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Viennese Silver

Modernes Design 1780 – 1918

The exhibition "Viennese Silver. Modern Design 1780-1918" illustrates that the roots of modern design extend further back into history and are more complex than is generally assumed. In the late eighteenth century, and especially during the Viennese Biedermeier, we already find the evolution of a formal language that is still valid today. These objects are characterised by a reduction to basic geometric forms and a disregard for ornamentation, which makes them timeless and modern. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser were inspired by the emphasis on functionalism as evidenced in home-decorating and every-day objects from this earlier period to create in their work for the Wiener Werkstätte the first radical design-objects of the twentieth century. Movements such as De Stijl and the Bauhaus helped to transmit this formal language to mass-produced objects and thus to contemporary design.

Over two-hundred carefully chosen silver objects dating from Neo-Classicism to the Wiener Werkstätte document Vienna´s contribution to the development of a modern formal idiom.

This comprehensive survey makes it possible to place Viennese artistic traditions in a wider context and thus to discover and explore new connections. Though spanning artistic development from Neo-Classicism to the Wiener Werkstätte, the exhibition focuses solely on artefacts made of silver and other metals. The large number of objects chosen for the exhibition illustrates the ability of this material to express a modern formal idiom. However, the objects on show were not chosen in order to provide a comprehensive survey of the stylistic scope and variety of silver objects produced in Vienna during the period of time under discussion; instead, only those objects that may be considered harbingers of modern design were selected. Thus contemporary stylistic trends, such as Historicism, were ignored.

The five sections of the exhibition invite the visitor to undertake an imaginary journey, providing associations both of an aesthetic nature and in regard to content. In the first section, the journey towards a new formal language begins by contrasting the specifics that characterise the art of Rococo and Neo-Classicism. The second section, "Neo-Classicism", is divided into three sub-sections - "The Model of Classical Antiquity", "Reduction", and "Geometry as the Language of the Enlightenment" - and discusses the role of Classicism as a constant companion of Modernism.

The third section - "From the Ideal of Simplicity to Modern Every-Day Objects" - compares silver objects produced in Vienna during the first half of the nineteenth century with design-classics from the twentieth century. The aim is to take a new look at the development of modern design. The fourth section is called "Mobility - a Maxim of Modern Society" and focuses on the functionalism of nineteenth century travelling utensils as a source for modern aesthetics. In addition, stream-lined designs by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser are contrasted with futuristic flying objects.

The fifth section - "Style and Self-presentation" - describes the close symbiosis between the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte and their patrons, which acted as a catalyst for modern design solutions. In "Vienna´s Experiment with Modernity", the final section, radical designs by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser from the early years of the Wiener Werkstätte document the ability of the artist to revitalise modern society. The radicalism of their artistic forms serves primarily to document a time of radical change. The object is liberated from its traditional role and becomes a statement. This blurring of the boundaries between design and art offers a first glimpse of approaching Cubism and Constructivism.

Christian Witt-Dörring


16 November 2004
to 20 February 2005


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