Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897–1907

An armchair, circa 1903, by Koloman Moser was introduced at the XVIII Secessionist exhibit. The cubelike beechwood chair was made by wicker works factory Prag-Rudniker and features a black and white checkerboard painted woven cane seat. Moser used armchairs of the same design for the Purkersdorf Sanitorium outside Vienna for which he and Josef Hoffmann designed much of the interiors. Neue Galerie New York Photo: ©Neue Galerie New York

NEW YORK CITY — Koloman Moser, architect, artist, designer and co-founder of the Secessionist and Wiener Werkstätte, is the subject of the first American museum retrospective devoted to him. On view at the Neue Galerie New York, “Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897–1907” is a long overdue examination of a single decade in Moser’s career. That decade and the works he created over its course left a mighty swath across an entire century. Some 200 objects are on view.

Moser was a man of many remarkable talents: interior design, graphic design, furniture design, textiles, jewelry, metalwork, glass and ceramics. Nothing escaped his eye. Some consider him the most talented artist in the Vienna of his day, a time and place where creativity abounded.

Until now, Moser has been largely overshadowed by Josef Hoffmann. “Koloman Moser” changes all that, exploring his prolific and multifaceted output over just a decade, examining his design commissions, his graphic designs and his decorative arts creations.

Born and educated in Vienna, he studied drawing there and in his early career focused on illustration. It was not long before he expanded his creative horizons, venturing from the flat surface of paper or canvas to the three-dimensional. Vienna was a major arts capital and Moser was prominent in its various arts organizations. In 1897, he was a founding member of the Siebener-Club, the forerunner of Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, the Vienna Secession, of which he was also a founding member, along with Hoffmann, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and others.

Secessionist artists were moving away from the prevailing conservative and nationalistic traditions of current art and crafts. They looked to a particularly Austrian interpretation of and reaction to international influences, particularly fin de siècle Art Nouveau from France, Belgium, England, Glasgow and Japan. Their operating principle, “For every time its art. For art its Freedom.,” was carved above the entrance of the Secession Building.

In general, artists of the Secession were repelled by the shoddy mass production characterizing the hurried output of the Industrial Revolution and wanted to introduce well-designed, aesthetically pleasing objects to a wide audience. Their ideal was the total work of art — artistic in conception, execution and manufacture, a Gesamtkunstwerk, which became the guiding principle of subsequent movements.

Moser was an active contributor to Ver Sacrum, the journal of the Secession that was prized for its aesthetic. Square in appearance and printed on high-quality paper, it was considered a work of art. Advertisers were required to commission particular artists to produce their advertisements — in keeping with editorial and artistic themes. By 1900 Moser was also a full professor at the Kunstgewerbeschule (the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts) where he taught drawing and painting until his death in 1918.

In 1903, Moser and Josef Hoffmann founded the Wiener Werkstätte, with the help of arts patron and banker Fritz Waerndorfer, to produce well-designed objects of the graphic and decorative arts and make them available to all strata of society, all the while incorporating the Secessionist notion of the total work of art. Its ordering mission was to establish art and crafts on equal footing. Many of the Werkstätte artists were avid collectors of Slovakian and Moravian folk art, which can be seen to have permeated their own work.

Within the Werkstätte, Moser continued to design textiles, furniture, glass and porcelain, even typefaces, postage stamps and currency, as he also collaborated with Hoffmann on important commercial and residential interior design projects. Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte and other artists espoused the curvilinear over surface ornamentation. The results were sleek yet graphically compelling. The workshop endured although Moser resigned in 1907 in a dispute over how the firm should be funded and managed. Thereafter he devoted himself to painting and theater design.

“Koloman Moser” is curated by Dr Christian Witt-Dörring, who has organized the exhibition chronologically. It is his intention that visitors will be immersed in the atmosphere of the subject even before they read the descriptive panels.

It is laid out in three galleries, the first of which examines Moser’s output between 1897, when the Vienna Secession was formed, and 1900. In those years his work reflected the curvilinear qualities of Art Nouveau with the added fillip of other western styles, particularly those of France and Belgium. Moser and his contemporaries worked against the prevailing artistic provincialism of Vienna, opening themselves up to native and international styles. They designed and built the Secession Building to introduce new developments in art from other parts of the western world to the Austrian audience.

Witt-Dörring observes, “It is amazing how fast they [Moser and others] developed their own stylistic expression.”

The second gallery explores the establishment of the Austrian bourgeois style in the years 1901 and 1902. Artists, and Moser in particular, developed a more geometric, formal turn, with simpler, flatter shapes, owing much to the revival of the Biedermeier style. It was in 1901 that Moser published the three-volume Die Quelle (The Source), a portfolio of his graphic designs, reflective of the classical geometry and freedom that characterized his textiles, wallpapers and tapestries.

The third section examines Moser’s work from 1903 to 1907, from the founding of the Wiener Werkstätte until his resignation. His creative output in those years continued to be profound. Witt-Dörring, noting that Moser was not afraid of sensuality, describes the effects as “joyful ornamentation.” One such example is the recreation of the wallpaper Moser designed for the bedroom of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. Another is the 1899 furnishing fabric, Schwämme (Mushrooms). If mushrooms can be called sensuous, these are.

Moser’s impact on Twentieth Century graphic design is inestimable. He combined geometric and classical patterns with the architectural and used these patterns in his distinctive textiles, wallpapers and woven tapestries. His abstract designs juxtaposed reversed and interlocked forms with repeated and interlaced elements; he also superimposed square or rectilinear forms on the patterns. The results allow the eye to play along the lines and forms. His colors tend to have equal weight, which lends balance to each piece.

A poster advertising a religious calendar was designed by Moser for publisher Carl Fromme in 1899. Two-dimensional, it combines clean lines, geometry and mystical symbols. Another Moser poster produced in 1902 was made to publicize the Vienna Secession’s 13th exhibition. A comparison of the two illustrates the further blend of geometry and flowing figures in the later piece.

In 1898, Moser designed the stained glass windows for the Secession Building; he also created the austere yet sensual decoration of the entrance hall: a gold and silver stencil of stylized rosebuds dramatic against the severe white walls. Later he designed an altar mosaic and extraordinary stained glass windows for architect Otto Wagner’s Am Steinhof Church in Vienna, built between 1903 and 1907. The church, also known as the Church of St Leonard, was part of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital and was built with the special needs of patients in mind. For example, pews were of varying widths to accommodate patient states: calm, restless or disturbed, the latter requiring more space.

Moser’s mosaic and windows are detailed and serene. The mosaic depicts the reception of the soul into heaven, greeted by a number of saints. The windows depict seven saints and the seven corporal works of mercy. That image was used a century later in 2005 in the Austrian 100 euro collector’s coin commemorating the Steinhof Church.

Moser later collaborated with Hoffmann and other Wiener Werkstätte artists on the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, a “mineral spa and cure-park,” where people could go for a rest or a tune-up. Such spas were highly popular around the time. Just outside Vienna, the building was designed by Hoffmann, and Moser designed the interiors. His furnishings suited the building and its function — their rectilinearity and color lent serenity.

Moser employed checkerboard patterns across a number of his creations — windows, glass objects, graphics and other objects. A 1902 silver and niello checkerboard sugar box on view is a pristine example. Another is the 1903 cubelike beechwood armchair made with a black and white checkerboard painted woven cane seat. Moser used the same design in the later project for the Purkersdorf Sanitorium.

Neue Galerie New York is devoted to early Twentieth Century German and Austrian art and design. Opened in November 2001, it was the brainchild of businessman, philanthropist and art collector Ronald S. Lauder and the late art dealer and museum organizer Serge Sabarsky. The exhibition “Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897–1907” was designed by Chicago architect John Vinci to allow visitors to experience the Viennese Gesamtkunstwerk as an encompassing environment.

“Koloman Moser” was curated by Witt-Dörring, curator of decorative arts for Neue Galerie, and organized jointly by the Neue Galerie and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It remains on view at the Neue Galerie through September 22. The exhibition travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, September 29–January 12. The Neue Galerie is at 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street. A fully illustrated catalog edited by Witt-Dörring and published by Prestel, accompanies the exhibition and is available.

For additional information, www.neuegalerie.org or 212-628-6200.

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