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Exhibitions: Madame d'Ora, Pioneering Photographer of 20th Century Greats

By David Schonauer   Wednesday October 10, 2018


Gustave Klimt wanted her to photograph him.

So did Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier turned to her, as did Emperor Charles I of Austria and Coco Chanel.

Dora Kallmus – known professionally as Madame d’Ora – was Austria’s first female photographer, and her client list was a who’s who of preeminent 20th-century artists and intellectuals, along with glittering names of Viennese society and Parisian fashion.

Kallmus, who died in 1963 in Vienna, left a body of work that, noted the AnOther blog recently, was a “varied and joyful testament to a life stretching across the 20th century’s seminal events; one lived beyond the strictures of society and alongside many of its most interesting characters.”

That work is now being celebrated in the exhibition “Make Me Look Beautiful, Madame d’Ora,” which runs through October 29 at the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

“It wasn’t only her gender that separated Kallmus from her contemporaries,” noted the AnOther blog. Her portraits exuded energy, imagination and often sensuality, their subjects emerging from behind formalized poses to express personality and verve, while her vibrant fashion photographs helped nudge the publishing industry away from illustration for good. She loved working with dancers – capturing their grace and celebrating their physical freedom on film, at times directing this liberated energy into her more formal portraits."

Elsie Altmann-Loos, 1922


Gustav Klimt, 1907


Archduke Karl and Archduchess Zita with their children, 1915

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1881, Kallmus became interested in photography early on while assisting the son of the painter Hans Makart and in 1905 became the first woman accepted by the Association of Austrian photographers. She apprenticed with Berlin-based portraitist Nicola Perscheid. There she met her future assistant and long-time collaborator Arthur Benda, with whom she returned to Vienna and founded her own studio, Atelier d’Ora, in 1907. The name, notes AnOther, was a nod to Kallmus’ passion for French culture.

At the time, women were not allowed to receive technical training in photography, so opening a studio was a risk. But Benda was on hand to complete technical work while Kallmus, aka Madame d’Ora, focused on lighting and poses.

It didn’t hurt that her family had money and was well connected: Her first client was Klimt, who she photographed in 1908. Soon other well known Viennese names were clamoring for her services. In 1916, she photographed the coronation of Emperor Charles I of Austria, which cemented her place as the country’s leading photographer. Her studio also became a fashionable meeting place for the cultural and intellectual elite.

Josephine Baker, 1928


Maurice Chevalier, c. 1927


Coco Chanel, 1923

After he initial success, Madame d’Ora set her sights on the fashion world beyond Vienna. She traveled to Berlin seeking out new patrons, and in 1925 she opened a studio in Paris. There she photographed the likes of Josephine Baker and Coco Chanel. Fashion magazines also commissioned her to shoot for them.

Then Benda, her assistant, left her, returning to the studio in Vienna, which he renamed Atelier d’Ora-Benda-Wein. The two never spoke again.

In a refugee camp (Salzburg?), 1948

Her life changed with the outbreak of war in Europe. Though she had converted to Catholicism, Kallus was forced to spend the war hiding from Nazis in an isolated farm in the Ardèche. Her family in Vienna died in the Holocaust.

Both the subject and style of d’Ora’s photography were changed by the war. In 1945 she documented refugees from a concentration camp in Austria, and in 1956, at age 75, she completed a series depicting the brutality of Paris slaughterhouses. “These images – a calf’s head trailing a broad smear of blood, a lamb hung from a hook, its fleece hanging loose like a cape – form her visceral response to experiences of wartime brutality,” noted AnOther.

Colette, 1954


Pablo Picasso, 1955

In 1955 Madame d’Ora shot her last portrait — a photograph of mirthful Pablo Picasso. A motorcycle accident in 1959 left her disabled and unable to work. Her death in 1963 left a body of work that, noted the AnOther blog recently, was a “varied and joyful testament to a life stretching across the 20th century’s seminal events; one lived beyond the strictures of society and alongside many of its most interesting characters.”
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At top: Self-portrait of the photographer Madame d’Ora, 1929

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