How do curators allocate exhibition content between an audio guide and gallery labels? I wondered this as I visited the “Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907” show at the Neue Galerie. Aside from simple object labels and a single overview label for each room, there wasn’t much to go on if you weren’t listening to audio. For example, a model of the Vienna Secession building displayed in the first gallery. Was it ever built? What was the story? I had no idea. So I started over my visit over, this time with the audio and it was well worth it. The show is put together with elegance and clarity, and the accompanying audio guide is the same.
It used to be, in the early days of the audio tour, that what you heard narrated was basically the same as what you could read for yourself on the walls of an exhibit. Therefore the guide seemed more option than necessity for a museum visit. Those days are gone; an audio guide is now the primary source of interpretive information in the environments where it is offered. I understand the curatorial impulse to avoid redundancy, but in some cases this goes too far. And really, if an excellent audio tour has been scripted, it seems like a missed opportunity not to at least pull the highlights of that content into a readable format in the galleries. I’m a fan of (the potential of) audio tours, but sometimes I just want to flow through a show without having to start and stop a device all the time.
This is the first survey of Moser’s work to be shown in the United States; it’s exciting to see a significant show based on decorative arts. Moser was part of the Vienna Secession, which emerged in 1897 with the goal of creating a modern Austrian style that would put fine and applied (decorative) arts on equal footing in terms of approach and value. This show traces the evolution of his design aesthetic from that time into the mature style that came to be associated with the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Studios), co-founded by Moser together with Josef Hoffmann in 1903.
The exhibit is divided into three galleries, which correspond to three distinct creative periods in Moser’s artistic evolution. The walls of each gallery are decorated with Moser designs of the period; this extra investment into the exhibition design (by John Vinci) delivers the benefit of bringing visitors into Moser’s artistic vision instead of just looking at it. The first gallery, covering “The Search for a Modern Style 1898-1900” feels like the time period it celebrates.
I’ll admit, before I looked at anything else I immediately thought about the gallery’s potential as a dining room based on the stenciled walls alone. The glassware and ceramics, furnishing and textile designs displayed here are heavily influenced by the prevailing Art Nouveau style: curvilinear forms and naturalistic motifs abound.
Moser’s textile designs still feel modern, with graphic motifs and vibrant colors, and his postcard designs illustrate the Secessionist mission put into practice: images and type are for the first time treated with equal importance in a unified artistic product.
By 1901 Moser’s style becomes more linear and volumetric, as seen in the furnishings displayed in the second gallery, “The Viennese Style 1901-1902”.
The white walls of this gallery are bordered with a simple grey and umber checkerboard pattern and the furniture forms are heavier, with simple lines. But surface treatments are still lavish. Several pieces from Moser’s first significant commission – the comprehensive outfitting of the Eisler von Terramare apartment in Vienna – gleam with decorative details that enrich the underlying forms. A massive vitrine of ebony and birch veneers with beveled glass, designed for the apartment’s drawing room, is further embellished with stylized female figures of mother of pearl. A writing desk and matched chair are designed as one unit. The desk, a massive block, is softened with a repeating pattern of inlaid woods. The chair, treated identically on its back and sides, tucks neatly into the desk to create an unbroken vertical wall of pattern.
Given that the Eisler von Terramare apartment was such a significant milestone for Moser, and was treated by him as a single artistic expression across carpets, furniture, ceramics, and jewelry, I was disappoined not to see any photographs of the apartment itself in the gallery. Indeed, there was no information about the family at all, or the reason for the commission, their wedding, that could be read anywhere. I eventually caught up with the facts on audio, but when two or more of the objects on display are from a single commission some basic contextual information really should be provided, to wit: who are these people, where was this apartment and why was the commission placed in the first place?
The final gallery, the largest, showcases the full evolution of the Viennese style that came be known as the Wiener Werkstätte.
Founded in 1903, the Wiener Werkstätte fostered a collective and experiential atmosphere. Moser continued to champion flat surface decoration, simple forms and restrained ornament. A kitchen sideboard, seen in the photograph above, exemplifies the studio credo that quality resides in the design and execution, rather than the materials, of an object. It’s a powerful endorsement of the value of the creative vision. By designing these commonplace furnishings with an individual touch, Moser felt that he was honoring the individual spirit of the people (servants) who would conduct their own work on these objects. Thus, the sideboard is simply formed but distinguished by its cheerful blue paint, unusual in a time of all white kitchens.
Smaller objects show the same restraint in both form and ornament. It’s fun to see Moser’s vague drawing for bejeweled silver tabletop box next to the actual box – how could anyone interpret such a loose sketch? It was only possible because the craftsmen who constructed the box worked in the same studio as Moser; the Wiener Werkstätte was truly an integrated undertaking. Amidst all of this restraint there was still some whimsy: two small egg-shaped boxes, painted with rabbits.
Room for improvement
It was surprising to exit the final gallery and find a small room filled with secondary information in a timeline format. And a bench; this was the equivalent of the reading room I guess. Here were the answers to the questions I’d had all along: pictures of the actual Secessionist building, pictures of the Eisler von Terramare furnishings in situ, pictures of Moser and a bit of his family background. My experience would have been improved if some of this information had been integrated into the relevant galleries so that I could experience it in “real time”. In the same vein, the lack of printed labels with high level contextual information in the galleries kept interrupting my flow; in general I think curators should beware an over reliance on audio at the expense of the basics.
But these are very small suggestions. The show is terrific, the galleries are not too large or daunting, and the artistic evolution and output is absolutely engaging. See the show at the Neue Galerie in New York until September 2, 2013, or visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from September 29, 2013 to January 12, 2014 to learn more about Koloman Moser firsthand.
This post is part of a series on the visitor experience in museums; read about it here.