Georg Feyer (1892–1950): Portraits of the writer Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler-Werfel, Vienna, undated, before 1936
Platinum print (?), mounted on cardboard, 251 x 180 mm (348 x 257 mm)
Blind-emboss: Pietzner Feyer Wien
Signed on the bottom right in pencil on the cardboard backing: Feyer
JMP 179.549 and 179.550
Provenance unknown, acquired between 1942 and 1945
September 10, 2010 marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Franz Victor Werfel (1890–1945), a Prague German writer who along with Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Oskar Baum and other writers from the city, mostly Jewish, formed the Prague Circle, a loose association coined by Brod.
Werfel was born into the well-off Jewish family of Rudolf Werfel, the owner of a glove factory, and his wife Albina, née Kussin. He was one of three children, but the only son. He later described his family: “My forebears belonged to the Jewish community of German-speaking Czechs. My family’s history in Prague and in one provincial town where German was spoken can be traced far back.” After graduating from the Gymnasium on Štěpánská Street, he began to sit in on lectures at the Law School and Philosophical Faculty. It was his father’s wish, however, that he take up business, so he was sent to Hamburg to gain experience. Wanting to free himself from his father’s influence, Werfel’s business apprenticeship was short-lived, and after a one-year stint in the army, for which he volunteered, he decided to settle in Leipzig and work as a reader for the Kurt Wolff publishing house. He rode out the First World War largely away from combat. Though he had enlisted in 1915 with his regiment based at Třebenice u Lovosic the majority of his time was spent in a hospital in Prague. He saw some action at the Galician front in 1916, but by the end of the war he was in the press office in Vienna, the city that would become his home for many years to come. It was here he met Alma Mahler, the widow of the world-renowned composer and conductor Gustav Mahler and presently the wife of the prominent German architect Walter Gropius. After ten years of acquaintance, Wefrel and Alma married in July 1929, and in 1938, after the Third Reich annexed Austria, they went into exile in the United States via France and Spain. Their dramatic journey on foot through Lourdes and the Pyrenees was the inspiration for Werfel’s novel Das Lied von Bernadette (1941), which was soon made into the American film The Song of Bernadette (1943), directed by Henry King. The Werfels lived in California. On August 26, 1945 Franz Werfel was killed by a massive heart attack. Alma moved to New York in 1952, and twelve years later, on December 11, 1964, she died in her Upper East Side apartment on 73rd Street. She was eighty-five. The obituary that appeared two days later in the Sunday edition of The New York Times eulogized her as the wife of three important artists — the author Franz Werfel, the composer Gustav Mahler, and the architect Walter Gropius — and at one time “the most beautiful girl in Vienna,” who stated that what attracted her to men was their creative achievements.
The photographs portraying Franz and Alma as worldly Viennese celebrities of their day are the work of the well-known Viennese photographer Georg Feyer, who took the portraits of a number of leading personalities. Born in Budapest, Feyer went abroad at the age of twenty-four (between 1916 and 1922 he worked in the USA where he photographed a number of famous artists). Having become an American citizen, he relocated to Vienna in 1924 and for over ten years was a partner in Carl Pietzner Jr.’s atelier (Atelier Pietzner-Feyer). In 1933 he accepted a prestigious commission from the League of Nations in Geneva, and three years later moved to London for work reasons, opening up his own prominent photography studio in Vienna the same year: Studio Feyer. Even though the studio was formally in operation until 1942, after the Anschluss in 1938 Feyer moved the business to London and selflessly offered work and help to a slew of émigrés. He moved to the USA in the early 1940s and opened another of his studios. On November 5, 1950, he died in Cannes, France.