Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte
by Adam Wolnski
Postcards! The excitement of receiving one from a friend or family member is largely forgotten, but there was a time when they were the favorite form of communication. Small as they were, receiving a “Wish you were here,” a regional picture, or a beautiful design had an enormous impact. The Frist is bringing that lost art back to life with its new Wiener Werkstätte exhibit, featuring more than 300 antique postcards designed by a special group of Viennese artists.
Wiener Werkstätte, German for Vienna Workshops, was a collection of artists in Vienna in the early 1900s that were determined to keep art and quality alive during the mass production of the industrial revolution.
Katie Delmez is the in-house curator of the Wiener Werkstätte exhibition. “They created this group in 1903, the Wiener Werkstätte, as a way to elevate what we think of as the decorative arts and the craftsperson,” Delmez said. “So having objects that were made largely by hand and were designed to be made in very limited editions, all of that was a reaction to the mass production of the industrial revolution and the cheap, low-quality objects that were being produced in that manner.”
Paris may come to mind as the center of the art world in the early 1900s, and while Delmez said that Paris was a nucleus, she explained how Vienna was also a very lively and thriving artistic community at the time. A strong middle and upper class was able to support the artists, paired with good schools to help cultivate and sustain the arts.
Wiener Werkstätte is a testament to this culture; the workshop itself was a work of art. From the moment you walked in the door, everything was crafted in pursuit of Gesamtkunstwerk.
“Gesamtkunstwerk is a fancy, long word for ‘total work of art’, and that really expresses their whole ideology: that every part of a space should be well designed,” Delmez said. “From the chairs and the tables to the keys, and then, of course, postcards.”
Wiener Werkstätte was operating in the age of the postcard, when the most efficient and timely way to stay in touch was through widely available postcards. With Gesamtkunstwerk in mind, Wiener Werkstätte wanted staying in touch to be an artistic experience.
“On the other side of this more-functional purpose of the postcards, they also were popular collectors’ items,” Delmez said. “It is thought, I believe, that more Wiener Werkstätte postcards were collected than actually sent. People recognized at that time that this was an opportunity to own a little miniature work of art.”
Many of the beautifully crafted works of Wiener Werkstätte were auctioned off at the split of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, and many of them have since disappeared. But because of the intrinsic value of the postcards, nearly the entire collection has survived.
Mela Koehler is a name to watch for at the exhibit. Koehler was an artist that created more than 200 of the postcards, many of them featuring designs and fabrics from the Wiener Werkstätte fashion and textile department.
“They were their own works of art on the one hand, but they also advertised some of the other wares that the Wiener Werkstätte was carrying,” Delmez said. “Her designs are just really so charming, and they really are evocative, in some ways, of a broader aesthetic at the time. You see some of Gustav Klimt’s love of decoration and pattern and these neutral backgrounds and a real elegance and refinement to
Koehler is in company with other, famous names like Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and co-founder of Wiener Werkstätte Josef Hoffmann.
See the collection of more than 300 of these postcards now on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through October 12. For more information visit www.fristcenter.org.