The Wolfsonian-FIU is reliable for putting up surprising exhibits, and the museum has done it again its current pair. They’re surprising not because they veer far from what we’ve come to expect from this unique museum — that is, artworks, decorative pieces, graphic designs and textiles from the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th. But Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte and Describing Labor both tell the stories of entire movements and eras in a novel way, with real character to their presentations.
On the top floor, more than 300 postcards from fin de siècle Vienna have been picked out from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection by New York’s Neue Galerie, and complemented by printed materials, textiles and ceramics from the Wolfsonian. They come from an avant-garde group of artists, graphic and fashion designers, marketers, architects and furniture makers who flourished in the heady days of 1900 to 1919 in Austria during the Weiner Werkstätte — or Vienna Workshop. Many of them concentrated on making the small cards both as works of art and for advertising purposes.
This was an electric era in which coffeehouses and cabarets first popped up as leisure centers and catalysts for cultural exploration. The Deco designs, the caricatures, the fashionable hats, the particular fonts printed and painted on the cards should look familiar, as that time forged a distinct look.
Familiar too will be some of the artists associated with the group, such as Oskar Kokoschka, Josef Hoffman and Egon Schiele (Schiele’s mentor Gustav Klimt, however, was not a member, though his influence is everywhere). What they produced are really postcards from an era, letting us in on the vibrant intellectual and musical trends that were swirling around, often with a lot of wit but also with a hint of foreboding. Perhaps they knew the frivolity would not last forever.
So here is an Expressionistic ad for the hugely popular cabaret Die Fledermaus, with music by Johann Strauss. The caricature of a writer at the Weiner Café is classic: disheveled with long hair, sitting on a floral print couch with his striped socks and yellow shoes untied, he is of a specific time and place, and yet completely universal. Some of the depictions of the fat bourgeois men would become standard in the German Expressionist paintings made later, between the wars.
Interspersed throughout are wonderful examples of the textile craft of the period, which aimed to erase the lines between high and low art and to create gesamtkunstwerk, or a “total work of art” from production to finished object or fabric. Another major German movement, the Bauhaus, would base its aesthetics and mission around similar principles.
Another blurred distinction in this exhibit is the one between genders — here are ample examples of works, designs and paintings from women, revealing their relative prominence. In that world, women didn’t just wear fashion and use jewelry boxes — they made them, too.
Although all the pieces are small-scale and unobtrusive, they expose the huge changes that were bubbling up in this critical period in Vienna (and Paris) that would reshape the world. Notions of class and equality were challenged, as were the boundaries of acceptability in all cultural realms. And of course, modern art was busy being born.