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Koloman Moser – An experimental station of the end of the world

Karl Kraus thus baptizes the melting pot of art, thought and innovation in Vienna between the end of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century

‘The experimental station of the end of the world’. This is how Karl Kraus baptised the crucible of art, philosophy and innovation in Vienna between the late nineteenth century and the first two decades of the 20th century. A definition that summarizes the ambivalence in the Viennese and Central European culture of that time. Finis Austriae, an apocalypse that should have ended in 1918, with the definitive fall of the Hapsburg eagle, following the defeat of the central empires in the First World War, gave rise to a cultural movement that confirmed how art required total renewal and a modern approach to adapt to the Zeitgeist. A consideration marked by grim prophesies and controlled by the premonition that it concerns ‘the last days of humanity’. A movement that embodied in the work of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, contradiction that emerged in the melancholy of the music composed by Mahler, by Alexander von Zemlinsky and by Richard Strauss, particularly in the wistfulness of Der Rosenkavalier. An attitude that became a leitmotiv in the philosophical work of Ludwig Joseph Wittgenstein who, with his Tractatus logico-philosophicus, started with the need to create precise rules for language, and in the phases to follow would become an advocate for dissolving the meaning of words in the interpretation game. The world, for Wittgenstein, is the total sum of facts, not things. An oxymoron that swings between objectivism and romanticism, between the will to live and imminent death, pervading the cultural approach that spanned from the Secession to Wiener Werkstätte. A fact that rises as a common denominator and yet separates the Viennese experience from the contemporary experiences of the German Deutscher Werkbundt and the British Arts and Crafts movement.

The impossibility of extrapolating art from the hic et nunc of everyday life, towards strong, compact ideals, explains the interest for Wiener Wekstätte in all forms of languages, architecture and painting in particular, but also in the sphere of applied art. The fundamental role of the artisan is well defined in Arts and Crafts, where the return to handicrafts aimed to identify a society capable of recovering the values of medieval communities, in stark contrast with the alienation of industrial organization. For Wiener Werkstätte, the relationship between the artisan and the industry was instead a connection that exists and demands a solution, almost anticipating Bauhaus but with less branchées with political implications and without certainly indicating salvation. The Vienna Secession, launched in 1897, came after the Munich secession in 1892, that of Dresden in 1893 and Berlin in 1895. A building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, which bore the proud inscription ‘To every age its art, to every art its freedom’ as the headquarters. A movement long dominated by the figure of Gustav Klimt, president until 1904 and supported by the passion of journalist and critic Ludwig Hevesi. Ver Sacrum, the group’s magazine, spread the refined taste of new decorations throughout Europe, feeding the need for renewal in the applied arts, comparable, according to this modern and unexpected vision, to the ‘liberal arts’. Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, Otto Wagner, Alfred Roller and Gustav Klimt, faithfully supported the need to promote artistic evolution in all forms of human life. This climate gave rise, in 1903, to the Wiener Werkstätte. Architect and designer Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, an extremely eclectic figure and teacher at the Kunstgewerbeschule in the Austrian capital since 1899, were its artistic directors, while the industrialist Waerndorfer, the financial backer for the enterprise, looked after the business side.

poster for the furniture Workshop J.J. Kohn
Poster for the furniture Workshop J.&J. Kohn, Koloman Moser, 1904

Koloman Moser, born in 1868, had a passion for handcraft and its various techniques, having been able to spend time since his adolescence in the workshops of the Theresianum, a renowned Viennese school, an aristocratic academy rich in parks, riding stables and workshops, in which his father was director. Though destined for a career in business, he soon began taking drawing lessons in secret, until 1885 when, having gained his parents’ approval, he was accepted to the Fine Arts Academy. Three years later, the loss of his father threw him into financial constraints and he supported himself by collaborating with satirical newspapers and fashion magazines. Vienna was lively and cosmopolitan, as described by the writings of Joseph Roth. It collapse into a chasm to the music of waltz, surrounded by the mirrors and velvets of Schönbrunn and fashionable cafés, under the aegis of the old emperor Franz Joseph I. In 1892, Koloman Moser – known as Kolo painter, designer and decorator, took a job as a teacher at the School of Applied Arts, while two years later, during an evening at the Siebener Club, of which he was a founding member, he met Joseph Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich, who wanted to discuss the writings of the German art critic and teacher Alfred Lichtwark. Would have been his encounter with Gustav Klimt, in 1895 at the publisher’s Martin Gerlach, who he admired as a mentor and ultimate guide to change his life.

In fact, in 1897, he was among those who founded the Secession, where he would regularly exhibit until 1905. He contributed to the graphics of Ver Sacrum – a magazine that would wrap up in 1903 – and illustrated the work A treasure of German poetry for young people, while the following year he designed the windows for the Secession premises. In 1899, he wouldn’t take up Olbrich’s invitation to join him in Darmstadt, preferring to fill the role of decorative drawing and painting teacher at the Applied Arts School in Vienna, offered to him by its then new director Felician Myrbach. Moser, with his experimental and curious temperament, began the Age of Extremes with the wind in his sails. In 1899, having made contacts with the Böch porcelain factory, he started to branch into the creation of glass, ceramics, furnishings, fabrics, posters, book bindings, jewellery, stationary and embroidery paper, dabbling even in fashion. The 7th Secession Exhibition in 1900, devoted to the applied arts, in which he exhibited his design for a dining room, introduced him to the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement, through the Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, then members of the group ‘The Four’ in Glasgow. From 1901, Koloman embraced an even clearer and stronger geometric vocation in his work for Ver Sacrum, achieving a graphic expression and simplicity that gradually moved him away from Jugendstil repertoires, dematerializing floral decorations and motifs, even if there were signs of a full, curved line. He therefore launched a rarefied and three-dimensional idiom, strong yet delicate, with vague folk influences, which he would use in the years to come for the textiles of the WW, almost entirely produced for the company Joh. Backhausen & Söhne. His more than 330 designs – 2766 for Dagobert Peche –, which include silks, jutes, wallpapers, velvets and rugs, signed by the designer, imprinted with the WW monogram and progressively numbered. It is the same aesthetic that reappears in his jewellery pieces, which at that time seemed revolutionary. Moser, like Hoffmann, used graph paper for interior design projects and he was capable of introducing the same approach to the process of creation of glass object. The study of two-dimensional forms in positive-negative relations formed the basis of Hoffmann and Moser’s graphics – from 1911 flanked by their Dalmatian assistant Ugo Zovetti, who would later introduce the achievements of the WW to Italy –, as seen in their installations for Secession Exhibitions.

The affiche for the 13th Exhibition represents the union of decorative, figurative and typographical elements. In the same period he executed woodcarvings where the characters depicted are detached from the geometric background. Meanwhile, in 1902, he published the journal Die Fläche, with Felician Myrbach, Hoffmann and Alfred Roller, working as a decorator at the Wiener Staatsoper for Gustav Mahler and took part, with a mosaic and windows, in the 14th Secession Exhibition, conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), as a tribute to the Beethoven by the German sculptor Max Klinger. His furniture was master- ful. His elm and jacaranda bureau inlayed with ebony and mother-of-pearl, for example, dated 1902, with its references to antiquity, enabled Moser to stylise and modernise forms. The choice of such fine materials contradicted the original theories of the Wiener Werkstätte. A secrétaire complete with built-in chair, from 1903, in ebony and boxwood, with its simple morphology, tends towards modernism. It has a geometric feel that anticipates art deco by two decades. Joseph Hoffmann asked Moser for a similar piece for Palais Stoclet, in Avenue de Tervueren in Brussels, a site where also Klimt donated one of his works, a mosaic frieze depicting the Tree of Life. With the painter Carl Moll, again in 1903, Moser, co-publisher of the magazine Hohe Warte, went to Bern where he forged an alliance with Ferdinand Hodler – a Swiss artist and member of the Sezession, who moved from symbolism to a sort of protest expressionism and, like his friend Moser, passed away in 1918 – to pick some paintings for the subsequent Secession exhibition. In 1904 Otto Wagner involved him in the design of the windows and altar of the Church of St. Leopold in Vienna. Wagner will want him again, in 1906-7, for the windows and mosaics of the same church. In 1905, like Gustav Klimt, Kolo Moser left the Secession for good. At that time, he married his former student, Editha Mautner von Markhof, Ditha, from a wealthy Viennese family, by converting to Protestantism. Ditha Moser would often wear dresses and jewellery designed by her husband, with whom she worked on the creation of boxes and tarot cards.

The Parisian couturier Paul Poiret drew on the inspiration provided by the early twentieth century Viennese environment on several occasions, inspired by the preponderant Hoffmann and Moser. In 1907, officially ‘due to the needs of certain clients that are impossible to satisfy’, Koloman controversially left the Wiener Werkstätte too. He no longer shared its productive angst, the intolerable need for excogitation at all costs. Perhaps the real reason was the enormous sum of money that Fritz Waerndorfer had asked Editha Moser for to settle the financial debt of the enterprise. However, he took part in the creation of costumes and programs for the Cabaret Fledermaus. In 1908 he furnished the Klimt Room for the Kunstschau. And from then on he moved towards theatre – which also sparked criticism –, applied drawing – his motifs marked the 1908-13 series of celebratory stamps for Emperor Franz Joseph I – and above all, painting. In 1912 he debuted with his first solo exhibition at the Mietke Gallery in Vienna, to then exhibit in Budapest, Rome, Düsseldorf and Mannheim. He painted still lifes, the green countryside of Semmering, the mountains of Lower Austria where his wife had a holiday home, and, around 1914, a series of large symbolist paintings, close to the plastic monumentality of Hodler. On 18 October 1918, at just fifty, Koloman Moser died in Vienna after a tumour on his larynx, which he battled against for over two years. The publisher Wolfrum, in 1920, celebrated him with a posthumous exhibition of his works. Thus began the legend of Kolo Moser.

Koloman Moser was an Austrian painter, graphic artist and an important representative of Art Nouveau. Moser completed his education at the Vienna Academy under Franz Rumpler, Christian Griepenkerl and Josef Maria Trenkwald, and at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts under Franz Matsch. Moser’s first professional experience came as an Illustrator of art journals. From his earliest days, Kolo Moser’s painting was strongly inspired by Impressionism, but he was particularly active in crafts. He was a founding member of the Vienna Secession in 1897 and the Vienna Workshops in 1903. In the years that followed, he was joint artistic director of the Vienna Workshops with Josef Hoffmann. Moser also contributed to the journals Ver SacrumHohe Warteand Der liebe Augustin.