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Modernist Material

A show at the Corning Museum of Glass explores the role of glass in early 20th-century Viennese design.

Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937”

Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” at the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.

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Deeply embedded in the Vienna modernist movement is the notion that applied art could be designed, crafted, and appreciated as fine art. To the designers and craftsmen of the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte, objects made for everyday use were not to be ghettoized as “low” art. Instead, they thought that applied art objects, with their recurrent presence in users’ lives, could imbue the mundane with beauty and meaning.

Otto Wagner, who became the chair of the special school of architecture at the Vienna Academy of Arts in 1894, wrote in his influential 1895 book Modern Architecture that contemporary architecture and art could create new or evolved forms if they were developed in response to new materials, uses, and human demands. The Siebener-Club (Club of Seven), a group that included Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and several of Wagner’s colleagues and students, was formed with this idea in mind. The Vienna Secession, a spinoff of that group, emerged in 1897, taking inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement in England while focusing on the development of a sense of modernity that was expressly Viennese (the group famously designed every detail of the interiors of Vienna’s striking Café Fledermaus).

In 1903, Hoffmann and Moser started the Wiener Werkstätte, a workshop and artists’ collective that focused on the applied arts. A 1905 pamphlet about the workshop summed up its genesis: “The limitless harm done in the arts and crafts field by low quality mass production on the one hand and by the unthinking imitation of old styles on the other is affecting the whole world like some gigantic flood…It would be madness to swim against this tide. Nevertheless, we have founded our workshop.”

This thinking extended to glass, which became, theoretically speaking, a vessel for the progressive concepts of the Viennese modernists. Ironically, artists looking to explore ideas with the medium had tradition on their side: fine glass and glass craftsmanship were long established in the North Bohemian provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both through arts and crafts schools and manufactories. With elevated quality and skill endemic to the region, glass was popular not only as an art form unto itself but as a favored design element of Viennese architects and artists. Wagner labeled glass “modernist material,” and for the modernists working in Vienna, firms like J. & L. Lobmeyr and E. Bakowits Sohne acted as commissioning retailers, helping create and sell new forms of this ancient medium.

“Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937,” an exhibition that is on view at the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, N.Y., through January 7, explores the moment when glass became modern in early 20th-century Vienna. The show, which is a tripartite effort between the CMoG, the MAK in Vienna, and the LE STANZE DEL VETRO in Venice, had runs at the Austrian and Italian museums prior to its move stateside.

Many of the works in the show come from the collection of the MAK. Founded in 1864, it is the second-oldest museum of decorative arts in the world and the progenitor of the University of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule), a hub for the cross-section of art, architecture, and glassmaking. The MAK gives the show not only 100 pieces but also a bird’s-eye-view perspective, explains Alexandra Ruggiero, Assistant Curator at the CMoG and the curator of the museum’s version of the show. “The MAK has been around since before this period, so they were collecting directly from these artists and manufacturers in real time.” Similarly, J. & L. Lobmeyr, which is still active today, has loaned several pieces of glass and artists’ drawings from the period, giving insight into the design and fabrication process at the time.

The CMoG’s iteration of the exhibition includes some 170 works, 50 of which are additions from its own permanent collection. Loans from a private collection of period works—furniture, textiles, metalwork, etc.—create context and ambience for the glass pieces. “Our audience here isn’t as familiar with this period as they are in Vienna,” says Ruggiero. “There, you can easily see examples of this style of architecture and design, but here we wanted to set the stage for this movement and show how these pieces would be displayed together.”

One standout of the show, a tableware set of nine blown vessels designed by Hoffmann for the Wiener Werkstätte in 1916, comes from the CMoG’s collection. With their spare decoration and striking blue coloration, the mold-blown glass pieces seem almost a precursor to abstract art’s geometric fields of color. Hoffman, who studied with Wagner, excelled at prioritizing form and stripping away extraneous detail.

Another showpiece of the CMoG’s collection is Vase with Birds, a 1916 piece manufactured by Joh. Oertel & Co. and Glasfachschule Haida (Novy Bor). A cylindrical vase that flares to the rim, it is an example of colorless glass that is mold-blown, enameled, stained, and polished. It features an intricate pattern with black birds at the top and columns of yellow spirals and bells toward the base. The interlocking shapes of its decoration, which are at once energetic and restrained, bring Klimt’s work to mind.

Jardiniere, a piece designed by Urban Janke and manufactured by J. & L. Lobmeyr in 1912, showcases the Bronzit decoration style. Hoffmann developed Bronzit, which involved the application of a black or brown coating with a metallic sheen to the glass surface, in 1910. Its motifs married thick geometric forms with vegetal patterns. In Jardiniere, a piece in the MAK collection, a heavy geometric pattern is broken up by animal figures. Developed by Janke and Heinrich Jungnickel, two members of the Wiener Werstätte, Bronzit pieces with animal figures such as this became quite popular.

In Vase with Lid, a cut and cased glass piece designed by Emanuel Josef Margold and manufactured by Carl Schappel, the marriage between the applied arts and architecture in Vienna seems particularly clear. “This piece really ties traditional glass-making techniques with the new aesthetics of the period,” says Ruggiero. “It has such a an architectural quality with its pagoda-shaped lid.” The piece’s roof-like top seems to point upward into a new era of design.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2018

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