An interview with Austrian Artist Peter Klitsch
conducted by Charles J. Quilter II, Ph.D.
Department of History, University of California Irvine
Notes: The interview was conducted in stages in Stiefern, Austria during March and April of 2010. The interviewer has done minor editing for continuity, clarity, spelling, and grammar. The subject has read and approved the edited text. From time to time, explanatory words in [brackets] have been inserted later by the interviewer in order to provide context.
Q: To begin, where were you born, and who were your parents?
A: I was born in Vienna in 1934. My father was Wilhelm Klitsch, the actor. His mother was descended from a Huguenot family that fled from Verney in France, just across the border from the Protestant Geneva. Voltaire came from there. His father—my grandfather--was a businessman who sold smoking pipes in the Graben near St. Stephen's. He was a “Hoflieferant” meaning that he had the imperial appointment to sell pipes to the court. Those kinds of titles were a big deal in Austria, so he was a fairly exclusive dealer, I think. My father was an actor in the Volkstheater, and later he was professor at the Akadamie für darstellende Kunst [performing arts academy]. He did not serve in the military during the First World War because actors and artists were exempt.
Q: Do you have any memories of your father, Wilhelm? I gather that he…
A: I remember having to behave very properly at the dining table. Vati (Dad) didn't spoil me, but Mutti (Mom) did. I never saw him perform, but I remember at an art opening of mine at a gallery in Perchtoldsdorf back in 1970 when several ladies of a certain age told me that they were big fans of his in the 1920s. They said they remembered eating the photos from his theater programs!
Q: How about your mother?
A: Her father was an architect from Carinthia who was part of the Vienna Werkstätte group that designed houses and, interestingly, furniture in the style Loos and Brucher. During the Nazi time, he designed a lot of villas for the Nazi elite in the Vienna suburbs. He was also on a team that designed the Luftwaffe airfield buildings at Langenlebarn, near Tulln. [The airfield became an American airfield during the 1945-55 Allied occupation of Austria and is presently one the main bases of the Austrian Air Force]. He was a so-called “little Nazi.” [ kleiner Nazi ]
To my mother, my father was a hero – no, more like a god! She was his student and became his second wife after his first wife died of cancer. They married around 1933. She was beautiful and mild-mannered. Her problem was that she was a young girl wildly in love with famous actors. Then suddenly she was all part of this circle of actors, writers, and artists. I know that [the writer] Stefan Zweig was a frequent guest for dinner. They lived an upper class, bourgeois life with servants in a penthouse at Liniengasse 2A in the Sixth District overlooking the eastern part of Vienna. I even had Czech wetnurse as a baby.
In '38 [after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany], my father lost his job at the Akademie Darstellende Kunst because he was a Christian Socialist. The Nazis wanted to kick him out of the Volkstheater too, his main venue, but his fans protested, and so the Nazi leaders backed down. In 1941, Vati had a stroke and died. Mutti had no more income so she did a secretarial course and then worked as a reference librarian in the Vienna court system until she retired. We lived in that big apartment until I married Marika in 1965, when we sold the leasehold in order to get separate places. I went to a boarding school in Döbling for two years beginning in 1943. It was a lower division of a Napola [ Nationalpolitische Lehranstalt ], the education system the Nazis had for children. Fr om 1944 I spent my holidays with my [maternal] grandparents in Hietzing [an affluent suburb west of Vienna] because Mother was afraid of the bombing and wanted me to be safe. [The first air raid of the Vienna area was at Floridsdorf on March 17, 1944. Most of the subsequent air raids were aimed at aircraft and petroleum production sites such as Schwechat, Moosbierbaum, and Wiener Neustadt. ]
Q: What are your memories of the war?
A: I remember watching the four-engine American bombers through my grandfather's binoculars although none of the bombs landed close to the house. I could see the “belly doors” open up and the bombs coming out. When the “Ivans” [Russians; i.e.—the Red Army] got close to Vienna, I remember seeing two German Messerschmitt 109s and some Russian airplanes fighting over Vienna shooting at each other. I was never sure who won.
At the beginning of 1945, SS men took over the school and made us go through training to defend Vienna. I was ten. One day, my classmates and I were put on a lorry and brought to a stone quarry. We were then given maybe an hour of instruction on the use of [a bazooka-like anti-tank weapon called] the Panzerfaust. Most of this involved being told to stay away from the rear of the weapon when it was fired [because of the backblast]. They set up a wooden target to simulate a tank, and we all got to fire one Panzerfaust. Whoosh! Lots of fun, but I missed!
One day just before Easter of 1945 [i.e. – April 1st] I was called to the headmaster's office. I hated school and so was worried that I had done something bad. It turned out that my mother was there. She had somehow “organized” a car and driver belonging to the court, and she wanted to take me away. I protested, “But Mutti, I have to defend Vienna!” She hit me across the face. There was an SS guy there who tried to intervene, and she raised her hand as if to give him one, too. Now the SS guy could have killed her on the spot, but he didn't do anything. He just seemed to accept that she was fighting like a lioness for her only child, and so he let her and me go. I think it was the bravest thing she ever did. We drove to my grandparents' house in Hietzing on Gogolgasse, where we lived the rest of 1945. It was great… no school!
Q: What happened when the Red Army arrived?
A: Well, I don't remember that there was a lot of fighting near us. [The siege and capture of Vienna lasted from 2-13 April of 1945. Most of the fighting was around the Sudbahnhof and along the Donaukanal, about 6 – 10 kilometers east of Hietzing.] This was not a “liberation” to us, but it WAS the end of the war. The Russians occupied all of Vienna, and many of them behaved very badly. There was a lot of raping and so on. I don't know what my mother's experience actually was. She was pretty, but if she was abused, she never talked to me about it.
Shortly after the war ended, a Russian tank repair unit – maybe ten Ivans -- showed up and parked in my grandfather's garden. He got really mad because the tanks had crushed his precious roses! They took over the first floor bedrooms [i.e. – the second story], and we stayed above. My grandmother cooked for them, and of course, stole part of their food to feed us. She was just a tiny thing, but she could be very fierce. She scolded them if they did not take off their boots before going to bed. My grandfather was rather clever; he got to personally know each one of the Russians – Ivan No.1, Sasha No. 2, and so on. After a while, he realized that these guys were not very knowledgeable about some of the more complex systems in their tanks. I remember they were trying to fix a fuel injection pump or something like that without success, so my grandfather took it apart for them, cleaned it up – or did some repair – and put it back together. It worked, and the Ivans appreciated that a lot. But my grandfather's real motivation was to keep them as our “protectors” from the other Russians.
Q: Tell me more about your grandfather.
A: His name was Herbert Mayer, and he was an architect. I think he studied at the Technische Universität. He was a “little Nazi.” In order to get commissions after 1938, you had to be a party member. His work on the military airfield at Tulln/Langenlebarn came about because of his membership.
At the end of the war, a lot of the Nazi bosses ran west to the American zone of occupation. My uncle didn't. He said that he hadn't committed any crimes, so he stayed in Hietzing. In the summer of 1945, the Austrian occupation police authorities put him in jail. They let him go because he was an old man, over 60, and then he continued his work as an architect. I know he designed a hotel in Peyerbach near the beginning of the Semmering Pass in the early 1950s. Then he retired. I don't where his pension came from, but he wasn't in any difficulties. He had a car—a Steyr “Baby,” an early Porsche design with a four-cylinder “boxermotor” like the VW.
Q: I remember your Uncle Herbert Mayer.
A: Ja, he was the only son of my grandfather. He was a fighter pilot during the war flying Messerschmitt 109s in the Baku oil field region. To me, he was our family hero. [In comparison,] my grandfather was very dominating with not a lot of humor. I saw a photo of Uncle Herbert's plane with some stars on the tail that I think meant that he shot down some Russians. He didn't like to talk about this. [Herbert Mayer Junior later participated as an air-to-ground missile attack on Allied shipping off the Italian coast].
Q: There was no school. What did you do?
A: No school. For me it was heaven! There was a big shortage of food everywhere, so I became a little black marketer. It was all a big adventure, but it helped my family survive. The Nazi bigwigs [ Grosskopferten ] who lived in Hietzing had all fled, mostly to Salzburg where the Americans were. Now my grandfather had built some of their houses, many of which had tunnels running from out of their cellars. So I got a torch and started to explore them by myself. In one of them, I found boxes of glass ampoules that contained penicillin or some kind of antibiotic. This stuff was worth something on the black market, so I began trading it for butter, flour, and things like that. The police had disappeared, and the communists in Vienna – remember that Vienna had traditionally been “Red” – came out of hiding, put on red arm-bands with the hammer and sickle on them, and set themselves up as a sort of police force for their own purposes. Now here I am, a kid wearing leather shorts with suspenders. I got stopped a few times, but I quickly learned how to cry very dramatically, you know, tears and sobbing. I was a good actor! They let me go every time without taking any of my stuff!
My biggest success in the black market, though, was model airplanes. I broke into a H.J. Heim [ Hitler Jugend = Hitler Youth] on Lainzerplatz. In a storeroom, I found lots of model airplane kits; actually, they were gliders. Maybe they were for airplane recognition or to learn about aircraft, I don't know. Anyway, everything necessary to make them was there: wooden parts, paper, lacquer, glue and so on. I took one home and constructed it. Then I test flew it. It flew quite well. A farm boy saw it flying and offered to trade me a half-kilo of butter for it. My grandmother was very happy with this development! It occurred to my young mind that here might be a real market! I went back to the H.J. Heim a number of times and stole as many kits as I could carry. Then with the help of my grandfather, I set up an assembly line. We would make ten or twenty fuselages at a time, then do wings, and so on. I would take them to the black market site at Resselbach just in front of the Technical University and sell them for food: flour, bread, eggs, and saccharin [a sugar substitute]. It amazes me still why they sold. Maybe it was because these were bad times, and there were no toys available. For sure, I was the only one on the market with airplanes.
Q: But eventually you had to go back to school, right?
A: In early 1946, school started back up. I attended the Marchettigasse Realschule near our apartment in the French Zone of Occupation. In a “realschule,” one did not study Latin or Greek, only modern languages like French and English with a little bit of literature plus math and science. I was a bad student; I was only interested in art and sports. Even then, my goal was to become a painter, but my grades were poor, and I had to repeat the Seventh Class when I was 17. The only teacher I really liked was Prof. Ernst Höffinger, who taught art and was also a famous painter himself in a realistic style. He recommended me to the Akademie für Angewandte Kunst (Academy for Applied Art) located on the Stubenring. I started there in 1951.
Q: What was your experience at the Akademie?
A: I got fascinated in what became known as Fantastischer Realismus after seeing shows and pictures of Salvador Dali, Renee Magritte, Jean Cocteau, the German Max Ernst who was living in the States. And many others. It was all very exciting for me, the idea of putting dreams and fantasies on canvas. Really, after the war, it was like a window opening up. As a kid, I didn't know anything about this [art movement]; I drew airplanes like the ones I had seen in Langenlebarn, Me 109s and all kinds of trainers. My grandparents had a rented a house there, while he worked on construction the airfield buildings. I would take the train out there on weekends.
This new style of painting: it didn't have a name yet. We just called it realistische Traummalerei (realistic dream painting). Later on, journalists and art critics started calling it fantastischer Realismus. For sure, it wasn't the style of my painting professor, Edward Beumer, who was an Expressionist, but he encouraged me to keep on in my style anyway. In graphic art--such as lithographs and etchings--my professor was named Herbert. I can't remember his first name now.
Q: Who were your friends?
A: Well, Ernst Fuchs was ahead of me, but we didn't become friends until much, much later. My best friend there was Helmut Lehab, whose real name was Leherbauer. He died six or seven years ago. My closest friends actually were writers and musicians. I met H.C. Artmann drinking beer in an art club around 1951. We became great friends, and I often stayed with him in Paris, Hamburg, Berlin or in Malmö and Stockholm in Sweden. Around 1953, we [Austrians] could get a passport, and so I began travelling to see something of the world. Because I was a “half-orphan,” I needed a special visa to travel across Austria because it still was divided into four zones during the Allied occupation [which ended in 1955]. In Paris, H.C. and I hung out at the Cupol, a coffeehouse, which was a meeting place for a lot of foreign artists and writers. H.C.'s books were best sellers, and so he had money compared to me. He didn't always manage to keep it! But he always welcomed me to stay with him. We stayed close all our lives. I was with him a few hours before he died on the 4th of December 2000.
I should mention our “art clubs.” They were informal. We would gather in bars and jazz clubs to talk. I remember that Jean Cocteau came once to Vienna and gave an interesting talk. He was extremely gay, and I suppose he was looking for nice young guys there too. Everyone knew; it was no secret. But during the war, there was no art scene, and so visits [like his] opened windows for us into the larger world of art.
Q: What was it like living in the big city being occupied by the Four Powers?
A: We just ignored it. It really didn't affect us like when the Russians came in 1945. Then we needed to have an “I-Karte” [I.D. card]. Later on, there were just signs saying things like, “You are leaving the French Sector,” and so on. The 1st District in the center was occupied by all four powers combined. They patrolled in a jeep—“Four in a jeep” [ Vier im Jeep ] we called it.
Q: How did you leave the Akadamie?
A: I started having one-man shows in art clubs, coffee houses, cellars. It was strictly forbidden for art students to do this. I don't know why. It was a stupid, bureaucratic policy, and all I wanted to do was be free and paint. Anyway, they kicked me out in 1954. Then my old Realschule professor, Ernst Höffinger, took me to a real art club called Der Kreis [The Circle]. Arnulf Neuwirt was the head of Der Kreis, and he welcomed me into the club. I was the youngest guy there. They really encouraged me in my work and allowed me to participate in group exhibits. The first time I ever went out of Austria was to be part of such an exhibit in Munich. We also went to Switzerland. My first real one-man show was in Berne.
Q: Tell me about Marika.
A: Marika Steiner was a Hungarian ceramicist, who was born in Nagivarod, which is now part of Romania. Her mother was Jewish who survived by being married to an Aryan. Her father was a chemist, and they came to Vienna after the communists took over in Romania and Hungary. We met in an art club somewhere when I was 21, just after I got kicked out of the Akadamie. She was very beautiful. We got married about half year later in ‘57. We had a small apartment in the Mollardgasse. I painted like mad, and she made ceramics. To get some money, she designed women's handbags that we made together for about half a year. I established a gallery called Zur silbernen Rose [Silver Rose] in an old palace off the Wiednerhauptstrasse. We put on several group shows including work by Kurt Regschek, Helmut Kies, Karlheinz Pilcz, and Richard Mattuschek. Michael Coudenhove-Kalergi was another. I started having my first successes in selling my art then. It was a strange situation. Somebody was interested in us! And wanted to buy our pictures!
Q: Tell me more about your contemporaries.
A: Well, Kurt [Regschek] was our “mystic”; he believed in the old fairy tales and Greek mythology. This showed up in his paintings. Helmut Kies loved fast cars like me. Much later he got interested in ballooning; balloons always seem to appear in his pictures. Pilcz was a nice, friendly guy. I recall that after the Akademie , he became a middle-school teacher, so financially he was more secure than the rest of us. Richard Mattuschek was sort of an “underground” character. He had a couple of girls who worked for him. And they were beautiful girls! Later, he became famous in the '68 student revolution; he was in Paris and became a leader of this movement. Michael Coudenhove-Kalergi came from the old Czech-Austrian aristocracy. He was a member of the Communist Party of Austria [KPO], but I always thought that was a reaction to his family. He lived a miserable life, one of the poorest of us because the communists didn't support him, and his family wouldn't because he was a communist. Maybe he also chose the wrong women to marry, but without doubt, I think he is a great artist.
Q: What about cars then?
A: About the same time, I also got fascinated with cars and speed. Airport racing was very popular then, especially at Wien/Aspern, which had been the old international airport; also at Linz, Graz/Thalerhof, and Hörsching. The most famous place was Zeltweg in Styria. They all had concrete runways and taxiways, which were incorporated into the race course. I bought a new Italian Abarth 750 [engine with 750 cc] and then a used Alfa Romeo 1900 TI. I shaved the head down on the Alfa for more compression, put in bigger valves, polished the ports, things like that. I was in dozens of races and won a few. One year I won the “Airport Cup” [Flugplatz Cup]. The Abarth could do about 150 km/h, which was fast for such a light car. The Alfa could do around 200 [125 mph]. To get money for this crazy sport, I worked at casinos all over Austria, maybe five of them, as a roulette croupier. The casinos all belonged to same company, Oesterreichische Casino AG. They got a lot of income—the casinos, not the players—and paid a lot of taxes. That's why they were allowed. Then after about six years together, Marika and I divorced. We didn't fight, but we didn't want to be married anymore. I don't want to talk about this anymore.
Q: So how did you come to be out in the countryside in the Waldviertel of Lower Austria?
A: After my divorce, I gave up the gallery, racing, and working at the casinos. Sometime around 1965, I had a one-man show at Galerie Peitner-Lichtenfels and sold all my paintings even before they were hung up! That was really something. For the first time in my life I had some money. I took the money and bought an old farm house in Raan, which is a tiny place with only sixteen houses that is northwest from Vienna. Some friends of mine who were architecture students stayed there and started to restore it. I liked the quietness there and worked like crazy painting. There are two types of artists: some love the big city with all of its noise. Others prefer the forest and country life. I'm in that group.
Q: How did your extended travels begin?
A: In 1967, a friend of mine, a human ethnologist named Irenäus Eibl von Eibesfeldt, wanted to do research in Bali and New Guinea. He was quite famous in studying human behavior in various cultures. He also collected my pictures, so he invited me to join him. Of course, I gave him a picture or two. We flew KLM to Jakarta and stayed at the Austrian Embassy there like a couple of VIPs. Then we went on to Bali where I stayed with a Brahman family. Garia was the high priest of the Sanur community. I lived with his family and observed all the ceremonies of their life there: weddings, cremations, blessings of new houses, things like that. That really gave me the impression of what a spiritual life was. I became crazy about Balinese art
A friend at the MG Racing Car Club, Peter Rindel, was cultural press attaché at the embassy in Tokyo. He invited me to come to Japan and exhibit my pictures. I lived in a guest house at the embassy. My pictures sold well. I don't know—I really don't know--why the Japanese were attracted to my work. I did have good press coverage. Peter Rindel was an interesting guy. He was a journalist by training and a communist in his politics. He had been in Spain during the civil war as a correspondent on the Republican side against Franco. He was later a correspondent for “Die Presse” and the “Christian Science Monitor,” which were more on the conservative side, I would say. In India in the 1960s, Peter found an abandoned baby girl lying on the street whom he adopted and raised. She lives in Austria now. When I married Mihoko in 1971, Peter was our best man.
Q: When did you meet Mihoko?
A: Peter Rindel was home on vacation in Austria from his work as cultural and press attaché at the embassy in Tokyo. He invited me to put on a one-man show in Japan, which took place at the Franel Gallery in Tokyo. That must have been in 1969. The Japanese really loved my art and bought my pictures like mad. I was invited to stay as a guest of the ambassador in the residence, which was really something for me. I think he liked my art.
Q: How did you travel there?
A: At the time, there were no direct air routes. I had to pay my own way to Japan. The cheapest way was through the Soviet Union. It was around 11,000 shillings round trip or around 850 euros. It would have cost 25,000 to go by air via the southern route through the Middle East and India, so I took the train from Vienna to Moscow via Warsaw. In those days one had to get all those visas to transit each country. In Brest at the Soviet border, the track changes to a wider gauge. They had to lift up each car and put wider wheels under it. There wasn't any dining car on the leg to Moscow, and we were all starving! After a night in Moscow, I got on an Aeroflot Tupolev 114 for a non-stop flight to Khabarovsk. This was a really interesting plane: swept wings and four huge turbo-props with contra-rotating props. There were six seats in a compartment, just like in a train. The flight seemed to take forever. In Khabarovsk, I changed onto a special train that ran along the Chinese border down past Vladivostok to the civilian port at Nakhodka. Vladivostok was a big military base and was closed to outsiders. The Chinese under Mao and Russians were then having a border dispute along the Ussuri River, which made it interesting. In Nakhodka, I got on a big white ship made in the DDR. They had three of them in this fleet, but because they were made in East Germany, everything worked. Altogether it took six days. Today you can fly it in about eleven hours. On one trip I went via the trans-Siberian railway and it took eleven days. I did that only once!
Q: How did you meet Mihoko Ogawa?
A: She was an assistant director at the Japanese NET television station. One afternoon, a friend, Louis Fransen, a painter who was a former Jesuit missionary, asked me if I wanted to see how a TV station was organized from the inside. I had nothing to do, and so I went. There were a lot of productions going on, and we were watching a young lady getting actors and sets together. Suddenly there was an earthquake. The floodlights were banging together, and it was quite frightening. This young woman rushed over, took my hand, and guided me outside to the parking lot. Even with all the excitement, I found this to be very pleasant. I was struck like a lightning bolt and fell immediately in love. We started to see each other. We married, and Mihoko moved to Austria in the countryside at Raan. I couldn't speak Japanese, but she spoke good English and that's how we communicated at first. She speaks fluent German now. She speaks in high German but from our boys, she also learned to understand our local dialect called Waldviertelerisch. Sometimes she makes up delightful expressions that we all treasure. We have two sons and five grandchildren. Our boys never were taught Japanese, but Mihoko often takes care of the grandchildren, and she speaks to them in Japanese.
Q: Last question: what about flying?
A: My first impressions of flying were watching the 109s at the Luftwaffe training base at Tulln/Langenlebarn. The speed, the sounds were all very impressive to me, like watching a Formula One race. I saw a few of them fly UNDER the railway bridge that went across the Danube at Tulln. That must have been around 1942 or '43. Years later I got interested in cars, doing hillclimbs, rallies, and airport races at abandoned airfields.
In the late 1970s, I went to California to visit my friend, [Charlie Quilter], who had been a fighter pilot and was then an airline pilot. We flew over to Catalina Island in a Cessna 172, and on the way back, [Charlie] showed me the basics of controlling the airplane. At Orange County Airport, he “talked” me through a landing on the wide runway. I was fascinated by the idea that I could control a machine flying through the air. Charlie wrote about my early experiences in my first book, “Nachmittag des Abenteuers.”
I started flying lessons, got a private license, and later an instrument rating. I bought an old Cessna 150 with about a hundred horsepower. I flew whenever I got the chance, all over Europe, Sweden, Greece very often where we had a house on the Pelion, once to Israel with passengers, and North Africa to Tunisia and Morocco. It was a great fun! In 1992, I took every schilling I had and together with two friends, Erwin Lindtner and Harald Passecker, we rented a single-engine turbo-prop, a Socata TBM 700 with a PT-6 engine and entered a round-the-world air race. This was organized by Bernard Lamy, a former general in the French air force. The race route started in Geneva and went via Finland, Russia, Alaska, California, Maryland, Greenland, Shannon in Ireland, and then finished in Cannes.
The route through Russia was very interesting because the Soviet Union had just gone out of existence so one felt that there weren't many rules in effect. They really treated us well, and we met some great people there. They gave us a list of coordinates to fly that determined the route. We had an early type of GPS that was very expensive. The weather really wasn't so bad, and had no incidents with the 26 airplanes. At the end, we placed No. 2 in overall speed although our handicap result was not as good. By then, I had flown about a thousand hours and felt that I could not top that experience, so I flew less and less, and then stopped in 1994. Then I took up sailing. I have an “old timer” wooden sloop that I sail around the Adriatic. [End]