaggerating physical features. There is also a drawing by Sigmund Freud and some of the 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 in Auschwitz, in 1944. They include heartbreaking images angry guards and forced laborers.
“He drew in the concentration camps, but if the guards saw him he would be executed,” Haider said. “He was documenting what he had seen in the camp. He hid it.
“When the Russians who liberated the camp burned all the prisoners’ property, everything he owned was gone,” he said. “The only original drawings were those that other inmates had smuggled out. Spira also made copies of other drawings that he had drawn, later, from memory.
His editorial cartoons from the 1930s are also on display, including a satire on Hitler and drawings by Austrian actor Hans Moser, as well as American playwright Sinclair Lewis.
“Bil Spira is an incredible story,” Haider said. “It has already been published in the Social Democratic newspapers, actively fighting the Nazis. He left Vienna in 1938. “
Spira did not obtain a visa to enter the United States, was taken away by the Gestapo, survived the concentration camps and then 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 caused a tragic disruption, but each miraculously survived and continued to make works of art. These drawings on paper bear witness to their survival, armed only with their pens.
“We wanted to honor the works of art of the three artists, to show that they were great artists, despite the fact that they were survivors,” said Sabine Bergler, who co-organized the exhibition at the Jewish Museum of 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 each as independent artists, and how the Holocaust was the fate of their work.”