Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte
MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna
April 21 – October 03, 2021
The MAK exhibition “WOMEN ARTISTS OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE” directs visitors’ attention to the hitherto underappreciated women designers who significantly broadened the Wiener Werkstätte‘s creative spectrum. The accomplishments of the male artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW, 1903-1932) – principally Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Dagobert Peche – enjoy global fame. In contrast, the women artists of the WW have met with only sporadic interest to date. Gudrun Baudisch, Vally Wieselthier, and Mathilde Flögl are well known. But who were Martha Alber, Karoline Fink, and Paula Lustig? Over 600 exhibits provide an insight into the almost unknown and at times radical work of women designers in Vienna between 1900 and 1930, which helped to establish the WW’s prominent position between Art Nouveau and Bauhaus.
This impressive exhibition testifies to the women designers‘ inventiveness and their instrumental involvement in the development of Viennese arts and crafts. Arranged both chronologically and thematically, the MAK show traces the women artists’ path from their training to their reception in the 1920s. The MAK accomplished a pioneering feat while conducting the research for “WOMEN ARTISTS OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE”: 180 women artists were identified as employees of the WW, and the first biographies of some 140 of them have been written.
Work by some 100 of the women artists is featured in the show. They worked in all areas of arts and crafts and the majority of them had studied at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, which admitted female students from the very beginning. They were initially trained in flower and decorative painting, later in the specialist studios for enamelwork and drawing lace – in other words traditionally ‘female’ fields. Appointed in 1899, the director Felician von Myrbach finally granted women access to architecture and sculpture classes. He also engaged the Secession artists Hoffmann and Moser as heads of the architecture and painting schools. In line with the idea of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – or total work of art – they extended their teaching to all aspects of decorative art and included their female students in their collaborations with producers. Many of the resulting works have been incorporated in the exhibition, including sets by Jutta Sika and Therese Trethan, executed by the porcelain manufactory Josef Böck, and fabric patterns by Else Unger, executed by Joh. Backhausen & Söhne. Unger also designed furniture, Gisela von Falke striking ceramics. Together with Marietta Peyfuss and five fellow students, they founded the association ‘Wiener Kunst im Hause’ (Viennese Art in the Home) in 1901, a direct precursor of the Wiener Werkstätte.
One focus of the MAK exhibition is the earliest works by the women artists of the WW, such as designs for postcards sold by the WW from 1907. Their subjects are congratulations, cityscapes, landscapes, children’s games, and predominantly fashion. Mela Koehler and Maria Likarz were particularly creative in this regard, and they would have a formative influence the commercial graphic design of the WW until its closure. In 1910 the WW opened its fabrics department, which was followed in 1911 by the fashion department. The extensive fashion designs are documented by the portfolio “Mode Wien 1914/5”, produced in large part by women artists of the WW, including Lotte Frömel-Fochler and Rosa Krenn. In the major fashion exhibition at the Museum of Art and Industry in 1915, they attempted to assert themselves in the face of the French competition. This show in the middle of the First World War already featured all the names that commonly come to mind when the women artists of the WW are mentioned: Mathilde Flögl, Hilde Jesser, Fritzi Löw, Reni Schaschl, Felice Rix, and Vally Wieselthier.
The exhibition concludes with the reception of the ‘female’ WW art in the 1920s. Over the course of the First World War the economic situation had necessitated women entering the workforce and this gave rise to a new kind of woman: independent and confident. In contemporary literature she is symbolized for example by the short-haired, smoking, and extravagantly dressed ‘decorative artist’. This profession entailed a certain elitism: it did not guarantee a good income and was the preserve of women of considerable means. Adolf Loos saw in them bored upper class daughters who “call themselves ‘artists’ because they can do batik”. This criticism culminated in the expression “Viennese broads’ decorative art” by the graphic artist Julius Klinger. This radical criticism was juxtaposed with their acclaim in major interwar exhibitions, such as the Deutsche Gewerbeschau in Munich (1922) or the Art Deco exhibition in Paris (1925). Designed by Gudrun Baudisch, Mathilde Flögl, and Vally Wieselthier, the catalog for the 25th anniversary of the Wiener Werkstätte in 1928 again demonstrated their graphic and sculptural skills.
The exhibition “WOMEN ARTISTS OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE“ will be accompanied by a publication of the same name, which will contain biographies of the women artists as researched by the MAK.