Melancholic Modernism

Pac Pobric on "Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907” at the Neue Galerie, New York (until 2 September)

Neue Galerie, New York

In an 1898 review of the second Viennese Secessionist exhibition, the critic and playwright Hermann Bahr wrote that the designer Koloman Moser was “Austrian through and through” in that “his inventions seem to dance, to hover”. Yet the enthusiasm Bahr found in Moser’s work was troubled: “occasionally one perceives a gentle melancholy, like the merest shadow of a cloud, but it’s gone in an instant.” But a hushed disquiet crops up in the work again and again, as becomes quite clear throughout Moser's current exhibition at the Neue Galerie. For all their grace and beauty, Moser’s chests and drawers, liqueur glasses and tea sets, postcards, vases, wallpapers, desks and chairs betray a kind of anxiety: what is life in the 20th century supposed to look like?

“We are now living in a time of automobiles, electric cars, bicycles and railways”, Moser told a reporter in 1905. “What was a good style in stage coach days is not so right now, what may have been practical then is not so now, and as the times are, so must art be.” Yet Moser’s work looks forward only as much as it looks back. His aversion to the pace of modern life, where handmade craft was steadily being supplanted by industrialised design, is everywhere evident, from an oak cabinet covered in sequined fish designed in 1900 to a finely crafted vitrine detailed in mother-of-pearl, ivory and bevelled glass finished three years later. Moser’s longing is for a Modernism that embraces a traditional past where the craftsman’s hand is ever present.

His earliest mature work, completed as he was establishing himself in the late 19th-century, was heavily influenced by the dominant Art Nouveau tendencies of the time. Always full of grace, these pieces nevertheless seem to be looking for something more individual than what they ultimately offer, at least on the whole. A set of individualised liqueur glasses resembling elongated roses, for example, is an interesting curiosity, but perhaps too tied to already established design traditions to break truly new ground. Stronger are Moser’s drawings for potential cabinets, which are richly illustrated and beautifully coloured in reds, yellows and blues. That Moser’s two-dimensional work is strong throughout the entire period the exhibition covers shouldn’t be a surprise—he began his career as a painter.

Immediately after the turn of the century, Moser’s attention turned to a different direction, and he abandoned the sensual curved line for a more geometric one. His work from the first few years of the 20th century is appropriately more restrained in approach, though no less laboured, and certainly no less striking. In 1903, Moser completed what may be the show’s best work: a writing desk and chair set which fit perfectly into one another, so that the entire piece is a rectangular box which unfolds into a practical table when ready for use. On a purely economic level, it is a very clever design, and it is one that Moser would turn to again for other commissions. Similarly reserved is a black and blue armchair he designed in the same year. Made of a few simple, geometric shapes and an lengthened rectangular back, the work is muted and clean, and speaks to the precision of Moser's eye.

It was also in 1903 that Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte design studio with Josef Hofmann and Fritz Wärndorfer, envisaged as a collaborative practice space for designers and craftsmen. The works from this period through 1907, when Moser left the studio over differences in artistic direction, are again best when they are two-dimensional. (Perhaps it is no surprise that he left the firm to pursue his once-abandoned career in painting.) Stationary and invoice layouts, envelopes, wallpapers and a beautiful glass mosaic for the Flöge sisters are largely spare and subdued, and the fact that they often repeat the same forms (often squares or rectangles; sometimes triangles) allows for clarity in design.

Yet Moser, through no fault of his own, never seems to have found exactly what he was looking for: a world which fully embraced the unity of art and life. Despite his best efforts and those of his contemporaries, that hope always seemed to have more to do with political possibilities than artistic ones. Whatever practical melding of traditional values and contemporary concerns Moser may have realized through his work and the commissions he completed would very soon fall apart as Europe steadily approached the First World War. Had he not died of lung cancer the year before the war ended, he may have reconsidered his perhaps melancholic approach to Modernism, which sought to bind it with tradition—because after the war, as Moser would have realised, it would be quite impossible to look back.

Published Mon, 05 Aug 2013 16:15:00 GMT

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