Toxic Places, Toxic Images

An interview with Elke Krasny

Uncanny Materials: Founding Moments of Art Education. A curatorial exhibition, research, and education project. Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Curated by Elke Krasny and Barbara Mahlknecht

1941!—a hole in history—a  year in which all the visible gods had abandoned us, in which god was really dead or gone back into his non-revealedness.


Emanuel Levinas

The exhibition Uncanny Materials was born from a feeling of uncanniness. Elke Krasny, the newly appointed head of the Department of Art Education of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, sensed the burden and the ghostly presence of the Nazi past when she was supposed to move to her office room. She felt it was somehow toxic. Instead of repressing this sense of uncanniness, she went right to the heart of the matter. The department was founded in 1941, which was also the year when WW2 took a violent turn on the Eastern Front, and when the Jewish community of Vienna was informed about the deportation, among other sinister events. Emanuel Levinas’s thoughts referenced in Uncanny Materials, and quoted above, can be taken as a motto for the exhibition. The two curators, Elke Krasny and Barbara Mahlknecht, as well as their research team examined archival materials of the Academy: inventory books, and the yearbook of 1941. They found the hidden, or not so hidden, traces of history, of the Holocaust, and how Nazi ideology imbued each and every aspect of life. Education was one of the major fields to be controlled by Nazi ideology to secure the brainwashing of future generations.

Beyond exhibiting archival documents and the academy’s 1941 yearbook, annotated page by page and revealing the traces of the Nazi regime’s ideology (Anna Artaker), the exhibition also asked contemporary artists to reflect on this unmemorialized past. One of the key concepts of the curators was “multidirectional memory,” worked out by Michael Rothberg.1 He argued that instead of competing, memories interact with one another in the public sphere: This idea of multidirectional memory is behind several of the exhibited artistic works, from the Trans-Iranian Railway, the Tehran conference, and the memories of the artist’s grandmother (Ramesh Daha), through the unmemorialized site of Vienna’s Morzinplatz, the former site of the Gestapo headquarters (Zsuzsi Flohr and Eduard Freudmann), to the uses of the swastika as ornament in Finland, and the correspondence of the artist about its use (Minna L. Henriksson), or to the comic-like illustration of childhood memories evoked by the experiences of the present (Hansel Sato). It also figures into the broader context of the research and reception of National Socialist-period materials that came about in a heightened political atmosphere of right-wing populism and anti-migrant sentiment.

Akademie der bildenden Künste, März 2016
Anna Artaker, Annotated Yearbook 1941, 2016. Photo: Lisa Rastl © Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

Hedvig Turai: The exhibition takes one single year, 1941, to focus on. How was the idea of the exhibition born? 

Elke Krasny:  Today’s Institute for Education in the Arts of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was founded in 1941. My colleague Barbara Mahlknecht pointed out that the year 2016 is the 75th anniversary of the department’s founding. Therefore, we decided to work on a research-based exhibition singling out 1941. We then focused on the fact that the National Socialist regime made art education part of its ideological program. Equally, we were interested in why the National Socialist regime established a master school for art education and hence made a move to professionalize the training of secondary school art teachers.

Cultural theorist Aleida Assmann has emphasized in several of her works that anniversaries or official days of remembrance are very important in terms of collective memory: “Jubiläen sind Denkmäler in der Zeit;” that is, anniversaries are time-based monuments.2 This was a motivation for this project. Equally, such anniversaries can provide the occasion for critically rethinking shifts in the politics of remembrance and for working out new strategies of research-based and art-based memory work.

Akademie der bildenden Künste, März 2016
Ramesch Daha, Unlimited History, 2013. Photo: Lisa Rastl © Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

HT: What other motivations did you have to do this research and exhibition? 

EK: Barbara and I were very keen to understand better the ideological orientation of the National Socialist regime’s art education program. We were equally concerned with the specific politics of resources enacted by the National Socialist regime and the material conditions of the master school for art education in the war year of 1941. I have for a long time been interested in the relations to the physical and material infrastructures produced and left behind by this regime.  What does it mean to remember on a material and infrastructural level? What are the politics of remembrance on a material level? What are the strategies of memory work in terms of the politics of resources? What are the politics of history with regard to material conditions, infrastructures, allocation of resources, and distribution of power? The more Barbara and I studied the archival materials from the University Archives of the Academy of Fine Arts, the clearer the 1941 use of the different rooms at the address of 3 Karl-Schweighofer-Gasse became. The infrastructure of the workshops, such as a wood workshop or a metal workshop, was established in 1941. More uncanny even is the fact that the founding head of the master school, Ernst August Mandelsloh, a Nazi Party member since 1932, not only had his office space at 3 Karl-Schweighofer Gasse, but his studio for painting watercolors, and even his living quarters were at the institute. His office and his living space is where we work today. On a personal level, I find that very difficult. How does one critically and knowingly use and inhabit such spaces? How does one respond on an everyday basis to the material side of memory? These spaces not only conserve the past, they are equally in need of a different presencing. This was also a personal motivation on my part. Knowing that the founding head of the master school of art education inhabited my office space gives both rise to feelings of depression and a need for working toward critical and resistant memory practice.

Akademie der bildenden Künste, März 2016
Hansel Sato, Parallaxe, 2016. Photo: Lisa Rastl © Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

HT: Do you feel a certain kind of continuity between the time of the 1940s and the 1970s when your generation studied?

EK: Students of art education, many of them female students, became art teachers in secondary schools after 1945. They were in their twenties at the time, and had just completed their studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. This means that 30 years later, in the year of 1975, when I went to secondary school, they could easily have been my art teachers. To my knowledge, there has not been done much research on how the ideological program of art education established by the National Socialist regime has informed their teaching over time. I do not make a claim here that art teachers who had studied during this time consciously taught according to the regime’s logic 30 years later. What I do say though is that there might well have been very uncanny traces left in the ways how they conceived, for example, the relation of theory and practice or what they thought about the genius of the artist. The nineteenth-century figure of the artist-genius was very much activated and reinforced by the National Socialist regime. In 2015, German historian Wolfram Pyta published the book Hitler: The Artist as Politician and Commander: An Analysis of Power.3 But I see here emerging a future field of critical research. It is crucial to do extensive research on the ideological orientations and the ideological objectives of art education, and to do this on a comparative scale looking at different time periods and geographies. This is the motivation for why we did this exhibition, to reveal hidden traces of ideology and how important education, including art education, was for a totalitarian regime in order to impregnate each and every field of thinking and acting with its ideology.

Akademie der bildenden Künste, März 2016
Minna L. Henriksson, Hidden, 2012-13. Photo: Lisa Rastl © Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

HT: Actually, who did the research?

EK: Many different people. I work with archives but not as a disciplinary historian, rather as a curator and from a standpoint of cultural analysis and critical theory. Therefore, Barbara and I worked together with three historians, Ina Markova, Rosemarie Burgstaller, and Sophie Bitter-Smirnov. This was very important for us. Historians, curators, and artists work with archival materials in very different ways. We felt it necessary to have that solid basis that historians can provide. In the conversations with the historians, Barbara and I came to understand that our interests as curators and educators differ slightly from theirs. Materials they might not have paid much attention to were of great interest to us. The historians told us, for example that there are lists of materials they bought, they ordered wood or metal things, or certain teaching materials, they also informed us how much was spent on heating, etc., and they said these might not be interesting for us. But actually, this is material history. This is where the physical bodies, the infrastructure, and the institutional logic meet. It was a very intriguing exchange of orientations. We were very much interested in the ideological elements as well, in the curriculum, statements, minutes of professors’ meetings, actors’ of the network, how these people were connected to each other in their National Socialist party affiliations. From the archive, one can trace the networked relations between Nazi party members and professorship appointments.

I want to stress that there are many artists and researchers who have already been doing research and looking into the archives of this institution before Barbara and I began to work on this project. The Plattform Geschichtspolitik (Platform Politics of History), initiated by students, activists, and teachers of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, has been active since 2009. Their work was preceded by the critical work of students in the 1990s who initiated the book publication “Im Reich der Kunst.”4 This book was the first to critically examine the history of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna during the National Socialist regime. It also drew attention to the fact that the Academy of Fine Arts was implicated in Nazism.

Akademie der bildenden Künste, März 2016
Zsuzsi Flohr and Eduard Freudmann, A Stone Stands Here. Formations of Rememberance 1949-, 2016. Photo: Lisa Rastl © Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

HT: Could you talk about the role of women in the context of the exhibition?

EK: During the war, there were fewer male students because they had to go to war. So, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna needed other bodies to fill their spaces, and all of a sudden there was room for women. There were more female students during the National Socialist regime. When it comes to the hierarchical position of professors at universities, it is male, but when it comes to elementary or secondary schools, it is very much female: a gendered division of labor can clearly be made out here. There were a lot of female students at the art education department, and also the first women were appointed to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts. They were employed to teach textiles. You can find this information in the annotated yearbook that we exhibited here, in a work by artist Anna Artaker. So, the archival material and the artists’ works come together in collaboration in the exhibition.

HT: Could you mention a few examples from the yearbook where you have this strange meeting of “business as usual” and the war in 1941, where you can find hidden traces of not so obvious facts?

EK: The department opened in November 1941. People at the academy were teaching drawing and sculpture, and knitting socks, and when at the end of the year, a globalized war went on, the technological machinery of industrial killing was working at full speed. How do these go together? With regard to the 1941 yearbook, there are some more obvious examples that demonstrate how the National Socialist regime and the war logic profoundly inform the image production. One of the examples that I would like to mention is a work by Wilhelm Dachauer, who was a professor and also shared the rector’s duties at that time. He depicted the Mauthausen quarry, and his work is reproduced in the yearbook. One sees forced labor in the image, but one could also argue that one does not see it as forced labor unless one has this historical knowledge. Therefore, a critical material art history concerned with the politics of image production is very much needed. The context of, in our case the year of 1941, has to be located on the level of the image. One can argue that everything that is drawn, painted, or photographed in these images of the 1941 Yearbook of the Academy, that everything that is sculpted or shaped is in fact deeply entrenched with the ideology of the National Socialist regime. None of these images is innocent. Every single one of them is toxic.

Akademie der bildenden Künste, März 2016
Lena Rosa Händle, Girl Under Trees, 2016. Photo: Lisa Rastl © Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna

HT: The exhibition also included contemporary art works beyond the annotated archival materials. How did you select and choose the contemporary artists who reflect on the topic in the exhibition?

EK: There are nine works here. Seven of them are newly commissioned, two of them already existed. We invited colleagues from the Academy of Fine Arts, who have for a long time been working on the theme. Equally, we invited colleagues who had specific interests such as transnational perspectives on the politics of memory and history or queer-feminist analysis of the National Socialist regime. We had a number of workshops within the department, and we had a collaborative approach to understanding how we could work together and what our shared interests were. Besides Michael Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory, educator and social worker Ayse Güleç’s ideas on the specificity of immigrant-situated knowledge was also crucial for us. Taken together, these form a contemporary territory of a much needed critical practice. One of the participating artists, our colleague Lena Rosa Händle is interested in lesbian life under the National Socialist regime in Vienna, and within that, she also looked into the history of needlework for the exhibition. Hansel Sato, who also teaches at the Institute for Education in the Arts, took his personal biographical experience as an immigrant from Peru as a starting point to address the politics of transnational history.

Through the lens of the year 1941, we approached a specific historical presence that shapes our world today.  From this perspective, one feels the weight of the present moment even more: rightwing and extreme right-wing movements and governments, fundamentalism, as well as the intensified precarity of bodies, labor, time, and space.


About the author 

Hedvig Turai is an art historian and critic based in Budapest. She is dedicated to research and publishing in the field of the Holocaust, gender, and contemporary art. She currently works at the International Business School in Budapest. From 2010 to 2013, she worked at the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest as a museologist and researcher. She previously worked at the University of California’s Education Abroad Program in Budapest, taught and co-taught courses on contemporary art with Hungarian art historian Edit András. She also worked as an editor at Corvina Publishing House in Budapest.



  1.  Rothberg, Michael, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Cultural Memory in the Present). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009.
  2.  Assmann, Aleida, Jahrestage – Denkmäler in der Zeit, in: Münch, Paul (Hg.), Jubiläum, Jubiläum… . Zur Geschichte öffentlicher und privater Erinnerung, Essen: Klartext, 2005: 305–314.
  3.  Pyta, Wolfram, Hitler: Der Künstler als Politiker und Feldherr. Eine Herrschaftsanalyse. München: Siedler Verlag, 2015.
  4.  Hans Seiger, Michael Lunardi, Sabine Plakolm-Forsthuber, Peter Josef Populorum, Im Reich der Kunst: die Wiener Akademie der Bildenden Künste und die faschistische Kunstpolitik. Wien, Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1990

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