‘They were survivors’: Jewish cartoonists who fled the Nazis Art

YesIn 1938, Nazi troops invaded Austria, classifying the country in the Third Reich in an event known as the Anschluss, bringing official anti-Semitism, along with political violence, to a small German-speaking nation.

The new exhibition in New York presents the works of three Jewish artists who escaped from Vienna during the Anschluss, survived and flourished as commercial artists. Armed with pencils, they used their wit, talent and resilience. Their best works were shown at the 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 with political satire almost 100 years ago, and yet, their work still resonates. “History does not repeat itself, but there are certain phenomena that are at least reminders,” said Michael Haider, the forum’s director.

“Once you have a certain level of racism, organized hatred in a society where people are systematically intimidated, this should be a warning sign,” he said. “After what these artists have experienced, we know the outcome.”

The artists are Lily Renée, Bill Spira and Paul Peter Porges, whose comics, drawings, editorial cartoons and cartoons. They are shown alongside photographs and ephemerals that help illustrate their biographies.

“All three artists have a history of escaping from Nazi-occupied Vienna, and then gained their career and fame – two in New York and one in Paris – elsewhere,” Haider said. “When I saw this exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2019, I thought, ‘Let’s take this to New York.'”

Lily Renée – Señorita Rio comic strip from the movie Fight Comics in December 1944. Photo: Lily Renée Collection

Lily Renée, an artist born in 1921 who is celebrating her 100th birthday this year, escaped through “Kindertransport,” a humanitarian effort that allowed Jewish refugee children to flee to England. Fortunately, she reunited with her parents in New York in 1940.

There she worked as a graphic artist and illustrator, and became known for her heroine Señoriti Rio, the protagonist of a 1940s comic book that accompanied a Hollywood starlet who fought the Nazis at night as a secret agent. She signed the comics as “L. Renee, ”so many readers thought she was a man.

Some of the works Renée looked at include drawings from her comic book Señorita Rio, created in bright colors, along with illustrations from her children’s book Red Heart.

“Lily lived in a middle-class family in Vienna. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t end up in a comic book. She wanted to be a serious artist who specializes in fashion design, ”said Haider. “If it weren’t for Anschluss, she would have studied art and become a designer.”

As a Jewish refugee in New York, she had to earn money to help her family. She got into comics after her mother found an ad looking for comic book cartoonists.

“She was so good that she was allowed to create her own characters,” Haider said. “But she only made comics to make money. At that time, comics were viewed from above. “

She was also one of the few women who entered the field at the time. “My mother never used the word‘ feminism ’to describe herself or her work,” Renée’s daughter Nina Phillips said.

“She actually objected to being called a feminist because she felt modern feminism was too ideological and had gone too far,” Phillips said. “But consciously or not, a huge part of her results showed female characters in traditionally male roles.”

Paul Peter Porges - Every afternoon at MOMA, except Wednesday Proof, Indian ink and crayon on paper, New York
Paul Peter Porges – Every afternoon at MoMA, except Wednesdays. Proof, Indian ink and crayon on paper, New York. Photo: Jewish Museum Vienna

Paul Peter Porges was an artist who lived from 1927 to 2016 and created political cartoons for Mad Magazine and The New Yorker, which riffed about Western society. Like Renée, he too escaped from Vienna via Kindertransport to England, but was later detained as a teenager in an international camp in France.

The exhibition features a photograph of the artist holding a self-portrait he drew during his time in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, showing his approach to exaggerating physical characteristics. There’s also a drawing by Sigmund Freud and part of the traffic in downtown Manhattan.

The exhibition also features shocking drawings made in the concentration camp by Wilhelm “Bill” Spira, an artist who lived from 1913 to 1999. He drew Spira while he was in Auschwitz in 1944. They include shaky images of angry guards and forced laborers.

“He drew in concentration camps, but if the guards saw it, he would be executed,” Haider said. “He documented what he saw in the camp. He hid it.

“When the Russians who liberated the camp burned all the prisoners’ belongings, everything he owned disappeared, ”he said. “The only original drawings were those smuggled by other prisoners. Spira also made copies of other drawings that he had already drawn, later, from memory. “

His editorial cartoons from the 1930s are also available, including a satire by Hitler and drawings by Austrian actor Hans Moser, as well as American playwright Sinclair Lewis.

Bill Spira - Drawings from Camp Blechhammer
Bill Spira – Drawings from Camp Blechhammer. Photo: Richard Ash / Imperial War Museum London

“Bill Spira is an amazing story,” Haider said. “It has already been published in the social democratic newspapers, actively fighting against the Nazis. He left Vienna in 1938. ”

Spira did not receive a visa to enter the United States, was taken by the Gestapo, survived concentration camps, and later 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. “

Anschluss provided a tragic disturbance, but they all miraculously survived and continued to create works of art. These drawings on paper are proof of their survival, armed only with their pencils.

“We wanted to honor the artwork of all three artists, to show that they are great artists, despite the fact that they survived,” said Sabine Bergler, who co-curated an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna with Michael Freund. 2019.

“On the other hand, we wanted to show that they survived, too,” 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.”