I’ve just learned that Hilda Jesser could design anything.
Correction: I’ve just learned who Hilda Jesser was.
To back up, I should explain that I often use this blog as an excuse to explore something in the Museum’s collection that I should know more about. This colorful ceramic vase is charming, but I’ve never selected it to go on view in the galleries because I wasn’t quite certain how to explain it.
Thanks to the markings on its base and the curatorial cataloging records here at the Museum, I knew that the vase was designed by Hilda Jesser while at the Wiener Werkstätte sometime around 1921.
But it doesn’t look anything like my preconceived notion of what Wiener Werkstätte ceramic designs would look like, so how could I select it to represent that influential moment in modern design history?
It was time to find out more.
The Vienna-based workshop Wiener Werkstätte evolved from the Vienna Secession, a group that had been founded in 1897 as a progressive alliance of artists and designers. (The Secessionists seceded from the established art academy, citing disagreement with the academy’s reliance on historicism.) To further solidify the Secessionist’s promotion of modernity as it applied to design objects, in 1903 Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte as a community of craftsmen.
The Wiener Werkstätte became a type of brand in itself. Under its progressive ideals, it produced and marketed not just furniture but also small articles in glass, ceramics, silver and other metals, jewelry, and clothing. It hosted exhibitions to promote its ideals of quality craft and forward-looking design.
The main idea was that all designs were unified and part of one contemporary artistic vision, with craftsmen working across all media to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art). This possibly unrealistic ideal was never-the-less perhaps most fully realized at Hoffmann’s 1905 Stoclet Palace in Brussels. Visit this site for a great collection of images showing the exterior and interior of Stoclet Palace–you’ll see the building’s unity of architecture, ornament, artwork, furniture, and textiles.
In general, the celebrated Wiener Werkstätte artistic vision relied on geometric, simple, and abstract aesthetics, and is often credited with setting the tone for “Modernism” of the 20th century.
What does that look like? Along the right are some, to me, quintessential Wiener Werkstätte designs. In Sika’s tea service design and Hoffman’s famous metal grid vase, you see the characteristic simple shapes and reduced ornament.
Hilda Jesser’s wildly-painted, wildly-ornamented ceramic vase doesn’t seem to fit.
What I learned about Hilda is that, after attending the Vienna School for the Applied Arts (studying with Hoffmann for part of that), from 1916 to 1922 she produced works for the Wiener Werkstätte. She was apparently prolific, working in fashion, textiles, painting, glass, and embroidery, but only produced a few examples of ceramic like this one in the Milwaukee Art Museum collection.
The dates here are key. By the time that Jesser was working with the workshop, it was directed by a man named Dagobert Peche instead of Josef Hoffmann.
Peche joined the Werkstätte in 1915, and was co-director from 1917-23. It is key to note that his general aesthetic was markedly different from Hoffmann’s geometric abstraction, drawing eclectic inspiration from classical sources, rococo and baroque periods, and folk forms.
What I learned is that Peche led in a playful, ornamental spirit that replaced the earlier geometry. His work is characterized by objects like the exquisitely-crafted and extravagant jewel box at left or this enamel box in the Victoria & Albert Museum‘s collection.
Peche’s influence as artistic director at the Werkstätte is noticeable in work produced after World War I–and this explains the look of the Hilda Jesser ceramic vase.
By 1921 the Werkstätte was no longer dominated by geometry. Designers allowed a greater sense of whimsey and decoration to enter their work. Jesser’s hand-painted vase allows the ornament to playfully follow the contour of the shape. The shape even seems to purposefully reference a Japanese paper lantern.
Essentially, Jesser’s vase reminds me that the conversation about what modern design meant to any given person at any given time is very complicated. All those associated with the Wiener Werkstätte agreed with unity of design and breaking from traditions, but aesthetically even within one craft community the realization of their ideals appeared in many different ways.
To Hoffmann, “Modern” was a square. To Peche, “Modern” could be a deer. And, by the looks of this vase, to Hilda Jesser “Modern” could have a swirling handle in the shape of a pig’s tail.
This post is from a series called “From Museum Storage” that highlights Milwaukee Art Museum objects currently not on view. In the next few years, we are making major changes to our permanent collection galleries, and this necessitates closing areas for renovation and having artworks in storage. The blog is a place where we can share information about such works.
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.