Eine Jahrhundertzeugin und Ihre Rollen


She was a celebrated star of the film and theater, a modern woman of the 1920s, politically active and perhaps the most portrayed woman of her time. The roles of Tilla Durieux (1880–1971) were as varied as the artists for whom she posed as a model, among them Auguste Renoir, Max Slevogt, Lovis Corinth, Franz von Stuck, Charley Toorop, Ernst Barlach, August Gaul, Mary Duras, Emil Orlik, Sasha Stone, Oskar Kokoschka, Olaf Gulbransson, Max Oppenheimer and the photographers Lotte Jacobi and Frieda Riess.

Following her actor’s training in her hometown and stints in Olomouc and Wroclaw, Durieux made it to Berlin in 1903 to play under Max Reinhardt. She subsequently appeared in all the major European theaters over the years, and liked to take on new, challenging roles not only on the stage but also in front of the camera. Through her first husband, the artist Eugen Spiro, Durieux first came into contact with the visual arts and the corresponding circles which she herself would become a part of via her second husband, the art dealer and publisher Paul Cassirer. Durieux remained active as a collector and model for artworks until the onset of Nazi rule in Germany. Her commitment extended not only to art but also to social and political issues, whether during her time in exile in Zurich during World War I, during the turmoil of the Munich Soviet Republic, or after her unsuccessful attempt to flee with her third husband, the industrialist and collector Ludwig Katzenellenbogen, as members of the Zagreb resistance against National Socialism.

The comprehensive exhibition at the Leopold Museum is the first to investigate the fascination Tilla Durieux held already for her contemporaries, and to explore the traces of this scintillating personality through portraits of all media.

The exhibition was created in cooperation with the Georg Kolbe Museum and the archive of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

Curator: Daniela Gregori

"Painter and model – neither of them know what they are taking on when the word ‘portrait’ is mentioned."

Tilla Durieux


Durieux’s first roles as a young actress in Berlin were mostly small parts with rather meagre salaries. When Oscar Wilde’s Salome became a rousing success during her first season in 1903, the actress was playing the part of Herodias. However, on only the third night, the celebrated actress playing Salome fell ill. Durieux stepped in and assumed the title role which she had previously played during her stint in Breslau. She gave a scintillating performance and from then on alternated playing the part with the Gertrud Eysoldt (1870–1955). Durieux opted for a more voluptuous dress than Eysoldt for her stage outfit, which she still had to provide herself at the time, and generally took a more sensual approach to the role. The star Tilla Durieux was born.

MAX OPPENHEIMER, Portrait of Tilla Durieux, 1912MAX OPPENHEIMER, Portrait of Tilla Durieux, 1912 © Leopold Museum, Vienna | Photo: Leopold Museum, Vienna

Her gaze turned away from the beholder and her body draped in a flowing robe – this is how Max Oppenheimer (1885–1954) chose to capture Durieux on canvas in his 1912 Expressionist portrait. The strangely twisted hands and the diffuse background emphasize the depiction’s gloomy atmosphere. The spotlight is on Durieux’s face which mirrors her inner life. The colors and facets of forms are testament to the painter’s in-depth exploration of the methods of Cubism, which he integrated into his own design vocabulary. Oppenheimer was commissioned to create the work by Durieux’s husband Paul Cassirer, after the painter had expressed the wish to paint his friend’s wife. Initial skepticism about the finished work would later give way to downright enthusiasm.


“Through him, my eyes have seen the splendor of the world but also cried the most desperate tears.” At a dinner hosted by Julius Meier-Graefe in 1905, the married couple Spiro/Durieux met Paul Cassirer (1871–1926). Cassirer hailed from a wealthy family, was charming and well-educated, and the actress quickly realized that “this is the world which I have always dreamed might be hidden somewhere!” Cassirer, a divorcee with two children, promoted the already successful actress by advising her to keep working on her breathing technique and elocution, and by introducing her to the art and literary circles of Berlin. However, there was another side to Cassirer – a restless, short-tempered and even cruel, jealous and unfaithful one. The actress and Cassirer’s family – including the publisher Bruno Cassirer and philosopher Ernst Cassirer – never showed much understanding for one another and always kept their distance. However, the majority of artists surrounding Cassirer, many of whom the art dealer commissioned to create portraits of his wife, welcomed Durieux into their circle, which over the years included painters such as August Gaul, Ernst Barlach, Max Slevogt, Leo von König, Lovis Corinth and Max Liebermann, as well as the writers Tilly and Frank Wedekind, Else Lasker-Schüler, Heinrich Mann, Harry Graf Kessler, Samuel Fischer, Julius Elias, Julius Meier-Graefe and Max Osborn. At their home in Berlin, the couple hosted big soirees, and artists represented by the gallery, including Ernst Barlach and Oskar Kokoschka, would stay overnight when they visited Berlin. The married couple continued to surround themselves with a circle of artists and intellectuals in their exile in Switzerland during World War I.

“I sat still like a stone sculpture, having learnt this from the various other painters who had previously portrayed me.” – In July 1914, Durieux traveled with Paul Cassirer to Paris to be painted by Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). Cassirer had worked with the artist before, and now commissioned him to paint his wife’s portrait. Renoir, one of the most eminent French Impressionists, received the actress at his studio, where she modeled for him four hours a day over 19 days. The process of the work’s creation was documented with photographs. Painted on the eve of World War I, Durieux and Cassirer had to leave the still wet canvas behind in Paris. Cassirer left it with a friend of his, who was also an art dealer. Via several collections and different whereabouts, Durieux eventually took it with her in 1933 when she emigrated to Switzerland and subsequently to Zagreb. Being portrayed by Renoir was a dream come true for Durieux, as she herself wrote in her autobiography.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Tilla Durieux, 1914Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Tilla Durieux, 1914 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960, Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960


    “As a dancer she outshone all her colleagues from the theater, and as an actress all professional dancers on account of her keen artistic intelligence and her dramatic ability”, the art historian and writer Johannes Guthmann recalled decades later about one of Durieux’s prime roles. Following the Berlin premiere of The Legend of Joseph, Harry Graf Kessler (1868–1937) simply noted in his diary: “Durieux beyond all praise.”
    Max Slevogt (1868–1932) drew Durieux in her role as Potiphar’s wife already during the rehearsals for the play. These sketches served as the template for the painted version as well as for a portfolio published in 1931. Slevogt shows Durieux creeping; the only attribute is an oil lamp in her right hand. The distinctive brushwork of this dynamic composition captures the turning point in the ballet’s narrative: Under the cover of darkness, Potiphar’s wife makes her way into Joseph’s camp to seduce him. In his work, Slevogt illustrated the depicted’s inner struggle between steadfastness and desire. The date “21. II 21” in the upper right corner of the painting refers to Paul Cassirer’s 50th birthday, and the annotation “as a memento Max Slevogt” suggests that the artist gave the work to Cassirer as a gift.
  • Franz von Stuck’s (1863–1928) painting depicting Durieux as Circe gave no indication of the “brilliant extravaganza”, the unusual combination of elements from Greek antiquity, Spanish rococo and magnificent crowd scenes, which the critics and newspapers were raving about. When Durieux played the title role in May 1912 at the Munich Künstlertheater in Calderón de la Barca’s play Circe, she modeled for Stuck at his studio. As was common with Stuck, he created preliminary photographic studies for which the actress acted out distinctive scenes. The painting shows the actress fixing her counterpart outside of the image margin with a seductive, almost furtive gaze. Both in the preliminary photographs and the various versions of the painting, Durieux appears less as a person than as the character she incarnated with every fiber of her body.


“For life today is so overwhelmingly powerful for each and every one of us that no actor, no play can elicit the agitations caused by life itself.” After Paul Cassirer’s suicide, Durieux largely withdrew from the stage for a time and wrote her roman à clef Eine Tür fällt ins Schloss, a reckoning with her husband’s family. While the work became a bestseller, she regretted the publication for the rest of her life. In 1930, Durieux married the divorcee Ludwig Katzenellenbogen (1877–1943), the CEO of the companies Ostwerke AG and Schultheiss-Patzenhofer AG; like her first two husbands, he, too, was of Jewish descent. When he lost his wealth – he was charged with accounting fraud against an antisemitic background and convicted in a sensational trial –, it was Durieux who funded their lives, and later also their escape, with tireless guest appearances and the sale of her jewelry and paintings.

Having been forewarned by the director of the theater, the actress left her evening performance on 31st March 1933 before the final applause, in order to catch the overnight train to Prague together with her husband. The couple subsequently stayed in Ascona, Zagreb and Opatija. In Opatija, they ran the Hotel Cristallo, while Durieux continued to make guest appearances in countries she was still allowed to visit, and also taught at the Salzburg Mozarteum. Durieux tried to secure visas for the US for herself and her husband with Honduran passports, but failed. In Durieux’s absence, Katzenellenbogen was taken to Berlin where he died in 1943. Living in Zagreb with a distant relative, Durieux joined the resistance and wrote the play Zagreb 1945. After the War, she worked as a costume designer for a puppet theater. The collection of costumes she left behind was accessible to the public on certain days, while a part of it is still kept today at the Zagreb City Museum. It wasn’t until 1952 that she tentatively started to appear in Berlin theaters once more. She returned to Germany in 1955.


“Now I have to play the roles that are gifted to me”, Durieux commented on her acting career in her old age without melancholy. Already in 1947, the “old circus horse”, as she described herself in a letter to Gustav Gründgens, began longing to be back in the ring; a wish that would become true from 1952 onwards: “I left at 53 and I started again at 72.” Having returned home, she slowly started to find her feet again on German stages and as a German citizen. She was given back her German passport and settled on Bleibtreustrasse in Berlin Charlottenburg. Durieux continued to work for film, radio, television and especially for the theater until shortly before her death.


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