Women of the Viennese Workshops: Exhibition review

What would an exhibition look like that exclusively acknowledged women’s contributions to modern design? A possible answer to this question can currently be found at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, where Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte puts the work of the Viennese Workshops (Wiener Werkstätte, WW) design company’s female artists and designers in focus. It is the first large show at the MAK since its reopening after the lockdown, having had to be postponed for over six months. The accompanying publication Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, was already published in 2020, offering an introduction to topics such as toy design, ceramics and training in thematic essays, as well as biographies of all the WW’s female artists whose details could be traced.[1]

Ranging from wallpaper to toys, fashion, decorative sculpture and paper designs, the exhibition introduces a variety of works by an all-female workforce who came from across the Habsburg Empire or its successor states. Often, they arrived to study at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts, staying on as employees of the WW directly or through commissioned work, as the school funnelled a whole generation of young artists into the company. The exhibition challenges the longstanding dominance of male representatives of Viennese design within this environment – represented by figures such as Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956) and Koloman Moser (1868–1918) – and underlines that women were an important part of the WW’s creative workforce ever since its founding in 1903 by Hoffmann, Moser and the industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer. Indeed, until the company’s collapse in 1932, women’s contributions were continually on the rise and included artists and designers such as Felice Rix (1893–1967), Vally Wieselthier (1895–1945) and Mathilde Flögl (1893–1958), who went on to have successful careers for themselves in the 1920s and 30s.

Women Artists of the Viennese Workshops

Charlotte Billwiller, Mathilde Flögl, Susi Singer, Marianne Leisching, and Maria Likarz, photograph, 1924 © MAK

While the ‘rediscovery’ of women’s contributions to modern design might seem a rather traditional approach in terms of research in the field more broadly, in relation to the WW this is, indeed, a long overdue topic: though the company is successfully marketed for a mass audience as a prominent aspect of ‘Vienna 1900’, the diversity hidden beneath this label is only slowly being uncovered. Making the most of this venture of rediscovery, the exhibition is a blockbuster show in the MAK’s annex building, which previously hosted large exhibitions of the WW’s male protagonists, such as the Koloman Moser retrospective in 2018/2019. In comparison to its format as a one-man show, which is often the preferred way of approaching Viennese design around 1900, the current exhibition makes visible a different side of the topic: ‘Women of the Viennese Workshops’ is a collective exhibition, where collaboration and the (female) design community stand in focus. And not only that;  by shifting focus to artists and designers away from the spotlight, it also offers a new, much more playful and humorous image of Viennese design.

Craft, design and women’s work: Viennese points of view

The first, striking, aspect upon entering the show is the simple yet cosy exhibition design. Held in neutral, earthy colours, a movable layout has been constructed from brown cardboard and corrugated sheets as room dividers. What might sound like a crude choice of materials for a show focusing on delicate objects works surprisingly well in combination with the soft, warm lighting, which forges a comfortable atmosphere. While the overall design plan of the show is circular, small nooks and narrow sideways allow visitors to sneak in and out of the main exhibition route. With an arrangement inviting leisurely browsing in this manner, the very layout of the exhibition reminds us that the objects on display were sold commercially, bolstered further by a range of poster and letterhead designs, which trace the WW’s carefully devised in-house advertising campaigns.

Exhibition View, 2021: Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, MAK Exhibition Hall

MAK Exhibition View, 2021: Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, MAK Exhibition Hall – photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

The first room introduces the exhibition with the question, ‘Who influenced the style of the Viennese Workshops?’ The implicit answer to this – that, to a significant extent, it was the over 180 female artists and designers associated with the company – follows with a tour of women’s contributions across different departments of the company such as textile and fashion design, ceramics, toy, graphic and interior design. The show also gives insights into important international and local exhibitions for the women of the WW, including the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925 and the Schöne Wand (‘Beautiful Wall’) interior design exhibition in Vienna in 1933.[2] The feud ensuing between the WW and Vienna’s most famous architect Adolf Loos (1870–1933) based on his attacks on such exhibitions, famously renaming the Viennese Workshops ‘Viennese Woe’, not only points towards the fact that the WW was quickly considered to be somewhat outdated by contemporaries who made a living fashioning themselves as the arbiters of modern tastes; it also underlines that debates on craftwork remained decidedly gendered. In his infamous lecture at Vienna’s Musikverein in 1927, Loos cynically remarked:

No one needs […] painting, embroidery, ceramic making, valuable material-wasting dilettante daughters of senior civil-servants or other little misses from good households who regard handcraft as a way of making pocket change or killing time before walking down the aisle.[3]

Simultaneously, those who defended the WW as a crucial aspect of the Viennese design industry failed to defend its female artists, focusing instead on the work they produced, as the following article commented in Der Tag noted in response to Loos:

The Viennese Workshops created much that is against Loos’ taste, but much for the tastes of international audiences; their products, their leatherware, ceramics, fabrics, wallpaper, glassware, has found positive reception in foreign countries and the Viennese Workshops has done more for Vienna than Vienna has done for the Viennese Workshops.[4]

Aside from correcting this sexist view by writing women into the WW’s history, the exhibition implies an additional facet of women’s work, which would merit further attention in future projects. In a small section showing intricate lacework, visitors are reminded that WW artists were mostly responsible for the design of objects, not their commercial production. Outsourced to craft workshops or factories in rural areas of the Habsburg Empire and, after 1918, Austria, the WW’s commercial success was also dependent on the labour of different women: seamstresses, embroiderers and other unacknowledged craftswomen. Recognising their contribution to the production of the WW brand would add a further step to a decentred focus on the company as a representative of Viennese modernism resting on the shoulders of a handful of male artists and designers.

Ceramics as feminist sculpture

One of the highlights in the first rooms is a cigar cabinet designed by Rosa Krenn (1884–1970) from 1912, which, standing next to the introductory plaque, draws our attention to the fact that there were in principle no restrictions on the kind of work women could undertake at the company. On the other hand, aside from the cabinet, most of the work on display falls into three categories: fabric and fashion design, works and designs on paper, and ceramics. No doubt, the most striking objects of these are the ceramics, including almost life-size and miniature sculptures, as well as toy and interior designs by Wieselthier, Dina Kuhn (1891–1963), Kitty Rix (1901–?) and Gudrun Baudisch (1907–1982). Rarely have these works been shown to the public, the bright colour glazing and playful forms are extraordinary, pointing towards a tradition of modernist sculpture that was confidently constructed as feminine by its makers.[5]

Wieselthier’s sculptures explore and combine different types of femininity and female archetypes in an expressive style. Flora (1928), for example, shows an androgynous woman with pale skin, strong eye make-up and dark hair, cut in a fashionable short style. Crouching on a small pedestal, she turns her head sideways, evading the viewer’s gaze. Nude, apart from an orange cloth draped around the lower half of her torso and a matching flower hat, the woman’s body is marked by splashes of blue paint and adorned by large orange flowers. Pairing an allegorical figure with the characteristics of a modern woman, Flora encapsulates Wieselthier’s signature style, in which she explored new ways of depicting (new) women in sculpture.

View of the Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte exhibition with Vally Wieselthier's Flora

MAK Exhibition View, 2021: Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte. Vally Wieselthier: Flora, 1928. MAK Exhibition Hall – photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

With a similar aim yet taking quite a different shape, Kitty Rix’s miniature Ceramicist at the Wheel (1929) shows a woman in a blue overall at the pottery wheel, some small items, clay, perhaps, next to her. Her face is depicted in a notably naïve style, consisting only of two small black dots as eyes, a little red mouth and round cheeks in a bright reddish orange colour. Resembling Rix’s ceramic toy sculptures, the miniature is a tongue-in-cheek comment of its artist’s own profession, underlining a new image of femininity that is playful and self-assertive at the same time.

Fritzi Löw and Hedwig Schmidl, Decoration objects for the art exhibition 1920

Fritzi Löw and Hedwig Schmidl: Decorative objects for the art exhibition of 1920, contemporary photograph © MAK

One might hope that more space and research will be dedicated to this kind of work in the future as an aspect of Viennese modernism that is genuinely different from the one that is generally known. Indeed, in the exhibition itself, some of the objects included would already have benefitted from further contextualisation, especially given the show’s claim to be breaking old narratives of Viennese design. In relation to current debates about central Europe’s implications in colonialism and the othering of non-European cultures specifically, works such as Wieselthier’s clay sculpture Salome (1938) could offer a way into more critical debates, which the exhibition overall avoids in favour light-hearted narratives.

A new generation? Questions of gender and the Kunstgewerblerin

Similarly remarkable, yet not presented quite as strikingly as the ceramics, are the fashion designs by Mathilde Flögl, among others. Her costumes and the photographs showcasing them underline the fact that the WW embraced and experimented with modernist forms and technologies much more openly than works by established figures such as Hoffmann might suggest. Rather than basing this only on gender difference, the artists represented in the exhibition were also of a younger generation than Hoffmann and Moser, who were their teachers. In this sense, Women Artists of the Viennese Workshops also emphasises the company’s continuous renewal throughout the first decades of the twentieth century with the help of a young workforce. Still, the fashion photographs also underline the importance of all-female productions within this younger generation, including the designer Gertrud Brandt, the dancer Lena Amsel (1898–1929) as a model, and the photographer Anny Eberth, who led a photographic studio in Berlin. In an amusing twist, the only male artist represented in the exhibition is Gustav Klimt with a portrait of Johanna Staude wearing a blouse designed by Martha Alber (1901–2000). There can be no exhibition about early-twentieth-century Vienna without Klimt, it seems ­– even if the exhibition focuses on women artists only.

Gustav Klimt's portrait of Johanna Staude at the Women Artists of the Viennese Workshops exhibition

MAK Exhibition View, 2021: Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte. In the foreground: Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Johanna Staude (dressed in an item of clothing made from the WW fabric Leaves by Martha Alber), 1917/18. MAK Exhibition Hall – photo © MAK/Georg Mayer

Yet, while men seem to be consciously excluded from the exhibition, it is also clear that their presence cannot be erased: aside from craft subjects such as lacemaking and embroidery, the teachers of the WW designers, frequently trained at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts, were mostly men, including Michael Powolny (1871–1954) who taught ceramics, and Hoffmann, who oversaw interior design. Combining this background with the Klimt portrait, the presence of male ‘forefathers’ thus hovers over the exhibition, leaving the question whether an integrated approach could have offered an alternative, more nuanced take on questions of gender in Viennese design.

The presentation of little-known objects and artists is the exhibition’s strong point, together with the atmospheric display. However, if we return to the initial question as to who influenced the style of the Viennese Workshops, the presentations of the material would have benefitted from a more critical, overarching approach that went beyond the fact that women represented an important part of the WW’s creative workforce. Insights into what it meant to be a female designer, for example, only surface towards the end of the exhibition, where the section ‘(Self-) Fashioning the New Woman’ addresses the figure of the Kunstgewerblerin (female decorative artist). Women of the WW featured in Joseph Roth’s novel The Emperor’s Tomb of 1938 and Walter Reisch’s 1935 film Episode (on view in the exhibition), and became a symbol of a specific type of modern femininity that was frequently addressed in interwar popular culture.[6] As the exhibition connects this independent, self-aware femininity to works such as Wieselthier’s ceramic heads or the founding of the feminist Wiener Frauenkunst artists’ association, closer attention to the Kunstgewerblerin type and its real-life counterparts would have offered a more overarching approach to the achievements of the artists and designers included in the exhibition. Moreover, while the number of figures represented in the exhibition is remarkable, this is at the expense of more detailed information about individual artists. The broad introduction offered by ‘Women of the Viennese Workshops’ could thereby serve as the basis for a more balanced approach in the future. Overall, the exhibition sets the tone for a different view of Viennese design in the early twentieth century, and the objects on display certainly speak for a revaluation of the persisting myths of Vienna around 1900. To proceed with this goal, however, it will be necessary to include debates on the broader structural background of the imbalances that have so long dominated this history.[7]

Julia Secklehner

Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, 5 May to 3 October 2021)

[1] Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Anne-Katrin Rossberg, and Elisabeth Schmuttermeier, eds, Women Artists of the Viennese Workshops (Basel, 2020).

[2] Die schöne Wand: VI. Ausstellung des Verbandes Bildender Künstlerinnen und Kunsthandwerkerinnen ‘Wiener Frauenkunst’ veranstaltet mit der Genossenschaft der Maler (Vienna, 1933).

[3] Adolf Loos, ‘Ich – der bessere Österreicher,’ cited in Megan Brandow-Faller, ‘Feminine Vessels: Expressionist Ceramics of the Wiener Werkstätte,’ in Women Artists of the Viennese Workshops, p. 169.

[4] Bac. ‘Das Wiener Weh,’ Die Stunde, 21 April 1927, p. 5.

[5] Megan Brandow-Faller, ‘Feminine Vessels: The Ceramic Sculpture of Vally Wieselthier,’ Woman’s Art Journal 35.2 (2014) pp. 28–36.

[6] H.A.V. ‘Die Kunstgewerblerin,’ Profil. Österreichische Monatsschrift für bildende Kunst 4 (1933) pp. 133–135.

[7] As suggested in publications such as Megan Brandow-Faller, The Female Secession. Art and the Decorative at the Viennese Women’s Academy, (Pennsylvania, 2020).

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