Vienna, June 1955,
a photo exhibition
A month had passed since full independence, since the occupation forces had walked out of Austria. A year had spun its cycle since the last batch of prisoners of war returned from Soviet prison camps. It was a time of new hope and expectations for change, a time, perhaps, to divest oneself from years of tension and some bad habits.
Maximilian “Max” Haffner was up early this Sunday morning, after an almost sleepless night. He was normally an early riser, even on Sundays, though he never attended mass. That day, for him, was a special Sunday, the opening day of the photography exhibition that he had spent months preparing. Since its announcement his bold move had, after years of strict controls and censorship, raised suspicions and doubts. The years under a Nazi regime and then of occupation had bred suspicion and fear. Max tried to be impervious to the veiled criticisms, the downplaying of the event as not worthy of notice. There were questions about what an ‘independent’ might have in mind with an exhibition not approved by the authorities.
Max decided to walk to the gallery. It was some distance from his flat in the 20th District of Vienna. A cool breeze off the Danube freshened the morning air. He enjoyed the air swirling around him, lightly touching his face. There was evidence of a shower during the night, but now there was a dark blue sky smeared with just a few cirrus clouds. He evaded the puddles by stepping over them, taking care not to slip on the shiny cobbled surface. As he approached and crossed the Friedensbrucke, the Bridge of Peace, which spanned the Danube Canal, he thought just how fragile peace really was. Any kind of peace; even an inner peace. Out of pure habit, he would look at the few parked cars to see if there was a soul in any of them. A man was sitting low with his hat pulled down, surreptitiously observing his movements. He listened for tell-tale echoes of footsteps. If the echo stopped, he would know he was being tailed.
There was a political label attached to his name. He chose not to dwell on it, not on this day. Much of what had happened was water under the bridge.
He made his way past the railway station and Liechtenstein Palace, and cut to the right towards the University Centre, onto the street where the gallery was situated. The gallery had no specific niveau. It was known to lean towards the avantgarde, to be popular with students. It was in a quiet area, facing a small park and none of the busy streets. The younger set converged in the park to smoke and socialise. The location gave the gallery an exclusivity, signaling that it was for the initiated. As he walked there were still tufts of cloud in the sky against an increasingly pink background. A brilliant shaft of sunlight slanted downwards onto the glistening cobbles, making the street a marvel of microscopic mirror-like ref lections. The brilliance of the day, the brisk walk, relaxed him.
Vienna was breaking under an intensely blue sky. He had time to think about Greta Anckermann. It was her work that was on display for public viewing, for the first time, without her knowledge or approval. Greta had been missing since 1947. A postcard, postmarked Zurich in late 1948, was the last contact she had with Max. A power of attorney arrived from Zurich, empowering Max to manage Greta’s assets in Vienna at will; her flat and studio and whatever they contained. His attempts to trace her failed. Max was hoping that the exhibition might draw Greta’s attention through the foreign press, and possibly induce her to return to Vienna.
Max struggled with the key to open a seldom used side door, around the corner of the gallery, in a narrow lane. Doubts about the exhibition’s success persisted in his subconscious. Sonya, his wife, questioned his motives. She thought that the timing was off. That it would be judged as provocative. But when would the timing be right? A generation or two away? When Austrians would be more attuned to their past? They could never be entirely comfortable about it. Sonya didn’t like Greta and avoided mentioning her, though she owed a lot to her. Greta helped her survive while Max was languishing in a Soviet prison.
Max shoved the door of the gallery inwards and crossed the high threshold. He had to remember to tell Dora, the young gallery manager, to oil the lock and rusty hinges. She wasn’t very attentive to maintenance. Max stood adjusting his eyes to the darkness of a storage space. He pulled the cord of an overhead light and moved through to another door that led to the three exhibition salons. An odour of old paper and stale air followed him. The exhibition rooms were in semi-darkness, and he waited for his eyes to adjust. The spaces came to him slowly. He located the switches and turned on a series of concealed lights.
Two weeks of hard work were visible. Greta was devilish in her work. She hated studio routine. As in many other things, she took a secret glee in her photography, trying to be modern and provocative. Max selected the pictures and comments that Greta had made. He used his own judgement. Still, they were like ghosts making their way home, coming to grab the damned. He didn’t give any thought to whether Greta would approve or not.
The concealed floodlights revealed a special piece of the world. Large, glossy black-and-white photographs were hanging on different coloured panels to indicate themes and sections. The coloured backgrounds gave the black-and-white photos their intended emphases. One of the salons was devoted to Greta’s favourite, ‘street’ photography, conveying the stark reality of Vienna life, contrasting it to Vienna’s acquired air of pleasure, opulence, decadence, its coffee-house culture, before and after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany. Max included a selection of exquisite nude and semi-nude photos.
Greta’s tastes might not be questioned from an aesthetic point of view, but critics would see a socialist slant in her work and tendencies to expose known people in dubious roles and situations, in an SS uniform, implying a criminal past.
Greta had a love affair with her Leica. A great invention, it defeated the heavy, boxy, cumbersome, awkward cameras popular with news reporters, the ones that needed popping bulbs to provide a stark flash or used cumbersome plate glass. A Leica used thirty-six frame rolls of 35-millimeter fast Agfa film, that was produced with light sensitive chemicals. It could be advanced quickly, giving the camera unprecedented versatility. It was light, so you could get close to your subjects or keep your distance. The lens was sensitive and gave sharply contrasted pictures. It could be concealed. It had a range-finder and a screw-on interchangeable lens. Greta could use it unencumbered to record subjects and situations in an atmosphere in which objective truth had been battered beyond repair.
The journals didn’t fail to remind the readers of who Greta was, of the scandals she had been involved in. Greta had no problem with Max as a lover. There was obviously a physical attraction. Max overlooked that she had had an incestuous relationship with her murdered artist uncle. She rebelled if Max tried to patronize her, to tutor her … and that spoiled it for him and her. He could not interpret her feelings for him, if she had any. It wasn’t an affair. After her uncle died, Greta slept with Max on her own initiative. Sometimes he had the feeling that she had repudiated him. She knew that he missed her when she was gone for weeks, and she knew that he would wait patiently for her renewed attention. She exasperated him with her impulsiveness.
Some of the photographs could be viewed as contentious for their obvious political context. They were shots from the days of infamy in 1938, of the bystanders and gawkers who passively accepted the rape of Austria by the Nazis, expressing joy. She took pictures of mothers and young daughters in clean starched aprons, in ribbons, posing for photographs with German officers. She repudiated the beaming smiles. Offsetting this scenery were horrifying photos of the Night of the Broken Glass, the pogrom in Vienna against the Jews. Horrific were the photos out of the Dachau and Mauthausen concentration camps and starving and dying children in Vienna’s hospitals.
After Greta’s disappearance in 1947, Max found the collection of photographs in a secret space in her studio. Max was about to clean out the studio, to finally rent it, or sell it. Enough time had passed (not that he made any great subsequent efforts to find Greta). When he opened the first of the boxes, he was struck with a feeling of guilt. He told a friend about his find, a fellow publisher, who said that a show was the logical way to proceed with work of such magnitude and quality, no matter what the cost. But selling the idea of an exhibition to any reputable public cultural institution or professional association in Vienna was met with a confounding resistance, a typically Viennese hypocritical attitude. He had to answer questions about his pedigree, connections, references … He was an ordinary book dealer, an aspiring publisher, a seller of periodicals, running a reading room with coffee and gossip, and not in the best part of the city, and was suspected to have socialist if not downright communist leanings. It was difficult to get a simple bureaucratic nod and, God forbid, a government grant to cover part of the costs of the exhibition and its promotion. It was public knowledge that he had been imprisoned by the Soviets, and that after his release he had been able to open a business.
Invoking Greta’s name in any place of authority caused some consternation. Max would be cynically advised to destroy the photos, to organize a public burning.
In 1951 Max suggested to the Allied authorities to include parts of Greta’s work within the Vienna Festival. Public shows were supervised, censored by the control of information divisions of the occupation authorities. The censor would define what could be displayed, by whom. Max quashed the idea when he realized what sort of political game was involved. The four powers would have to jointly agree to authorize a project, making sure that there would be nothing that would embarrass or disparage any of them in any way. The Soviets in particular were suspicious of any idea that went beyond their set patterns, and opposed events not entirely under their control. The Americans thought of photographs in terms of forensic evidence, against war criminals and the most objectionable collaborators. Max was supposed to turn over whatever he had. Photos, papers. The French would rather have the exhibition in Paris. The British would send the whole collection to their London censors, where it could be expunged, irretrievably lost, or indefinitely withheld. A high level of paranoia still existed six years after the war.
Max included some surprises in the exhibition: illegally-taken photos of Eva Braun. They weren’t supposed to exist. It was a series of photos that Greta simply titled “Eva.” The picture-taking was just for fun, for laughs, for the two of them alone, no harm done. Greta and Eva had only photography in common. Eva had met Hitler in a photo studio where she worked, where he appeared and introduced himself as Herr Wolf. No one was ever allowed to photograph Eva and publish a photo of her, under pain of severe punishment. The younger set might not even recognize Eva Braun as Hitler’s secluded consort. Her blonde hair, in a loose tawny wave, and her countenance were unmistakable for those that knew of her.
Near the entrance to the gallery was the poster-sized colourized photo of nineteen-year-old Greta, taken from her left profile, standing beside a full-sized mirror in a dark carved walnut frame. It showed her in a dress fashionable in the late 1920s, with a short haircut, curls on both cheeks, an ostrich wrap, high-heeled shoes, a pointed and slightly curved nose, and a jaw thrust upwards and forward. An image of pride. Max had found the photo in Greta’s flat. The colours were faded and, when he had it enlarged for the exhibition, the picture acquired a grainy quality. It was Greta’s image soon after she arrived in Vienna in 1930, when she met Max.
He was a few years older, a young shop assistant with an intense look, who had just taken over the newsprint and coffee shop business from his father. He remembered that April morning when Greta sat at one of the tables and ordered a coffee and newspaper. Trade was slow that morning. They got to talking, and she flirted with him almost immediately. He remembered her dark eyebrows, sparkling green eyes, tentative, almost teasing smile, and her air of confidence.
Max was lucky to have encountered Dora Rohde, the young director of the gallery, who ran it in her own idealistic way. Modern trends in photography or sculpture, daring in expression and style, were her cups of tea. Her gallery boasted a small projection room that functioned as an avant-garde cinema. She liked to walk the thin line of social acceptability. She told Max that she welcomed controversy, even bad press. She was used to that, and, in her experience, it invariably brought more visitors. She had no objections to displaying nudity. She whistled when she saw the material. According to her, only a woman with a lot of feeling for the female body could make pictures like that. Erotic and attractive, aesthetic, appealingly offensive and, above all, beautiful. She asked Max the logical question: was Greta lesbian? Greta never thought of herself in those terms. She liked men, but women more. Dora understood. Dora was ecstatic. She anticipated pressures to close the exhibition, or some sections of it, on moral grounds. She chose a title: “Experiences in Black and White”. On posters throughout the city there was a background photo of Greta and text, in reduced print, that said it was a retrospective exhibition of Greta Anckermann’s work, from 1933 to 1947.
Irma, Greta’s studio assistant and live-in lover of several years, was a willing subject for the Leica. Uninhibited in the privacy of their bedroom, the photos that Max decided to display were playfully showing erotic mischief. They were to be privately enjoyed and destroyed. They weren’t meant for Max to find, even less for him to exhibit. Max had kept his distance from Irma and she certainly didn’t like him. He was selling the Nazi press that was lambasting the Jews. No matter how Max felt about Irma, he couldn’t destroy sunny and gleeful pictures, full of natural light, of warmth, of delight. Irma was floating, detached from the outside world, as if she weren’t Jewish, as if there were no thugs in the streets. Her wispy body in a diaphanous peignoir, a back-lighting accentuating her curves. To destroy such images would be criminal. Body and Eros. They were an autonomous phenomenon of human existence. Max was amused by the thought that many current politicians and businessmen, if they ventured to see the exhibition, might recognize Madame Ulli’s girls, with a considerable longing or guilt. He chose to display them as one of the best series of erotica that Greta had ever done.
Sonya arrived at the gallery, her voice interrupting Max’s thoughts. ‘So, what do you think?’ she asked.
‘It’s great work that deserves recognition.’
‘What will happen to this collection when this is over?’
‘I don’t know yet. It might generate foreign interest. Let’s wait and see. To tell you the truth, I haven’t given it a thought.’
‘You could leave the collection to the professionals.’
‘Regardless of Greta?’ Max asked.
A coterie of lower level officials began arriving at the gallery, shortly after ten. They were greeted by the gallery owner and his
daughter, with Max at their side. The deputy mayor was among the first to arrive and congratulate them for ‘an interesting show that would ‘refresh’ the cultural life of the city …’ A secretary from the ministry of culture came with the deputy chief of police on his heels, who mumbled to Max that either he or the exhibition was ‘auspicious.’ Minor diplomats, a smattering of foreign journalists, art promoters, ordinary citizens, were dripping into the gallery. Max’s friends and acquaintances, some of whom he hadn’t seen since the war, also arrived and made encouraging remarks. It was a fair turn-out for the opening day.
The Russians sent representatives from the Soviet office of information, from Russfoto, Izvestiya and Nowosty press agencies. There was somebody from the Associated Press. There were ‘scouts’, who were following the trends of European photo exhibitions.
Max’s eyes scanned over the gathering of about thirty people. It was still early and only the first day. There were small clusters of viewers and pairs. He observed facial expressions for signs of approval or disapproval. People read Greta’s texts. It slowed down the circulation. There were subdued and whispered comments. There was one individual who stood in front of one photo, as if glued to it. He was leaning forward a fraction too close, studying it and reading the attached text. He was probably well over sixty years old, in an out-of-style double-breasted suit with wide pointed lapels and an open white shirt. A stern looking man, leaning hard on a walking stick, suggestive of a former military man. A former general or secret service agent? Could it possibly be Dr. Brandner? Max could only speculate.
Many of the visitors had a mask of impassivity. The younger people spoke loudly and laughed at some of the pictures. They lightened up a morbid atmosphere.
Max was engaged in conversation with one of his acquaintances in the reception room, where there were snacks and champagne. Sonya nudged him with her elbow. She directed his attention to a woman in a black jacket, grey skirt and a low-cut blue silk blouse, showing some cleavage, and a string of pearls. She wore a widebrimmed hat that shaded her eyes and looked tall in pointed high heels, holding sun glasses in a bony hand, twirling them. The woman was wandering about the gallery with a slightly shorter and older broad-shouldered stocky man, with an upward curled moustache, bushy sideburns and curly black hair peppered with grey. Max felt an odd sense of familiarity. The woman moved at a quicker pace than other visitors, and acted as if they were obstructing her. She tried to create an impression of disinterest, but kept glancing furtively here and there, as the man beside her kept pointing at some photo or other. He seemed to annoy her. She looked like a trapped fox in search of a quick exit. The woman seemed attractive, not much over forty years old.
Max thought to himself, ‘A mystery dark brunette, of just the proper age.’
Sonya said, ‘Do you think …’ Max wanted to excuse himself in an instant and approach the woman, to dispel any doubts as to whether it was Greta. But his wife grabbed him by the sleeve of his jacket and held him back. ‘Wait! See if she will seek you out. It may be that she doesn’t want to confront you just yet. Not here, not now. Perhaps afterwards.’
With her somewhat nervous and rude manner, the woman was already beginning to attract the attention of other visitors. Max was afraid journalists would sniff her out and swarm around her, believing her to be Greta, the missing author.
Max couldn’t be sure. After all, it was eight years since Max had last seen Greta. In 1947 she was thirty-seven years old. The woman did not have the reddish hair, but a darker shade of brown and a powdered face, bright red lipstick that stood out against her pallor. The eyes and nose were wrong.
The stocky man was whispering in the woman’s ear so closely that it seemed he was chewing on it. He had a sardonic smile on his face. The woman moved her head away and looked at the man, as if she were about to slap him. Something he said must have struck a nerve. The man pressed closer to the woman, almost touching her body, intensely looking at her. The woman responded to something with a growl, or was it only Max’s imagination? The man was holding the woman by her waist, so that she couldn’t step away. Max made a few steps closer to the pair. They seemed to be speaking English. They both turned towards a particular display, as soon as some of the visitors made an opening. As soon as Max’s mind registered some of the words spoken, an inner alarm put all his senses on the highest alert. It was a purely neural event. ‘Damn!’ he thought. He saw the makings of a public scandal when he guessed what the pair was looking at: the text attached to a particular cluster of photographs which was provocatively entitled ‘Spicy’.
It was the ‘arty’ nude section that caught the couple’s attention. The man said something facetious. Something like: ‘You were really a saucy piece … weren’t you?’ The woman was visibly enraged. Livid. Distressed. Suddenly the atmosphere around her grew icy. She may have been struggling with several emotions at once, and remained speechless for several seconds.