My recent trip to Vienna was my first outside the UK for two years and required more preparation than I’m used to. An up-to-date smartphone is essential: Kati, who went on to Budapest by train, had difficulty on the way back because her ancient device couldn’t open the Patient Locator Form.
Outbound, Luton airport was eerily quiet (above). We could spread out on the plane and pretty well sit where we liked.
But the return trip was trying. Vienna airport is large and it’s a long walk to the health centre for the lateral flow test. If I was in the right place it was on the wrong level and if I was on the right level it was an underground car-park.
The Wizzair desk, after a long wait, told me I needed my Passenger Locator Form before I could check in.
“But I need to check in first because the Passenger Locator Form asks for my seat number.”
The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.
The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)
The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.
The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.
Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.
This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.
The Wiener Werkstätte began in 1903 as a metal workshop, though that understates the elegance and refinement of their silver objects (above). Its founders, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, had to get apprenticed craftsmen to front the company because they couldn’t get a trade licence themselves, not being trained in the craft. That might surprise Britons, who are used the the idea that anyone can set up in any trade they like, apart from architecture, drug dispensing, chiropractic, medicine, opthalmology, social work, law and vetinerary surgery.
If you want your shoes soled and heeled, you still hand them self-confidently to Herr Muller who does the job conscientiously in his back-room where he works with one journeyman and one apprentice. There is no Branch 26 of a back-in-a-day shoe repairing service to lure you away from the craftsman. The same is true – at least outside Berlin – of the cabinet-maker, the plumber, the locksmith, etc. It is an extremely interesting consequence of this … that a cultured public also expects the very best article. … Hence the successful handweavers, silversmiths, potters all over Germany, and hence the many Kunstgewerbe (craft) shops in German towns, shops of a kinds which scarcely exists in Britain.
Immigrants from central European countries even today express astonishment that anyone can set up as a builder without any qualifications or evidence that they know what they’re doing.
Turning to Tony Birks’s life of Lucie Rie, I saw that the model she made with Grete Salzer, exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo, about which I wrote earlier with a fuzzy image from L’Autriche à Paris 1925, is better illustrated in his book (above), which is based on conversations with Rie and makes use of photos from her archive.
The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna in its galleries ‘Vienna 1900’, which charts the emergence of the Vienna Style of the Secession and the Weiner Werkstätte, has these bowls made by Lucie Rie in about 1930 (listed under her single name Lucie Gomperz). They show the fine throwing and simplicity of form and surface for which she became known in England but the strong, dark colours are less familiar.
Valli Wieselthier’s hope (mentioned here) that people would get as much pleasure from one of her “silly little glazed pots” in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room gives a slightly misleading impression of the Wiener Werkstätte, with which she was associated for many years.
I’ve been looking at Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs’ well-illustrated account of the Weiner Werkstätte 1902-1932 and reading Janis Staggs’ description of their New York showroom. Many of their Viennese customers were the higher bourgeoisie and the New York branch sought a similar clientele.
It was backed and directed by Joseph Urban, an Austrian émigré architect who had had a successful career designing sets for Hollywood and the Metropolitan Opera. Ziegfeld hired him for set designs on his Follies. The New York store was a cross between a stage set and an art gallery. Customers had to wait until the end of the season to take away their purchases and Urban sometimes refused to sell items he particularly liked. At the centre of the window display on Fifth Avenue was Victor Lurje’s life-size gilt sculpture of a male nude, for which Urban was reputedly offered thousands of dollars, which he turned down.
The picture (above) shows the store’s reception room. The chairs were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The flanking tables held silverware by Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche. The large painting (top) was by Klimt (now in the Neue Galerie, NY).
The Palais Stoclet, the Werkstätte’s most famous work, was similarly sumptuous, every detail designed by Hoffman at horrendous cost, which almost bankrupted the company. Hoffmann however later became interested in modern, convenient working-class housing, and there are several rather anonymous blocks in Vienna that he designed – perhaps containing some of Wieselthier’s “silly little glazed pots.”
I look through auction catalogues for interesting ceramics and sometimes stop to look at other things as well. The other day something unusual caught my eye, described simply as a manuscript on vellum but evidently a Torah scroll. The auctioneer said it came without provenance. Torah scrolls, for those unfamiliar with them, are handwritten versions of the first five books of the Bible used in Jewish religious services. They are treated with extreme veneration and handled with care.
This one was incomplete and in a dirty and neglected state. I consulted an expert who said it probably originated in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Synagogues are not permitted to re-sell Torah scrolls and these details suggest strongly that it had been stolen by the Nazis in eastern Europe and somehow ended up with someone who had no idea what it was. Scribes are conservative and scrolls don’t differ much, so we will probably never know which community it came from, but it shouldn’t be traded in this way and I’m talking to the auction house to try and get it returned to the Jewish community.
The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna has an exhibition about Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte that I’m looking forward to, and one whose work I’ll seek out is Valli Wieselthier, whose playful and innovative ceramics I wrote about earlier. The Werkstätte were strongly represented at the Munich Exhibition of German Crafts in 1922, and the catalogue, which I came across today, includes a well-illustrated article by Weiselthier about her ceramic work, including this figure (above), thrown vessels and a tiled stove. It also shows work in other media that I wasn’t aware she worked in, including elegant marquetry cabinets and boxes (below). I love her subversion of Rococo conventions in her vigorously modelled and coloured maiolica figures.
Writing in the catalogue, Valli said, “I’d like to add that I really enjoy my work, and to be making things in my workshop, which I set up six months ago, gives me more pleasure than anything else. I have only one wish, that those who own a piece of my work should get as much pleasure from a silly little glazed pot in a modest apartment as they would from a precious sculpture in a sumptuous drawing room.”