Vienna to Darmstadt – Style in Tradition
This major exhibition of the work of Joseph Olbrich, the turn-of-the-century Austrian architect whose Darmstadt Wedding Tower featured on the cover of Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design, provides the opportunity for a reassessment of this prodigious talent. The target of Adolf Loos’ satirical tale of the Poor Rich Man, whose architect complained when he wore the wrong slippers in his Secession-style apartment makeover, Olbrich occupied an inconvenient position for those historians eager to demonstrate the triumph of the modern in the early twentieth century. Some saw him as a precursor of expressionism, and Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn were among his admirers, but very little of the work fits this diagnosis. Others bracket Olbrich as an Arts and Crafts architect like Voysey, Mackintosh and Baillie Scott, but that too misrepresents him.
In a career spanning barely more than a decade – Olbrich died of leukemia in 1908 at the age of 41 – he emerged from the fold of Otto Wagner’s Vienna office to design the Secession building in 1897 for the breakaway artistic movement around Gustav Klimt, before moving to Darmstadt where Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig asked him to lead the design of a new artists’ colony. Given that the declared intent of the Darmstadt colony was to begin afresh with an integrated approach to all arts in a radical response to nineteenth century neoclassicism, it’s not without irony that Olbrich should turn finally to neoclassicism. The exhibition, which ranges from graphics and architecture to furniture, costume and ceramics shows Olbrich as a consumate artist who, like Victor Horta and Josef Hoffman, enthusiastically applied himself to any design problem in pursuit of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art. In 1906 Olbrich was among the founders of the Deutscher Werkbund, precursor to the Bauhaus, and soon afterwards built a prototype worker’s house for Opel as it switched from bicycle to car manufacture, and inevitably we are left wondering ‘what if?’
The accompanying 456-page catalogue, edited by Ralf Beil and Regina Stephan, is an exemplary document, extensively illustrated but only in German language (an innovative CD/guidebook, Art to Hear, is available in English).
AT207/April 10 p8.