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The Art of Patronage in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

At the Galerie St. Etienne

By Glenn Loney



The Gallerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
(212) 245-6734

Closing May 26, 2007

Egon Schiele. Portrait of Arthur Roessler. 1914. Drypoint in Charcoal gray.

Did you know that the designer of the Art Deco Hearst Bldg and the long-gone Ziegfeld Theatre, Joseph Urban, opened a Wiener Werkstätte boutique in midtown Manhattan way back when? And he was also forced to close it, for Mid-Depression New Yorkers could not afford many of the beautiful pieces of furniture, fabrics, glass, ceramics, silver, and decorative-art on view.

The same thing happened in Vienna, when times got bad and tastes began to change. The Kärntnerstrasse shop had to be shuttered. The taste for Jugendstil or Art Nouveau was passing…

The artists & craftsmen of the Wiener Werkstätte had the Noble Vision of creating beautiful homes, interiors, & furnishings for Ordinary Viennese, especially the deprived Working-Classes.

They were handsomely financially-supported in their mission by wealthy Viennese such as Fritz Waerendorfer & Otto Primavesi. [Daughter Mäda Primavesi’s Gustav Klimt portrait is in the Met Museum.]

The Central Problem impeding the success of this Vision was that Werkstätte artists wanted to employ only the finest of materials so their labor-intensive creations had to be priced far above what most Viennese could--or would--pay.

This was also a problem for the Deutsche Werkbund and other almost-Utopian artist-communities in Germany, as that at the Mathilden-Höhe in Hesse-Darmstadt.

But they also miscalculated in their belief that once ordinary people had seen their works, they would immediately want to have them in their own homes. Or redo their interiors entirely, à la Wiener Werkstätte.

What H. L, Mencken once said of Americans was also true of Germans & Austrians: ''No one ever went broke by under-estimating American Taste!''

The new show at St. Etienne does not deal directly with this marketing-tale, but a number of rare drawings by Secession artists, poster-designs, and Werkstätte artifacts related to the saga are on display. Jane Kallir’s--as always--illuminating catalog-essay fills in the blanks about the replacement of Church & State artist-patronage in Austria by wealthy merchants & bankers.