Female head by Vally Wieselthier

Artwork of the Month, July 2022: Head by Vally Wieselthier (1928)

This striking ceramic head, nearly 28 centimetres in height, depicts a young woman wearing a slanted fashionable cap, counter-posed with a green flower in her hair. It was executed by Vally Wieselthier (1895–1945) and is one of many female heads she produced for the Wiener Werkstätte in the late 1920s. Indeed, not only did Wieselthier produce distinctive ceramic heads of this kind; many other artists associated with the Wiener Werkstätte, such as Gudrun Baudisch (1907–1982), Hertha Bucher (1898–1960) and Erna Kopriva (1894–1984) made similar heads. Baudisch, in particular, executed a number that are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those by Wieselthier.

Female head by Vally Wieselthier

Vally Wieselthier: Head (Female Head with Green Flower), Wiener Werkstätte, model number K 494, 1928, private collection – photo: Dorotheum

A feature common to all of them is that they are of young women, and while the ceramic bust as a genre may be a very traditional one, the women are unambiguously modern; they wear fashionable head attire and the latest haircuts of the interwar period. Although executed in a different medium, Wieselthier’s head, along with many others by her peers, reminds us of the prominence of the theme of women in hats in modernist art. The best-known example, perhaps, is Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905), but Actress (1907) by the Hungarian painter Dezső Czigány suggests it was a theme in central Europe, too. As in those paintings, so here, in Wieselthier’s head, refinement has been supplanted with crude paintwork and garish colours.

Although heads such as that of Wieselthier are seldom discussed alongside the oeuvre of painters such as Matisse and Czigány, the shared subject matter as well as aesthetic language suggests that ceramic designs also have their place in the broader history of modernism’s revolutions. It is no doubt for this reason that Wieselthier’s work was included in the exhibition on Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte staged at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna in 2021. Its overall aim was to argue for the vital role of women as artists and designers, not only in the Werkstätte, but also, by extension, in Vienna as a whole in the early twentieth century. The exhibition was part of a marked growth of interest recently in modernist women artists in Austria.[1] Yet it not only sought to ‘retrieve’ a depressingly understudied topic, it also aimed to cast the women members of the Werkstätte as radicals challenging stereotyped conceptions of gender identity in early twentieth-century Austrian society, as well as opening up new possibilities for the applied arts. This renewed critical attention coincides, too, with a surge of interest in the contemporary art market.[2]

Wieselthier’s ceramic bust seems to bear out this contention, and we can compare it with the other female heads she designed the same year, their head attire and hairstyles seemingly illustrate the idea of the ‘New Woman’ who had become an emblem of women’s emancipation and an important signifier of modernity in European societies. The crude paintwork and exaggerated colour, of the head by Wieselthier and those of her colleagues at the Wiener Werkstätte, can be read in a number of ways. Most immediately, the faces of the heads are wearing make-up, its excessive character a critical comment, perhaps, on the way in which female identity is an artificial performance. The gaudiness of the colours has led some to refer to the 1920s ceramic heads of the Wiener Werkstätte as ‘Expressionist.’

Vally Wieselthier with one of her life-size sculptures. 1928/29

Vally Wieselthier with one of her works, 1928/29, New York, from Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, 1929 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The considerable conceptual and thematic differences between Wieselthier and her Expressionist peers – she shows none of the interest in the themes of rebirth, sexual liberation and spiritual redemption of contemporary painters such as Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), Egon Schiele (1890–1918) or Anton Kolig (1886–1950) – would suggest that the comparison is a little overstated. Nevertheless, it is clear that Wieselthier’s head (and those of her peers) are informed by an engagement with modernist practices of the previous two decades. We gain a clearer sense of this if we bring into consideration other works she produced in the 1920s. For she executed a number of monumental ceramic sculptures of female nude . One contributor to the catalogue of Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte noted that these figures in particular, ‘through their increasingly monumental scale and provocative figural subject matter, challenged pejorative stereotypes surrounding women’s art making, constituting a uniquely female – and feminist – contribution …’[3] They also overturned traditional notions of ceramics either as a material for mere handicraft or for mass-produced domestic consumption. These works bring into question the hierarchy that had traditionally governed sculpture, one in which bronze, marble, limestone took precedence over ceramics as fine art materials. Her concern to elevate ceramic sculpture to the level of fine art also makes comparisons with modernist paintings all the more convincing.

Female Nude by Vally Wieselthier

Vally Wieselthier: Reclining Female Nude, c. 1928 – photo by author

The head, with its topical theme of feminine identity in modern society, seems to offer a glimpse into the pursuit of progressive ideals and values in interwar Viennese art and applied arts. It certainly explains why Wieselthier has been a focus of considerable interest amongst feminist scholars. Yet if we consider the wider range of her work, and set it in its social and political context, we might need to be cautious before affirming this view of her.

Training first at the Vienna Art School for Women and Girls (Kunstschule für Frauen und Mädchen, it was renamed the Women’s Academy – Frauenakademie – in 1926) and then at the School of Applied Arts in the capital, Wieselthier began working at the Wiener Werkstätte in 1917 and, between 1922 and 1927, also ran her own ceramics company in Vienna. From the late 1920s her designs increasingly found a market in the United States following her successful involvement in the International Exhibition of Ceramic Arts of 1928 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her growing involvement in the United States led to her to decision to move there in 1933, first to Chicago where she worked for the Sebring Pottery Company. She died there in 1945, having achieved considerable success; in its obituary of her the New York Times celebrated her work, ranking her alongside such design luminaries as Paul Poiret and Lucian Bernhard.[4]

When she joined the Wiener Werkstätte it was entering the crisis-ridden final years of its existence. Already in 1914 it had already nearly gone bankrupt, and in 1926, it was thrown into yet another financial crisis, and went into administration. Various attempts were made to place it on a sustainable financial footing, but a combination of economic slump after the First World War, as well as the fact that its artists and designers were reluctant to make the necessary compromises to appeal to a mass market, meant that the Wiener Werkstätte failed to be economically viable and, in 1932, it finally closed down.

Michael Powolny, Spring (Putto), c. 1907

Michael Powolny: Spring, c. 1907, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The period after 1918 also saw a significant change of direction in design, set in motion by Michael Powolny (1871–1954) and Dagobert Peche (1887–1923), who encouraged adoption of a more exuberant decorative approach that laid greater stress on a rich and bright palette of colours, often with figurative motifs and subjects. Wieselthier’s heads can clearly be seen as a reflection of this, but she also produced numerous vases and vessels with bright irregular painted decoration in a similar vein. They could not have been more different from the austere aesthetic of the pre-war designs of Moser and Hofmann. An interest in abstract design did not entirely disappear; the visual language, however, had changed. In 1928, for example, Wieselthier co-designed with Baudisch the covers of a commemorative volume celebrating the first 25 years of the Werkstätte. They consisted of a relief decoration comprising animals, female figures and vessels. Yet the forms were abstracted schematic forms, and the designers reduced the covers to two red and black fields defined by a diagonal division.

Vally Wieselthier

Vally Wieselthier: A bowl with animal-shaped handles, 1926, private collection – photo: Dorotheum

That Wieselthier and Baudisch were responsible for the book cover highlights an additional important change; women artists and designers became definitive of the identity Wiener Werkstätte in its final years. Yet it became mired in controversy in the 1920s, culminating, perhaps, in its involvement in the International Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. The submission was heavily criticised and deemed to have been a failure. Hostile observers, most notably, Adolf Loos (1870–1933), gave vent to sexist stereotypes about female creativity. The problem with the Wiener Werkstätte, he argued, was that it had become too feminised and decorative.[5] This, from the architect who had made his name decrying the decadent and ‘criminal’ character of ornament in modern art and design.

Such polemics have been rightly dismissed, not only for their sexism but also for their inaccuracy; while the change in the aesthetic of post-war Wiener Werkstätte ceramics coincided with the enhanced significance of women designers, the resurgence of interest in ornament and decoration was a wider shift with which men were just as engaged as women. Alongside Peche and Powolny the architect and designer Josef Frank (1885–1967), for example, emphasised the need to cultivate a sense of Gemütlichkeit (or cosiness) in opposition to the arid approach of Loos and many other contemporary architects.[6] This involved using floral decoration and multiple colours in interior design, for example, to help the occupants of a building develop a meaningful connection to the spaces they inhabited, even if there was a risk of sentimentality creeping in.[7]

The shift in design language promoted by Peche and Powolny was part of a wider Neobaroque artistic revival after the First World War in Austria, in which both were prominent, designing a range of objects, from metalwork to furniture and ceramics, that made use of historicising ornamental motifs, figures – including putti – that evoked the past, and whimsical subjects of a kind associated with Baroque and Rococo art and design. Contemporary commentators did not miss these references either; August Schestag (1870–1939), for example, director of the Austrian Museum for Art and Industry, welcomed this revival of the ‘Baroque era which we so love.’[8] Wieselthier was receptive to this aesthetic, too. Her candelabra of 1925, for example, seems to be an exercise in Baroque excess and exuberance, its grey glaze also giving the impression that it might be some object that had escaped from the collection of a Wunderkammer. This may seem quite different from the head that is the topic of this Artwork of the Month essay, yet even here we can find connections. For a common topic in art criticism in 1920s Vienna was the idea that the Expressionism of artists such as Kokoschka represented a modernist renewal of the Baroque spirit of Austria.[9]

Loos argued that the work of the Wiener Werkstätte in the 1920s had little to do with the modernism and its putatively progressive ideals of a rational reordered society he championed; we can object to the sexist undertones of his attack, but we also have to face the awkward fact that he nevertheless identifiably a potentially problematic aspect to this work. For the Baroque revival of the interwar era in Austria was more than just a matter of aesthetics. It was also part of an attempt in the traumatised Austrian Republic of the 1920s to construct a new identity following the collapse Habsburg Empire. Where many sought to create a new state and national identity conceived as a modern forward-looking social democratic republic, others looked back to the past, specifically, the Baroque era, as a source of reassurance in the face of a destabilising present. The Baroque had always been a source of pride in Austria, but after the First World War it took on a new urgency in some quarters and was also connected to Catholic revivalism. It was no longer the imperial Austria that was looked to, but, rather, Austria as champion of the Counter-Reformation. It is this reactionary turn that Loos may have detected in the later work of the Wiener Werkstätte, and to which he objected. In an interview he gave in 1927 he alluded to the class politics involved; the Neo-baroque revival was informed by a fascination with aristocratic culture, as a result of which the ‘snobs’ of the Werkstätte produced ‘expensive luxury goods that nobody with a normal income and normal requirements would be able to do anything with.’[10]

Flora by Vally Wieselthier, 1928

Vally Wieselthier: Flora, 1928, detail from the exhibition Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte at the MAK Vienna in 1921 – photo by author

We do not know how Wieselthier viewed this conservative outlook, but her decision to emigrate in 1933, the year that the clerical dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuß came to power in Austria, may suggest that she was less than comfortable with this turn of events. Yet there are still disconcerting aspects to her work. One prominent feminist scholar has suggested that the monumental sculptures such as Flora (1928), already discussed in an earlier review on this blog, is a figure of feminist sensibility, ‘self-confident and assured’ denying the viewer ‘voyeuristic pleasure.’[11] But while the impassive faces of the ceramic heads may be accurately described in this way, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Flora and other monumental ceramic sculptures such as the reclining nude exhibit a languid sensuality that belongs entirely within the tradition of the female nude in western art. Indeed, we have to contend with the fact that alongside these sculptures Wieselthier designed ceramic objects that exhibited racial and sexist motifs entirely opposed to the values seemingly conveyed by Flora.

The discussion has travelled some distance from Wieselthier’s single head. Yet it highlights the fact that even though that work may invite us to see this artist as the exponent of a progressive modernity, wider critical analysis of her oeuvre opens up other aspects that seem to point in a rather different direction: ideas, subjects and forms associated with a conservative and nostalgic desire to evoke the past.

Matthew Rampley

[1] See, for example, Julie M. Johnson, The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna, 1900 (West Lafeyette, 2012); Andrea Winklbauer and Sabine Fellner, eds, Die bessere Hälfte: Jüdische Künstlerinnen bis 1938 (Vienna, 2016); Sabine Fellner and Stella Rollig, eds, City of Women: Female Artists in Vienna from 1900 to 1938 (Vienna, 2019); Megan Brandow-Faller, The Female Secession: Art and the Decorative at the Viennese Women’s Academy (University Park, PA, 2022); Andrea Bina and Sabine Fellner, eds, Auftritt der Frauen: Künstlerinnen in Linz 1851–1950 (Linz, 222).

[2] See, for example, the listings of Wieselthier on the website of the Vienna Dorotheum: https://www.dorotheum.com (accessed 21 July 2022).

[3] Megan Brandow-Faller, ‘Feminine Vessels: Expressionist Ceramics of the Wiener Werkstätte,’ in Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Anne-Karin Rossberg and Elisabeth Schmuttermeier, eds, Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (Basel, 2021) p. 157.

[4] ‘Miss Wieselthier, Ceramic Artist, 50,’ New York Times, 3 September 1945, p. 23.

[5] Adolf Loos, ‘Adolf Loos über die Wiener Werkstätte’ (1927) in Adolf Loos, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Adolf Opel (Vienna, 2010) pp. 666–69.

[6] On Josef Frank’s conception of modernism and his debate with Loos, see Paul Overy, ‘“The Whole Bad Taste Of Our Period:” Josef Frank, Adolf Loos, and “Gschnas”,’ Home Cultures 3.3 (2006) pp. 213–33.

[7] Christopher Long, ‘Apostle and Apostate: Josef Frank’s Modernist Vision,’ Places Journal, February 2018.

[8] August Schestag, ‘Wiener Möbel und Metallarbeiten,’ Moderne Welt 2.12 (1921) pp. 9–11, here p. 10.

[9] Seee, for example, Max Dvořák’s ‘Vorwort’ to the portfolio of prints by Oskar Kokoschka, Konzert (Vienna, 1921).

[10] Adolf Loos, ‘Ich der bessere Österreicher,’ in Loos, Gesammelte Schriften, pp. 678–81, here p. 680.

[11] Brandow-Faller, ‘Feminine Vessels,’ p. 171.

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