Archive for Monday, December 3, 2001

Forgotten photos offer glimpse of history

December 3, 2001


— When he was a boy, Matthias Peschke's mother often told him stories about his grandfather, Ferdinand Schmutzer, a well-known and much sought-after artist in the early 20th century and a member of Viennese high society.

Because he heard the stories so often, and because Schmutzer's etched portraits of Freud and Einstein hung on the walls of their house, Peschke saw nothing special in the photographs. For more than 70 years, photos and negatives of Einstein and Freud remained tucked away in the Peschke home, stored in an unused room.

About a year ago, while renovating his grandfather's old studio, Peschke took four of Schmutzer's old cameras including a wooden field model made in 1896 to a camera shop for repair. The ancient cameras aroused the curiosity of the shop owner, Peter Coeln, who asked to see Peschke's 400 vintage Schmutzer prints.

"I was really astonished. I thought it was unbelievable," Coeln said.

The result is an exhibit, "Unknown Photographic Work," which opens Friday at WestLicht, Coeln's Vienna gallery. The show runs through Feb. 24.

Besides Freud and Einstein, Schmutzer photographed prominent artists, musicians and art patrons, including writer Arthur Schnitzler, composer Richard Strauss and cellist Pablo Casals. The artist also etched official portraits of the last German emperor, William II, and the last Austrian emperor, Karl I.

According to Anna Auer, who curated the show, Schmutzer, who died in 1928, took the photos and then used them as models for his etchings his artistic specialty. "The etchings were always the end product he had in mind," she said.

"This is the secret of the portraits," said Coeln. "Because people were posing for what would later be an etching, they came across as natural and relaxed."

The collection, which includes 15 never before displayed photos of the camera-shy Freud, has both artistic and historical value, Coeln said. "Freud hated to be photographed, and there are only about 100 photos of him in existence," he said.

For Auer, though, a series of photos and etchings of Einstein form the "heart" of the exhibition. She praised Schmutzer for capturing Einstein's cheerful and relaxed nature in the pictures, which were taken in 1921 when Einstein was briefly in Vienna giving lectures.

In 1926, Freud wrote to Schmutzer to thank him for the portrait, which is exhibited next to several of his photos. "I would like to thank you for the effort you made in reproducing my unappealing face and to repeat my assurance that only now do I feel preserved for posterity," Freud wrote.

Although there are no immediate plans to put the collection on tour, Peschke said he hopes the pictures can be shown next in New York or London, where there are many descendants of Austrians who fled during the Nazi occupation.

Because many leading members of Viennese society at the turn of the century were Jews who were either killed or forced to leave the country, the photographs are also a painful reminder of a lost world, Peschke said.

"The children of Jews who were forced to leave Vienna can see their roots in these pictures," he said.

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