About paintings, papers and pigeonholes

Oscar Bronner

I remember getting a request from an Austrian paper over 30 years ago, which wanted to interview me as part of a series of articles about professional dropouts. At this point, I had founded and sold trend, a business magazine, and profil, a news magazine, and had moved to New York to paint. Back then, I replied that I don’t fit into the series; I didn’t see myself as a publisher who dropped out, but rather as a painter who only briefly dropped into the publishing world. 

I probably wouldn’t get away with such a flippant response these days. So which pigeonhole do I see myself in? Am I a successful newspaper publisher who gets to devote himself to his hobby? Or am I an unsuccessful painter who occasionally turns to founding newspapers as a day job? There are several illustrious examples of artists who have had successful second careers, such as Peter Paul Rubens, who served his country invaluably as a diplomat alongside his brilliant career as a painter. Or the Swiss poet and painter Salomon Gessner, who ran a publishing house on the side and founded the Zürcher Zeitung in 1780, which eventually became the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in 1821.

The career I pictured for myself growing up: painter, writer and director. With a self-taught writer, composer and theater founder as a father, going to university never seemed integral – ‘learning by doing’ was the way to go. So I started working as an assistant director after graduation, then became a journalist to get over of my fear of the blank page – and to earn a living.

I wrote drama, and a little prose, in my spare time – and I painted. No-one knows how much talent I actually had as a writer, but after a while I felt that I’d profanized it with my journalistic endeavors. I destroyed my literary attempts, and simultaneously lost any particular interest I’d had in theater. So I concentrated on painting. Kurt Moldovan, a paternal friend and my chess partner from Café Hawelka, offered both advice and criticism. 


Journalism had, by this point, lost its original purpose as preparation for writing, but I was gaining a first taste of journalistic success. At the same time, I was increasingly frustrated with Austria’s dismal media landscape. My frustration was echoed in many conversations with colleagues, and eventually I decided to try and do something about it – I would try and found a newsmagazine. To make the necessary money and acquire expertise both in the advertising business and in running a company, I founded an advertising agency. The agency helped me discover a genuine gap in the publishing market, so – aged 26 - I first founded the business magazine trend, and thereby created the infrastructure – effectively, the launch pad – for profil.

I didn’t get to paint much during this period. ‘Learning by doing’ shifted from my envisaged artistic activity to other areas, as I found myself as owner, manager and publisher of two magazines without a clue about business administration, management or magazine journalism.

The professionals in the large publishing houses initially ignored me; they didn’t give my project a chance. Once its success became apparent, they reacted by creating rival magazines in an attempt to squeeze me out of the market. When this didn’t immediately work, they changed their approach: I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. I sold the majority of the publishing company and gave the remaining shares to my employees.


After this fairly turbulent period, I could finally step back and reflect on my options. I had accidentally become a journalist, which had, with a lot of luck, developed into an enviable career. I was proud of what I had achieved, but at the same time I was frustrated that I had abandoned my artistic ambitions along the way.

I was now 31 years old, and I decided it was time for a fresh start. After selling the magazines, it was the first time I had access to money, so I resolved to fulfill my dream of sounding out the depths of my artistic side. At this point, my main interest was in sculpting. I showed Fritz Wotruba some of my work, and asked if he would be willing to take me on as a student at the Akademie. He said that the Akademie mainly served as a workplace for students; if I didn’t need that, I should work in my studio, and he would be willing to look at the finished pieces and talk to me about them.

I gratefully accepted his offer; unfortunately, due to his early death, only one such conversation ever took place. It was then, as well as in my many discussions with my friend Karl Prantl, that I realized that I didn’t share their sensuous relationship to stone. I switched to bronze; eventually I found my material in wood.

After working three-dimensionally for more than four years, and having moved to New York in the mean time, I returned to painting. My style had changed substantially as a result of the influence of sculpting: while previously I had focused on the content – as though forcing my literary ambitions into the picture – it was now all about the materiality of the paint. I used the canvas as a palette on which I mixed paint; first with a brush, then with my fingers – a practice I’ve retained to this day. I started out with geometric pictures, shifted my focus to classic subjects such as flowers, landscapes, portraits and nudes, before finally returning to abstract painting in the past few years.

I showed my paintings in solo and group exhibitions in New York, Washington, Paris, Milan, Düsseldorf and Vienna, among other places. I wasn’t sensationally successful, in part because I have no talent for self-promotion. But I was satisfied with my modest career, which was, after all, lucrative enough to live on.


After 13 years in New York, I realized that the six months I’d initially intended to spend there were up, and so I planned my return to Vienna. But for 13 years, I hadn’t only enjoyed New York as a city, I’d also savored being able to read the New York Times every day. The prospect of trading it for any of the existing Austrian newspapers was, quite frankly, a deterrent.

I started thinking about whether it might be possible to try and change this situation – light-heartedly at first, but several serious conversations later, I concluded that it might actually be possible to found a proper newspaper. I was torn - on the one hand, I didn’t want to stop painting, but on the other, I realized that this newspaper wouldn’t be created without me. 

After a heavy night in which we’d argued intensely about Kurt Waldheim, I confided in Fritz Molden that I saw the potential for a liberal newspaper. He insisted that if that was the case, it was my duty to give it a shot. He would be willing to help.

Indeed, I developed a feeling I hadn’t known before: if improving the Austrian newspaper landscape was down to me, could I dodge the task? I asked myself what I would wind up regretting more: not even trying to found a quality newspaper - or painting less (or not at all) for five years. Naïve as I was, I thought five years would be enough to establish the project successfully, so that I could pass on the management role to others; with trend and profil, that was around the time it had taken. I was in my mid-40s, and I had plenty of time.

All these considerations were overshadowed by the fact that I was, at that point, going through a creative crisis and plagued by self-doubt regarding my artistic future.


Once again, I threw myself into the deep end – I was back to  ‘learning by doing’. This time, I was simultaneously owner, CEO and editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper, all without any experience in either the creative or the commercial aspects of leading one.

I toyed with the notion of declaring the founding of the Standard a work of art – after all, my approach was undoubtedly more artistic than commercial. I eventually dropped the idea, though, as I didn’t want to burden the already-fragile affair with a public discussion about my personal state of mind.

Five years became twenty, thanks to a partner who lost interest in the project after several changes in management, the establishment of a massive concentration in the media market, the head of my bank, who wanted to relieve me of the paper as soon as success seemed palpable, and several recessions.

I had to keep postponing my return to painting, but paradoxically this frustration helped me stand my ground when it came to the Standard: in countless conflicts with stronger partners and opponents I was unquestionably much more stubborn than a professional publisher would have been. Losing these rounds of poker would have been sad, but it wouldn’t have been an existential disaster. I would have had to return to painting – a prospect I was not entirely unhappy about. The feeling of responsibility for several hundred employees was the only thing stopping me from overstepping the mark.

I had been hoping to keep painting in my spare time, but this soon proved impossible. I tried at first, but I was unable to return to the canvas every day, and having to take long breaks was frustrating and made progress difficult. In the end, it was easier to stop painting entirely. I even stopped going to galleries, because confronting myself with contemporary art reminded me too much of the fact that I’d taken myself out of contention. Instead, I increasingly turned back to the great masters.


At the Standard’s 20-year celebration, I announced that I would be withdrawing from the paper’s active management so that I could paint again. Soon, I was standing excitedly in my studio – I was in my mid-60s, hadn’t painted for 20 years, and had no idea what to expect. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for me to be able to pick off where I had left off – it was just the subject matter that had changed, as I was now painting abstracts.


In other news, I’ve decided not to craft any more plans, let alone to publicize them.


Vienna, 2013