Q&A – Vienna: Art & Design exhibition

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Published:  October 7, 2011
Charlie Rose
Q&A – Vienna: Art & Design exhibition

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century fostered an art and design movement that is extraordinary by any standards. Master craftsmen in one field would turn their hands to others with amazing success. The insatiable desire to be modern permeated in all aspects of Viennese society; city planning, exhibition catalogues, cutlery, furniture, frescos and music to name only a few. What shaped the Secession movement? How did the ideals behind the movement shape the design?

With only a few days to go at one of the National Gallery in Victoria (Melbourne’s) Winter Masterpieces, I put some of these questions and more to international art curator, Laurie Benson.

Ferdinand ANDRI (designer) Albert BERGER (lithographer and printer) Poster for the 26th Secession Exhibition 1906 Wien Museum, Vienna Purchased, Albert Berger Collection, 1928

Why bring Vienna to Melbourne?
The NGV has fantastic holdings of Viennese objects and particularly furniture from this period. In the year of the 150th anniversary of the NGV we wanted the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition to have a direct resonance with our collections. It is also great to see a relatively small part of our diverse collections in the broader context of a very large exhibition.

Great care and attention to detail was used putting together Vienna: Art & Design, from the period Viennese typeface used in the catalogue to the Secession building façade. Are these details the trend of current day curatorship?
Only sometimes. The character of each exhibition lends itself to very different aesthetic principles. Period shows such as Vienna, and Art Deco that the NGV stage a few years ago, have at their core very clear design ideals, so they more naturally are suitable to particular styles of design.

How much do you feel that the atmosphere created by a joining of design and the arts influence each other?
Today many people react pretty harshly if you don’t call designers artists, and in most cases they are absolutely right. Like the members of the British Arts and Crafts movement in the 19th century, many of the Viennese at the time of this exhibition were very much about blurring this age old distinction. They were very much about collaboration and this made for very exciting and quite brilliant projects at the time.

Koloman MOSER Austria 1868–1918 Self-portrait c.1916–17 oil painting on canvas on cardboard 74.0 x 50.0 cm Belvedere, Vienna

How did governance of Vienna from 1890 at the time of rapid expansion allow such a robust art and design scene?
Certain elements of Viennese society fostered a general atmosphere that encouraged political and social change. Many artists tapped into this and also led a push for change. It was a period of growing independence of women that was a very positive social influence. On a micro level, it is really interesting that the local government in Vienna would give a block of land in the heart of the city to the Vienna Secessionists, a radical breakaway art movement that challenged the status quo. There was also fantastic encouragement of the more radical artists from enlightened wealthy patrons who supported and shared their ideals. This support may not have been general, but the enlightened few made a huge difference.

What struck me the most about Vienna: Art & Design was the variety of master craftsmanship. What other movement do you feel had or has the same impressive collection?
One of the closest parallels is to the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. They influenced the Viennese designers both aesthetically and philosophically. There is both a breadth and depth in high quality of design in both movements. But there are also other 20th century design groups and movements who as a collective were quite amazing.

All big exhibits need a draw card such as Gustav Klimt, but which artist do you think has caught audiences by surprise?
One of the strongest reactions we have received is to the work of Juta Sika, a ceramicist active after 1900. Her designs look so contemporary and they seem modern but timeless.

Gustav KLIMT Beethoven Frieze: Central wall 1901-02 (detail) Belvedere, Vienna

Do you find that borrowing pivotal/seminal material from a variety of countries means juggling stakeholders on how they should be portrayed?
No. Definitely not. Objects are chosen for their intrinsic value and are selected for specific reasons to demonstrate particular points being made. This means that a hierarchy as such doesn’t exist. If you do this, the show will break down.

The posters and catalogues for Secessionist exhibitions were cutting edge design, Moser, Andri & Klimt. How much did the idea behind the movement encourage influence the design?
Only completely. The radical nature of the movement was expressed succinctly through their graphic art, to the point where some of the best and most radical design was in their graphics. There was usually a perfect unity of the ideals behind whatever exhibition was being promoted and the graphics chosen to promote the show.

Ver Sacrum, the Secessionist Journal, was at the forefront of graphic design. What was their graphic design aesthetic?
Their overarching design philosophy was to be modern. As time moved on and styles evolved, the magazine reflected these shifts. A key to Ver Sacrum though was consistency in the aesthetic within each issue. This meant that even the advertisements in the magazine were designed to fit the aims of each issue. Ver Sacrum was treated as a work of art in its own right, an ideal shared by very few other magazines.

Josef HOFFMANN (designer), J. & J. KOHN, Vienna (manufacturer) Adjustable-back chair (c. 1905) Sitzmachine ebonised beech, plywood, steel (a-b) 110.8 x 68.1 x 83.7 cm (overall) Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Jardine Matheson Australia, Fellow, 1983

Both Moser and Hoffman were incredibly gifted and flexible designers from napkin rings to buildings. How much did they benefit by sharing of ideas at the Wiener Werkstätte?
Moser and Hoffmann very much set the agenda for the Wiener Werkstätte. They were critical in the process of selecting the artists and craftspeople who worked there. They drove the agenda of blurring the distinction of the artist and maker, so, their philosophy of collaboration was a important in the Wiener Werkstätte. Having said that, they encouraged individuality, so that the artists retained their own voice within the broader context of the WW. They were about giving artists a place to express themselves in a commercial world. The artists there fed off the sense of encouragement that Moser and Hoffmann fostered, perhaps to the point where it was not really successful commercially.

Wien Museum Director Wolfgang Kos said that, “Vienna was a city of logical and political contradiction.” Do you see the contradiction between prominent artists of the movement?
I’m not sure about contradiction between the artists as such. But within the ‘movement’, individuals still stood out, and if anything the freedom and encouragement to express individuality was the most enlightening aspect of Vienna at this time. So, by its intrinsic diversity, clashes of philosophy and opinion were inevitable, which I think is what Kos is alluding to. When an ideal of a movement is to encourage self expression, then ultimately you are going to get differences. So it is not surprising for instance that the Vienna Secession’s most dynamic and interesting time lasted less than a decade before it fell apart creatively as individual’s philosophies clashed.

What is next for the NGV?
The next major exhibition at NGV on St Kilda Rd is Mad Square, an exquisite exhibition of modernist German art, that starts late November. And the next Melbourne Winter Masterpiece is Napoleon: Revolution to Empire, a very exciting and dynamic show.

For more information about the exhibition, visit NGV’s website.

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