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  • Elisabeth Heinisch

Madame d’Ora’s Society Portraits

Over the years, the Sisters of the Lens team has added a great variety of photographs and postcards taken by Madame d’Ora (1881-1963) to the collection, some of which will be discussed in this post.

Madame d’Ora, née Dora Philippine Kallmus, was born on 20th March 1881 into a bourgeois Viennese family of Jewish descent. She was amongst the first women in Austria to realise the potential of photography as a career. Madame d’Ora opened her photography studio in 1907, having been one of the first women to train at the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt in Vienna (the school only started legally admitting female students a year later in 1908). The interwar years then introduced more women into the profession; the majority of female photographers were of a liberal Jewish background like Kallmus. While learning at Nicola Perscheid’s renowned photo studio in Berlin, Kallmus met her technical assistant-to-be Arthur Benda (1885-1969), who worked for her at her studio; Atelier d’Ora. Kallmus herself directed as manager, taking charge of ‘customer relations’ and the ‘artistic direction’ (Meder and Winklbauer 2012: 70). Her atelier quickly became one of the most established photo studios in Vienna – in particular amongst the aristocracy and artists – and thus charged the highest prices.

D’Ora captured numerous fashion designs by the avant-garde arts collective the Wiener Werkstätte, which illustrates her patronage of dress reform and can be read as cultural resistance. Kallmus’ open-mindedness garnered her critique in the past; when her lover found out that she wanted to pursue photography as a career, he told her that ‘no man loves these brown fingers. Not because they carry traces of chemicals, but because they reveal traces of an independent task.’[i] This quote reveals male anxieties as new emancipated ideologies questioned their patriarchal authority. Madame d’Ora had a complicated relationship with her hometown and in 1926 ultimately left Vienna and relocated to Paris, where she set up her Art-Deco studio and fruitfully exported her signature style.[ii] [iii]

D’Ora varied her style of photography according to the character of the photographed subject.[iv] Central to her image-making was as an aesthetic setting developed from her artistic arrangement. She had her clients bring their fabrics, furs, muffs, and other accessories, so she could create a creative likeness that reflected the individuality of her sitters. This is visible in the selection of photographs and postcards the Sisters of the Lens team acquired, which all differ depending on its sitter, yet unequivocally carry Madame d’Ora’s unmistakable touch. The images chosen for this blogpost are relics of the theatre and movie history of the 1920s and 1930s; as these industries flourished, magazines and newspapers tried to cater to an audience fascinated by luxury and glamour. New works by photographers were needed to complement the growing amount of press coverage on film and theatre. D’Ora’s photographs depict a broad spectrum of distinguished women, among whom many were celebrated actresses and dancers, such as those introduced in this text; Lucy Doraine, Claire Luce, and Ilona Karolewna.

Figure 1. Lucy Doraine, 1925-1929

Lucy Doraine (1898-1989) was an actress of the silent era in Austrian and German film. Born in Hungary as Ilonka Kovács, she fled to Vienna with her husband, director Michael Curtiz (1886-1962), after the failure of the Soviet Republic in 1919. She had married Curtiz four years earlier in 1915 when she was only seventeen years old. It was mostly in Vienna where she established her career as an actress by playing the lead role in all five films directed by her husband.[i] Doraine rose to fame after her performance in the picture Sodom and Gomorrha (1922), which won acclaim beyond Austrian borders; the film was praised in the London newspapers, and all of Doraine’s films were imported to Italy to be shown in the local cinemas. However, these films did not reveal her Austrian-Hungarian origin but presented her as a seductive Parisienne instead. Atelier d’Ora’s depiction of Doraine supports that vision by portraying her as a fashionable diva clad in fur, pearls, and diamonds [see fig. 1 and 2]. In 1922, Lucy Doraine moved to Munich to establish her own film company; Lucy-Doraine-Film. A year later, she divorced her husband, who went on to pursue a prestigious career at Warner Bros. in Hollywood. Doraine emigrated to the USA in 1928 after signing a contract with Paramount Pictures. Unfortunately, she was unable to build on her success there - especially after the emergence of the talkie - and was quickly forgotten.[ii] She passed away in 1989 in Los Angeles.

Figure 2. Lucy Doraine, 1925-1926

Doraine is an example of the Austrian-American cultural exchange happening in the early twentieth century. The 1920s saw popularity in the creation of American-like imagery, particularly in the film business in the guise of American stage names.[vii] Doraine’s name carried American associations, which – when combined with her Hungarian looks – served her cross-cultural image.[viii] Hollywood, merging its characteristics with one’s persona certainly played a significant role in her self-representation.

Claire Luce (1903-1989) was an American stage and screen star, known for her performances in plays such as Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 (1927-1928) and Portrait in Black (1947), as well as her screen appearances in films including Up the River (1930) with Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Vintage Wine (1935). She also played the only woman’s part in the New York success; Of Mice and Men (1937-1938).[ix] The actress was said to be more at home on the stage than on the screen, as evidenced by the hundreds of shows she performed in throughout her life.[x] As a teenager, Luce danced in front of audiences in Ludlow, Massachusetts, before joining a Russian opera tour and studying dance at the Denishawn School in New York, where she started a career as a cabaret dancer on Broadway.[xi] From 1923, she was featured within several musical reviews, which demanded a lot from her dancing and singing talents.[xii] In The Gay Divorce (1932-1933), Luce notably played opposite Fred Astaire (1899-1987) for a total of 248 times on the Broadway.[xiii] She spent the war years in Britain entertaining British and American soldiers. [xiv] It was during her time in England that she turned to classical theatre by starring in a variety of Shakespeare plays. She was considered the first US artist to play leading roles at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, Luce’s personal life was less successful; her short marriage to Clifford Warren Smith (1900-1940) ended in a messy divorce.[xv] She died the same year as Lucy Doraine, in 1989, in New York.

Figure 3. Claire Luce with Chinese Opera Doll, 1928-1929
Figure 4. Claire Luce, date unknown

Claire Luce’s pictures were taken in Madame d’Ora’s studio in Paris in the late twenties. In one of the photos, the actress wears a silk kimono paired with wide pleated trousers and carries a Chinese Opera doll, all while smiling for the camera. Considering that d’Ora frequently had her clients bring in personal items, one can assume that the dress and doll were Luce’s possessions. The second portrait is a close-up of a smiling Luce represented in the typical d’Ora soft-focus manner. Her hands are gracefully staged in front of her deep décolletage adorned with pearls and fur trim.

Ilona Karolewna was a Russian dancer and actress active in Austria, Germany, and France. She took the stage by storm and established herself as one of the most prominent dancers of the twenties.[xvi] Karolewna was born in Russia and performed in the Petersburg Ballet when she was four years old. When war broke out, she was interned with her German mother and made round trips through POW camps until they finally fled to Germany in 1919 to start a new life.[xvii] She made a name for herself by dancing cabarets and revues as a solo act, and sometimes with her sister; Gina Karolewna. In 1926, Karolewna also launched a modest film career limited to a few films, among which was one talkie. The movies she starred in included Haifische der Nachkriegszeit (1926) and Der schwarze Pierrot (1926). Her dance performances include Alles per Radio (1924) and Schwarz-Revue (1927).

Figure 6. Ilona Karolewna, 1924

Karolewna became the first person to ever dance in the Berlin court. She went to trial against a certain director Haller, who engaged her by promising her interesting dances at a premiere. As these dances were of such inferior quality, Karolewna sued the director for damage to her artistic reputation. Haller then sued her for breaking the contract and demanded compensation. As a result, the court invited distinguished theatre directors and artists from Berlin to watch her perform her stand-out pieces and those intended for her by Haller.[xviii] Unfortunately, there exists no surviving press coverage on the trial’s verdict.

Figure 5. Ilona Karolewna, 1925

Ilona Karolewna was in front of d’Ora’s lens multiple times between 1924 and 1925. The Sisters of the Lens acquisitions depict her as the glamourous dance star she was; in backless gowns of silk taffeta with gauzy wraps slipping over her shoulder. In both images, she gazes seductively over her left shoulder. In contrast to Doraine- and Luce’s portraits, Karolewna’s portrayals seem outrightly provocative. They are in line with her coquettish appearances in musical revues and might be purposefully staged to lure viewers to visit her performances. All in all, the pictures align with her reputation as a photogenic dancer with a fiery temperament.[xix]

D’Ora was a pioneer of portrait photography and a style-defining artist, who was exceptional in her time. The acquired photographs taken by her are testimonies to the interwar world of entertainment; they are records of the note-worthy characters that defined this golden-age of stage and cinema. More importantly, the images showcase a positive narrative of female collaboration and empowerment at a time of great gender inequality.


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[i] Faber, M., Ruelfs, E., and Vukovic, M. (2017) Machen Sie mich schön, Madame d’Ora! Dora Kallmus, Fotografin in Wien und Paris 1907 – 1957. Vienna: Brandstätter [ii] Meder, I. and Winklbauer, A. (ed.) (2012) Vienna’s Shooting Girls: Jüdische Fotografinnen aus Wien. Vienna: Metroverlag [iii] Faber, M., Ruelfs, E., and Vukovic, M. (2017) Machen Sie mich schön, Madame d’Ora! Dora Kallmus, Fotografin in Wien und Paris 1907 – 1957. Vienna: Brandstätter [iv] Faber, M., Ruelfs, E., and Vukovic, M. (2017) Machen Sie mich schön, Madame d’Ora! Dora Kallmus, Fotografin in Wien und Paris 1907 – 1957. Vienna: Brandstätter [v] Büttner, E. and Dewald, C. (1999) Michael Kertész. Filmarbeit in Österreich bzw bei der Sascha- Filmindustrie A.-G., Wien 1919-1926 in Bono, F. et. Al, p.105 [vi] The Bioscope, 3.5.1928, p.35 [vii] Fest, K. and Lesky, C. (eds.) (2014) ‘Unconscious Diaries of History – Filmic Encounters of the American in Vienna’ in Parker, J. and Poole, R. Austria and America: Cross-Cultural Encounters 1865- 1933. Vienna: Litverlag, p. 109 [viii] Bono, F. Caneppele, P., and Krenn, G. (eds.) (1999) Elektrische Schatten. Beiträge zur österreichischen Stummfilmgeschichte. Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria [ix] The Bystander, 6.7.1938, p. 3 [x] https://quest-eb-com.arts.idm.oclc.org/search/115_3825371/1/115_3825371/Claire-Luce/more 19.8.20 [xi] The Tatler, 8.10.1930, p. 19 [xii] The Bystander, 5.6.1934, p.10 [xiii] The Bystander, 5.6.1934, p.10 [xiv] https://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/04/obituaries/claire-luce-85-dies-was-versatile-actress.html 23.08.20 [xv] Salzburger Wacht, 9.12.1933, p. 3 [xvi] Der Humorist, 11.9.1925, p.5 [xvii] Die Bühne, 1925, Heft 10, p.12 [xviii] Die Stunde, 29.12.1926, p.8 [xix] Allgemeine Zeitung, 18.11.1926, p. 7 https://digipress.digitale- sammlungen.de/view/bsb00085866_01083_u001/2?cq=Ilona%20Karolewna

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