LUTON/VIENNA

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.”

“Oh, just put in anything.”

Back to the end of the queue.

WOMEN OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE

Charlotte Billwiller, Mathilde Flögl, Susi Singer, Marianne Leisching
and Maria Likarz, artists of the Weiner Werkstätte.

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.

Mathilde Flögl, Invitation to the artists’ costume party, 1924.

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.)

Dress made from WW fabric designed by Hilda Jesser, 1921/2.
Hilda Jesser, Poster for the WW, 1919.
The WW store in Kärntner Strasse.

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 Austrian pavilion at the 1925 Paris Expo, designed by Josef Hoffmann.
Women of the Wiener Werkstätte setting up the Austrian Pavilion in Paris, 1925.

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.

Vally Wieselthier, ‘Flora’, 1928, glazed ceramic.

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.

Vally Wieselthier, Fireplace, c.1925, glazed ceramic.

This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.

Maria Likarz, Postcards of fashionable hats, 1912.
Hilda Jesser, Jardiniere, 1921, glazed ceramic.

MASTER CRAFTSMEN AND COWBOY BUILDERS

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.

Perhaps it was that lack of regulation that led, in the first decade of the 20th century, to complaints that the Arts and Crafts movement was attracting incompetent amateurs. And it probably explains Nikolaus Pevsner’s Plea for Contemporary Craft (1939), quoted in Stephen Games’s account of his early life, in which he notes the poor standard of workmanship in England compared to Germany:

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.

LUCIE RIE IN VIENNA

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.

I’ll be writing soon about the exhibition Women Artists of the Weiner Werkstätte at MAK (the Vienna Museum of Applied Art) which I saw a couple of days ago. In the meantime there’s a beautiful photo of Lucie in Vienna taken by Lotte Meiner-Graf.

EARLY LUCIE RIE CERAMICS

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.

WIENER WERKSTÄTTE IN NEW YORK

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.”

A HOLOCAUST TORAH SCROLL

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.

VALLI WIESELTHIER

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.”

ART POTTERY (2)

Thinking about Robin Emmerson’s article which I mentioned in my last post, in which he said that Art Pottery emerged from the anti-utilitarian Aesthetic Movement, I realised that studio pottery in the 1920s was also anti-utilitarian. Bernard Leach exhibited a teapot at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1933 (illustrated by Jeffrey Jones in his big survey of 20th-century studio pottery). Roger Fry made some amateurish cups and saucers for the Omega Workshops. Dora Lunn, another potter of the period, also tried tableware, but it didn’t sell. These were the exceptions. Studio pottery was not meant for use – and there’s a story that when someone complained to Leach that his teapots didn’t pour well, he said they weren’t meant for making tea in. The other big beast of studio pottery in the 1920s, William Staite Murray, made vases as fine art. Much of the studio pottery of the inter-war years was figurines.

After the Second World War studio pottery took a different turn, with an emphasis on useful wares. Winchcombe Pottery had a huge contract from Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant, much of it fulfilled by Sidney Tustin at considerable personal cost, and Tustin said a machine should have made the pots, not a man. Harry Davis, one of the fastest studio throwers (who were nowhere near as skilled as the Stoke-on-Trent throwers) was deeply committed to the idea of tableware made by hand. There was a proliferation of potteries of varying quality turning out cups and saucers and plates and bowls in large quantities. Why did studio pottery take that direction?

Jeffrey Jones doesn’t really answer the question, but he passes on Harry Davis’s interesting obervations. Davis was one of the few people to recognise the upper-class origins of studio pottery. Although they talked about the virtues of a craft economy, studio potters lacked the organisational ability to create it. Michael Cardew, a gentleman-potter who was only interested in making pots, delegated the loathsome business side to Sidney Tustin and Elijah Comfort. Studio pottery continued the upper-class dislike of trade that had driven the Arts and Crafts movement.

By the 1950s, when utilitarian pottery began to be made in quantity, the design critiques of William Morris and Henry Cole had become irrelevant. The design profession had come to maturity and the critiques had been taken to heart by manufacturers. The best pottery manufacturers, like Wedgwood, had for decades been making beautiful and practical pottery, such as that designed by Keith Murray or decorated by Eric Ravilious (illustrated), that was arguably superior to studio pottery. The training of every art student was shaped by the Bauhaus.

So what could account for a turn to utility when it was least needed? I got some idea when I spoke to the studio potter Murray Fieldhouse (1925-2018) a few years ago. Murray was a passionate advocate of the Leach style of pottery. He explained to me that after the war many potters like him became pacifists, even though they’d been in the armed forces. He wanted to create an alternative society and he looked for a craft he could create it through.  He served his apprenticeship with Harry Davis, who had similar utopian leanings. The idea was that society could be changed by getting out of the factory and into the workshop, preferably run democratically or by craftsmen working alone. The art was secondary, and it’s interesting to see from Murray’s Pottery Quarterly magazine, which he edited from the 1950s to the 1980s, that he had equal disdain for industry, the design profession and fine art.

ART POTTERY

The latest Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle has an article by Robin Emmerson on the origins of Art Pottery which looks at its emergence from the design reform movement, which was familiar, and fashions and trends in home decoration, which was not. The art school at South Kensington was important and was linked with Minton and the Lambeth art school was similarly linked with Doulton.

But ceramics displayed in the home signified that the owner was on the side of the Aesthetes rather than the Barbarians (the contrast introduced by Matthew Arnold). Emmerson points out that Art Pottery was almost all meant for display, one of those obvious things that you could overlook. Charlotte Gere and Lesley Hoskins touched on ceramics and put them into the wider context of the Aesthetic interior in The House Beautiful twenty years ago.