Austro-Hungarian art and poetry of WWI – the representation of the Italian front and its landscapes.


Last September, I began an MPhil on the subject of Austro-Hungarian art and poetry of WWI, analysing the ways in which the landscapes of the Italian front were represented by soldiers. Although the Austro-Hungarian response to WWI was unique, little attention has been paid to the ways in which the art and poetry of the Dual Monarchy differs from that of Germany. In this post, I will provide a very brief outline of my main findings and also provide details of some Austro-Hungarian artists and poets of this period who I feel have been neglected in the post-war years. The subject deserves a great deal more work, and although my thesis is limited in scope, I hope it will shed some light on the distinctive characteristics of this body of work and the art and poetry of the Italian front in particular.

The body of work created in Austria-Hungary during the war years is vast, and I initially embarked on a survey of the poetry of the Dual Monarchy in an attempt to get a handle on the subject. This survey was necessarily limited – Julius Bab estimated that 50,000 German-language poems were published daily in August 1914, an astonishing number that gives an insight into the strength of pro-war sentiment in the early days of the conflict, and proves impossible to catalogue within the limited scope of an MPhil. My initial research made clear that war was understood in broadly similar terms in Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914 – an opportunity to break free of social stagnation, and prove the value of allegedly superior ‘Germanic’ values. However, the poetry of this period also highlighted fundamental differences in the way war was interpreted in Germany and the Dual Monarchy: for Austro-Hungarian poets, war was more frequently understood as a continuation of a glorious imperial past, and the art and poetry produced there also reflects the profound regional colourings of the Empire. The historicist tendencies of Austro-Hungarian war art and poetry can be found in the work of Anton Mueller, Richard von Schaukal and Ludwig Koch, among others. Both Schaukal and Mueller present modern war as a holy battle, and images of knights on horseback are common in their poetry. Similarly, Koch presents war in his paintings as a heroic and individualised battle, specialising in images of the cavalry and avoiding any representation of trench warfare.

As my research progressed, it became clear that these historicist tendencies were more pronounced in certain regions. In conservative, more ethnically homogeneous mountain areas such as Tyrol and Styria, there was a greater tendency to understand modern war as related to local military history. In Tyrol, artists such as Franz Defregger associated modern warfare with the peasant rebellion of 1809, and poets such as Peter Rosegger represented war as an opportunity to demonstrate true Styrian resilience. In these regions, the mountain landscape was understood as conferring true ‘Germanic’ values of strength, courage and military aptitude upon the inhabitants. As I began to focus on the art and poetry of these regions, it became clear that mountain imagery formed a leitmotif in the work of Tyrolean and Styrian artists and poets, and that mountain warfare was often romanticised in their work. The belief that the harsh mountain landscapes bred a particularly hardy, courageous people is ingrained in the art and poetry of the period, finding expression in the art of Albin Egger-Lienz, Franz Defregger and a host of Tyrolean genre-painters, and in the poetry of Mueller, Rosegger and earlier poets such as Angelika von Hoermann. These findings allowed me to narrow my focus to the representation of landscape in the work of poets and artists fighting at the Italian front. War in the mountains played into regional narratives of a battle to preserve local customs from the Italian invader, and the experience of war at this front was more individualised than that of the Western Front, allowing for a more generally positive conception of conflict in the work of those who fought there.

During the course of my research, I identified a number of poets and artists who I felt had been unfairly neglected in the post-war period. I decided to focus on two artists from mountain regions, Albin Egger-Lienz and Stephanie Hollenstein, and one poet from the Dalmatian coast, Gustav Heinse. All three experienced active service (Hollenstein disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Dolomites), and their regional provenance comes to bear on their interpretation of the landscapes in which they fought. In the art of Hollenstein, from Lustenau in Vorarlberg, the mountains are presented as allowing for a strong front-line community, as a ‘Germanic’ space in which war is a thrilling, existential experience. Intriguingly, Hollenstein’s paintings employ bright colours and distorted lines reminiscent of early Expressionism: I postulate that her positive conception of mountain warfare allowed for the enduring relevance of optimistic Expressionist currents, even after trench warfare had undermined such optimistic Expressionism in Germany. Similarly, Albin Egger-Lienz presents mountain warfare as allowing for an individualised, existential battle not only against the human enemy but also against nature, and his paintings often present dramatic scenes in which the soldiers do battle against the mountains. Although both painters acknowledge the human cost of war, and present an ambivalent image of mountain warfare, it is fair to assess their work as advancing a generally positive vision of the Italian front, and its landscapes. Their own writings suggest that both artists saw the mountains as true Germanic territory, and were convinced in the absolute necessity of war in order to preserve the unique cultures of Tyrol and Vorarlberg.

In the poetry of Gustav Heinse, I found a contrasting presentation of the Italian front as an arena of death and suffering. Heinse fought on the karst plateau, where battles were waged on a larger scale and where the landscape provided no release from the suffering of war. Heinse’s unwillingness to romanticise the landscapes of that front may be linked to his regional affiliations: a polyglot from Dalmatia, born to a German-Bohemian father and an Italian mother, Heinse did not share the belief in the superiority of a rural, ethnically homogeneous culture that marks the work of Hollenstein and Egger-Lienz. In fact, Heinse would move to Bulgaria after the war and spent the rest of his life translating the works of Bulgarian modernist poets and authors, a clear rejection of the belief in a superior German culture. In his poetry, the karst mountains are imbued with more negative values, acting as oppressive forces that deprive the men of comfort, and becoming a symbol of lasting psychological trauma.

The work of Heinse, Hollenstein and Egger-Lienz has been neglected to varying extents in the post-war period. Hollenstein, who rose to prominence during the fascist regime as an artist with true Germanic credentials (her family could trace their lineage to the ancient Alemanni tribe, and Hollenstein had spent her early years in an ‘authentically’ Germanic setting, herding cattle in the foothills of the Alps), would become a party member. This fascist association led to an understandable loss of reputation after 1945. Egger-Lienz’s art was also neglected in this period as a result of alleged fascist connections, although the artist died in 1926. Rumours that Hitler was a personal fan of Egger-Lienz’s work have been disproved, but interest in the artist has only picked up in the last 6 years, with two major exhibitions held in Vienna in 2008 and 2014. Heinse’s work remains difficult to obtain and almost completely unknown. Although he attempted to publish his war poems in 1937, Nazi authorities confiscated the work and the poet managed to retain a mere 20 copies. It is thanks to his friend Hermann Hesse that the poems were passed on to Professor Leonard Forster, and eventually re-published in 1994.

I am currently in the process of assessing how the landscapes of the Italian front were represented after the defeat of 1918 and the annexation of South Tyrol: although this part of my research is not yet complete, both Hollenstein and Egger-Lienz represent mountain landscapes in this period in a nostalgic light, often at sunset, pointing to an underlying sadness at the loss of these territories. Sadly, I have been unable to access Heinse’s diaries, and the poet produced little original work after 1918, making it difficult to assess how he came to understand the mountain landscapes in the post-war period.

During the course of my research, it has become clear that the art and poetry created during WWI in Austria-Hungary has suffered a lack of critical attention that is by no means deserved. This body of work would provide fertile ground for further research: although I am hugely excited to change focus for my PhD, it is not without some sadness that I will be leaving behind a subject that has been so under-researched and could undoubtedly form the basis of further study. However, I hope that my thesis contributes in small part to the documentation of this body of work, and gives the work of Heinse, Egger-Lienz and Hollenstein some of the recognition it deserves.

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