Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Austrian picture books

     Eduard Widmoser & Karl Waggerl, Österreich (1952). Franz Nabl, Österreich (1957). Large format photo-album books intended to feed nostalgia and attract visitors. The photos are very well composed, reproduced in first-class half-tone. The 1952 book emphasises winter sports, the 1957 one the beauty of mountains, forests, and lakes. Neither one presents Austrian city and town life. Both have photos of historical buildings, mostly baroque. Both create the impression of a mostly rural country, although Austria is one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world.
     The texts sketch the history and culture of the country. Both take us up to the breakup of the Hapsburg empire, and stop there.
     Karl Waggerl offers  an impression of the Austrian character, a mix of acute observation and romantic-sentimental claims. He says that Austrians feel that something bad is lurking round the corner, but there’s nothing to be done about it. He claims that Austrians are better able to empathise with and imagine other people’s experience. The essay as a whole has a vagueness, like a horoscope, what he says can be interpreted to apply to anyone. Including people who have not had the fortune of being born and raised Austrian. Widmoser’s overview of Austria’s “situation, history and culture” is workmanlike, sounding like a tourist brochure.
     The Nabl book is one of a series of Blaue Bücher, intended to satisfy popular desire for instruction and entertainment. Nabl yearns for Austria’s past greatness; a large part of his essay is a eulogy to the Hapsburg empire, a federation in which diverse peoples lived in harmony and peace. Like Widmoser, he carefully avoids discussion of what happened after 1918, and there is no hint of 1938 and the Second World War.
     Both these books are fascinating as documents. They show that in the immediate post-war period, Austria was trying to reinvent itself, to bury the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, which prepared for the Anschluss. They show a kind of amnesia; the immediate past is simply not there. A careful look at the pictures suggests that many of them are pre-war. The focus on landscape implies a flight from the city and its commerce and finance, its political and cultural strife, its constant change. The remoter past safe; the immediate past is dangerous. The village and small town imply tradition, and confirm a desire for unchanging values.
     I was taught that Austria was a victim of historical circumstances over which it had little or no control, and specifically, that the Anschluss was an invasion that could not be resisted. These two books express the same stance, as much by what they omit as by what they include. **½

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