September 6, 2010

Useful Aesthetics

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The end of the 19th century was a period of dramatic ideological shifts in Western Europe. Continental powers were reshuffled and imperialism brought colonial power struggles as well as valuable cultural exchange. The Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented wealth, and humanity was slowly coming to terms such drastic technological and economic expansions. These changes, as well as new developments in philosophical thought, fueled radical fine arts movements such as the Vienna Secession, and for the first time in Western Europe, craftsmen organized a collective effort to create everyday objects that reflect not only visual motifs in contemporary painting and sculpture, but also philosophical inquiries and political ideas.

Today, just about everything other than disposable plastic utensils are produced with some degree of aesthetic consideration. During the Victorian era, the working and middle classes could not afford to purchase masterpieces of European decorative art, and did not expect their spoons, teapots and coffee jars to be beautiful because stylistics were not a traditional priority for everyday households.

By the early 20th century, technology and wealth from the industrial revolution made decorative design more accessible to the general public, and people such as William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, urged every English countrymen to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Visual beauty, thus, became an increasingly important concern in everyday life, and various ideas of beauty and sublimity are manifested in designs of this period.

The Johnson Museum’s exhibition of European decorative arts from 1900 to 1920 is a small but brilliant and eclectic collection. Intimately curated in a space the size of a typical apartment living room, the objects felt at ease with their environment, exhibiting a sense of elegance as well as of domestic bliss. Works by the masters of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Jugendstil and Wiener Werkstätte schools are represented, and in addition to beautifully crafted housewares, the exhibition also featured some representational early 20th century decorative woodcuts as well as a furniture and a fashion sketch by Gustav Klimt. Many of these works were created by notable figures such as Albert Müller, Josef Hoffman, Carl Moll and Archibald Knox, but many other equally intricate pieces were simply labeled “‘French,’ ca. 1920,” illustrating the spread of art and design into everyday, anonymous places.

The fashion sketch by Klimt represents a clear departure from the rather stiff, meticulous Victorian sensibility. Although fashion drawings are considered technical, functional pieces rather than purely artistic objects, Klimt’s drawing is filled with pencil marks that are full of energy and movement, paying just as much attention to the interpretation and expression of the garment and the model as to the design itself. It alludes to the sketches and drawings of Klimt’s Vienna Secession contemporaries, and also connects the style of the modern croquis drawings to the stiff Victorian fashion drawings that almost mimic the style of scientific illustration.

Another memorable piece was a set of Coronation spoons for King Edward VII of England, the son of influential patron of decorative arts, Queen Victoria. Edward’s brief reign began at the height of the British Raj, and various oriental influences such as turquoise jewelling are pronounced. Liberty & Company, the famous department store in London’s West End shopping district, specialized in Orientalia and Japonaiserie during this period, and many of their designs on display in this collection showcase Japanese influence of clean lines, harmonious juxtaposition of shapes and attention to the forms of nature, such as leaves and other organic forms.

Several works from the Austrian Wiener Werkstätte movement were also on display. Designs by Josef Hoffman, a key player in the Wiener Werkstätte, often use clean, simple lines arranged in quite minimalist patterns that utilize both form and space to create a serene sense of sublimity. His “Flower Basket,” ca. 1906, composes of only metallic squares arranged in a simple envelope-shaped basket with an extended handle. The bulging surfaces show influences form Art Nouveau architects such as Gaudi, and the masculinity and rigidity of the metal melts as it is welded into its carefully calculated, balanced form.

Due to it’s flexibility for shapes, textures and colors, glass was becoming an increasingly popular material. It was a cheap material that was often used to replace more expensive precious metals such as sapphires and rubies, and often combined with metal for the craftsmen to take advantage of the expressive power of the difference in textures. In addition to the pieces in this exhibition, the exhibition next door features a cabinet of exquisite glassware by Louis Tiffany from the same era. Looking at these sublime vases and bowls it is easy to see how the appreciation for beauty in everyday objects as well as the ideas of Art Nouveau and Wiener Werkstätte has clearly influenced decorative designs across the Atlantic.


Original Author: Lucy Li