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.

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.”

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.”

BOURNEMOUTH

Bournemouth has a financial sector and a new university, and the western suburb is full of grand villas and lovely pine-clad cliffs, which they call ‘chines’. (As a child on family holidays I thought that a ‘chine’ was a pine-clad cliff: it’s not, it’s a ridge and the pines are incidental.) The gardens, running right through the town from top to bottom like lettering in a stick of rock, upon which the town was founded when they were made out of the swampy fringes of the River Bourne two hundred years ago, are still beautiful and relaxing.

But the town centre, which is a BID, a Business Improvement District, with helpful BID guides, has a sad, hollowed-out look about it. There are marks of former grandeur in self-confident, ambitious and sometimes pompous buildings, several in the Deco style like the former offices of the Bournemouth Daily Echo. The purpose of others, like the Cosy Club, is still labelled. The former use of others, however, is impossible to find out from the buildings themselves.

MASS OBSERVATION: ‘MANTLEPIECES’

Osbert Lancaster, ‘Modernistic’, from Homes Sweet Homes (1939)

Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.

Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?

Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.

But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

DECORATIVE ARTS IN THE 20s AND 30s

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.

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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.

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Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.

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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.

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JEAN RENÉ GAUGIN

Reading Gordon Forsyth’s review of the ceramics entries in the Paris Expo 1925 I came across a reference to Jean René Gaugin, a ceramic sculptor I’d never heard of before. He was indeed related to Paul Gaugin, one of his five children with Mette-Sophie Gad, though he barely knew his father and they could not communicate because Jean René was raised in Denmark and did not speak French and his father did not speak Danish.

Jean René was working for Bing and Grøndahl in 1925, with whom he achieved considerable success, and then went on to work for Sèvres. This fine Rape of Europa is dated 1925, though I don’t know if it was exhibited at Paris. Below the headline items like the Art Deco of Lalique and the Corbusier pavilion it’s actually quite difficult to find out what was exhibited there. More catalogues are available online now but they sometimes lack detail and they usually lack pictures. In fact, there are few pictures of the many thousands of exhibits at Paris.

Forsyth lavished praise on the Danish exhibitors, but it was surprising, given that Jean René Gaugin is now so little known, that he declared him to be ‘one of the greatest artists that have ever worked in pottery’.

MICHAEL POWOLNY

forsyth

I’ve been discovering the hidden history of the British studio potters who made figurative ceramics in the 1920s and 1930s, the most notable of whom were Charles and Nell Vyse, Gwendolen Parnell and Stella Crofts. In the small world of studio pottery then, no distinction was made between the modellers and the vessel-makers, who joined in the Guild of Potters and regularly exhibited together. I say “discovering” because the modellers have been excluded from the studio pottery canon and little is written about them. The culprit was Muriel Rose, who created the canon in her book Artist Potters in England (1955), an accomplished work of exclusion that omitted nearly every artist potter in England.

Gordon Forsyth’s broader review of 20th Century Ceramics (c.1935) covered both vessel makers and modellers, but nearly all his figurative artists were continental and the only British makers he mentioned were Alfred G. Hopkins and William Ruscoe (a modeller for the pottery industry). Among the continental ceramicists were Michael Powolny, whose strongly-modelled animals (above) may have seemed more relevant to Forsyth than the modellers in England who looked backed nostalgically to old Chelsea and North Staffordshire. Forsyth had expressed similar preferences in his review of ceramics at the Paris International Exhibition, 1925, singling out the Danish exhibitors.

It can certainly be argued that the continental modellers were more original, more responsive to currents in contemporary art and more ironic in their historical references than the British modellers, for example the playful rococo in the work of Austrian ceramicists Vally Weiselthier  and Susi Singer-Schinnerl (below).

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Vally Wieselthier, Vanity (1925)

schinnerl

Susi Singer-Schinnerl, Bust of Woman with Hat (c.1925)

Powolny was one of Lucie Rie’s teachers and it’s interesting to see what Rie’s biographer Tony Birks has to say about him. “In the absence of other significant potters, the well-intentioned Powolny had a negative influence on ceramics. He was out of his depth. … It is hard to believe that, clever technician though he may have been, Powonly had any clear idea of what ceramics were about in the twentieth century. Even when working with his partner, the more dynamic and austere Löffler, their work never rose about the kleinkunst, and to many the personal work of this bewildered man is dire.”

In this bizarre passage Birks revealed the narrowness the Leach followers could fall into and not a little British arrogance as well. It’s lazy writing that can’t be bothered to think about Powolny’s motivation and artistic environment.

The same arrogance comes out in the popular idea that Leach was “the father of studio pottery”. But Leach’s followers disinherited most studio potters and narrowed the definition of “studio pottery” to refer only to their own work. Until then, the term meant any ceramics produced in a studio and it was first used in the USA (1910) to refer to The Potters Craft, by Charles F. Binns, though it could also be applied to Ernest Chaplet, Hugh C. Robertson, Bernard Moore and Vilmos Zsolnay. Leach, it has to be said, took a more educated and catholic view than his followers, having worked with Gwendolen Parnell, and he thought she should be included in the story as well.

THE DUDOK STYLE

In case anyone is wondering about the mention of in my last post of Hilversum Town Hall, the creation of Dutch architect Willem Dudok, and its influence on the Middlesex County Council (MCC) architects who copied its style, I’ve put a picture of it (left) with a picture of W.T.Curtis’s and William Burchett’s Kenton public library (1939), their iconic MCC building, now listed.