William Rothenstein knew everyone in the art world of the early 20th century, so his memoirs – Men and Memories and After Fifty – are informative as well as entertaining. Since I’ve been writing about W. R. Lethaby, I thought I should go and see what Rothenstein had to say about him. Not surprisingly they knew one another well. They visited Paris and Chartres together. Rothenstein respected Lethaby’s scholarship, judgement and integrity and his contribution to the crafts. I’ve copied the relevant passage below.
Rothenstein became principal of the Royal College of Art shortly after Lethaby had retired as professor of design and while his infliuence was still strongly felt. In a confidential memorandum Rothenstein expressed reservations about the air of medievalism that he’d left behind him and the poor work being done in some of the subjects in the design school.
Ceramics has alway been a field of cultural appropriation and there may have been little ceramic art without it. One of the most obvious cases is the appropriation of material culture both by and from Turkish potters. Istanbul’s great glory is its Iznik tiled mosques, so I was disappointed to find that, athough the walls of the Topkapı Palace are gorgeously tiled, the Palace’s collection of ceramics is from China, not from Iznik. If you want to see Iznik pottery, go to London, where the British Museum has the best collection in the world.
The development of Iznik pottery was motivated by the desire to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was done in a roundabout way, covering the local greyish clay with fine white slip then painting it in brilliant colours under a clear glaze. There are Chinese motifs on Iznik vessels, with their characteristically Turkish decorations of tulips, carnations and saz leaves, in the form of the cloud patterns round the margins of plates. The Chinese returned the compliment by taking Iznik motifs and painting them in blue and white on porcelain dishes for export.
This Turkish pottery was naturally admired everywhere. In Britain in the 19th century it was copied and adapted without understanding. Its origins weren’t known because the Iznik manufactories were long gone. As every visitor to Turkey discovers, Iznik designs are sold everywhere, but the pottery comes from Kütahya now.
A large cache of this pottery had been brought to England from Syria, so it was called Damascus ware. Some was found in Greece too, so it was also called Rhodian. The British thought that Ottoman Turks were incapable of creating such lovely work but that Persians were, so these wares were called Persian as well.
Under these confused names, Iznik patterns were put on tiles, which were all the rage at the time. Some were made by hand by William de Morgan for Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall, many more were produced in industrial quantities by Minton Hollis. The “Persian” style was freely adapted and elaborated by Crown Derby, with raised gilt patterns, to make amazing bling for export to the USA. Homage was also paid to the Iznik potters by the Cantagalli company in Italy, who made much closer copies.
La Lonja, the elegant and spacious medieval Silk Exchange in Valencia is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and justly so. The stonecarvers of La Lonja were given only the vaguest brief by the master mason – Ruskin would have approved of the way they were allowed to devise their own work. There are striking spiral-grooved pillars in the main hall and decorated door arches, one with a carving of the Virgin (above) with the motto Ave Maria Purissima.
But there are details at odds with the nobility of the building. Around Mary The Most Pure are men drunk and incapable, people pissing in bowls, a devil inflating a sheep’s arse, a dragon biting a woman’s tits and bums, bums and bums galore.
The Adam Kossowski mural on the old North Peckham Civic Centre will be removed when the building is demolished and is to be put up on the new building, but there it will be above the first floor windows and it will be less visible.
The Everlasting Ministries Church that used to occupy the building has closed and you can see the state of the mural in the picture above. Amazingly, it’s almost completely free of graffiti – the graffiti you see is on the shutters over the windows.
This is a wonderful mural. It works from a distance as a general view of The History of the Old Kent Road, it works from six feet away where you can see the characters in the story – the picture below is Kossowski’s portrayal of a sneering King Charles – and it works close to, where you can see the details and textures the artist has added. Yesterday I noticed for the first time the little Camberwell Beauty butterflies in the corners.
None of that effect will be perceptible when the mural is ten feet above the ground.
I walked to the Old Kent Road from South Bermondsey and asked the way from a young man. He was studying digital media and was intrigued by the camera tripod sticking out of my rucsac. I told him about the mural and the Civic Centre and Kossowski’s time in a second world war concentration camp. “I live in the Old Kent Road. I’ve never noticed it,” he said, and came with me to look.
The William Morris Gallery, one of my favourite boutique museums (the other is the Estorick Gallery in Islington), did community outreach, as musems do, to connect with the large Polish community in Walthamstow. The upshot is their current exhibition, Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement 1890 -1918, mounted in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute and the National Museum of Krákow. Young Poland is unknown to most in the west – I’d never heard of it before – and most of the exhibits in this show have never been seen outside Poland.
Young Poland is often regarded as a fine art movement with a record of patriotic, religious and pastoral painting, typified in Vastomil Hofmann’s Confession (above), but the Gallery decided to record the artists’ contribution to the crafts, often overlooked but very important.
In central and eastern Europe the Arts and Crafts were an assertion of national identity, one aspect of the struggle for independence, rejecting the forms and styles imposed by the imperial powers. While the British looked to the Middle Ages as they imagined it to be, the Poles looked to contemporary peasant life and art. Young Poland, which emerged in Kraków, focused on the Highlander people of the nearby Tatra mountains and adapted their architecture, interior decoration, textiles and dress in an attempt to create a national Polish style.
Stanisław Wyspiański (top), a key figure in the movement, might be called the Polish William Morris – a brilliant polymath, a painter, poet, playwright, textile designer, furniture maker and graphic artist – though the two men never met and there’s no record of any communication between them.
In one room of the exhibition there’s a large stained glass, a reproduction of a window designed by Wyspiański for the Kraków Medical Centre, in another a model of The House Under the Firs, a vernacular house by Stanisław Witkiewicz, another major figure, drawn from the Zakopane style of building. Witkiewicz is shown with the model on the left of the group above, the other men dressed in traditional Highlander costume.
In lighter mood there were reconstructions of toys from the Kraków Workshops, a co-operative of artists and craftsmen formed in 1913, who made use of folk patterns in their work. The picture (above) shows delightful original toys in the Ethnographic Museum of Kraków.
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.
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.”
The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.
Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.
British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts. Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.
Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.
By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.
The artistic community of Kolozsvár very much wanted Crane to visit their city as well and it was made possible for some of the Budapest exhibits to be transferred there for exhibition. There were adulatory articles in the Kolozsvár press, which also found room for an article by Crane on art and socialism. The programme there was more crowded than in Budapest, with visits, receptions, dinners, theatrical performances and demonstrations of folk art. On his last day he was taken into the countryside to Kalotaszeg, where, the press reported, “The Master made eight pencil sketches of the Hunyad bachelors, girls and bridesmaids,” who had been arrayed in traditional dress and brought out to meet him.
The bookplate in my last post was made from a drawing given by Crane to his host and guide in Kolszvár, János Kovács (above), a teacher who had lived and worked in England, and it does, as I thought depict Crane and Kovács. The sympathy between the two men turned into friendship (both had spent time in Manchester), but although Crane hoped to visit Hungary again his busy schedule prevented it.
Murádin goes on to record Crane’s influence on the Transylvanian architect Károly Kos. Kós often recalled Crane in his writing, referring to his influence on Hungarian Art Nouveau in general and on him in particular. In 1924 Kos recalled the profound effect of Crane’s visit a quarter of a century earlier, when he was too young to have met him, and his first encounter with Crane’s illustrations and book design as a student at the Budapest Technical University, which he loved and which shaped his own graphic work.