Visual Moment | The World Inside Carl Moll’s ‘White Interior’

By | Nov 07, 2022

Looking into the calm of artist Carl Moll’s 1905 White Interior feels something like inhabiting the imaginative space at the periphery of a dollhouse. With its square format, roughly 39 x 39 inches, and the polished gold ribbon of its frame, the painting approximates the silhouette of a fin-de-siècle toy house. You might feel the impulse to breach the divide, reach in and open a glass cabinet, reposition a porcelain teacup, or move one of the painted Josef Hoffmann chairs to the other side of the table. But viewers, of course, remain beyond the picture frame, looking from a distance at the harmoniously ordered room where the
turned-away figure of a woman in a white dress—journalist and salonnière Berta Zuckerkandl—arranges yellow flowers in the barely visible speck of a blue vase.

From November 11 until February 13, 2023, the painting will be part of New York’s Neue Galerie’s
20th-anniversary exhibition, The Ronald S. Lauder Collection. Until it was put up for auction in 2021, White Interior was only known from a black-and-white photograph taken at an exhibition in 1905; the painting itself was thought to have been lost. Although a second, more polychromatic portrait of Berta Zuckerkandl by Moll in the same setting was known to be in a private collection, White Interior hadn’t been on public view for more than a hundred years. Now it’s one of the highlights at the museum and has been called a “total work of art,” what the Germans call a Gesamtkunstwerk, due to its orchestrated composition, its simplified chromaticism and the structural clarity of the squares and rectangles defining its framework. Early viewers might have thought the serenity rendered in the Zuckerkandl apartment—a cultural meeting place and salon on Nusswaldgasse, the main street in Döbling, on the outskirts of Vienna—would last forever. But a work of art has many lives, and the heavy legacy of the Nazi period injected an element of dissonance into the painting that could not have been foreseen by either the Catholic Austrian artist or his Jewish Austrian subject.

Carl Moll was born in Vienna in 1861 and died there in 1945. As a young artist, he was mentored by landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler. When Schindler died, Moll married his widow and adopted her two daughters, Alma and Grete, before she gave birth to their own daughter, Maria. Later, through Alma, who married Gustav Mahler, Moll became a close friend of the Jewish composer and, in fact, sat with him at his deathbed and took a mold of his death mask.

Viennese-Jewish journalist and salon hostess Berta Zuckerkandl, 1909. (Photo credit: ÖNB © madame d’Ora)

In the spirit of the age, Moll became part of a group of progressive Viennese artists that included Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner, all of them aspiring to connect Austrian art to modern artistic trends in Europe. In White Interior you can see Moll incorporating the glistening surfaces of
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s rivers and canals, the complex texturing of Whistler’s Symphony in White No.1, and the daubed brushstroke and ambiguous perspective of the Neo-Impressionists. He was a founding member of the Vienna Secession movement, with its motto “To the time its art, to art its freedom.” The Secession artists were inspired by Art Nouveau, which emphasized proportionality as well as organic forms and lines, forcing a split from what they deemed the overblown, highly ornate work that had become popular in the academies. Moll was also a founding member of the Wiener Werkstätte, a group that aimed to unify the fine arts with Austrian decorative arts and its tradition of preeminent craftsmanship, integrating Modernism into all facets
of design.

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A great many of the benefactors of the Secessionist movement and the Werkstätte came from Vienna’s prosperous Jewish families. They were insiders and outsiders, grateful for the stability of the Austro-Hungarian empire, exquisitely sensitive to their neighbors’ response to their differentness. Many of them embraced Modernism because of its connection to Western liberalism and traditions of tolerance. When Moll painted Berta Zuckerkandl, a prominent Jewish figure, in her fashionable Döbling apartment, he was portraying one of the most eloquent advocates of Modern Viennese art, someone who tirelessly championed the new ways in her journalism and cultural criticism for liberal newspapers. By painting Zuckerkandl dressed in a loose-fitting (albeit with a cinched waist), artistically designed Viennese “reform” gown, Moll was promoting Werkstätte fashion, which valued freedom of movement in opposition to the tight-laced and cumbersome crinolines of the preceding years. By painting her in the intimate setting of her living room, filled with Hoffmann-designed cabinets, table, chairs and hanging lamps, he was highlighting Werkstätte furniture as well as the fundamental concept that design and art should enhance one another, both of them springing from principles of usefulness, proportionality and formal harmonies.

Berta Zuckerkandl was 41 years old and eminently respected in Vienna when Moll painted White Interior. Her father, Moritz Szeps, had come to the city from Galicia in order to study medicine, but he soon recognized that journalism was his talent. He was most famous as the editor and publisher of Neues Wiener Tagblatt, Vienna’s most prominent and high-circulation liberal newspaper. From the time she turned 16, Berta had been her father’s secretary, accompanying him internationally and keeping a written record of his secret correspondence with the young, liberal Crown Prince Rudolf, whom he published anonymously. Berta’s husband, Emil Zuckerkandl, was a distinguished professor of anatomy, and her older sister, Sofie, was married to the youngest brother of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Through this network of journalism, politics, culture and science, Berta was able to bring into her salon the most brilliant minds in Europe, ranging from Johann Strauss and Auguste Rodin to Sigmund Freud. In a memoir she wrote at the start of World War II, My Life and History, she recounted light-hearted days of the 1870s and the early 1880s, remembering childhood antics, sliding down the long curve of the balustrade in her parents’ fine new house or, with her sister Sofie, meeting composer Jacques Offenbach in their parents’ garden. But she saw trouble looming as early as 1884 when her father was imprisoned because the virulently antisemitic politician Georg von Schönerer brought a libel case against him, and then in 1889, when the Crown Prince tragically committed suicide, crushing hope for a more enlightened Austria.

Artist Carl Moll (seated at center) and composer Gustav Mahler (standing at left) in Vienna, 1905. (Photo credit: Mahler Foundation)

Not long after White Interior was painted, the Secessionist group split apart, and that fragile moment of balance among all the arts as well as the balance among Austria’s multiethnic population began to shift. As a consequence, even by 1910, Berta Zuckerkandl’s attention had turned away from the visual arts, and she was focusing her writing on politics and the theater. (Amazingly, she translated 120 plays written in French into German.) One of the themes of her memoir is her persistent belief that Austria might have become part of liberal Europe if it could have made its alliance with France rather than Germany. As an Austrian patriot, she acted as an unofficial diplomat during World War I and following that when the humiliation of defeat and terrible food shortages were felt throughout Austria. In the final pages of her memoir, Zuckerkandl describes what she calls “the last hours of the existence of a free Austria,” just before Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg gave his famous 1938 speech announcing that Austria’s president “asks me to tell the people of Austria that we are not prepared to shed blood,” ensuring Hitler’s troops would enter the country in a matter of days.

Zuckerkandl was lucky to escape to Paris two weeks later and, again, in the spring of 1940, from Paris to Bourges, a city where the Resistance had waged several successful sabotage missions, eventually arriving in Algeria. At the end of the war, in September 1945, she returned to Paris, but, as she wrote in her memoir “…the meaning had been taken out of my life.” She was already ill when she got there and died a month later.

According to her grandson, Emile Zuckerkandl, nine members of the family were killed in concentration camps during the war. This included Berta’s sister-in-law Amalie Zuckerkandl, who died with her daughter Nora in BełŻec. Amalie’s father was a Jewish playwright and journalist, but her mother was Christian, and Amalie converted to Judaism in order to marry Otto Zuckerkandl, Berta’s brother-in-law.

Carl Moll committed suicide five months before Berta Zuckerkandl died. He had been a Nazi follower during the Hitler period and there is some debate in art circles about whether he was a lifelong antisemite. Some people argue the contrary, saying he had been fond of his son-in-law Mahler. Others say he was an opportunist, taking advantage of his proximity to a musical genius. This was complicated even more after his death, when boxes of the composer’s books and scores, some of them opened, were found hidden in Moll’s house. Had he intended to sell them for his own profit? He had, of course, been part of that progressive society of artists and their Jewish patrons that had flourished in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. Had he wholeheartedly become a fascist, turning his back on the deportations and murders of those Jews? We don’t know. In any case, he and his daughter, Maria, and her husband, Richard Eberstaller (vice-president of the Nazi Court in Vienna), celebrated Eberstaller’s birthday together just as the Soviet Army was entering Vienna. Apparently Maria baked a pie that day and they had a party before the three of them took poison together. Two days earlier Moll had written a letter, saying, “I fall asleep unrepentant, I have had all beautiful things life had to offer.”

How does it make sense that Berta Zuckerkandl, the slim young woman in the flowing white gown, seen from afar in Moll’s White Interior, ended her memoir with a similar paean to the beauty that had filled her life, quoting Goethe:

Your happy eyes,
whatever you have ever seen,
no matter what,
it was so beautiful!

Opening picture: White Interior by Austrian artist Carl Moll, 1905. (Photo credit: Courtesy Neue Galerie)

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