In 1919, while the dust of war still was settling, the people of Vienna elected the world’s first socialist regime to rule them. Intellectuals and artists filled not only cafes and theaters, but also the corridors of municipal power in a bid to forge a new, utopian world order. More than a few of the socialist artists and intellectuals who shaped Red Vienna (Rotes Wien) were Jewish. They included Grete Wolf Krakauer (1890–1970), whose works are the focal point of the exhibition, “Grete Wolf Krakauer: From Vienna to Jerusalem,” which is on display at the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod until late July.
Born in Czechoslovakia to a middle-class, relatively assimilated Jewish family in 1890, Wolf Krakauer had grown up and been educated in Vienna, explains the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Smadar Sheffi, who wrote her doctorate dissertation on Wolf Krakauer. She received a modern, secular education from some of the most influential artists in Europe, who introduced her not only to the latest ideas in art, but also to socialism, psychoanalysis, and a wide array of new utopian and progressive philosophies.
In 1913, just before World War I broke out, Wolf Krakauer had her first solo exhibition in Vienna, Sheffi notes. She went on to join the Bund der Geistig Tatigen, an avant-garde group of artists whose members included her future husband, Leopold Krakauer. By the time the war ended, she was 28 years old and active in the circles that shaped the new regime. Most of the parties elected to rule the Austrian republic that arose to replace the Austro-Hungarian empire were Christian and clericalist. The exception was Vienna, where socialism flourished along with a sense that the world was on the verge of dramatic change. Wolf Krakauer did not simply rub elbows with power but actively interacted with the leaders and decision makers responsible for spearheading change. She drew their portraits and was drawn by them, most notably by Egon Schiele on the visiting card of art critic Arthur Roessler.
Wolf Krakauer left all this behind in late 1924, apparently to pursue the Zionist dream.
“I can’t pin down a reason as to why she came,” Sheffi says. “When she came here I don’t think she thought she was going to spend the rest of her life here. She thought she could go back and forth like the way lots of artists do today.”
She made aliyah with her daughter Trude Dothan (who had been born in 1922 and grew up to be a prominent archaeologist) a few months after her husband, leading to the assumption that she simply followed him. Indeed, in Israel, she was widely perceived as the wife of a renowned architect rather than as an influential artist in her own right. However, Sheffi points out that Wolf Krakauer was a highly independent woman who actually was more connected to the art scene in Vienna than her husband and was the family’s main breadwinner. Even if he made aliyah due to the wealth of career opportunities the British Mandate of Palestine offered to architects at the time, that does not explain why she chose to do so.
It is more likely that her aliyah was prompted by her affinity for socialism from a very young age, Sheffi muses, noting that socialism’s promise to create a new social order attracted many Jews frustrated by the anti-Semitism of the old order.
Her growing up in Vienna shortly after Theodor Herzl founded modern Zionism there also may have been a factor. In Wolf Krakauer’s correspondence with friends from Vienna who made aliyah before her, she clearly expresses Zionist sentiments.
Finally, Wolf Krakauer may also have sought to be in the midst of the action at a new exciting moment. She set out for Jerusalem just as the freedom of movement and opening of borders following the end of the war was transforming the British Mandate of Palestine into a cosmopolitan center. Interesting figures from every corner of the British Empire, from Europe, from Africa, and from Asia, were coming to Jerusalem and Wolf Krakauer painted and drew more than a few of them. Making her home in Jerusalem gave her the opportunity to encounter and paint interesting people from a wide variety of backgrounds.