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.
Downstairs from the fruits of the Weiner Werkstätte is a show that continues, in a sense, from where Vienna left off. Those hints of doom that can be felt in some of the Viennese imagery proved warranted when all of Europe was engulfed in war and empires were demolished and truncated. This far less frivolous time after World War I and during the Great Depression is the subject of Describing Labor, but in an unconventional form. It comes in a solo show from artist Esther Shalev-Gerz, who had a 2011 residency at the Wolfsonian. She chose photographs, drawings and paintings from the collection that depicted labor, mostly in the form of muscled men working with machines and tools. This imagery was ubiquitous during the various Socialist-inspired art movements that spanned the globe during this era and focused on the glorification of the real working man.
Not only have those political movements fallen out of favor, so have the almost-quaint depictions of labor. As the artist started to digest during her time studying the Wolfsonian collection, “This was more or less the last time in our recent history that images of workers conveyed a sense of heroism,” she writes. “It made me think about how we do not know the faces of the people who create the things that surround us. We know other faces — politicians, celebrities, criminals — but not the worker.”
To give them a visual voice once again, she chose 41 works from the collection that showed the laborer, and then placed them in storage rooms in the museum that house the products of labor. Then she photographed them. So here is a black-and-white photo of a man at a wheel, in front of a decorative clock and bookshelf. In one outstanding piece, a black-and-white drawing of a metropolis reverberating to the jackhammers from construction workers is placed on an ornate, blue-and gold-gilded cabinet. She also videotaped some of the participants who helped her in the project, talking about labor and the storage-room settings.
On one wall, all the originals are hung — so we can put a name to some of those who made these 1930s oils, gelatin prints and drawings in Russia, the United States, Germany and Italy. The biggest and most somber work Shalev-Gerz chose is a gray painting from Italy, of a buff worker carrying a wounded colleague, called La Pieta Umana. It is so very sad. This work is photographed in front of metal shelves in a storage area.
These hero-workers in fact have very little humanity; they have become simply objects for production, with idealized bodies. But as the video points out, at this time much of Europe had lost so many of their men that hero-worshipping become inevitable.
On another wall, Shalev-Gerz, who lives in Paris and is a professor in Sweden, has made an installation entirely from her own hand. It consists of 21 glass hammers, attached to a metal canvas, with several in the middle painted black.
The pieces are good-looking and poignant, intermingling elements of design, furniture and fine art. Hers is an innovative approach to working with the Wolfsonian Collection, and to history.