It has been ten years since the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal survey of fin-de-siècle Austrian art, Vienna 1900, and ten years since, as an adjunct to the MOMA project, the Galerie St. Etienne mounted its last comprehensive presentation of Viennese design. At that time, in 1986, early twentieth-century Austrian design was perceived as one of post-modernism’s quintessential antecedents: while visually compatible with modernist functionalism, the Viennese approach tempered modernism’s austerity by reintroducing a richer vocabulary of decorative forms. Leading architects such as Richard Meier and Charles Gwathmey led the way in adapting Viennese devices to contemporary purposes, and innumerable lesser lights followed suit. Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) furniture and objects turned up in many sophisticated homes; Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele suddenly became “hot” artists.
Yet by 1986, the climate that had produced this momentary resurgence of Viennese style was already fading. The boom and bust psychology of the late Reagan and Bush years fostered a return to more opulent interiors, a renascent faux historicism perfect for plumping up the egos of the ascendant nouveau riche and for soothing the insecurities engendered by the subsequent period of diminished expectations. Looking at fin-de-siècle Viennese art and design from the vantage point of 1996, we see that it curiously anticipated and encapsulated the same circumstances that overtook its revival in the 1980s. For the Viennese aesthetic was not, in fact, a monolithic force. Its principal proponents battled constantly with contradictory impulses, attempting to reconcile progress with traditionalism and ultimately succumbing themselves to the retrograde pull of historicism.
A further parallel between the turn of the century and the late 1980s exists in the prevailing political circumstances. In 1900, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was vast and seemingly inviolable, whereas in 1986, the much diminished nation of Austria occupied a seemingly unchangeable position at the edge of Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia was one nation, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were still whole. The gradual break-up of the Eastern Bloc over the last decade, like the cataclysmic transformations wrought in that region as a result of World War I, have generated strong countervailing tides of nationalism and internationalism. Inasmuch as similar sentiments helped shape Austrian taste in the first decades of this century, that era proves surprisingly relevant to present-day concerns.
The Viennese revival of the 1980s focused on those creations that most directly anticipated modernism’s later look. In this overly simplified view, fin-de-siècle Austrian art and design were interpreted strictly as reactions against the historicizing tendencies that had characterized the public edifices erected along Vienna’s Ringstrasse during the second half of the nineteenth century. The artists, architects and designers who founded the Vienna Secession in 1897 were united by a desire to create a contemporary idiom (“to the age its art,” was their motto) and to establish closer ties with the foreign avant-garde. While the Secessionists initially adopted the florid international Art Nouveau mode, by the time Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte design collective in 1903, they had developed a clean, geometric style that can on some levels be seen as a precursor of Bauhaus functionalism. It was the pure yet not unornamental line of the early Wiener Werkstätte that proved most popular in America ten years ago.
By 1905, however, the Hoffmann/Moser collaboration was waning, and the heady alliance of artists who had formed the original Secession movement had been rent asunder by internal squabbling. Klimt and those like-minded colleagues who supported the so-called Gesamtkunstwerk concept (the merging of art and craft in a totally designed environment) withdrew from the Secession, in the process abandoning that organization’s imposing exhibition space to its less progressive members. The avant-garde did not publicly regroup until the 1908 Kunstschau (Art Show), at which point an entirely new array of aesthetic sensibilities was in the air. The iconoclastic architect Adolf Loos had always criticized the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal, predicting that it would eventually reduce art to the level of interior decoration and compromise functional utility through decorative frippery. The later history of the Wiener Werkstätte would in some respects seem to bear him out: already at the 1908 Kunstschau, Berthold Löffler’s playful figuration had begun to eclipse the geometric severity of prior years. Klimt, as it turned out, was the only major painter to embrace the Gesamtkunstwerk; the younger generation of Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka created disturbing Expressionist canvases that were intrinsically at odds with elegant decor. Hereafter, art and craft would go their separate ways.
Nevertheless, it is not quite accurate to see the Wiener Werkstätte’s early, purist phase as an isolated proto-modernist phenomenon, a momentary aberration sandwiched between more reactionary, historicist trends. Although the architects Otto Wagner and his pupils Hoffmann, Emil Hoppe, Marcel Kammerer and Otto Schönthal rejected those aspects of nineteenth-century design that looked to classical tradition as a grab-bag of paste-on motifs, they never rejected the structural principles of classical design. And while they believed in the adage of their classicist predecessor Gottfried Semper, that “Necessity is the only master of art,” they did not go so far as to espouse the modernist mantra, “Form follows function.” Relying still on applied ornament, they searched for a decorative vocabulary that was of the present moment. Yet even in the purist heyday (which ran its course from about 1895 to 1905), Austrian designers borrowed shamelessly from a variety of historical and contemporary sources, including the classical, the Baroque, the Biedermeier, British Arts & Crafts and vernacular architecture.
Hoffmann and his colleagues did not betray their original ideals, but rather carried them to their logical conclusion. The Wiener Werkstätte’s dependence on a crafts ethic, which inspired the highly prized proto-functionalist aesthetic, also had a conservative aspect. Fighting idealistically but foolishly against the advancing imperative of industrialization, the Werkstätte even in the 1920s refused to succumb to the requirements of mass-production. From the crafts ethic, too, derived an admiration for the ad-hoc practicality of vernacular architecture that proved unnervingly well-suited to the nationalistic fervor unleashed by World War I. The adaptation of folk forms celebrated the preeminence of native design and reinforced the newly rampant rejection of internationalism, which formerly had been so happily courted. Finally, the material shortages that followed the First World War transformed the Wiener Werkstätte’s rich formal vocabulary into a repertoire of superficial ornamentation, a sequence of fancy curlicues and cute doodads applied to paste-board boxes and wooden toys.
The Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte promoted no set style, yet in the final analysis, their creations are united by a common reliance on decorative line. This linear tendency initially derived from the attempt to impart beauty through applied ornament and was furthered by the Werkstätte’s alliance with the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), where many of the Werkstätte’s leaders taught their future employees. The Secessionists held that great artists should be able to practice in many fields, and this was no problem for such talents as Moser and Hoffmann, who readily turned out designs for everything from textiles to furniture. Students of lesser skill, however, were put to work creating two-dimensional patterns, which could then be applied across the board to various products. Ultimately, this helped to shift the emphasis away from innovative construction to surface decoration. Even Austrian painters (with the exception of the later Kokoschka and the loner Richard Gerstl) relied on line to define their compositions, rather than building forms through impasto and brushstroke.
Despite legendary cost overruns and several near-fatal brushes with bankruptcy, the Wiener Werkstätte survived until 1932. World War I left Austria a crippled nation, weakened not only by the privations of combat, but by the loss of her more industrialized territories, now the independent states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. These phenomena encouraged an artistic retreat into an idealized past of folksy kitsch and pseudo-Biedermeier coziness. The deaths in 1918 of such major pre-war figures as Klimt, Moser, Schiele and Wagner left the field open for the more Baroque fantasies produced by Dagobert Peche and others. Straightened economic conditions killed off the grand goal of the Gesamtkunstwerk as fully coordinated architectural environment, but the Wiener Werkstätte nonetheless succeeded in penetrating almost every facet of daily life with products that included fashions, textiles, lace, wallpaper, postcards, books, ceramics, glassware, cutlery and wrought metal objects. Rather than representing a decline, these developments bespeak a flexibility in the face of changing circumstances that ultimately proved key to the Werkstätte’s relative longevity. Just as we no longer look at modern art with the absolutism that prevailed in the mid 1980s, it should today be possible to see fin-de-siècle Vienna as an evolving cultural center that produced interesting innovations at every stage.