While traveling for her thesis research, Olivia Rettstatt opened the doors to the home of an Austrian art collector intending to discuss Broncia Koller and instead found a tale of Holocaust survival and remembrance that dramatically changed the way she viewed her thesis project.
A second-year Masters student in American University’s Art History program, Rettstatt has spent the last year digging up the sparse history of Secessionist painter Broncia Koller and her 1907 oil painting Marietta, pictured below. Rettstatt found that despite acceptance to the 1908 Kunstschau, Marietta never hung in the exhibition alongside Koller’s other accepted works and those by Secessionists like Gustav Klimt, Otto Prutscher, and Josef Hoffmann. With unanswered questions concerning the possible censoring of the painting, Rettstatt applied for a College of Arts and Sciences Graduate Research Award and a Carol Ravenal Art History Graduate Travel Award to go to Vienna and investigate further. Receiving both, Rettstatt ended her summer with a trip to Austria where she saw the piece in person at the Leopold Museum and spoke with painting’s current owner who gave her access to unpublished research on the artist.
Rettstatt recounted the experience with fervor, closing her eyes as she described standing in front of the nearly life-size painting she had been studying from a grainy photograph:
“There’s something that’s very—all-encompassing isn’t the right word—but I think of how you step in front of a Rothko and you get sucked into it… of course its scale… but something about being in a space designated for art is a lot different than looking at a painting through a screen. Especially with a portrait, you feel like you’re in conversation with the work when you’re in front of it, like its living.”
She spoke of the luminosity of the gold leaf framing the figure’s head that reproductions can’t capture, noting how this echoed the original golden frame of the painting, cropped out of all the prints she’d seen in catalogues. She spoke of the texture of the work’s strong brushstrokes, the variations in color she hadn’t expected, and above all the privilege she felt for the opportunity to study the piece up close. Coming from a feminist program, Rettstatt also wonders if Koller’s gender affected the Secession’s decision not to hang her painting and if the implied veracity of the figure with its similarly gendered creator, an awkward pose, and a powerful gaze that pierces the viewer made an affronting challenge to Klimt’s interpretation of the Nuda Veritas (Naked Truth) icon. In person, she found that Koller signed the painting “B. Pinell-Koller” (Koller being her husband’s last name). This crucial truncation of her gendered first name, while including her maiden name, may speak to the artist’s awareness of her distinct challenges within the climate of the Klimt’s femme fatal.
With these questions of gender weighing on her mind, Rettstatt then met with Mimi Eisenberger whose father, now deceased, bought Marietta for his collection. Eisenberger welcomed Rettstatt into her home where her father’s collection decorates the turn-of-the century interior. Settling at her dining room table before a grand Olga Wisinger-Florian landscape painting, Eisenberger unraveled her father’s history. She told Rettstatt how he survived World War II concentration camps as a child, starting over with a grocery business after the war. With the eye of his art historian wife, Eisenberger began collecting all kinds of art, but had a specific, personal interest in Jewish artists—like Koller. He passed both his collection and his story down to his daughter Mimi and she in turn continues the remembrance through art, hanging Koller’s painting of her daughter Silvia (also an artist) in her own daughter’s bedroom. Touched by this first-hand account of the emotional power of art, Rettstatt is now working through the ways in which Koller’s religious tradition may have informed her art practice, particularly within a largely Catholic society, and how she may be portraying this intersection in Marietta by placing a golden, square halo behind the figure’s head.
Rettstatt presented a portion of this research in March of this year at American University’s Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference. She will be giving an updated version of this paper at the 2018 AU/GW Graduate Art History Conference on October 27, 2018. She is writing her Master’s thesis under Dr. Juliet Bellow and expects to graduate this spring.