Utopian Designs

by Jed Perl | April 11, 2005

The decorative arts have always been art history's attractive orphans. While many people have a great affection for certain textiles or ceramics, the scholarly world embraces such objects only fitfully, as if they were really somebody else's responsibility. And much of the attention that is given to the decorative arts—in the shelter magazines, in the auction catalogues, and in specialized studies of rococo hardware or medieval ceramic tiles—has an edge about it, a feverishness that can suggest overcompensation and even overkill. The steady, sober attention that art historians bring to Seurat or Degas will never be enough to make the case for the work of a ceramicist or a furniture designer, no matter how important it is. The greatest paintings and sculptures stand their ground, sure of their ancestry and confident of their progeny. The greatest Arts and Crafts table or Art Nouveau vase remains an art historical conundrum—a party crasher. There will always be somebody to say, Why this? The case will always have to be made.

Some of the arguments on behalf of the decorative arts have been made by figures of extraordinary intellectual authority. John Ruskin, in the course of composing his grandly symphonic The Stones of Venice, discovered a map of the medieval temperament buried deep in the stonemason's patterns and arabesques. And by the end of the nineteenth century, the study of the decorative arts, which Ruskin did so much to promote, had become part of the foundation on which several generations of critics and scholars staged the formalist revolution in the arts. To cast a spotlight on decoration could suggest a downplaying of representation and figuration and narration, those mainstays of European art. Alois Riegl saw that it might be possible to decode the artistic spirit of an age through a study of Roman metalwork rather than marble sculpture. And Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the avatars of significant form, argued that the powers of color and shape were as evident in a Pre-Columbian textile or a Chinese pot as in a fresco by Giotto or a painting by Cezanne.

The work of Riegl, Fry, and Bell had a way of shifting attention from the old idea of the artist as a hero who determines the course of history. Not surprisingly, in recent years the writings of Riegl and other pioneering students of the decorative arts have found favor among art historians, who see in these studies, with their emphasis on the labors of anonymous craftspeople, a bracingly anti-authoritarian view of creativity. This emphasis on the decorative arts can also seem to confirm a postmodern belief that the author has died and the work of art is the impersonal product of historical forces, an inscrutable object to be deciphered. The reign of theory has given certain objects—ceramics produced in early Soviet Russia or textiles from the Wiener Werkstatte—a quirky hipness, a bohemian-antiquarian allure. It is now possible to regard the decorative arts as art history's glamorous outsiders. And so we have another kind of special pleading for the decorative arts, with the art historians whose attitudes have been shaped by the October magazine crowd taking the place of the ladies and gentlemen who attend the meetings of the William Morris Society.


ALL THIS SPECIAL pleading is surely preferable to the hucksterism that is sometimes used to promote the decorative arts in the major museums. There is almost invariably more substance to small decorative arts shows in commercial galleries—or to the beautiful exhibitions at the Bard Graduate Center in New York—than to the offerings in the most heavily publicized venues. When the decorative arts go mainstream, they frequently lose their density and their power. They become a fancy parenthesis to painting and sculpture, a glittering sideshow. Five years ago I had planned to write about "Art Nouveau: 1890-1914," which originated at the Victoria and Albert and came to the National Gallery in Washington, but I found it impossible to get beyond the exhibition's mixture of swagger and peevishness. The organizers seemed to imagine that all they could do was seduce the public—and the result, as a visitor went from room to room, was little more than a display of conspicuous consumption. That Art Nouveau was one of the great sea changes in sensibility, that it commanded the energies of some of the best minds of the fin-de-sicle, and had been studied by some of the finest scholars of the mid-twentieth century, and written about by a literary figure of the originality of Cyril Connolly—none of this counted. The exhibition suggested a luxury department store with the price tags removed.

While any first-rate exhibition in a major museum is a cause for celebration, the appearance of a great decorative arts show is always a miracle. And there is no other way to describe the panoramic study of the Arts and Crafts movement that has been presented this winter at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Here we find the same union of seriousness and authority and beauty that we know from the finest exhibitions of painting and sculpture. I cannot imagine a show that would be more difficult to do than "The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America," which ranges from the 1880s to the 1920s, and covers developments in more than half a dozen countries, and grapples with questions that are aesthetic, social, and historical in nature. Indeed, the presentation in Los Angeles is so compelling and so seamless that some viewers may miss the scale of the achievement. One has to remind oneself of the difficulties that have confronted an extraordinary curator, Wendy Kaplan, and an extraordinary patron, Max Palevsky. Kaplan has dedicated her professional life to the Arts and Crafts movement; she mounted "'The Art That Is Life': The Arts and Crafts Movement in America" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1987. Palevsky, a key collector in this field and a staunch supporter of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has supplied not only some of the finest works on display, but also the financial wherewithal to bring works from all corners of Europe and to install them exquisitely. (The show travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, while another exhibition devoted to the Arts and Crafts movement is opening at the Victoria and Albert in London this spring.)


THIS EXHIBITION HAS the breadth, the pace, the sense of overarching ideas and enriching particulars, that one associates with a great historical novel. While it is true that the Arts and Crafts movement helped to shape the look of the modern world, it is equally true that the movement was grounded in a wide- ranging critique of modernity. The movement began in England, with William Morris, one of those larger-than-life figures—at once an artist, a prophet, and an entrepreneur—who flourished in the turbulent atmosphere of nineteenth- century Europe. While Morris's densely worked floral designs for wallpaper and fabrics defined a new kind of visual luxuriance, his arguments for social and aesthetic reform ushered in what became a worldwide crusade against the depersonalization and the routinization that many artists and writers saw as the result of a century of technological progress.

The peculiar situation of the Arts and Crafts movement was that it was, all at once, antiquarian in its admiration for an artisanal past, conservative in its fascination with agrarian societies, nationalist in its emphasis on local traditions, populist in its support of socialist ideals, and avant-gardist in its daring aestheticism. The complexities of the movement reflected and refracted the entangled yearnings for aesthetic and social transformation that had animated the writings of Ruskin, a man whose immensely intricate and conflicted vision echoed through all the decades of the Arts and Crafts movement. In the Los Angeles show, one feels how the difficulties of meeting so many different aspirations at once gave the movement its yearning, unstable, yeasty energies. A pioneering figure such as Morris, who can all too often strike us as a mummified prophet, as unreal as one of the Pre-Raphaelite confections that he admired, is here reclaimed as an experimentalist. The show catches the vehemence of the movement—its frantic energies, its wild idealism, its canny showmanship.

Kaplan's view of the Arts and Crafts movement is too lucid and too multidimensional ever to descend into mere prettiness. This is not to say that everything here is beautiful. There are some objects in this show—bits of overly intricate neo-medieval metalwork, for example—that are downright ugly. But nothing feels dusty or trivial. The story is framed by achievements that have received a good deal of attention in the past couple of generations. We begin in the United Kingdom, with strong representations of work done by William Morris and his various collaborators, including Edward Burne-Jones and Philip Webb, as well as by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. We conclude in the United States, with Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene and Greene. Certainly much of the German and Austrian material is familiar; Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffmann, and Koloman Moser have been the subjects of important books and exhibitions in recent years. But if a panoramic survey such as this can sometimes seem to downplay the work of the best-known artists, Kaplan has no interest in taking the role of the leveler. To see work by Wright and Hoffmann and Mackintosh in this show is rather like seeing work by Picasso and Mir in a survey of Surrealism: we know that the Arts and Crafts movement is only a part of Wright's story, just as Surrealism is only a part of Picasso's story.

 

And to the extent that Wright or Hoffmann has been incorporated into a larger story, this expansive perspective can help us appreciate the work of less well-known artists, whose achievements are magnified in the context. The excitement of this rigorous exhibition has everything to do with Kaplan's ability to show how ideas moved across Europe, and how they were transformed as they came into contact with local traditions, and how the interaction of new ideas with old forms—and with the pressures of production, both by hand in workshops and in factories of various sizes and varieties—created a loosening of conventional ideas about the look of a chair, a table, a vase, a rug. The marvelous catalogue, published by Thames and Hudson, includes half a dozen essays by scholars from various European countries, so that we see how the differing rates of industrialization and democratization across Europe affected aesthetic developments—even as, all over the continent, the movement forced fundamental reconsiderations of the relationship of form and function.


GREAT MUSEAM INSTALLATIONS such as this one are as rare as great productions of theatrical classics, for they require not only an absolute respect for the freestanding value of the work of art but also a sure sense of the contemporary mood. The museum curator, like the theatrical director, has to figure out how to lead the public to the work—and then accommodate the public—without distorting the subject. Kaplan obviously has this gift. Even as we are being urged to experience the singular beauty of works of decorative art—their timeless aspect, if you will—we are saturated in the atmosphere and the ambience of a range of periods and places. The galleries have been painted in a series of deep, resonant, earthy hues. And the mingling of furnishings with a variety of supporting materials helps to fill out the social dimensions of the story. There are collections of printed matter—books and catalogues and magazines, which are often works of decorative art in their own right—and these give us a sense of the intellectual ferment of the time, not to mention the Arts and Crafts movement's marketing strategies. There are just enough reproductions of period photographs to help us reconstruct the world from which these objects emerged. It is important to have a glimpse of a piece of furniture in a major turn-of-the-century exhibition, or to see the faces of the people who created all these tables and chairs.

Among the essential aspects of the story that we see emerging all across Europe and the United States are the experimental utopian communities, generally in rural settings, to which artists and other assorted idealists retreated in order to purify their lives and pursue aesthetic and social goals. As you look at the photographs of these communities, anybody who has read The Blithedale Romance or is old enough to have heard the stories that came back from the communes in the late 1960s and early 1970s will know how complicated, tangled, and often unsatisfactory such experiments can be. I feel the conflicts raging just beneath the surface of these sepia-toned images. Godollo, a Hungarian community in the first years of the new century, is particularly fascinating. Almost all the arts and crafts were practiced by the men and women at Godollo, who gathered there to reclaim some essence of the old Hungarian spirit, a magic that was secreted in medieval legends and in folk art conventions. A photograph of Sndor Nagy's house has an inviting spareness: this is the proverbial clean and well-lit place of modern longings, with the curved patterning of boards on the staircase and various pieces of imaginatively shaped furniture providing some witty asides.

There is a storybook quality to the interiors at Godollo. Mariska Undi's studio, with its displays of folk art and its brilliantly colored and figured textiles, looks like a toy shop or a playroom. And then there is Undi herself, a striking woman decked out in elegant peasant regalia, a grown-up at the center of this fantasy. One doesn't need to know much of anything about Gdllo to suspect that the colonists' yearnings for simplicity were fueled by various forms of egomania—and that the mix could be combustible. This show is a wonderful saga of realists and idealists, of craftspeople, polemicists, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, wholesalers, retailers, and even to some extent a paying public. Kaplan provides us with glimpses of different aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement in a variety of countries; and these glimpses are so expertly mosaicked together that the result is a striking, enveloping, altogether convincing panorama.


KAPLAN HAS INVESTIGATED the holdings of far-flung museums and collections, and some of the material that she has come up with is virtually unknown. Taken together, the works on display announce a dramatic turn in European taste. Before the advent of the Arts and Crafts movement, the epitome of craft had been a kind of suavity—an ability to reshape wood or clay or metal, to give it a new life. In the greatest Arts and Crafts work, however, craft sheds its craftiness—or at least it tries to. Of course transformation is not unheard of in the Arts and Crafts movement—the vegetal forms made of wood or metal can sometimes rival the illusionist panache of the achievements of the rococo. But with the Arts and Crafts movement the focus of craftsmanship shifts, for it is the inherent character of materials—the grain of wood, the texture of clay—that is pushed to the fore. Like the forthrightness of the modern movement in painting—like Courbet's use of the palette knife, or Manet's undisguised brushwork—the forthrightness of the Arts and Crafts movement was grounded in a reaction against the artificiality of modern culture. There are delightfully plainspoken objects included here, such as a chair by Heinrich Vogeler with an owl cut into its back and a rush seat: not a masterwork, but an object with its own funny simplicity. And certain ceramics—a soup plate from the Zsolnay Factory in Hungary, with a pattern of vigorously stylized leaves—have a winning directness. I especially admired a dresser designed around 1905 by Ambrose Heal; one feels that all Heal wants to do is to allow his fine planks to display their lovely grain, and indeed this seems to be enough.

The movement rejected the decorative arts vocabulary that the Renaissance had inherited from the Greco-Roman world, and this rejection necessitated a search for new forms of honesty—a search that brought its own dangers. Any wholesale re-invention of taste is an invitation for bad taste to flourish, and the Arts and Crafts movement was no exception. The nationalist interests that inspired many craftspeople could lead to an indiscriminate embrace of local history. The Irish were besotted by Celtic patterning and the Scandinavians were eager to study the Viking antiquities that were only beginning to be pulled from the ground; and some of the work that resulted is, at least to my eyes, little more than exquisitely crafted kitsch. Lars Kinsarvik's Viking armchair, in blue painted wood, is a hoot. If it were just a joke it might be lovable, but Kinsarvik is in earnest. He has gotten carried away with his antiquarian studies, and the result is a Viking cartoon rendered in three dimensions. I also wish that the movement had been quicker in getting over William Morris's infatuation with maidens in long dresses and long tresses. Their stylish virginity is never very convincing, and they seem to crop up in one or another version in every country where the impact of Arts and Crafts was felt. These ethereal lovelies—weak-kneed rehashings of earlier high art conventions, of the maidens on the Parthenon frieze and the young things who accompany Botticelli's Venus and Primavera—were the movement's soft-core porn.

THERE CAN BE something terribly cozy and conventional about the Arts and Crafts movement, so much so that we have to remind ourselves that at its core it was radically anti-traditional. While many of the movement's innovations in design involved a search for new or untapped sources—in the arts of the Middle Ages or in one or another heretofore overlooked national tradition—what was most exciting was the determination to reject anything that could be regarded as a highly sophisticated or self-conscious design tradition, even one as far from classical models as the work of the monks who created the Book of Kells. The Arts and Crafts movement was generally most persuasive when it drew its inspiration from vernacular traditions that were, until the late nineteenth century, little more than a shadow kingdom in the history of art and design. It is terrifically affecting to see craftspeople looking for inspiration in the interior of a farmhouse or in the flowers of a field—and attempting to look at those forms without preconceptions, without recourse to the ways that designers might have interpreted them in the past.

The craftsman was considering the very fundamentals of craft and the very nature of seeing. In place of the traditional vocabulary of design, the Arts and Crafts movement offered a faith—sometimes a blind faith—in the process of making a thing. This was the movement's great dare. And the art of the past does indeed seem to be swept aside when you look at certain objects, such as an oak dining table made by Sidney Barnsley in the 1920s. Barnsley was one of a group of men who in the 1890s went to live in the Cotswolds and produce furniture that was based in part on country models. The legs and the trestle of Barnsley's table are made of substantial pieces of oak hewn into blunt yet modulated forms that suggest the articulated shapes of well-used farm implements.

Barnsley's table is substantial but not ponderous. Its wide surface and broad beams have a tensile excitement. And the simple diamond pattern that he has cut into the side of the top and allowed to run down the legs gives just the right touch of decorative articulation. This table is matter-of-fact and practical—but there is poetry in its practicality, too. One feels in the careful balancing of forms—in the suggestion of the shape of a rake in the trestle—a sculptural abstraction of the agrarian scene. Barnsley creates a complex reflection on the fascination with naturalness. The grain of the wood is open, frank, unabashed. Barnsley is seducing the materials, urging oak to reveal its true nature. And the honey-colored wood radiates its own quietly blissed-out aura. In Barnsley's table—and in many other works here—there is a new, bold sensuousness.

 

Some of the purest and most beautiful designs are in the Scandinavian section of the show. Akseli Gallen-Kallela's armchair, with its slender angular lines and high back, combines a sobriety and an austerity with a springiness, a lean power, that is a distillation of Art Nouveau. Carl Westman's armchair from around 1900 is almost Asian in the purity of its focus on plain wooden supports and simple joinery. There is a visual slowness to the chair. The individual elements--the finials at the top of the back, the intersections of planks and dowels--are not striking in and of themselves; what holds us is the deliberateness of the composition. The point does not seem to be to find new forms so much as to push the analysis of form back to the beginning of form. The viewer is given a sense of tradition being whittled away, reduced to its basics. The result is a kind of lightness, formal and emotional. We are back at the beginning of the chair, much as Brancusi, in his torso of a young man, takes us back to the beginning of figure sculpture.


ONE OF THE strengths of Kaplan's encyclopedic approach to the Arts and Crafts movement is that she breaks through the parochialism that tends to infect the subject. Perhaps because so much of the important work on these artists has been done by people who see themselves as advocates, the achievement of Josef Hoffmann or Gustav Stickley can be enveloped in an uncomfortably polemical atmosphere. The evangelism that these men brought to their design work has turned out to be infectious, so that the exhibitions dedicated to their achievements, no matter how wonderful they may be, can have an off-puttingly aggressive atmosphere, as if you've stumbled into the meeting of a religious sect. The beauty of Kaplan's show is that at the very moment when we begin to feel that we are being strong-armed, we can turn a corner and discover another side of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Kaplan's approach emphasizes underlying or overarching themes. The German and Austrian work, which many of us tend to think of in its most resolutely, elegantly urban mode, is here revealed to have a countrified aspect as well, gorgeously represented in a dresser from Hoffmann's suite of furniture for Ernst Sthr and in Hans Vollmer's invigoratingly succinct settee. Many resemblances among works produced in different places--the elongated forms, the curvilinear motifs—are surely the result of the rapid-fire international exchange of ideas that characterized this fast-developing movement. But there is also a suggestion in this exhibition that some of the formal affinities are grounded in a generally shared desire to remake the world in its most fundamental aspects—through an interest in the nature of clay, in the beauty of simple construction techniques, in the inherent properties of metal and wood.


THE STORY OF "The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America" closes in the years around World War I, but a museumgoer cannot help but flash forward. The revolutionary achievements of the Bauhaus and the entire history of twentieth-century Scandinavian design would be unimaginable without the Arts and Crafts movement. The design experiments in early Soviet Russia; the continuing interest in artisanal traditions in England after World War II; the fascination with pottery and weaving at Black Mountain College in the 1940s and all across America at mid-century; the current popularity of Ikea, where excellently designed bentwood furniture and glassware and rugs and lamps are sold at rock-bottom prices and are thus within the easy reach of a wide public: all of these developments are linked to the great sea change in visual and social consciousness that the Arts and Crafts movement inspired. Kaplan's achievement is to offer a definition of the movement that is elastic enough to embrace all these later developments.

"The Arts and Crafts movement," Kaplan explains, "could claim the adherence of progressives and conservatives, proponents of the handmade and of industrial production, as well as those who believed that 'the service of modern art' must include the revival of traditional crafts." People "invented the movement that they needed." William Morris could be seen as an opponent of the machine or as a hero of the new industrialism: "his acolytes interpreted him selectively." It is Kaplan's great point that far from pressing some one-note theory about the individuality of the craftsperson, the Arts and Crafts movement mounted a broad struggle to humanize industrial practices, to make them expressive, to value craft while acknowledging the difficulties of bringing quality objects to a wide audience without recourse to machine production of one sort or another. She presents, side by side, two works by the Belgian designer Gustave Serrurier- Bovy that show one man reaching for both elitist and populist forms of expression: his grandfather clock is an exquisite, unique luxury production, but his night table, complete with chamber pot, was designed to be produced inexpensively and sold in large quantities.

The complacency that we may sometimes associate with the back-to-nature side of the Arts and Crafts movement has no place in this exhibition. And the giants with whom we are so familiar—Wright and Hoffmann and Mackintosh—are knitted back into a story in which many other figures, such as Sidney Barnsley, turn out, at least for a moment, to shine nearly as brightly. It's not that Wright and Hoffmann are taken down a peg. Far from it. It's that a range of designers and craftspeople are pushed up high. The result is an exhibition that rejects the parochialism and the special pleading that are always turning the study of the decorative arts into a dead end in the history of art. The largeness of the view here brings us back to—and extends—a century of advances in the study of the decorative arts. Kaplan's achievement brings to mind a book such as Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design, first published in 1936 (and just out in a new edition from Yale), or an exhibition such as the Museum of Modern Art's seminal "Art Nouveau: Art and Design at the Turn of the Century" in 1960. With this exhibition in Los Angeles, the Arts and Crafts movement reclaims its rightful place in the great sweep of modern art history. Art history's orphans have found their way home.

We see in the work gathered here—in its search for fundamentals, in its beguiling fantasies—the same dazzlingly complex simplicity that we see in the experiments of Vuillard and Brancusi and Matisse. And as museumgoers make these connections, they are going to find that they are also re-affirming one of art's oldest hopes: the dream of a unity of the arts. It is a dream that burned brightly for half a century in the communities where craftspeople met, in the workshops where they labored with wood and cloth and clay and metal, in the international expositions where they displayed the fruits of those labors, and in the elegant city shops where a sophisticated middle-class public came to admire the tables and chairs and rugs and ceramics through which a modern utopia was being defined.

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