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A desire for beauty

A Vienna exhibit showcases one of modern Europe's most forward-thinking art movements

January 27, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Vienna — This city today is best known for its impeccably preserved remnants of the Habsburg empire: Baroque residences and monumental palaces. Balls still serenaded by Strauss waltzes. Lipizzaner stallions still prancing under crystal chandeliers. So it's difficult to imagine an era when Vienna also embodied the cutting edge.

But a landmark exhibition that opened here last month reminds us of a time when imperial Vienna -- or at least part of it -- was stunningly modern. Featuring about 1,200 pieces (many from private collections), the exhibition commemorates the centenary of one of the most innovative artistic movements in modern Europe.

Founded in 1903, the Wiener Werkstatte (literally, "Vienna Workshop") brought together a remarkable array of designers and artists who rejected the gilded grandeur of imperial tastes in favor of bold new shapes, patterns and textures for home furnishings and articles of everyday life.

More varied in their aesthetic range than their contemporaries in the Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus movements, artisans of the Wiener Werkstatte created angular chairs with concentric wood frames; vases of hammered silver with industrial grid designs; wallpaper and clothing, some with stark block-printed pat-terns, others that took their designs from Moravian or Bohemian folk art; tableware with vastly streamlined curves and lines; dramatic blue glass bowls with jutting angles; and box-shaped wooden tables concealing a multitude of drawers.

Some of these styles have become so much a part of the vernacular of modern design that their radical origins are now largely unrecognized.

The long-handled flatware sold at such emporiums as Crate and Barrel and Williams-Sonoma had its origins in the Wiener Werkstatte. Many of today's light fixtures and what are commonly known as cafe or ice cream parlor chairs also drew their inspiration from chairs made in Vienna in the first 20 years of the last century.

The movement's breadth, innovation and often startling features are well illustrated by the new exhibition called "Yearning for Beauty," which will remain on view through March 7 at the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Arts), known as the MAK, parent of the MAK Center in West Hollywood. The museum is located on Vienna's famous Ringstrasse -- a long succession of the kind of imposing classical and even gaudy buildings that Werkstatte artists disdained.

The show attempts to explain the often quixotic goals of the movement's founders and place them in a historical context. The style found its patrons and its inspiration at the same time that the city's intellectual community was in greatest ferment. Sigmund Freud was writing on dreams, playwright Arthur Schnitzler was bringing sexually explicit topics to the stage, and Arnold Schoenberg was beginning work on his 12-tone musical system.

"The Wiener Werkstatte was extremely radical. It was a rebellion from the historicism of the art of the period," says chief curator Christian Witt-Dorring, who put together the show and worked on the lustrous catalog.

With customers like the family of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the furniture magnate Leo Waerndorfer, the Werkstatte movement had a sympathetic audience, particularly among Jewish members of Vienna's haute bourgeoisie, who were also trying to make a mark on the Austrian capital's style.

The exhibition pays tribute to the movement's struggle to survive, as well as its reach. The Werkstatte was never an overall financial success, but the deprivations of World War I and the economic distress of the 1920s proved crippling. By 1932, it had closed up shop. Also by that time, some of its most generous financial patrons and customers, sensing a rising tide of anti-Semitism, had left the country.

The Werkstatte was formed by the partnership of Josef Hoffmann, a Moravian-born architect, and Koloman Moser, a graphic artist and designer from Vienna, both of whom taught at the School of Applied Arts. They were fellow artistic radicals in Vienna's Secession movement, formed a few years earlier when a number of artists left the traditional arts academy to espouse more modern and cube-like architectural designs. But in just a few years, they became increasingly drawn to the already mature British Arts and Crafts movement and focused on the design of interior spaces and their furnishings.

They borrowed the workshop model from the British architect and designer Charles Ashbee, who pioneered the idea of an artistic studio cum production center where artists, designers and artisans were partners in the creative enterprise.

Ardent admirers

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