18.06. – 10.10.2021





If we take a synoptic view of Josef Pillhofer’s (1921-2010) entire oeuvre, created over six decades, it appears like the summary of an era of modern sculpture that takes into account past, pre-modern ages. Pillhofer’s work, which he always sounded out phenomenologically, is embedded into a comprehensive context: oscillating between his interest in nature, landscape, as well as vegetal and anthropomorphic elements on the one hand, and an intellectual, abstracting and abstract sphere on the other, the artist created reifications using stone, wood, plaster, bronze and metal, but also works on paper.

Pillhofer was a keen observer and inventive designer between figuration and abstraction. Refusing to let his work be reduced to a repertoire of forms, he lived according to his leitmotif: “Good art does not only have to strive for simplification and reduction, but must never lose its relationship with reality and nature.” With this synthetic approach – which Henri Laurens recognized in the young Pillhofer early on, remarking “tu cherches une synthèse” (“you are looking for a synthesis”) – the artist created an original oeuvre in a symbiosis of intuition and intellect which secured his place in art history.

Marking Pillhofer’s 100th birthday, the Leopold Museum dedicates a comprehensive retrospective, comprising some 140 exhibits, to the sculptor and draftsman. The presentation explores various motifs and themes which afford insights not only into the artist’s multi-facetted sculptural work but also into his graphic oeuvre. Complemented by around 50 works by other artists, including Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso, Aristide Maillol, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Edgar Degas and Fritz Wotruba, Pillhofer’s sculptures enter into a dialogue with the preeminent protagonists of sculptural modernism he held in great esteem and deemed indispensable for his metamorphosis into an autonomous artist.

Curator: Hans-Peter Wipplinger

“I, too, essentially proceeded from role models; nowadays very few young artists orient themselves on role models, something I find extremely regrettable […].”

Josef Pillhofer

Aristide Maillol, Flore, c. 1909/10Aristide Maillol, Flore, c. 1909/10 © Kunst Museum Winterthur, gifted by Lisa Jäggli-Hahnloser and Prof. Dr. Hans R. Hahnloser, 1959 Photo: SIK-ISEA, Zürich/Lutz Hartmann

Another role model for Pillhofer in his search for an autonomous sculptural path was the French sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861–1944). Considered the most important antipode to Auguste Rodin, he made a lasting influence on 20th-century European sculpture. In his work Flore, Maillol mastered the monumental form of Flore, the Roman goddess of flowers and youth, through harmoniously balanced proportions and a focused and calm expression. She appears voluminous yet sensual, though the smoothed surface stands in stark contrast to the work of Rodin, who invariably created animated silhouettes and furrowed surfaces. To Maillol, what was important was the universal; the individual was secondary. Clearly structured, and largely dispensing with narrative elements, his sculptures convey a sense of serenity without appearing classicistic.


After Pillhofer had honed his sculptural skills from 1946 at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts under Fritz Wotruba (1907–1975), he received a state scholarship in 1950 that allowed him to spend a year in Paris. His intense confrontation with French Cubism and his animated exchange with sculptors living in Paris, among them Constantin Brâncuși, Alberto Giacometti, Jacques Lipchitz, Germaine Richier, Alexander Archipenko, Henri Laurens and Ossip Zadkine, made a lasting impression on Pillhofer’s stylistic development.

Created in 1951 from a live model in the studio of Ossip Zadkine (1890–1967), the work Female Cyclist symbolizes Pillhofer’s metamorphosis from Wotruba’s student to an independent sculptor with an autonomous design vocabulary. He managed to merge animate and inanimate matter – the cyclist and the bicycle – and to capture the dynamic treading movement, while modeling the sculpture in such a way that it can be viewed from several angles. Pillhofer himself commented on the creation of the work: “Realism was out of the question. The technical apparatus of the bicycle and the living girl had to be transformed to form an entity that coherently combined both realities.”

“Tu cherches une synthèse” ("You are looking for a synthesis"), the French sculptor Henri Laurens (1885–1954) is said to have commented on Pillhofer’s works. Pillhofer regarded Laurens as his most important teacher in Paris. The animated exchange between them greatly influenced Pillhofer’s artistic development and design vocabulary: “Laurens taught us that certain sculptural hypertrophies lead to new entities. Rhythmical female figures, if depicted in an exaggerated manner, become sirens; the legs becoming fins, the upper body turning into that of a nymph.” In his sculpture The Mother, which unfolds within the space, Laurens only roughly adhered to anatomical facts; individual limbs appear excessively enlarged, elongated and bent, resulting in the creation of a novel being.

During his time in Paris, Pillhofer made the acquaintance of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), whom he visited in his studio. According to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti was on a continual quest for the absolute. His oeuvre was shaped by the depiction of what he saw – for instance, a figure perceived in the distance which is both tangible and ephemeral. In the 1950s, Giacometti focused on graphic and sculptural portrayals of those close to him. His younger brother Diego, depicted in this work, was among his favorite models. The frontality of the depiction, and the fixed gaze, highlight the intensity of the portrait. Through the furrowed, lava-like surface structure, Giacometti expressed an image of humanity in keeping with the post-war years shaped by loneliness and existential hardships.

Alberto Giacometti 1901–1966 Bust of Diego, 1955Alberto Giacometti 1901–1966 Bust of Diego, 1955 © mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, acquired in 1962 Photo: mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien © Alberto Giacometti Estate/ADAGP/Bildrecht, Wien 2021

Pillhofer once said that "the constructive element is the basic prerequisite for drawing". The artist began his series of works known as "Head Studies" during his time in Paris, and continued working on them in subsequent years in Vienna. This central interest in the shape of the head, set apart from the torso, which is regarded as the seat of the spirit and the intellect, was shared by many other artists, including Fritz Wotruba and Joannis Avramidis. The essential motivation was to bring about a detachment from visible reality, and to convey the typical and universal.

Some of the drawings created in Paris reveal a Cubist dissection, like Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) of the face. The process of simplification, and with it the exploration of the essence of the head form, were Pillhofer’s central themes.

“Being modern means proclaiming the unusual. But modernism is not yet a value criterium. Rather, it is the timeless facts of a picture, a sculpture or an artistic entity in time that achieve quality in modernism.”

Josef Pillhofer

“Sculpture is inherently material, it is the corporeal which invests the inward with an outer shape and whose exterior refers to its interior.”

Josef Pillhofer

“I want to penetrate the essence of the landscape in an encompassing sense.”

Josef Pillhofer