Max Weiler in his studio in Innsbruck, 1950

Weiler before Weiler

Artists are older than their works. Their very first picture is influenced by developments and decisions that reach far back into the past. It is worth getting to know them.

Who was this Weiler before Weiler? Who was this young man who gradually became an artist? What circumstances, what stimuli, what historical environment shaped his mind and his development?

A glance at Weiler's family album shows him in the context of the Catholic bourgeoisie, which sought to assert itself in the historic upheavals following 1918. The places where he spent his childhood, his birthplace Absam near Hall in the Tyrol and then Innsbruck in particular, possessed a provincial solidity.

Max Weiler, who was born in 1910 and whose father was a judge, had an ambivalent attitude towards his family background throughout his life. It had given him the paradise of his childhood, the pictorial universe of which touched him deeply and inspired his fantasy. Yet while his vivid recollections of his childhood were a lasting mainspring for his art, his background was also associated with negative emotions: the source of his suffering and a feeling of humiliation

Even as a boy, Weiler began to create an alternative realm for himself, which centred around the sense of security he felt when looking at nature. The mountains of the Tyrol, with their elemental quality, became a spiritual anchor for him. "I belong ... to the earth, the mountains, the water, the clouds, the wind, the stones." And that means at the same time "not to human beings, limbs... physical movements... not to animals, houses, cities, castles, bridges..." (10 April 1975). He talked to nature just as nature talked to him: "Be quiet, she says. You are alone because there is simply no one here. I am here and you are here just for me. Rejoice!" (23 December 1973). The development of Weiler's painting over the course of seven decades would be inconceivable without this primal relationship to nature. The fact that Weiler experienced all this in the Tyrol did not make him a Tyrolean painter, however. He always felt himself to be a European and a citizen of the world, as close to the Chinese painters of the Sung Dynasty (10th to 13th centuries AD) as he was to Caspar David Friedrich, Grünewald or Cézanne. He used nature as a tool for training his powers of perception, and the subtle approaches, insights and intuitions he developed demand an equal sensitivity on the part of viewers.

In 1925 – while an adolescent – Weiler joined "Bund Neuland", one of the clusters of European youth movements that had been so influential since the turn of the century. In the case of "Bund Neuland", love of nature was accompanied by Franciscan piety. The purpose of the movement, which was anti-bourgeois and critical of the established church, was to experiment with a simple way of living that was close to the people and to reform society along those lines.

The favourite location of "Bund Neuland" was Burg Petersberg in the Tyrol, where the ideal of a simple communal existence was cultivated. Photos still survive that show the ascetic, almost monastic environment created there. A remarkable find can be seen on the walls: a mural, certainly the first one Weiler ever did, which was destroyed when the Nazis seized power in Austria, just as was the entire world of "Bund Neuland".

Weiler at the beginning (1927-1945)

The linking of nature and spirituality that Weiler experienced within "Bund Neuland" can justifiably be called the root of all his art, even if he soon abandoned those aspects specifically relating to youth movements. When he started art school, he found an artistic idiom for the first time. We can see him in Toni Kirchmayr's painting school in Innsbruck, where he prepared himself for the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. In Karl Sterrer's class there, which he joined in 1930, he soon met other like-minded students from "Bund Neuland", particularly Rudolf Szyszkowitz from Graz and Karl Weiser from Salzburg, with whom he held his first exhibition at the Academy in 1935. He developed a radically simplified style of figure painting, the people in which face the viewer frontally and hieratically. They include iconographically bold innovations such as the creator who holds nature on his lap like a child and Weiler’s variation on Solomon's Song of Songs in which the creator and creation, the faceless man and the serenely gazing woman, are harmoniously united like bridegroom and bride. It is obvious from looking at such paintings that they were linked to the new piety or the new liturgy. Weiler was also involved in the decoration of new church buildings.

The next step is that religious motifs disappear. Weiler moves closer to a style of landscape painting in which nature is presented as a positive power, a "venerable force". Nature itself is imbued with a spirituality that completely fulfils it. It is helpful to consider Kandinsky in this context, who, with Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the "Blauer Reiter", pursued a synthesis of spirituality and the liberated experiencing of nature that permitted the breakthrough to abstraction. Weiler can thus be seen as part of a general European pattern of Modernism.

Weiler's artistic development was soon overshadowed by the catastrophes of history. The artistic ideology, particularly the concept of degenerate art, that the Nazis introduced in Austria after the Anschluß in 1938 marginalised the young Weiler, along with many other artists. The career that had started so hopefully ended in the late 1930s with Weiler's retreat to the Tyrol. He found a job as an auxiliary drawing teacher in Telfs and in Zams near Landeck, where he did not have to interrupt his artistic activity completely even if he could not really develop it. The final break came when he was called up for the army. Even the purchase of painting materials had become difficult in those years and Weiler did only a very few, mainly small paintings, the sole exception being his large work "The Peasant Family (Die Bauernfamilie)" (1941). When Weiler joined the army in the summer of 1942, continuous work was out of the question. What counted now was the art of survival. Weiler served as a lance-corporal in Istria and Northern Italy. Shortly before the end of the war, he returned on foot to Gerlos in the Zillertal, where he was reunited with his family. In 1941 he had married his first wife, Gertraud Frenner, who died in 1985.

New beginnings after 1945

Weiler had managed to survive and his first paintings after the end of the war and Hitler's Reich show a burst of vitality and love of life. The direct links to the artistic style of "Bund Neuland" and the liturgy had lost their force. Weiler sought new, solid ground in a direct response to what he saw. Now, without any fear or sense of threat, he could devote himself to what nature offered him. He formulated the visible with an expressive painting style that sought to grasp reality in its luminous fullness, rather than simplifying or monumentalising it.

There is nonetheless no doubt that this experience of nature also possesses a second level, that it attests to "invisible" powers, to a spirituality for which Weiler was to evolve his own enciphered language in the years that followed. He soon embarked on the task of painting the Theresienkirche on the Hungerburg in Innsbruck, carrying on from the genre of public religious painting to which he had devoted so much energy in his early years. His representations are strongly coloured and true to life, far removed from the stylisation of the 1930s. His paintings on the theme of the Sacred Heart allude directly to daily life, to the mountainous landscapes of the Tyrol and memories of Innsbruck, to traditional costumes and closeness to the people. Once again, Weiler wanted to bring contemporary elements into religious themes and tales e.g. Christ's crucifixion, by transposing them into the present. The resulting scandal proved to be one of the hardest tests in Weiler's life. Old battle lines - between a conservative Catholicism and an open, critical piety; between a backward-looking narrowness and a culture oriented towards Modernism - suddenly re-emerged. The conflict took Weiler as far as the courtroom, accused of "degradation of the peasantry", who felt themselves to have been misrepresented by his portrayal of them in his painting of the crucifixion. In the end, he was obliged to cover up the frescoes to ensure that the order to remove them was not carried out. Weiler’s return to the contemporary political, cultural and artistic stage was as a controversial painter.

Nature, 1932
Watercolour on paper
50 x 35 cm
Christmas Painting, 1933
Resin oil on plywood
40,3 x 40,3 cm
Christmas Painting (back), 1933
Text on the back:
"For while all things were in quiet silence
and that night was in the midst of her swift course
Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven
out of thy royal throne."
(Meister Eckhart from the Book of Wisdom 18, 14.15, Old Testament)
Christmas Painting, 1934
Resin oil on plywood
350 x 200 cm
Landscape with high sky, 1935
Oil on plywood
23,5 x 19,7 cm
Light-blue mountain, 1935
Oil on wood
20 x 20 cm
December sun, 1938
Oil on plywood
29,5 x 26,5 cm
The sky above me is dark, 1939
Pencil, mixed technique on paper on wood
47,5 x 31,2 cm
Near Sesana, 1944
Oil on paper on canvas
32,7 x 35,2 cm
Schönbichl, Gerlos, 1945
Oil on canvas
52,5 x 51 cm
Wiener Städtische Versicherungs AG, Wien
Winter sun through clouds, 1946
Oil on canvas on wood
50 x 50 cm
Hand with cowslip (spring), 1948
Oil on canvas
61 x 61 cm
Road to the valley of the Inn river, 1948
Oil on canvas
57 x 57 cm
Young sunflower, 1949
Oil on canvas
90 x 90 cm
Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck
Autumn garden, 1950
Oil on canvas
86 x 86,5 cm
Sammlung Dr. Wolfgang Klocker, Innsbruck
Autumn landscape with cliff, 1950
Oil on canvas
87 x 86 cm
Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien