Rudolf Koppitz, Hand Studies, Hedy Pfundmayr, 18 x 13 cm, © Photoinstitut Bonartes; Anonym, Tilly Losch as nun in The Miracle, directed by Max Reinhardt, 1932, Silver gelatin print, 22.7 x 16.4 cm, © Theatermuseum, Vienna; Anonym, Tilly Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr in Ladies Boxing Match with Adolf Nemeth, actor at the Vienna State Opera as referee, Great Circus Celebration of the Vienna stage artists, Renz Circus, 1926, Silver gelatin print, 13.7 x 8.8 cm, © Lebendiges Tanzarchiv Vienna / Andrea Amort; Hedy Pfundmayr with Elektra-mask by Richard Teschner, 1930, Silver gelatin print, 23.5 x 15.3 cm, © Photoinstitut Bonartes

Dance of Hands

Tilly Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr in Photographs 1920–1935

‘All one could see, lit by the spotlight, were two pale, slim hands, which seemed to live independently, which performed a play in which madness and devotion, secret vices and painful longing blended with one another in a breath taking way.’

The description by the Austrian-hungarian writer Felix Salten of a dance premiered at the 1927 Salzburg Festival serves as the starting point for an interdisciplinary research. On this evening, Hedy Pfundmayr and Tilly Losch, both solo dancers at the Vienna State Opera, had concentrated exclusively on the expressive power of their hands. Thus, they reacted to a ‘cult of hands’ in the interwar period, the breadth and variety of which has been completely forgotten today.

Examples from photography, film and magazines bear witness to the many ways in which the general fascination for hands intersected. Hands embodied the real ‘mirror of the soul’ in the painted and photographed portraits of the late art nouveau. In free dance, which experienced its heyday, feelings were to be transformed into movement through hands. Likewise, the expressionist film—Nosferatu, for instance, or The Hands of Orlac—took as its theme the suggestive power of the human hand.

The art of palm-reading as spread in numerous illustrated publications owed its enormous popularity less to the illusion of a prediction of the future, and was rather seen as a scientific possibility for the interpretation of individual character. Photographic material was collected and compared, as well as measurement data, with often dubious conclusions then reached. In contrast, under the banner of liberation from conventional restraints, a woman’s elegant, slender hands served magazines as symbols charged with eroticism. They stood for a new kind of woman, and were equally employed in such varied fields as product advertising or the illustration of lesbian texts.

Films, exhibits from the context of art, objects from anthropological collections, photographs from dance archives or magazine publishers, together with images from the estates of both dancers, all give insights into an unusual dimension of the mental map between the wars.

An exhibition by the Photoinstitut Bonartes, expanded in collaboration with the Museum der Moderne Salzburg.
Curators: Monika Faber, Director, Magdalena Vukovic, Curator, Photoinstitut Bonartes, assisted by Andrea Amort, Dance critic/-historian, and Ines Rieder, Writer Curatorial Assistant: Barbara Herzog, Museum der Moderne Salzburg


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