SALZBURG, Austria – The logo of the venerable Salzburg Festival is unmistakable here in the summer months. It is connected to buses and flanks the busy sidewalks of the State Bridge. It can be seen on bracelets, workers’ uniforms and shop windows, in tourist brochures and hotel lobbies.

The logo – with the silhouette of the Hohensalzburg Fortress; Salzburg’s state flag; and a Greek theatrical mask, all layered over a gold background – has remarkable staying power. First seen on a poster for the 1928 iteration, it soon became the festival’s enduring symbol, with the exception of the Nazi era. However, its history, and especially the history of its designer, was not exactly known until recently.

For the 100th anniversary, which lasted until this summer due to the pandemic, the Salzburg Festival commissioned a report on the creation of the logo last year. The research yielded new insights into the life of its creator, the artist Leopoldine Wojtek, who started out as a modernist, but whose work took a conservative, National Socialist turn in the 1930s and who was married to one of the party’s most productive art thieves and intrigues.

It is a story that raises questions about cultural memory in a country that was slow to come to an account in the years before and after Austria’s annexation to Germany in 1938. But the Salzburg Festival has in some ways been here before and reckoned with the strained legacy of some of its most prominent artists from the Nazi era, including conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan.

The long-standing president of the festival, Helga Rabl-Stadler, conceived the report, which consists of an investigative report by the university professor Oliver Rathkolb and an artistic tribute to the designer Anita Kern, a decade ago as part of the celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the festival, when she learned some of the troubling details of Wojtek’s biography.

“I would have had a guilty conscience if we had only shown the bright side of our past,” she said in an interview. “We are really interested in revealing our history, because in reality the Salzburg Festival is not just a hundred years of festivals, but a hundred years of European cultural history.”

It’s a story that needs to be retold amid far-right reactions to the pandemic and the global rise of anti-government, populist movements. “We must remember that we already had this story,” said Rathkolb. “This period before 1938 is even more interesting than the Nazi era because it shows how quickly a parliamentary democracy can change.”

THE REPORT BEGINS with a simple biography. Wojtek, known as Poldi, was born in Brno, Moravia, in 1903. Her father was vociferously German national and later, as a Salzburg citizen, took up the attacks of the Nazis opportunistically. Her sister too – but not her brother Wilhelm, who refused to join the party but was drafted into military service and died a bitter, disabled war veteran.

Wojtek attended a girls’ school in Salzburg, then studied at a vocational school in Czechoslovakia and then at the arts and crafts school in Vienna, where she taught, among other things, the design expert Josef Hoffmann. Kern said that she was “surrounded by really edgy, avant-garde people” at this time, but was “a very conservative modernist” compared to her colleagues.

She returned to Salzburg and was already in her early twenties taking on local projects such as frescoes and exhibition posters in the modernist style, which she finally brought to a design competition for the Salzburg Festival in 1928.

The history of the competition is hazy – and suspicious, likely with interference from Kajetan Mühlmann, Wojtek’s future husband, although it’s not clear whether they were in a relationship at the time. It is known that the competition, which was open to students from the Kunstgewerbeschule, was expanded to include three young graduates, including Wojtek. It didn’t initially take first place, but for some reason several drafts for “certain changes” were sent back to the artists. When the new posters were presented to the jury, Wojtek was chosen as the winner.

“The competition had a clear number 1: Hanns Köhler,” said Rathkolb. “He was a shooting star. Then you can see from the recordings that Mühlmann was very tricky in the second round. “

In her report, Kern describes the poster as simply “typical of his time”. Rathkolb suspects the jury favored Wojtek as a local artist whose family had an established reputation.

With a few modifications, the poster became the festival’s logo. The white ribbons at the top – used in 1928 to enumerate festival directors Max Reinhardt, Franz Schalk, and Bruno Walter – have been exposed and the dates at the bottom removed, but otherwise the original design was used for much longer than most of the other logos.

It is the most enduring testimony to Wojtek’s modernism, which waned over the following decade. In 1932 she married Mühlmann, who had worked for the Association for the Support of the Salzburg Festival and the Austrian Public Office – whose meeting minutes document incidents with lavish and irregular expenditure. He resigned from this office in 1934 and began to ingratiate himself with the NSDAP.

Before 1938, however, Nazi ideology was illegal in Austria – which got Mühlmann into trouble and prevented Wojtek from putting her name in Adolf Hitler’s illustrated children’s biography, which she wrote in 1936. At this point her work became “stale”, Kern concludes in her report, adding that additional drawings from this period were “more static and compact than her free and simple illustrations from the 1920s”.

Why Wojtek’s work took such a turn is not clear. It could be due to Mühlmann, who rose to become a friend of Hermann Göring, for whom he plundered art all over Europe. But there is evidence that Wojtek did not simply change under the influence of her husband.

In 1941 she was directly involved in the so-called Aryanization of a house in nearby Anif that had been confiscated from the Jewish artist Helene von Taussig, who later died in the Izbica transit camp in German-occupied Poland. At that time the Aryanization was put on hold until the end of the war, but Wojtek, according to Rathkolb, “wanted the house at all costs”.

“She was the driving force here,” he added. “She more or less used Mühlmann to make that happen. She had no ethical shame. “

So ironic that Wojtek’s Salzburg Festival poster was quickly removed after the Anschluss; it wasn’t degenerate, but it was uncomfortably modern for the Nazis. It was replaced with something more in keeping with the party’s aesthetic, which Kern describes as “a portrayal of Mozart as a naked Apollo figure with a lyre”.

Wojtek’s design did not return until after the war. At this point, she and Mühlmann were divorced; At the end of the 1930s he had started to build a second family with a woman. Wojtek had to vacate the house she had stolen and the USA returned it to Taussig’s heirs in 1945.

But Wojtek evaded denazification. Despite her closeness to the party, her membership was never edited; Rathkolb could not find them in the party’s files in Berlin. She was classified as “less burdened” and was able to vote again in 1949. She found a new partner in the artist Karl Schatzer, and there were courses in painting, illustration and ceramics in the joint workshop.

Over the years she received local honors – including the Max Reinhardt Medal, named after the founder of the Salzburg Festival, who was forced into exile as a Jewish artist – and died in 1978.

WOJTEKS BIOGRAPHY has been overlooked in the past few decades. According to Rathkolb, this corresponds to the broader reluctance of Austria to deal with its Nazi history, since the country hid behind the popular “victim theory” for a long time in order to take its responsibility away.

The logo has changed little. At one point a fifth white band was added at the top to make it resemble a staff – but that was removed soon after. For her part, Kern is not even sure whether the logo could be called good or that his mask images still fit a festival that is more known for music than theater. “Most of all,” she said, “it works because it’s so well known.”

But his future is assured.

“We talked about it and we always thought: This logo is not Nazi propaganda,” says Rabl-Stadler. “It’s a logo from the zeitgeist of the best times in Austrian graphics. If there had been the slightest doubt that you could misinterpret it, we would have removed it. “

Instead, Wojtek joins the crowd of festival artists whose names are now associated with reservations. Their story is part of the current exhibition “Everyone’s Jews: 100 Years of the Salzburg Festival” in the Jewish Museum Vienna. This show was inspired by Rabl-Stadler, said Marcus Patka, one of the curators, and added that it was a positive sign when you consider that “there is still a lot of silence” in Salzburg on the subject of the Nazi era.

Here in town, Wojtek has no street or a square named after her. As someone without artistic influence, she is not talked about. Her grave was only discovered by the festival during the research of the report – although it is located in St. Peter’s Cemetery, only a few steps away from the venues.

The grave is difficult to find: between two paths, on uneven ground that becomes dangerous when it rains. Since no surviving family members are known, the stone has fallen into disrepair. It is difficult to see the faded carving of her name.

At the exit of the cemetery at Toscaninihof, however, the Salzburg Festival logo cannot be overlooked. And there, under the white of its flag, the name couldn’t be more clear: “WOJTEK”.