Sisi in Private: The Empress’s Photo Albums

Oc­to­ber 24, 2020 – Septem­ber 19, 2021

Like many up­per-class wo­m­en of her time, Elis­a­beth of Aus­tria-Hun­gary, known as Sisi, col­lect­ed por­trait pho­to­graphs in the 1860s—it was in vogue. The Mu­se­um Lud­wig holds eigh­teen of her al­bums with some 2000 pho­to­graphs in carte de visite for­mat—pho­to­graphs mount­ed on card­board around six by nine cen­time­ters in size. They show mem­bers of the no­bil­i­ty—­many of them from Elis­a­beth’s fam­i­ly—as well as celebri­ties and art­works. On­ly in re­cent years have such al­bums been re­dis­cov­ered as cre­a­tive col­lages, imag­i­na­tive spaces for so­cial struc­tures, and a medi­um for self-re­flec­tion. Among the em­press’s eigh­teen al­bums are three “al­bums of beau­ties.” “I am cre­at­ing a beau­ty al­bum, and am now col­lect­ing pho­to­graphs for it, on­ly of wo­m­en. Any pret­ty faces you can muster at An­ger­er’s or other pho­to­g­ra­phers, I ask you to send me,” she wrote in 1862 from Venice to her brother-in-law Arch­duke Lud­wig Vik­tor. Short­ly there­after the same re­quest went out via the min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs to the Aus­trian am­bas­sa­dors in Con­s­tantino­ple, St. Peters­burg, Paris, Lon­don, and Ber­lin.

The three al­bums of beau­ties at the Mu­se­um Lud­wig are pre­cious—with amethysts, brass fitt­ings, gilt edges, and bound in leather—and at first glance their com­po­si­tion ap­pears hetero­ge­neous. How did Elis­a­beth cu­rate th­ese works in her pri­vate gallery of beau­ties, her coun­ter­part to the gallery of paint­ed por­traits of beau­ti­ful wo­m­en at Nym­phen­burg Palace? And why the fo­cus on wo­m­en? The an­sw­er is: she used th­ese high­ly staged im­ages to bur­nish her own im­age, since she had a keen sense of the in­ter­play be­tween see­ing and be­ing seen. The years in which she compiled the al­bums were those in which she “fled” from Vien­na, as her bi­o­g­ra­pher Brigitte Ha­mann wrote, and lived for months in Venice, Madei­ra, and Cor­fu. Dur­ing this absence from Vien­na, while she col­lect­ed pho­to­graphs, she ma­tured in­to a more en­er­get­ic, self-con­fi­dent fig­ure whose beau­ty would be­come le­g­endary. And she found the mod­els for her self-pre­sen­ta­tion not in the aris­toc­ra­cy, of whom she was crit­i­cal, but in the stars of the in­ter­na­tio­n­al stages. To her the fine cloth­es she wore on of­fi­cial oc­ca­sions felt like a cos­tume: she spoke of be­ing “har­nessed.”

Around the age of thir­ty, Elis­a­beth of Aus­tria-Hun­gary de­cid­ed to no longer have her pho­to­graph tak­en, not even for a med­i­cal X-ray. In the 1880s she turned to po­et­ry, writ­ing “To the Gaz­ers,” quite un­like the sweet char­ac­ter of “Sis­si” played by Romy Sch­nei­der in Ernst Marisch­ka’s films: “„an die Gaf­fer“, to the gaz­ers: „Es tritt die Galle mir fast aus, / Wenn sie mich so fixieren; / Ich kröch’ gern in ein Sch­neck­en­haus / Und kön­nt’ vor Wut krepieren.“ (Bile al­most over­comes me, when they fix­ate me such; I’d seek my shell most glad­ly, could die from anger much.)” The pre­sen­ta­tion sketch­es the con­nec­tions be­tween her al­most ob­ses­sive col­lect­ing of por­traits of wo­m­en, the im­age that she cre­at­ed of her­self and re­fusal of im­ages in lat­er years.

The pre­sen­ta­tion is sup­port­ed by the Öster­reichisch­es Kul­tur­fo­rum Ber­lin. The res­to­ra­tion of the pho­to al­bums is made pos­si­ble by the Fre­un­deskreis der Kul­turs­tif­tung der Län­der.

Cu­ra­tor: Miri­am Szwast