Safety Curtain

Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger and his safety curtain

To understand the discussion in the late 1990s about the fire curtain at the Vienna State Opera, it is necessary first to look back in time. Who was the artist behind the fire curtain, and why did his large-format picture cause such polemic and passionate discussion forty years after it was created and the State Opera was reopened? At the heart of the controversy was a larger issue that was only barely mentioned in public discussion, namely the involvement of Austrian artists in the Nazi era and the attitude of post-war society to this legacy. The discussion was about a safety curtain but also about an artist who had enjoyed a successful career during the Nazi era – and in post-war Austria. It was about Austrian politics and the great hush-up.

Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger, born in Transilvania in 1902, came to Vienna as a nineteen-year-old, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and in 1930 became an ordinary member of the Künstlerhaus.1 He pursued his artistic career in the 1930s in a conservative social climate. Like the situation in society, Eisenmenger's work was dominated by patriotic subjects with Christian themes, in line with the taste of the majority of society. He painted still lifes, landscapes, portraits and pictures with religious content.2 He was actively involved in the "Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur" (Militant League for German Culture), which had been founded in 1931 and banned in 1933. It employed concepts that promoted Germanism and emphasised the specificity of the Germanic race, the degeneracy of non-conformist artists, the decline of culture and the need to militate and nurture it. Its aims were thus highly political. In 1937 he became a founder member of the "Bund deutscher Maler Österreichs" (Association of German Artists of Austria), whose articles of association called for the "association of Austrian artists of German descent willing and able through their creativity, free of fashionable or alien influences, to collaborate in the development and preservation of our characteristic German art in the Austrian tradition." All artists of German origins living permanently in Austria are eligible for membership.3

Eisenmenger's commissions in Austria from the 1930s onwards, such as the murals for the railway station in Wels or the wall clock for the premises of the Reich Labour Service, may be regarded as propaganda works.4 The same applies to the two murals for Vienna City Hall, Return of the Ostmark and Gifts of the Ostmark, which show young men in brown shirts holding swastika flags as indisputable indications of their support of the Nazis.5 The fact that this artist received so many prestigious commissions could also have had to do with the fact that he had won a number of prizes in competitions in Germany. One highpoint was his participation in the 1936 Olympic Games, which included not only the sporting events but also an art competition featuring twenty-four nations and nine hundred works. Eisenmenger's submission won the silver medal in the "Painting" category.6 As a direct result he received the Austrian Cross of Merit for Art and Science. Afterwards he was so respected that he was the only Austrian on the jury from 1937 to 1944 in the annual Great German Art Exhibition. This activity helped him to connect with influential members of German cultural circles, which he was also able to benefit from at the time of the annexation of Austria in 1938.7 As president of the Künstlerhaus in 1939, he became an influential player in Vienna's cultural life. He obtained many public commissions and was so successful beyond Austria's borders that he was exempted from military service by Goebbels (on Hitler's instruction)8 and awarded the title of professor by Hitler.

In 1944 Eisenmenger wrote to Baldur von Schirach, Reichsstatthalter (governor) of Vienna: "As chairman of the Gesellschaft der bildenden Künstler Wiens, Künstlerhaus, I hereby notify you of the decision by the board. We confirm our ardent willingness to serve the Führer and the Fatherland to the best of our ability in the decisive phase of the struggle for survival of our nation. As the Reich representative for total war has called for all members of the public to contribute, we artists do not hesitate to answer this call. We are willing together to make our energy and offices available to assist in arming our heroes at the front in accordance with our capabilities, insofar as we cannot be used as soldiers."9 Shortly afterwards the Künstlerhaus stopped its activities and an armaments company was installed on its premises.10

Although he had already joined the Nazi Party in 1933,11 Eisenmenger's professional career was interrupted only for a short time after the war. He was prohibited from working in 1945, but was classified as a lesser offender and denazified in 1947. He was readmitted to the Künstlerhaus and obtained a chair at the Vienna University of Technology,12 a professorship in 1951 and new major commissions – an exceptional career, but one that was not unusual after the war.

The safety curtain. In the last days of the war, the Vienna State Opera was heavily damaged, but the lack of financial resources and labour prevented it from being rebuilt immediately. The Opera is certainly one of the most important buildings to have been rebuilt, with a view to creating a link with the illustrious past, when Vienna enjoyed a reputation as an international capital of culture. The architect Erich Boltenstein, a colleague of Eisenmenger at the Vienna University of Technology, was commissioned to rebuild it.13

For the new Safety Curtain in the Vienna State Opera specific artists were invited to submit models. Before Eisenmenger applied with a work on the theme of "Orpheus and Eurydice", he had already designed thirteen tapestries for the Opera.14 Among his many rivals who submitted designs for the fire curtain were prominent artists like Fritz Wotruba, Herbert Boeckl and Max Weiler. In view of the significance of this commission, Marc Chagall is also said to have shown an interest.15 After two rounds without a result, new names were constantly submitted, not always to the liking of the members of the jury. Karl Maria May, Eisenmenger's successor as president of the Künstlerhaus, wrote in a letter to the Federal Minister of Trade and Reconstruction: "The '˜Furche' was of the opinion that only two artists were worthy of designing this curtain: Kokoschka, a former Austrian, who sought to become a British citizen when his homeland was in need, and Chagall, an Israeli national artist with Russian origins" and "Austrian art is not a playground for the sensationalism of a few extreme intellectuals, but should serve the entire Austrian people, including workers and farmers."16 Most of the jury for the third round were officials in the ministries, the Federal Minister of Education Heinrich Drimmel, the Federal Minister for Trade and Reconstruction Udo Illig, the head of the Austrian Federal Theatre Administration Ernst Marboe, and state secretaries and ministerial councillors. Only the architects Clemens Holzmeister and Erich Boltenstein were from a relevant discipline. It was not until the fourth round that a decision was finally made.17 Eisenmenger's selection was not well received by quite a few members of the press, with both the conservative design and the decision-making procedure being targets of criticism.18

The Opera was reopened on 5 November 1955. Forty years later, a new debate erupted regarding the Safety Curtain. The trigger for a more differentiated approach to the past was a commemoration at the Opera in 1995.19 Opera director Ioan Holender suggested publicly that Eisenmenger's work should be removed as a symbolic gesture. Following Holender's negotiations with the Federal Monuments Office and the submission of various concepts, the art initiative museum in progress made a suggestion that is still being used today. Since 1998, an exhibition programme has transformed the fire curtain separating the stage from the auditorium into a space for exhibiting contemporary art, also covering Eisenmenger's picture. Every year an internationally renowned artist selected by an independent jury designs a new work that is displayed for a season. By order of the Federal Monuments Office, however, Eisenmenger's design is displayed for at least three months during the summer. The project by museum in progress in the Vienna State Opera has met with a mixed reaction, notably in the form of a collection of signatures in 2002 for the "preservation of the Vienna State Opera Safety Curtain as a total reconstruction artwork"20 and a question in parliament by Heidemarie Unterreiner (FPÖ) in 2010.21 In 2017 the art project celebrates its twentieth anniversary with an exhibition in the Vienna State Opera and a publication.


1 Veronika Floch, "Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger (1902–1994), Mechanismen einer Künstlerkarriere", diss., Vienna 2007, p. 7.
2 Ibid., pp. 11ff.
3 Vienna Municipal and Provincial Archives, M. Dept. 119, A 32, Bund deutscher Maler Österreichs dossier, quoted in Veronika Floch, "Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger", pp. 16–17.
4 Ibid., pp. 39ff.
5 Ibid., pp. 42–43.
6 As no gold medal was awarded, Eisenmenger was the winner in his category.
7 In retrospect, Eisenmenger emphasised that his artistic activities were his only interest and that he had no political ambitions; see letter from R. H. Eisenmenger to Walther Maria Neuwirth (n.d. but written in 1967), Künstlerhaus archive, Eisenmenger dossier. By 1939 at the latest, however, when he became president of the Künstlerhaus, he must have been aware of the political component of the position.
8 Eisenmenger was included in the list of "Artists working for the war effort", which meant that he could not be called up to the Wehrmacht or employed in the war industry; see letter to Wehrbezirkskommando I. Süd, UK-Abtlg, Vienna, of 1 June 1943, signed by Blauensteiner, Künstlerhaus archive, Eisenmenger dossier; memo for Prof. Blauensteiner of 10 December 1942, signed Kurz, Künstlerhaus archive, Eisenmenger dossier.
9 Letter to the Reichsstatthalter of 15 September 1944, signed Eisenmenger, Künstlerhaus archive, Eisenmenger dossier.
10 Rudolf Schmidt, "Das Wiener Künstlerhaus, Eine Chronik 1861–1951" (Vienna, 1951), p. 111.
11 See personal questionnaire no. 1,457.641, application for membership of the Nazi Party, 19 May 1938, AdR, Zivilakten NS Zeit, BMI GA.
12 In Eisenmenger's personal questionnaire completed in 1951, the entry for membership of the Nazi Party is barred as if the question were inapplicable. The attached CV also contains no indication of his political activities; see personal questionnaire of 9 July 1951, archive of the Vienna University of Technology, Eisenmenger dossier.
13 Boltenstein had his architect's licence withdrawn during the Nazi era.
14 The tapestries were restored in 2002 and now still hang in the Gustav Mahler Room in the Vienna State Opera.
15 No evidence can be found for the often-stated claim that Chagall was interested in the commission and had possibly even completed a design. Even if he had applied, he would not have been able to take part because he was not an Austrian.
16 See letter from Karl Maria May to Udo Illig of 20 June 1955, Künstlerhaus archive, Eisenmenger dossier.
17 Veronika Floch, "Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger", pp. 59ff. The Ministry of Trade and Reconstruction, which had also financed the reconstruction of the Opera, was responsible for the decision.
18 See Die Presse, 28 November 1954 and 24 October 1954; Wiener Tagebuch, 1 January 1955.
19 Oliver Rathkolb, "Die paradoxe Republik" (Vienna, 2015), p. 340.
20 The signature campaign was initiated by the art historian Maria Missbach, who had written her thesis in 1986 on Eisenmenger and felt an obligation to his legacy. This list, according to the initiator with 22,000 signatures, was presented to Ioan Holender, but it had no influence on the decision regarding an artistic project for the fire curtain.
21 The parliamentary question of 2010, which was against the project, states: "[Eisenmenger's] Safety Curtain is the greatest painting of his time and an internationally undisputed major post-war work"; see "Anfrage der Abgeordneten Mag. Heidemarie Unterreiner und weiterer Abgeordneter an die Bundesministerin für Unterricht, Kunst und Kultur betreffend Eiserner Vorhang in der Wiener Staatsoper", XXIV.GP.-NR 6164/J from 09.07.2010,