What began as a pedagogical commitment to children and a brighter future became eclipsed by the refusal to face a new and much-changed world. Against the books’ conservative and backwards-looking contents, the emphasis on style and form felt jarring. In his memoir, Stefan Zweig noted that “such overvaluation of the aesthetic, carried to the point of absurdity, could only exist at the expense of the normal interests of our age.” Writer Karl Kraus
went even further, condemning the focus on aesthetics as “corrosive, oppressive and immoral.” If that sounds extreme, consider that when Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I
died in 1916, the education ministry designed and printed thousands of copies of an extravagant commemorative book, Kaiser Franz Josef I, Ein Erinnerungsbuch
(Emperor Franz Josef I: A Memoir), as a gift for schoolchildren. No matter that the monarchy had long lost its ability to rule and Austria was on the verge of dissolution. Worse even was that the intended schoolchildren were literally starving to death; the shortages caused by the Allied blockade resulted in widespread malnutrition, wiping out as much as 30 percent of the population.
It was only after the First World War and the founding of the new Austrian republic that new opportunities for illustration began to present themselves. The Social Democrats implemented their program of reform teaching in 1918, and Socialism — known as the era of Red Vienna
— had begun to set in. One of the most popular youth magazines during this time was the Jugendrotkreuz Zeitschrift
(Magazine for the Red Cross Youth), illustrated by the well-known artist Franz Cizek, which was committed to the goals of tolerance, peace and moral rebuilding of young people after the war.
Books like Hoch Die Republik
(Exalt the Republic),
1918, were modern and optimistic, with clean lines once again representing hope for a better future. The book was intended as a gift for Viennese primary schoolchildren, but as a precursor of hardships to come, was eventually banned. The Ministry of Education — later dominated by the conservative Christian-Social Party — criticized the depiction of certain social democratic ideals. And many weekly children's publications — including Der Regenbogen, Wochenschrift für Kinder
(The Rainbow: Children's Weekly), 1924-27, and Der Weg ins Leben
(The Path to Life), 1924, met with the same fate. The latter’s covers exemplified “Viennese Kineticism” with streaks of chalky black, vibrating with energy and spirit. Inside, the texts pondered rational enlightenment, pacifism and an activist view of life.
Der Regenbogen, Wochenschrift für Kinder (The Rainbow: Children's Weekly), 1924-27
More acceptable in a political sense were books like Buch der Arbeit (Book of Work), 1922, where labor was idealized through factory scenes of puffing smokestacks, with workers reduced to ant-like miniatures in the foreground. Published by the Social Democrats and printed from 1923 to 1934, the Constructivist-influenced Kinderland, die Zeitung der Osterre Arbeiterkinder und Bauernkinder (Children's Land: The Newspaper for Austrian Workers' Children and Farm Children) was more typographically progressive and more widely read.
Around this time, as Austria’s political situation steadily worsened, so finally did children’s pictorial worlds. Curator Friedrich C. Heller links the waning artistic quality to the rise in popularity of “cute modes of representation” as seen in the saccharine Kind und Zeit (Child and Time), 1927. Other examples were books for city children that aestheticized country and peasant life.
Nevertheless, two remarkable books would still be published over the next decade. The first was Otto Neurath’s Die Bunte Welt (The Colorful World), 1929, a pioneering example of graphic design and visual communication. Neurath had attempted to develop a universal visual language which is reflected in the book’s tables, such as "The Population of Asia, not including East Asia and Australia," and "Followers of the World’s Major Religions." Here, Neurath illustrates population figures with simplified composites of the then-prevailing national characteristics — turbans for the Indians, kimonos for the Japanese, sampan hats for the Indonesians. (A Jew himself, Neurath seemed to have an impish sense of humor: The grass-skirted and goggle-eyed figures representing "primitive cults" were exactly the same as for the Jews, except that the Jews stood on little starred boxes.)
"Followers of the World’s Major Religions" from Die Bunte Welt, by Otto Neurath, 1929
Ernst Gombrich’s Eine Kurze Weltgeschichte für Junge Leser (Little History of the World for Young Readers), 1935, offers another striking exception. Still in print today, the book — derived from Gombrich’s doctoral thesis — was written principally for the young daughter of friends, who wanted to know what engaged him so deeply during his work day. The book begins with the caveman and ends just after WWI. Formally and conceptually progressive, it was later banned by the Nazis for its inherent pacifist message.
Shortly after, in 1938, Austria was annexed to Germany, and the ensuing catastrophe of World War II all but buried the ideals behind the radical Kunsterziehung movement. Steering youth to art now seemed as irrelevant as Art for Art’s sake. But as these works show, publishers remained committed to children’s books up to this point, even if the impulse to educate and challenge young readers through art — as in the utopian ideals of the Century of the Child — were long gone.