Klimt’s Secessionists Took Synchronizing Art to New Levels
Quick: What does the name Gustav Klimt bring to mind? A controversial fin-de-siècle artist? Yet another print of his ubiquitous “Kiss” painting? Or perhaps the painter’s at-the-time shocking erotica—those sensual women depicted through mosaics and glowing gold paint?
Well, there’s more substance to this famed Austrian symbolist painter than scandal and dazzle: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was a founding father of the Vienna Secession Movement, which rejected Victorian-establishment traditions and styles and ushered in a vibrant new art and social scene. In fact, his paintings now out-price those of Pablo Picasso.
But you’ll find none of that at the Textile Museum’s exhibit titled “Textiles of Klimt’s Vienna.” In fact, you won’t find much Klimt here at all save for a few photos and a reproduction of one of his portraits. However, as exhibit curator and Textile Museum Director Daniel Walker put it, the rebel Klimt “hovers over all of it.”
What you will find in this tiny museum are some delightful examples of textile art from early 20th-century Vienna created by people who, like Klimt, challenged the traditional styles of their day, and whose work is presented in a four-part show that challenges a few of our own traditions today.
Spanning 1897 to 1932, the exhibit offers some 50 textiles that take a close look at three important designers of the time, as well as related objects such as books, fabric-covered boxes, swatches and wallpaper—along with photographs depicting entire rooms and fashionable clothing created as interconnected works of art.
The display offers an entree into the ideas of a group of Viennese artists who worked to integrate art into all aspects of daily life. They were influenced by the arts and crafts movements in England, Glasgow and Germany that touted affordable and practical art for the masses. Vienna’s Secessionists believed that a building, its furnishings, and even the jewelry and clothing that people in the building wore should make up a single “total work of art,” or as they called it, “Gesamtkunstwerk.” They wanted to “eliminate the distinction between fine and decorative art,” according to curator Walker.
These Secessionists envisioned teams of artists creating handmade art that would be widely available in the humblest of homes. To put that vision into action, they founded the Vienna Workshop (Wiener Werkstätte) in 1903, a commercial undertaking that created and sold architectural planning, paintings, textiles, clothing and household furnishings of all kinds.
“The commercial operation was never quite successful, their financial backers all lost money, and they were patronized by the upper middle class alone,” explained Walker. “It was set up to be efficient, but it never was. It was highly inefficient. It used the best artists and materials and its work was never cheap.”
Although their vision of widespread art was never fully realized, the workshop did get off to a good start: It got its first big commission in 1905 to create, under the leadership of architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, Belgium—a mansion still owned by the Stoclet family. (Klimt contributed murals to the dining room.)
The guest rooms in the Palais Stoclet “were totally covered in workshop designs—the rugs, drapes, upholstery, furniture,” Walker said. “Guests who stayed in a room were given matching-design robes so they would blend right in.”
Hoffmann’s intricate design work is featured in the opening section of the exhibit. Incorporating a variety of fabrics—many of which were created in 1910 during the first decade of the workshop’s life—the pieces illustrate Hoffmann’s love of simple geometric patterns, small scale, and use of black and white.
The second exhibit section features the fabric designs of the prolific Dagobert Peche, who created more than 113 textile patterns for the Wiener Werkstätte and 45 of its wallpaper designs. Peche, although famous for his graphic-line work and nature themes, worked in several widely varied and distinctive styles, Walker said, and the Peche color bands on display here are a testament to that diversity.
Additionally, Peche’s range and his contributions when compared to Hoffmann’s demonstrate that, contrary to accepted notions, there is no one actual Secession or Vienna Workshop style, explained Walker, whose exhibit is set up to underscore that point. “These are not the names of a particular art style. They are labels for an association of people with common standards and philosophies,” he said.
One standard involved selling art widely and catering to customer demands. Peche pushed this commercial concept, designing the Wiener Werkstätte sales room that opened in 1917 and running it for two years. Then, as now, the mixing of commercialization with fine and applied arts was controversial. Secession painter Koloman Moser didn’t approve of this fusion and subsequently left the workshop.
Another artist who illustrates workshop diversity is Maria Likarz-Strauss, the most active textile designer in the group, with more than 200 designs to her name and a stylistic range that ran from Hoffmann-like geometrics to striking abstracts and exotic designs with travel references. She was co-head of the workshop’s fashion department in the 1920s, and a photo in the exhibit portrays a dress she designed in 1923 that used a Peche-pattern fabric.
While emphasizing the variety present among workshop artists, Walker acknowledged that there are unifying themes, many of which follow founder Klimt: “Klimt was trained to do patterns. He was an ornamentalist, and he created an art of the surface. It’s two-dimensional art.”
The importance of the Secession Movement among upper-middle-class art patrons in Vienna is underscored by the one Klimt portrait in the show: a reproduction of his 1916 oil on canvas titled “Friedericke Maria Beer.” According to Walker, “Beer loved the workshop and her entire wardrobe consisted of workshop designs. In this portrait, she’s wearing either loose trousers or a dress in the ‘Marina’ pattern designed by Peche. Klimt insisted she pose wearing her fur coat inside-out so the workshop’s design on the lining would show in the painting.”
One recent visitor to the Vienna exhibit was Laurie Landy, a D.C. resident who recently retired from her job at the U.S. Agency for International Development. A collector of 20th-century rugs and American arts and crafts mission-style furniture, she came to see the exhibit because she was “interested in fabrics and design” and believes the Textile Museum “has intelligent shows.”
Landy said she liked the ideas behind this particular show better than the art itself, especially the way Walker incorporated links to the arts and crafts movements and the Victorian context. However, as a lover of the clean mission designs of the American Midwest, she found Vienna Workshop’s multiple and ornate patterning a bit overwhelming. “I would have nightmares living in some of those rooms they designed,” she joked.
Textiles of Klimt’s Vienna through Jan. 6 Textile Museum 2320 S. St., NW For more information, please call (202) 667-0441 or visit www.textilemuseum.org.
About the Author
Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.