RIHA Journal 0298 | 30 May 2023

War Painting and the Soldier as the New Man

Karl Sterrer’s Pilot Portraits and the Ambivalent Face of Heroism during the First World War

Christian Drobe

With his series of pilot portraits during the First World War, the Viennese painter Karl Sterrer made a significant contribution to the depiction of a modern heroic figure. It has not yet been analysed in the context of the modern soldier and his masculinity, which came under strain in the brutal trench warfare. At the mercy of an abstract war machine, the common soldiers could hardly find heroic moments to impress. Only a few new types of troops, such as the aviators, succeeded in doing so, which gave them a great deal of public recognition and made them part of modern visual culture. Ultimately, they were seen as New Man, above the horrors of modern warfare. At the same time, they were also role models for a noble habitus that met the phenomena of modernity calmly. This aspiration was evident in their elegant countenance, their extraordinary physiognomy. Unlike previous attempts in art history, however, this article provides a look at the conservative take on the subject – by a traditional, academic artist. This focus underlines the extent to which old and new soldierly values overlapped in modernity and became actualised by different artists regardless of their political orientation. The same applies to the stylistic realisation, which intertwines traditional elements with those of new movements such as New Objectivity.


[1] Modern mechanised warfare and the trenches of the First World War severely challenged the traditional image of the soldier.1 The experience of the army of the soon-to-collapse Habsburg Empire was no different from that of other European nations. The battles on the Isonzo against Italy brought great bloodshed, evoking comparisons with Verdun. In Galicia, the Austro-Hungarian army struggled for a long time to hold of the advancing Russian forces.2 More often than not Habsburg found itself in a difficult position among the Central Powers. The army relied on outdated standards in warfare and technology and had to catch up to the new reality. The new way of warfare resulted in trench wars and mass battles, which allowed for little heroism. These developments made it even more important for the leadership to accompany the events of the war with propaganda. The army officials of Austria-Hungary therefore founded the Imperial and Royal Military Press Office (k.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, KPQ) in 1914 as a part of the army high command, a large press office that provided complete news coverage of the war. It also employed numerous war painters such as Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1925), Anton Faistauer (1887–1930) and many lesser-known artists, who depicted the battles, the front lines as well as the everyday life of the soldiers.3 KPQ officials largely dictated the style and the motifs of the war imagery. Artistic experimentation was not a focal point; it was only in the later years of the war that new themes were taken up. Consequently, artists stayed within the boundaries of traditional military genres such as portraits of army officials, wide landscapes with advancing units, or key moments of battle. The aim was to present a noble impression of the troops to the people back home. Between 1915 and 1918, the KPQ presented the results in more than 40 exhibitions at home and abroad in allied or neutral countries in Europe.4 The naturalistic depictions provided the audience with a closer look at the war events, along with a glimpse of the often unfamiliar landscapes, and sometimes even the hardships and losses of battle.

[2] A remarkable case within the KPQ was the painter Karl Sterrer (1885–1972), who is little known today outside of Austria. Often overlooked as an academic painter, he has not attracted substantial research yet.5 Sterrer was a young aspiring artist before the First World War and received most of his accolades later in the interwar period, as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. During the war, he became the most prominent portraitist of pilots in the Austrian-Hungarian army. His portraits highlight the impact of aviation on the visual language of war painting and more precisely the image of the pilot as a new type of soldier. Sterrer stands out from the field of up to 50 artists who have dedicated themselves to aviation in the KPQ; most of the images by fellow war painters Oskar Alexander (1879–1953), August Hajduk (1888–1958), Elemír Halász-Hradil (1873–1948), Ludwig Hesshaimer (1872–1956) or Josef Humplik (1888–1958) are very conventional.6 As aerial combat was initially difficult to observe in real time, the scenes focused on the figures of the pilots and their planes on the ground as a symbol of their actions. As late as the autumn of 1918, the army command was trying to increase the popularity of the air force, but the initiatives were short-lived.7 Although the topic of aviation and Sterrer’s portraits received partial consideration by the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Museum of Military History) in Vienna, the artist has not yet found greater resonance in research. Yet Sterrer’s portraits of pilots and his impact in the Habsburg monarchy show how a traditional artist shaped the image of the new role models and their heroism.8

[3] Sterrer was employed by the KPQ in 1916 and the field trips to the front led him to the Galician and later the Italian front.9 From 1916 onwards, the painters of the KPQ usually went on excursions to certain sections of the front for up to two weeks, where they joined specific companies within the military infrastructure. This practice yielded Sterrer many commissions, recommendations by officers and general requests by the leadership. Typically, the painter created traditional portraits of army officials such as Generalmajor Arthur Iwanski von Iwanina (1916) or Generaloberst von Böhm-Ermolli (1917).10 However, in Galicia, he also met pilots of the new Imperial and Royal Airforce (k.u.k Luftfahrttruppen), a novel branch of the army, which stimulated a new array of portraits. As aircrafts became combat-ready and increasingly used in the army, pilots generated more and more public interest. During the First World War, aviators appeared as a new type of soldier, often referred to as knights of the sky.11 This topic has seen more research recently, especially their cultural impact as masculine figures, but only sparsely for the context of art history.12 Pilots such as Manfred von Richthofen (1892–1918) or Oswald Boelcke (1891–1916) were widely known heroes in Germany. In Austria-Hungary, Julius Arigi (1895–1981) and Godwin Brumowski (1889–1936) quickly became popular.13 Postcards with photographs of the new idols were soon available everywhere.14 Famous pilots often appeared in newspapers and magazines accompanied by elegant women, dressed in furs and other extravagant clothing. August Hajduk’s portraits capture some of this glamour, presenting three pilots in lively, genre-like scenes (Fig. 1).15 In the casual and humorous portrayal, the artist nevertheless also hints at the pilots’ quality as bon vivants.

1 August von Hajduk, Drei Offiziere der Fliegerkompanie 36 (Three Officers of Flying Squadron 36), 1918, tempera on paper, 47 × 63,2 cm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (hereafter: HGM), Vienna, no. 10.219/2022 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

[4] This special habitus becomes particularly apparent in another of Hajduk’s artworks. The extravagant Hauptmann von Lux (Fig. 2) is smoking a cigarette in front of his plane. Nonchalantly, he seems to face danger and challenges with great composure and a habitualised coolness.

2 August von Hajduk, Feldpilot Hauptmann Walter von Lux (Captain Walter von Lux, Military Pilot), 1917, oil on canvas, 64 × 50 cm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 7604/2009 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

[5] Karl Sterrer was clearly drawn to this ideal. Adding to Liselotte Popelka’s research, the painter’s aim was not only to depict the new experience of flying but presenting the aviators as heroes and role models with a distinct habitus.16 The pilots, who previously often served as engineers or in the artillery, exposed themselves to extreme situations and appeared as a new type of adventurers. Sterrer experienced this newly emerging gentleman culture of flying at first hand with the aircraft squadrons of the Habsburg army, initially mainly with the Flying Squadron 8 (Fliegerkompanie 8) in Galicia, and later in Trieste and Tyrol, where he encountered similar types of soldiers (Fig. 3).17

3 Karl Sterrer, Alfred E. von Eccher, Hauptmann und Feldpilot (Alfred E. von Eccher, Captain and Military Pilot), 1918, lithography, 420 × 366 mm (sheet 736 × 590 mm). Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 1251/2008 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

[6] In 1918, Sterrer contributed to the contemporary debate on the image of men in an interview, arguing that the pilots were the manifestation of the 'New Man'.18 Published in the Neues Wiener Journal, he used a key term of the avant-garde, the New Man, already often employed in Expressionism and then frequently after 1918, and thereby highlights the idealistic view of this new archetype of the soldier.19 The artist emphasises the pilots’ high adaptability to the new conditions of war. This kind of flexibility was central to a modernised understanding of soldierly heroism. According to Sterrer, they remain noble heroes, fearlessly exposing themselves to the greatest dangers. Admittedly, this is a very different image than the avant-garde wanted to convey.20 Sterrer is not concerned with the pursuit of utopian projects or the thematization of the fragmented self in modern society, but with the renewal of traditional values.

[7] Sterrer may have received elements of the modern debates on flying, which first appeared with writers such as the French aviation pioneer Roland Garros (1888–1918) or Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938). The topic became so popular that it soon appeared in other forms of literature throughout Europe. More traditional views flourished as well, for instance in the novel Agnes Altkirchner by the Austrian writer Felix Braun (1885–1973).21 In one chapter, Braun describes the first aviators during the war years as birds of prey, as bird-like predators still at one with nature, not acting like cold machines. After Benno Berneis (1883–1916), an expressionist painter, was killed in air combat over France in 1916, his friend, the sculptor August Gaul (1869–1922), depicted him as an eagle.22 Such broader psychological observations on instincts and dedication make the portrait genre a logical choice for an adequate representation in the field of arts.

[8] Sterrer stands out among his colleagues in the KPQ, as he provides the pilots with an almost auratic appearance, which sharpens these qualities of coolness and toughness. The interview from 1918, which figures as the key source for this article, highlights Sterrer’s interest in this multifaceted 'iconic' image of pilots as new role models. His portraits have rarely been addressed in greater depth, as they stand at an intersection of traditional military portraiture, concepts of the New Man, and the latter’s cultural significance for the renewal of soldierly qualities. The depiction of modern pilots in Sterrer’s paintings as an ambivalent combination of heroism and soldierdom is the focal point of this essay.

[9] The crisis of masculinity in the interwar period, analysed for example by Änne Söll and Christa Hämmerle, has its origins in war experiences, in which men found themselves helplessly exposed to industrialised warfare.23 As I will show for the first time in art historical research, however, the coping strategies also emerged during the war – not least with the figure of the pilot.

[10] The paper will first introduce Sterrer as an artist and the KPQ as the institution that commissioned most of Sterrer’s portraits. It then follows Sterrer’s path chronologically from his stint in Galicia in 1916/17 to Trieste and other parts of the Southern front around 1918. The main focus will be on how he portrayed the pilots and their new soldierly appearance.

Sterrer’s involvement with the KPQ

[11] Karl Sterrer was born in 1885 as the son of the Viennese sculptor Karl Sterrer (1844–1918).24 He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from 1900 to 1907 with Alois Delug (1859–1930) and Christian Griepenkerl (1839–1916). Before 1914 he already had his first successes as a young academic artist, but the outbreak of the war interrupted this path. Sterrer showed little enthusiasm for the war and did not report to the front until 1915, because otherwise he would have been detached to support troops (Hilfsdienst) in Vienna.25 He came to Ivangorod in Galicia with a troop of workers and went with them further east, as far as the Stokhod river in today’s Ukraine, where they stayed for several months. He joined the KPQ in 1916 with the help of Baron Heinrich Haerdtl and minister of education Gustav Marchet (1846–1916).26

[12] The KPQ was an institution whose task was to produce propaganda images and texts, but also to coordinate press information.27 A total of 550 artists and journalists were active for it during the war, including 280 painters. The KPQ came into being on 28 July 1914 as a branch of the Austro-Hungarian army and Major General Maximilian Ritter von Hoen (1867–1940) served as its first director until 1917.28 Later, Colonel Wilhelm Eisner-Bubna (1875–1926) took command, in an effort to push the new media of film and photography.29 The agency started with a traditional focus on reportage and literary texts,and began hiring many well-known writers of the time, such as Albert Paris Gütersloh (1887–1973), Egon Erwin Kisch (1885–1948), Robert Musil (1880–1942), Alice Schalek (1874–1956), or Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929).30 Robert Musil became editor of the Tiroler Soldaten-Zeitung in 1916/17, for example, before moving to the military weekly Heimat in March 1918, where he met Egon Erwin Kisch. In small anonymous articles they dealt with general political topics and everyday life during the war. Those articles still pose a challenge to research on Musil and other modernist writers today, as they are strongly tinged with propaganda. From the May 1918 issue onwards, Musil was the editor-in-chief of the latter journal.Yet, with the end of the war, everything quickly dissolved and the writers immediately left this occupation behind.

[13] In addition to literature, the KPQ also gave an important role to photography and the visual arts and created the so-called Art Group (Kunstgruppe) under the direction of Oberst Wilhelm John (1877–1934), a historian and general who had been the director of the Army Museum (now the Museum of Military History) in Vienna since 1909. John and his staff sent artists to the respective battlefields, where they were to produce art for propaganda purposes, but also material for the later writing of history and the glorification of heroic deeds in war – as formulated in an official document, the "Instruction for pictorial reporting in war".31 The document, which came into force on 1 January 1916, describes the general duties and tasks of the artists, such as dress code, membership in the companies, remuneration, preferential production and submission of the artworks to the ministry. Practical reasons were in the foreground. Officials recommended landscape painters to draw maps and help depict enemy positions. Talented portraitists were to produce portrayals of important officers, while figurative painters were to work on large battle scenes. Even though the guidelines show a conservative understanding of art that assumes fixed genres, they served just as recommendations.The appeal of the work for many artists was that they did not have to participate directly in the fighting. Yet, they soon realised that they entered a rather rigid system in which they had to hand over their works regularly to the army command.

[14] The KPQ has been often criticised for this entrenched system by several contemporary art critics such as Richard Hoisel.32 After four years of war, all war painters had long since become slack from the ever-same themes. For Hoisel, the true images of the war would emerge only in some future time, years after the war, after a real confrontation with the events had taken place. The average task of each artist during the war was to deliver at least one sketch per week and at least one painting per month. Artists rarely stayed at the front for more than two months. Larger works were made at home.33 Most of the works were handed over to the KPQ command in Vienna. From there, depending on their suitability, the works were forwarded to the War Ministry Archives, the Army Museum or to various other military authorities, who used them to decorate their rooms. Artworks of higher quality were sent to a collecting point at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from spring 1916. There, the staff prepared the works for the various exhibitions of wartime art that were now staged throughout Austria-Hungary and in neutral or allied countries. By the end of the war, the KPQ had organised over 40 presentations with more than 8,000 artworks.34 Most of the shows took place on the territory of Austria and Germany, but there were also presentations in Budapest or Prague.35 The exhibitions in Trieste and Zagreb show that efforts were made to be present near the contested territories. Images of individual army divisions and their fields of operation were often staged in nearby towns, as in the exhibition on the Carpathian Corps in Brno in 1916. Towards the end of the war, scenes of the Isonzo battle in particular toured the Allied territories.36

[15] Among the best-known war painters in the KPQ Art Group were established artists such as Albin Egger-Lienz (1868–1926), Anton Faistauer (1887–1930) and Anton Kolig (1886–1950). However, less well-known painters such as Ferdinand Andri (1871–1956), Karl Friedrich Gsur (1871–1939) or Alexander Pock (1871–1950) are more representative of the naturalistic style that dominated war depictions at the beginning of the war. Karl Friedrich Gsur’s Defensive Fight of an MG Division of 1915/16 (Fig. 4) can serve as a typical example of the works artists produced for the KPQ.

4 Karl Friedrich Gsur, Abwehrkampf einer MG-Abteilung (Defensive Fight of a Machine Gun Division), 1915/16, oil on canvas, 92 × 116 cm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 3125/2017 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

It shows groups of soldiers firing, the course of the trenches in the background, and two wounded men. It does not appear overly heroic, but rather focuses on the concerted shooting and the camaraderie within the troop. Stylistically, this depiction is in the tradition of the 19th century. Most artists leaned on such formulas of simple battle scenes in realistic tones. Attempts to change this tradition did not lead very far.

[16] When the dissolution of the Art Group loomed in 1918, caused by the enormously reduced budget of the downsized Austrian state, its director Wilhelm John sent a report to the supreme army command summarising its achievements during the war.37 He even advocated the establishment of a permanent fine arts department in the army. This latter proposal found no supporters and immediately after the end of the war the Art Group was disbanded.

[17] Sterrer joined the Art Group in 1916 and, after a few excursions in Galicia, established himself as a sought-after portraitist of pilots and other military personnel in the region. As far as we know, he produced about a dozen pilot portraits, as well as posters for war bonds, several dozen landscape scenes and smaller depictions of the trenches and other army positions.38 The series of pilot portraits is a numerically small group within Sterrer’s work. However, it clearly stands out artistically from the works of earlier and later years. During the war, Sterrer often used a mixed technique of drawing and watercolour, gouache or chalk. Some paintings were done in oil, such as the monumental view of the Emplacement in Bukovina (Stellung in Bukowina, 1916). Many of these works were shown at the regular spring exhibition at the Vienna Künstlerhaus in 1916, at the "Watercolourists’ Exhibition" ("Ausstellung des Aquarellisten-Klubs der Genossenschaft d. b. K. W.") in 1917 as well as at the "War Picture Exhibition" ("Kriegsbilder-Ausstellung des k. u. k. Kriegs-Presse-Quartiers") in 1918 at the same place.39 KPQ officials often used venues such as the well-established Künstlerhaus as locations for the new war exhibitions. Sterrer’s main works for the KPQ also appeared in art magazines like Moderne Welt and Graphische Künste.40

[18] In January and February 1918, Sterrer was sent to the Southern front near Trieste.41 At the special request of the airborne troops on the Tyrolean front, he was deployed there in the summer of 1918. In late summer, however, he ended his engagement as a pilot portraitist and began work on the designs for the lithograph portfolio Flieger im Hochgebirge (Aviators in the High Mountains), commissioned by the publisher Julius Brüll. Sterrer conceived it as a summary of his war production. The set, published in 1919, contained a total of twelve prints, six portraits and six landscapes.42 This publication marked the end of Sterrer’s involvement with the military. When the war ended in November 1918, army officials immediately disbanded the KPQ.

[19] As his biographer remarked in 1925, Sterrer certainly felt constrained by his involvement as a war painter for the KPQ.43 Nevertheless, he became known for his pilot portraits and later received the Reichelpreis for them,a prize awarded by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from 1808 to 1929.44 Additionally, the dense network of exhibitions during the war provided him with a platform to make his works known. In January and February 1918, for example, the Watercolourists’ Club at the Vienna Künstlerhaus exhibited no fewer than 41 works by Sterrer. Although the period as a war painter constricted him, it indirectly promoted his art and offered him new opportunities. In this sense, the pilot portraits intertwine his artistic and larger societal aspirations. With his stance as an objective and sober portrait painter, his nuanced images of human beings highlight the importance of virtues in times of hardship. In his portraits from the 1920s and 1930s, Sterrer’s œuvre shows traces, both formally and thematically, of the methods that he had acquired in depicting the pilots. Although his aviator portraits have so far mostly been regarded as singular, perhaps a continuity in Sterrer’s work can be shown in the future.

The pilot portraits created in Galicia

[20] Sterrer’s first assignment for the KPQ took him to the Eastern front in Galicia, where he soon made a name for himself as a portrait painter. The first significant group of works was created in autumn 1916, when he visited Flying Squadron 8 (Fliegerkompanie 8). The unit had its base in Aspern near Vienna and was later deployed to various smaller airfields in Galicia as well as Krakow and Przemyśl, where it helped with supply flights during the siege by the Russians in 1915. Later it relocated to the Adriatic Sea at Pula, closer to the Isonzo front.

[21] This set of works, executed as watercolours and with chalk, marks Sterrer’s initial attempts to depict the new type of soldier. He thematises the youth and self-confidence of the pilots, but also indicates vulnerabilities and their ability for introspection. Sterrer is obviously trying to convey a more reflective notion of heroism than was common in other examples by Oskar Alexander or August Hajduk, and certainly different from the later glorification of the soldier by figures such as Ernst Jünger (1895–1998). Possibly this nuanced expression was a response to the situation in Galicia and the difficult tasks of the pilots. The portrait of Richard Ritter Maurig von Sarnfeld (Fig. 5) gives a good impression of how Sterrer approached this task.

[22] The young pilot appears in a shoulder portrait in the lower right half of a vertical format, wearing a scarf and a leather cap. Behind him, his plane fills the rest of the sheet. To the left behind him, two other pilots are busy loading an aerial bomb. By contrasting foreground and background, Sterrer tries to embed the aviator in a lively, yet monumental scene. Against this backdrop, the face of the young pilot, who looks straight ahead with concentration and expectation, but also with slight fear, appears very vibrant. Sterrer visualises the pilot’s doubts, feelings that surely mounted up before each take-off, as the artist himself later thematised in his interview.45 The new flying machineshad a reputation for being dangerous and unreliable. Their operation required technical knowledge and strength. The early days of flying carried an air of adventure that may have appealed to younger soldiers like Maurig (1894–1918), but the reality was different. Many of the pilots active in the First World War enlisted at a young age. The anxiety of take-off was something to overcome, a test of manly virtue.46

5 Karl Sterrer, Feldpilot Richard Ritter Maurig von Sarnfeld (Richard Ritter Maurig von Sarnfeld, Military Pilot), 1916, chalk and watercolour, 484 × 314 mm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 9798/2010 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

[23] This is what Sterrer tried to depict, the pilot’s youth and a notion of doubt that comes with the challenge of flying. Slight psychological nuances, paired with the lively, technique-filled background created the formula for the first pilot portraits, which go beyond many of the examples by Alexander or Hajduk, his colleagues from the KPQ. There is little research on pilot portraits in general, either of the pilots of the other Central Powers or of the Entente Powers, for whom other modes of representation may have been more important. Although there were pictures of famous aviators like Manfred von Richthofen in Germany, for example by the Stuttgart portraitist Karl Bauer (1868–1942), they rarely reached a high artistic quality. They were more like quick sketches or memorabilia of the battles. With the aspect of insecurity, Sterrer’s first portraits are rather reminiscent of the soldier drawings by Stephanie Hollenstein (1886–1944), a Vorarlberg artist who disguised herself as a man in order to be able to join the fights.47 For the pilots, the stakes remained high. Maurig crashed fatally in August 1918.48

[24] Sterrer’s gouache of Maurig’s colleague, the military aviator Otto Stella (Fig. 6), dated 16 October 1916, shows the pilot in a knee length portrait. Stella is just taking off his leather gloves and wears the distinctive leather cap and a loose aviator jacket.

6 Karl Sterrer, Otto Stella, Fähnrich der Reserve und Feldpilot, Fliegerkompanie 8 (Otto Stella, Reserve Fähnrich and Military Pilot, Flying Squadron 8), 1916, gouache, 472 × 307 mm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 952/2008 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

Stella (1894–1918) appears young, but a little more self-assured than Maurig (Fig. 5). Other pilots gather at the aircraft in the background. They are preparing for the upcoming flight. Wrapped in large coats, their faces are barely recognisable. The colouring seems a bit plain, but again it is an attempt to create an interesting contrast between fore- and background. This gouache is reminiscent of an aviator’s portrait by the German artist Fritz Erler (1868–1940), which he created for a poster for war bonds. Erler shows the aviator standing in his cockpit with great self-confidence. The poster underlines once again that these portraits are to be seen as war propaganda, not least the works of Sterrer, even though a calm, cautious tone prevails with him. Stella fell in aerial combat over the Cismon (today Region of Veneto, Italy) in June 1918.49

[25] Sterrer never thematised the frequent crashes. The sculptor and painter Josef Humplik (1888–1958) is one of the few who designed an expressive depiction after a crash (Fig. 7).50 However, he was never officially a war painter in the KPQ, so he was not bound by the regulations. His painting is distantly reminiscent of works by Egon Schiele or expressionist tropes. In the drawing, a pilot carries his injured comrade out of the wreckage of an aircraft. The suffering gesture of the injured man’s hands in particular is reminiscent of Schiele. Humplik was drafted into the artillery in 1915 but volunteered for the air force. He later crashed during a training flight and then fought again as an infantryman.51

7 Josef Humplik, Flucht (Escape), 1919, charcoal on brown paper, 476 × 460 mm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 16.958/2017 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

[26] Sterrer’s Portrait of Lieutenant Rudolf Stanger (1916, Fig. 8) dates from the same period on the North-eastern front in Galicia and appears to be the most direct expression of the dark side of the war – especially in contrast to the version of Stanger made by Oskar Alexander, which shows him against an empty background and is average at best.52

8 Karl Sterrer, Leutnant Rudolf Stanger (Lieutenant Rudolf Stanger), 1916, chalk and watercolour, 448 × 314 mm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 9799/2010 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

Sterrer, on the other hand, drew a picture of Stanger, again a knee piece, that does not glorify the audacity of the early pilots. Rather, the aviator looks down at the ground in a sad and melancholic gesture, as he tucks his hands into his trouser pockets, seemingly expressing his resignation. Sterrer is possibly alluding to the confusing and hopeless situation at the front in Galicia, especially after the siege of Przemyśl.53 The battle for Galicia in 1914 had brought great casualties to the Habsburg troops and they were not able to recuperate the territorial losses against the Russians until the summer of 1915. Yet, the position of the Austro-Hungarian army remained weakened as the theatre of war shifted south and into the Balkans. This shift may explain why Lieutenant Stanger’s portrait does not carry the victorious atmosphere that usually characterises military portraits – nor the more recent spirit of optimism that surrounded modern aviation and the heroism of pilots.

[27] During this time Sterrer created several variants of pilot portraits, as shown in the Portrait of Lieutenant Richard Melzer (Fig. 9, 1916), who also was part of the Flying Squadron 8.

9 Karl Sterrer, Leutnant Richard Melzer (Lieutenant Richard Melzer), 1916, chalk and watercolour, 484 × 315 mm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 9801/2010 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

Sterrer uses a foreshortened perspective here moving closer to the pilot's head, even closer than in Maurig’s portrait (Fig. 5). This formal change intensifies the focus on Melzer’s face and his self-confident expression. The background is not populated, only the aircraft can be seen behind him. This scheme was to prove fruitful for Sterrer’s portraiture, as it is now the pilot’s aura and his character that attract most of the attention. As the 1918 interview reveals, he found the physiognomy of the pilots particularly remarkable. In his discussion with the interviewer Karl Marilaun (1881–1934), he describes the stunning appearance of pilots.54 As he explains in reference to them, their faces always remain unpredictable – in contrast to the uniform visages of ordinary soldiers:

The physiognomy of the fighter, the trench soldier, the officer somehow always reveals the hinterland from which he has come, and it is not difficult to guess what the man has been in peacetime and what he will be again. Besides, life out there has also uniformed the faces to a certain extent. But it is different with the airmen. Physiognomies that I could observe there, I have not come across before; here the war has created an absolutely new kind of human being.55

[28] The near-sighted portrait of Melzer (1892–1918) hints at this interest in physiognomy. The artist has zoomed in closer and made the facial appearance a key feature of the pilot and a sign of his distinctive personality, distinguishing him from the common soldier. His head with the leather cap appears as streamlined as the plane. His sleek facial features also stand out and are intended to show his cool-headed habitus. Physiognomy became a popular discipline in the 1920s, often associated with such quality judgements.56 Philosophers and psychologists such as Ludwig Klages (1872–1956) and Ernst Kretschmer (1888–1964) took up 19th-century ideas that a person’s abilities and identity, otherwise often hard to grasp, showed up in his or her facial features. Even though the interview draws from Sterrer’s experiences in Trieste in 1918, the first signs of these concepts were already visible in his portraits in Galicia in 1916. Due to such ideas, Sterrer’s focus can be seen as an almost phenomenological description of the pilots’ mental disposition, from which a theory of wartime portraiture could be derived. The quote highlights the fact that the New Human Being is not characterised by uniformity, but bears distinct features that represent a new reality. Sterrer’s words formulate a high standard. Melzer suffered a fatal accident at Aspern airfield in February 1918.57 The spirit of adventure and the high mortality rate in aviation lay close together.

[29] It was not until February 1917 that another large portrait was created, the Portrait of Rittmeister von Lehmann (Fig. 10), again showing members of Flying Squadron 8. Sterrer executed it as a gouache with exquisite colouring – which makes it one of the most intriguing works in the entire series.

10 Karl Sterrer, Feldpilot Rittmeister von Lehmann, Beobachter Oberleutnant E. Schicht und K. Freiherr von Westenholz (Rittmeister von Lehmann, Military Pilot, with Oberleutnant E. Schicht and Oberleutnant K. Freiherr von Westenholz, Observers), 1916, gouache, 44 × 61 cm. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna, no. 2115/1997 (photo © HGM, Vienna)

Set in a hangar, Sterrer presents Lehmann as a greying veteran in front of his younger comrades. His colleagues discuss the flight route or enemy positions while he oversees everything. Lehmann’s striking facial features emphasise an atmosphere of professionalism. Doubts do not seem to play a role here, unlike with the younger pilots in the portraits presented above. Three experienced pilots are on display here. The close plane in the background accentuates the bravado with the flying machine, the camaraderie and the nearing battle. Yet, the older Lehmann stands out with his fur-trimmed jacket. Many pilots led luxurious lifestyles in bohemian-like circumstances. Photographs from this period often reveal a semi-dandyish military life.58 Again, Hajduk’s Portrait of Hauptmann von Lux (Fig. 3) provides a good comparison.59 The loosely impressionistic portrait presents the pilot in full combat gear smoking a cigarette in front of his plane. His expression shows that he is nonchalantly facing danger. Lehmann displays a similar poised soldierly coolness. Sterrer presents Lehmann’s companions as professionals, equipped with the much-needed technical expertise. The pilots seem to interact with each other and share detailed information regarding their next actions. Hence, the portrait of the three experienced pilots links the old and the new, the image of the extravagant elder statesman Lehmann and the technically skilled professionals Schicht and von Westenholz, to form a picture of the New Man. The focused interaction of Rittmeister von Lehmann and his comrades highlights the range from the youthful professionals to the distinguished officer habitus.

The Southern front and Trieste

[30] When Sterrer arrived on the Southern front early in 1918, he accompanied a squad from the Trieste Naval Air Base (Seeflugstation Triest), which refers to a unit with seaplanes capable of take-offs and landings in the water.60 The air combat against the Italians, which dominated the late phase of the war, took place mostly over the sea in support of the fleets. At first, the Habsburg air forces were superior. Only later in 1918, they were outnumbered by the Italians.61 The Triple Portrait with Lieutenant Banfield (1918, Fig. 11), i.e. Gottfried Freiherr von Banfield, is a symbol of this success and one of the most striking of Sterrer’s series of pilots. It demonstrates Sterrer’s approach to further push the principles of representation found in Galicia. The artist again shows three pilots, similar to the Portrait of Rittmeister von Lehmann (Fig. 10), but now they stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder and parallel, as a sign of unity. The composition of the large canvas emphasises a sense of camaraderie not previously present in Sterrer’s portraits. He develops a strong visual gesture that draws from Renaissance models and places its protagonist Banfield in the middle.