Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine
1 Place du Trocadéro et du 11 Novembre, 75116 Paris
Now through 16 March 2020
Otto Wagner (1841-1918) is celebrated as a master of Art Nouveau in Vienna at a special exhibition at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine. Yet he was much more than that during his nearly 60 year career, and his unique brand of Art Nouveau and the “much more” are both clearly on display in this expansive, well-curated exhibition. His projects and proposals ranged from Baroque palace-style buildings fit for the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to functional metal furniture. His ideas and theories similarly moved from mid-19th century — he started work around the time of the U.S. Civil War — through the restrained Art Nouveau of end of the century Vienna, to the deliberately unornamented modern style of the start of the 20th Century. His work moved and developed with changing tastes, new materials, and insights from his students. This exhibition tracks the evolution of Otto Wagner’s architecture and design, reflected the larger world’s evolution towards 20th century modernity.
Otto Wagner participated in the development of a rather restrained version of the Art Nouveau movement which swept across Europe at the very end of the 19th Century. His Viennese version was less about the elaborate swirls and cheery girls of, say, Alfons Mucha in Paris. Think of it as more disciplined than decadent. As with other Art Nouveau stylists, Wagner incorporated nature into his designs, as in the splendid cherry tree design of painted walls and bed coverings seen in a photo of his pied-à-terre (1898-1899, reproduction 2019), but he also utilized straight lines and right angles more than sinewy curves, more regular geometry than asymmetry. His style is much more like that of Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh than of the designers of Brussels and Paris. A full-wall photo of Wagner’s 1899 Karlsplatz subway entrance beautifully shows off the ordered design, the use of color, and the fanciful but restrained notes of his Viennese Art Nouveau.
For Wagner and many of his contemporaries, the impulse at the end of the 19th century was to break with the establishment; they seceded from the official art and architecture bodies, hence their group name, the Vienna Secession. Breaking from the rigid orthodox tastes of a royal capital, these artists celebrated artistic freedom, allowing the side-by-side development of very different styles. The stark geometry of the easy-to-miss wooden decorative element high on a wall in this exhibition stands as equal beside the elaborate friezes of Gustave Klimt (one in a video display). Four posters exemplify the diversity, the break with the past, and the varied creativity of artists who were consciously creating new, modern artistic styles to go along with the new, modern world of iron and steel structures, with scientific discoveries, and with the Viennese intellectual environment typified by Sigmund Freud. Look at the designs and the typeface of the large works by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) (asymmetric, large empty space, mythic elements), Koloman Moser(1868-1918) (sinewy curves, filled space in one and rigid symmetry in another), and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) (unsettling, faceless figures). These are no longer staid productions of the ruling class, Schiele’s work in particular anticipates the anomie and look and feel of the 20th Century. (You may also be struck by the fact that all three of these artists died in 1918, as did Otto Wagner.) You can recognize Wagner’s adaptability to changing tastes by noting that he aligned with these artists and their stylistic innovations, even though he was 20 years older than Klimt, nearly 30 years older than Moser, and almost 50 years senior to Schiele. The slides of the exhibitions and the Klimt frieze highlight the lack of a rigid formula and the great variety of art that was celebrated by the Viennese Secession.
Wagner, like other architects and designers becoming modern, adopted new materials, especially metals, and focused clearly on the needs of clients as well as the functions of buildings. The many drawings and watercolors of his monumental-but-never-built structures overwhelm in their now old-fashioned, Imperial style, while the photographs of realized projects, mainly late 19th Century apartment buildings, display a practicality with design features applied to the exteriors. Three projects stand out: the office building for a newspaper using aluminum facing outside, large light fixtures, and plain furniture with metal legs; the postal savings building with dramatic, if very simple, exterior and a grand, skylit interior court; and a completely unexpected church with wonderful chandeliers and interesting paintings in a stripped down structure. The exhibition brings these works to life with photographs blown up floor-to-ceiling, letting you see the details of Wagner’s work, a splendid use of a current technology to enhance our experience at the Cité de l’architecture. (A quibble: while these photo enlargements are great, who put signs for exhibition items at the eye level of a two-year old or in inaccessible corners?)
Among the treasures on display are items which exemplify Wagner’s (and his contemporaries’) desire to create complete works of art incorporating furniture and fixtures with the architecture. The appealing straight-line geometry of a knife and fork or a coffee service comes though in pieces on display, in drawings, and especially in the slide show of Wagner’s silver trays and similarly useful items. Carpet design, chair coverings, light fixtures — all of these were necessarily part of Wagner’s work, as they would be later with the creative groups of the Bauhaus and the Wiener Werkstätte, and with 20th Century Americans Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. This exhibition includes several fine pieces and designs of one of the many of Wagner’s many successful students and collaborators, Josef Hoffman, whose jewelry, silverware, and other items stand out among Art Nouveau and Art Deco creators of “complete works of art.” Photographs of the exteriors and interiors of two houses (villas) designed by Wagner for his family are worth examining for they show the increasing simplicity and fundamental classicism of his modernist architecture, the flat roofs of 20th century buildings, and the change from heavy furniture, fixtures, and artworks to uncluttered, more open rooms.
The Vienna of Otto Wagner, which extended throughout most of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, was one of startling and unsettling but exhilarating changes. These include railroads, Sigmund Freud, Imperial wealth and splendor, and a sense of the impending end of that world; structural iron and large sheets of glass for windows; throwbacks to Classical and Baroque styles; and deliberately stripped-down modernism. All of this comes through in this large exhibition which includes drawings; water colors of building designs (competition entries); photographs of completed works; a model of a bridge; excellent floor to ceiling photographs of metro stations, a large post office and a glorious church; videos; slide shows; furniture; and architectural models. Otto Wagner chose to become modern, and his work and that of his many influential students shaped much of what we think of as modern architecture and design. The Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine brings a wonderful sense of how 19th Century design evolved into the modern era by focusing on the career on one outstanding exemplar of those changes. This is an exhibition well worth seeing.