On 5 September 1924, “Frau Riebeisel,” leading lady of the comic strip Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens, “has herself painted.” This is Vienna in the 1920s, after all; the place is crawling with artists, some of them quite famous. Gustav Klimt would have been just the ticket, but he was six years dead at this point, and probably well out of the Riebeisels’ budget either way, so someone less prominent will have to do.
Luckily, there’s a volunteer: it’s the strip’s creator, Fritz Gareis Jr., who draws himself as quite the dandy, monocle and all. (It’s easy to see where Herr Riebeisel gets his clothes-horse tendencies.) Gareis wants to paint Frau Riebeisel halbakt, which, as her husband sourly points out, means halbna[c]kt, or “half-naked.” She’s flattered; Herr Riebeisel is appalled, and declares the proposition out of the question. Gareis, ever the gentleman, suggests that Riebeisel can come along to the sitting.
Cut to: the sitting. Herr Riebeisel doesn’t have any time—or so Frau Riebeisel claims—so she’s brought the kids instead. Seems legit; Gareis doesn’t mind. “Is that too much décolleté?” Frau R. asks.
Yes, she’s showing a good deal of breast, because Der Götz von Berlichingen isn’t a kids’ paper, and Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens isn’t a kids’ strip, and this isn’t a kids’ blog. If you’re a kid, stop reading this. Or at least don’t look at the pictures. This is Vienna in the 1920s, and while the newspapers and magazines aren’t entirely awash with nipples. it isn’t difficult to find an issue of Der Götz, or a good many other papers of the time, with at least one cartoon featuring a languid flapper half out of her negligée. They become increasingly common in the 1930s. Some artists seem to have made a living producing variations on this one visual trope.
Here’s a relatively original example from 23 November 1931 by Karl Rob (né Karl Robitsek), entitled “Phasing out bachelorhood”:
The mature gent on the left is reading a letter that’s been sent to his much younger paramour. He asks, “Why does your brother write you that today is the best day of your life?” And she replies with a smile, “Because he knows we’re getting married tomorrow!” Ouch. Rob could turn out drawings of young ladies like this in his sleep; in fact, he founded his own press in 1916 and published his own tabloids, such as Die Muskete, so he could do just that.
Like the drawings themselves, the gags that go under these cartoons are also variations on a small number of themes:
- The rich older lover (see above).
- The poor younger lover.
- The married lover (sometimes she’s the married one, just for a change).
- More than one lover (chosen from categories 1-3).
- Stage and screen directors (the “casting couch”).
You’ve read all of these gags; clean them up a bit and you’ve read them on the covers of Betty and Veronica. Dirty them up a bit and you’ve read them in old copies of Playboy that you bought for the stereo reviews. You just haven’t read them in Viennese German, and that means you haven’t really lived. But enough about you; back to our story.
Frau Riebeisel was asking whether her décolleté is de trop. “Not enough for me,” replies that roué Gareis. “Mama wants to wash her neck,” says little Hansl.
Gareis suggests they take a break—oh, those artists—and Frau R. says she’s plenty warm, whatever that means. Meanwhile, the kids get to work modifying their mother’s portrait. “I’d like to paint you as Venus,” Gareis says, oblivious to the children’s shenanigans while he has a Pygmalion moment. “Is Venus married?” asks Frau Riebeisel coyly, though she hasn’t bothered to cover herself. (Keeping score at home? Venus is in fact married, though either to Mars or to Vulcan, depending on the myth. Either way, there’s a good reason that she’s not the goddess of fidelity.) At this point, however, we draw a veil on the proceedings and cut to the big reveal: Herr Riebeisel has arrived to see the result, which entails Frau Riebeisel’s portrait covered up … with a large van dyke. “That looks like my brats,” she cries; “That looks like your uncle,” replies Riebeisel; “Really?” says Gareis, “Then you can give it to him for Christmas.” Kids. They ruin everything.
Gareis was married as well, incidentally, so hopefully, unlike his character Herr Riebeisel, he only dallied with his drawings. His ability to make fun of himself in this strip is charming, particularly because he really did have a reputation as a painter, principally of landscapes, in addition to being a caricaturist; he was well enough known that when he died suddenly of influenza in October 1925, his obituary appeared even in newspapers like the conservative Illustrierte Kronen-Zeitung, whose target audience would have found the politics of Der Götz von Berlichingen anathema.
Gareis never made another cameo appearance in his strip, but he did give himself a couple of shout-outs. On 30 January 1925, in “Frau Riebeisel is locked up,” the Riebeisels are picking up their coats at the theatre when Herr Riebeisel realizes that he’s forgotten the house keys. His wife suggests that they spend the night in a hotel. However, the first place they try—the “Small Breast Hotel”—doesn’t take couples: good name to uphold, you know. The doorman tells them to find an hourly hotel. Sure enough, the Maid of Orleans is glad of their custom, although Frau Riebeisel has to go up first while her husband pays, which is not at all suspicious. Their motto is “You can overnight here any time of day,” and that’s almost certainly worth a Michelin star all by itself.
Their night is interrupted, however, by the vice squad. (Note once again, by the way, that Riebeisel apparently sleeps with his monocle in place.) All the times he’s been caught with a young woman, and the one time he’s officially busted, it’s with his wife! “This is my wife!” he says helpfully; “This is my husband!” she affirms. “We’ve heard that before!” replies the inspector; and—because this is Vienna in the 1920s—they arrest her. Not him, of course. In the final panel, he provides a testimonial for her at the police station: “Just ask Gareis, he knows my wife.” Apparently he thinks there’s no better character witness for your wife than a cartoonist who’s seen her naked. No wonder she’s got her head in her hands.
“You can both go,” glowers the desk sergeant, “but see that I don’t catch you again.” It isn’t clear that the Gareis name has worked any magic, but all’s well that ends well…
The last time that Gareis writes himself into the strip is on 24 July 1925, in “The Riebeisels make an excursion to the Prater meadows.” The Prater is Vienna’s best known public park, established in the eighteenth century by Emperor Joseph II (the one who tells Mozart in Peter Shaeffer’s Amadeus that his music has “too many notes”; the real Joseph wasn’t that dim). It’s huge—about six square kilometres—with a good deal of unspoiled meadowland and an amusement park, the Wurstelprater, whose famous Ferris wheel is the site of Orson Welles’s big speech as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). The Riebeisels make several trips to the Prater over the years, but usually it’s to visit the Wurstelprater—this is the only time they go for the natural area. It’s unfortunate that it seems to have been drawn in a rush, with rather stiff figure poses and little or no shading to give the location much character. You would never guess from this strip that landscapes were Gareis’s specialty as a painter.
Anyway, off they go to the meadow, where the first thing they find is a couple who apparently couldn’t afford a room at the Maid of Orleans. Gotta get the children away from that, though heaven knows what they may have witnessed at Gareis’s studio. The parents lie down for a nap, and the kids go off to hunt frogs. At this point, on the horizon to the left there appears a head. It’s a Riebeisel fan! (The strip frequently plays with the idea that the Riebeisels are minor celebrities due to their appearances in Der Götz.)
Actually, the way he says “I’ve been a fan of the Riebeisels for a long time now” makes him sound kind of stalkery. Maybe it’s not a good idea to doze off. Herr Riebeisel promises to keep watch, but in the next panel he’s sawing logs in his speech balloon next to his awkwardly foreshortened wife. And then fanboy steals their clothes, which they’ve hung on a tree branch. As far as he’s concerned, it’s a victimless crime: “Gareis will make them new clothes anyway.” Get it? He’ll draw them! Sadly, not until next week’s strip, however, so they’ll have to walk home barefoot and coatless. But at least the kids found a frog! Kids! They redeem everything!
Gareis only lived another couple of months, so we’ll never know how far he might have taken these metalevel games. His successor, however, seems to have had no interest in such things. That’s a different story.
Once again, a substantial article by Eckart Sackmann and Harald Havas deals with the Riebeisel strip in the 2009 volume of Sackmann’s Deutsche Comicforschung. Gareis’s entire run of Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens is available in digitalized form at the website of the Austrian National Library/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
Fritz Gareis, Jr.’s landscapes occasionally come available on art auction sites, such as this one, which went under the hammer in May 2015. As I write this (January 2018), there’s one for sale on eBay.de, but I haven’t linked to it because it won’t last forever. If you have a hankering for an original Gareis painting, be prepared to crack open that piggy bank … and pay in euros. There are drawings out there, too, at lower but still substantial prices. Far cheaper, however, than an original Klimt, or even an original Jack Kirby.
Sackmann, Eckart, and Harald Havas. “Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens: Familie Riebeisel.” Deutsche Comicforschung 2009. Hildesheim: Comicplus+ Verlag Sackmann und Hörndl, 2008. 51-61.