The MAK in Vienna dedicates a more than deserved study to the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, a Viennese production house that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, revolutionized the idea of design and decorative arts.
It was 1928 when the magazine Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration celebrated the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Wiener Werkstätte publishing the portraits of its most important members. Alongside the well-known Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Dagobert Peche there are also four women (whose name in the caption is strictly preceded by the title of Frau / Fräulein): Maria Likarz, Gudrun Baudisch, Vally Wieselthier and Mathilde Flögl. Confident look, poses a new female model, but they highlight an awareness. That is, that of having become recognized and acclaimed artists as well as their colleagues. Yet history, as usually happens, has not reserved the same fortune for them. In 1932 the historic Viennese production house went bankrupt and closed, while the political situation turned for the worse with the advent of Nazism. The name of these women and especially that of the others who for more than one operating system constituted the core of the Wiener Werkstätte are doomed to oblivion.
WOMEN AND DECORATIVE ARTS
Drawing from the archive of the scholar Werner J. Schweiger and other research on the subject carried out in the 1990s, the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna intended to begin a re-evaluation of the achievements as these artists with the rich and articulated exhibition Women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, accompanied by a catalog complete with biographies and news concerning about 180 women. “Without wishing to belittle the talent of Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Dagobert Peche and other artists, it is necessary to affirm that the WW owes fundamental qualities and artistic stimuli to female creativity.”, Writes museum director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein. If you think that the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna until 1920 remained inaccessible to women who then, like attending only the schools of arts and crafts, such numbers should not surprise. The decorative arts become one of the few sectors in which women can aspire to specialize as professionals: it is therefore this systemic condition, rather than the alleged “natural” preaching to home decoration, that creates the type of decorator artist.
THE EXHIBITION AT THE MAK IN VIENNA
Room after room, the exhibition traces the history of these artists starting from training at the Kunstgewerbeschule with the masters Hoffmann and Moser, up to the beginnings that even precede the establishment of the WW. In fact, not everyone knows that the first attempt at association in that direction was made in 1901 by five artists (Jutta Sika, Therese Thretan, Else Unger, Gisela von Falken, Marietta Peyfuss) together with five other student colleagues, gathered in the Wiener Kunst im Hause , with the aim of promoting a modern, sophisticated and Viennese decorative style. While inside the WW, which began in 1903, the women had a prevalent presence and role especially with the beginning of the First World War, which brought most of the men to the front. Starting from 1916 the then director Peche initiates these artists to a stylistic change – moving away from geometric cleanliness to embrace a freer and more naturalistic taste, inspired by Rococo – but it will then be they themselves who will mark the path.
THE ARTISTS AT THE EXHIBITION
Great space is dedicated by the exhibition to the textile industry, where Maria Likarz, Felice Rix, Martha Alber, Mathilde Flögl stand out: their abstract geometric or synthetic figurative patterns rework the languages of the avant-gardes and anticipate art déco. The ceramic production is surprising, starring Vally Wieselthier, author of some irreverent sculptures of decidedly expressionist female figures that tell a different story about the origin of this language, if it is true that women, more than men, had an interest in the primitivist character. popular and children’s art. The section dedicated to the production of toys, an area in which for the same reason the designers stand out for a strong innovative charge.
PREJUDICES AND ACHIEVEMENTS
There was no lack of criticism from the prejudice, well rooted at that time, towards women. The hostile position of Adolf Loos stands out as he defines “womanish” (play boy) the style assumed by the WW starting from the “baroque” turn, perhaps overlapping its aversion to decoration In short a certain misogyny. Yet the results, for example in the field of environmental decoration, show an experimental charge that is anything but trivial. In 1918 a group of artists decorated the WW shop in Kärntner Straße 32 covering all the wall surfaces, including the ceiling, using different techniques, from direct painting to the application of silk curtains and papier-mâché elements. Consequent development of the concept of a total work of art already affirmed by the Viennese Secession and experimented by the WW in the decoration of the Cabaret Fledermaus, an aptitude for unified environmental design anticipates the subsequent Futurist and De Stijl experiments, up to those of Lucio Fontana.
In 1919 the founding of the Bauhaus acquired collected this production by expanding it to the level of a true academy, whose goal was to replace artisanal production with industrial one. However, the role of women remained limited to traditional decorative areas considered suitable for female creativity (especially the textile one), allowing only a very few to become teachers or laboratory directors. The prejudices are identical, hindering the training and professional path of artists whose story is finally beginning to be told.
I Emanuela Termine