The thorny history of the Salzburg Festival's logo

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The thorny history of the Salzburg Festival's logo
The logo — featuring the silhouette of the Hohensalzburg Fortress; Salzburg’s regional flag; and a Greek theater mask, all layered over a golden background — has had remarkable staying power.

by Joshua Barone

SALZBURG (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The logo of the venerable Salzburg Festival is impossible to miss here during the summer months. It is attached to buses and flanks the busy sidewalks on the Staatsbrücke bridge. It’s on wristbands, workers’ uniforms and windows, in tourist pamphlets and hotel lobbies.

The logo — featuring the silhouette of the Hohensalzburg Fortress; Salzburg’s regional flag; and a Greek theater mask, all layered over a golden background — has had remarkable staying power. First seen on a poster for the 1928 iteration, it was soon adopted as the festival’s permanent symbol, with the exception of the Nazi era. Yet its history, and particularly the story of its designer, hasn’t been thoroughly known until recently.

The Salzburg Festival commissioned a report on the logo’s origins for its centennial last year, a jubilee that has stretched into this summer because of the pandemic. The research revealed new information about the life of its creator, artist Leopoldine Wojtek, who began as a modernist but whose work took a conservative, Nazi-sympathetic turn in the 1930s, and who was married to one of the party’s most prolific art looters and schemers.

It’s a story that raises questions about cultural memory in a country that has been slow to account for its history in the years leading up to and following the Anschluss — Austria’s annexation by Germany — in 1938. But the Salzburg Festival, in some sense, has been here before, reckoning with the fraught Nazi-era legacies of some of its most prominent artists, including conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan.

Helga Rabl-Stadler, the festival’s longtime president, conceived the report — which is made up of an investigative account by University of Vienna professor Oliver Rathkolb and an artistic appraisal by designer Anita Kern — a decade ago, during the festival’s 90th anniversary celebrations, as she learned some of the troubling details of Wojtek’s biography.

“I would have had a bad conscience if we only showed the bright sides of our past,” she said. “We really are interested in unveiling our history, because in reality the Salzburg Festival is not only a hundred years of festival, but a hundred years’ cultural history of Europe.”

It is a history that bears retelling amid far-right responses to the pandemic and the global rise of anti-government, populist movements. “We have to remind people that we have already had this history,” Rathkolb said. “This period before 1938 is even more interesting than the Nazi period, because it shows how quickly a parliamentary democracy can change.”

THE REPORT BEGINS with straightforward biography. Wojtek, known as Poldi, was born in 1903 in Brno, Moravia. Her father was vocally German nationalist, and later, as a resident of Salzburg, greeted Nazi encroachment with an opportunistic spirit. So did her sister — but not her brother, Wilhelm, who refused to join the party yet was drafted into military service and died a bitter, disabled war veteran.

Wojtek attended a girls’ school in Salzburg before studying at a vocational school in Czechoslovakia and then at the Kunstgewerbeschule, or Arts Vocational School, in Vienna, where her professors included design luminary Josef Hoffmann. Kern said that during this time she “was surrounded by real edgy, avant-garde people,” but that, compared with her colleagues, “she was a very conservative modernist.”

She returned to Salzburg, and in her early 20s was already taking on local projects such as frescoes and exhibition posters in the modernist mode that she eventually brought to a design contest for the 1928 edition of the Salzburg Festival.

The history of the contest is hazy — and suspicious, likely involving interference by Kajetan Mühlmann, Wojtek’s eventual husband, though it’s not clear whether they had any relationship at the time. What is known is that the contest, which was open to students of the Kunstgewerbeschule, was expanded to include three recent graduates, including Wojtek. She didn’t initially place first, but for some reason several designs were sent back to the artists for “certain alterations.” When the new posters were brought before the jury, Wojtek was named the winner.

“The competition had a clear No. 1: Hanns Köhler,” Rathkolb said. “He was a shooting star. Then you can see from the records that Mühlmann was very tricky in having a second round.”

In her report, Kern describes the poster as simply “typical for its time.” Rathkolb guesses that the jury favored Wojtek for being a local artist whose family had an established reputation.

With some modifications, the poster became the festival’s logo. The white bands at the top — used in 1928 to list festival leaders Max Reinhardt, Franz Schalk and Bruno Walter — were made bare, and the dates at the bottom were removed, but otherwise the original design has remained in use, far longer than most logos.

It is the most lasting evidence of Wojtek’s modernism, which waned over the following decade. In 1932 she married Mühlmann, who had worked for the association supporting the Salzburg Festival and the Austrian Publicity Bureau — whose meeting records reveal incidents of lavish and irregular expenses. He resigned from that office in 1934, by which time he had begun to ingratiate himself with the Nazi party.

Before 1938, though, Nazi ideology was illegal in Austria — which got Mühlmann into trouble, and kept Wojtek from putting her name on the illustrated children’s biography of Adolf Hitler she created in 1936. At this point, her work became “stale,” Kern concludes in her report, adding that additional drawings from this time were “more static and compact than her free and easy illustrations from the 1920s.”

Why Wojtek’s work took such a turn isn’t clear. It could be because of Mühlmann, who rose to become a friend of Hermann Göring, for whom he plundered art throughout Europe. But there is evidence that Wojtek wasn’t simply changing under the influence of her husband.

In 1941, she was directly involved in the so-called aryanization of a house in nearby Anif confiscated from Jewish artist Helene von Taussig, who later died at the Izbica transit camp in German-occupied Poland. At the time, the practice of aryanization had been put on hold until the end of the war, but Wojtek, Rathkolb said, “wanted that house at any price.”

“Here, she was the driving force,” he added. “She more or less used Mühlmann to make it happen. She had no ethical shame.”

It is, then, ironic that Wojtek’s Salzburg Festival poster was quickly removed after the Anschluss; it wasn’t degenerate, but it was uncomfortably modern for the Nazis. It was replaced with something more in line with the party’s aesthetics, what Kern describes as “a portrayal of Mozart as a naked Apollo figure with a lyre.”

Wojtek’s design wouldn’t return until after the war. By then, she and Mühlmann had divorced; he had begun to build a second family with a woman in the late 1930s. Wojtek was forced to vacate the house she stole, and the United States returned it to Taussig’s heirs in 1945.

Yet Wojtek eluded denazification. Despite her closeness to the party, her membership was never processed; Rathkolb was unable to find her in the party’s card index in Berlin. She was classified as “less incriminated” and was able to vote again by 1949. She found a new partner in artist Karl Schatzer, and in their shared workshop they hosted courses in painting, illustration and ceramics.

She received local honors over the years — including the Max Reinhardt Medal, named for the Salzburg Festival founder who, as a Jewish artist, was forced into exile — and died in 1978.

WOJTEK’S BIOGRAPHY has been overlooked in the decades since. This, Rathkolb said, is in keeping with Austria’s broader reluctance to reckon with its Nazi-era history, as the country long hid behind the popular “victim theory” to exempt it from responsibility.

The logo has changed little. At one point, a fifth white band was added to the top so it would resemble a musical stave — but that was removed soon after. Kern, for her part, isn’t even sure the logo could be described as good, or that its mask imagery still fits a festival that has come to be known more for music than theater. “Most of all,” she said, “it works because it’s so well known.”

But its future is secure.

“We talked about it, and our opinion was always: This logo isn’t Nazi propaganda,” Rabl-Stadler said. “It’s a logo out of the spirit of the best time in Austrian graphics. If there had been the slightest doubt that you could misinterpret it, we would have removed it.”

Instead, Wojtek joins the crowd of festival artists whose names now come with caveats. Her story is included in the current exhibition “Everyman’s Jews: 100 Years Salzburg Festival,” at the Jewish Museum in Vienna. That show was prompted by Rabl-Stadler, said Marcus Patka, one of its curators, who added that it was a positive sign considering that “there is still lots of silence” in Salzburg on the subject of the Nazi era.

Here in town, Wojtek doesn’t have a street or plaza named after her. As someone of no artistic influence, she isn’t talked about. Her burial site was discovered by the festival only while the report was being researched — even though it’s at the Petersfriedhof cemetery, just steps away from its venues.

The grave is difficult to find: between two paths, on uneven ground that becomes dangerous in the rain. With no known surviving family members, the stone has fallen into disrepair. Only with effort can you make out the faded carving of her name.

At the cemetery’s exit on the Toscaninihof, however, the Salzburg Festival’s logo is once again impossible to miss. And there, under the white of its flag, the name couldn’t be clearer: “WOJTEK.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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