Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

back to overview

August 1997

Vintage Vogue; Uncovering Munich's Jugendstil

The development of Jugenstil in Munich

As Kaiser Wilhelm arrived at the 1902 Düsseldorf Industrial Expo poised to review the latest in global technology, he dutifully focused his attention on the acres of machines and manufactures sprawling before him. Suddenly, the show's director rushed to his side and motioned in the direction of an avant-garde furniture display. The monarch took one look at the curvaceous couches and swerving settees and blanched. "Gentlemen, we'll skip this part," Wilhelm declared, motioning to Belgian designer Henry van de Velde's work, "I think I'm going to be ill." Although it may not have been to the emperor's taste, the modern art movement known as Jugendstil took deep root in Germany, and Munich played a decisive role in ensuring its success. Also called Art Nouveau in France, and Secession in Vienna, the international movement shared the same design genealogy, with each country contributing a particular regional flavor. "Jugendstil is like the Roman god Janus," says Dr. Florian Hufnagl, director of the Neue Sammlung, the city's foremost collection of modern applied arts. "It has two faces: one trained on the past, and the other peering ahead." The tension sprang from the conflict in late 19th-century art between the curved and the straight line. Curling tendrils and flowering buds were popular patterns throughout the 19th century, and classical design precepts valued them as symbols of a higher order. But such principles had spiritual connotations; appreciation of natural beauty implied belief in a creator, and progressives at the turn of the century had little interest in ideas that lacked scientific proof. Machines were far more promising. They guaranteed predictability in a world rife with chaos and confusion, offering a man-made universe better than nature itself. Grids and geometric designs embodied the rationality of the industrialized world, and artists rushed to conform to this new standard. A FRESH AGENDA Amazingly, Munich almost missed the boat. Established artists and architects of the time promoted the random use of historical looks. One reigning trend in the 1890s was Zopfstil, a frilly neo-Rococo mode that horrified forward-looking designers. But that was only the latest in a long line of stale styles: court architects had already produced the Greek Revival Königsplatz, the Florentine Ludwigstraße, and the Gothic Maximilianstraße without so much as a nod to novelty. Furniture design fared no better, favoring French fashions that failed to define Munich as a metropolis on the cusp of modernity. The times teemed with potential, and Jugendstil artists wanted design to mirror their expectations. Munich's press proposed Jugendstil as the solution. Thanks to widely distributed art weeklies such as Jugend, or Youth, founded in 1896, the style's popularity spread quickly among artists and intellectuals. The masthead gave its name to the movement, and proclaimed its program in gushing tones: "Youth is joy, celebration, hope, love, belief in mankind —youth is life, youth is color, form and light." Although its flagship issue voiced the spirit of reform, one that jettisoned the past to embrace new beginnings, the lack of a specific direction sapped its strength. The magazine — itself an example of Jugendstil book arts — manifested the movement's main difficulty: casting off the era's muddled design legacy for a fresh agenda. The surviving Jugendstil architecture in Munich revels in the conflict, illustrated in the popular crimson and cobalt house on Ainmillerstr. 22 in Schwabing. Designers Henry Helbig and Ernst Haiger piled updated grid patterns atop creepers and garlands, making it unclear whether they wanted to decorate the old style with new lines, or line the new style with old decor. "Floral Jugendstil is an affectation of historical styles," notes Dr. Hufnagl, "but even as this outmoded aspect persisted, a totally new development appeared: a clear, strict, geometric movement in the style that survived into the 20th century. And it survived because Jugendstil was the first art movement with a lobby." The movement's proponents worldwide were busy furthering the cause, but they did so in a variety of ways. While Eduard Munch's painting The Scream and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's posters used bold line and vivid color to capture urban isolation and anonymity, Munich artists employed the same elements to draft a more optimistic program. The effect was a graceful and refreshing adaptation of natural themes. Traced with concise line, Jugendstil achieved a new style that is readable in Munich's streetscapes and museum collections. The Neue Sammlung, Münchner Stadtmuseum and Bayerisches Nationalmuseum each harbor fine collections of Art Nouveau and its offspring, but the city's architecture offers the most direct route to appreciating the local rendition. RHYTHMIC DESIGN Germany's first Jugendstil house stands on a shady avenue in Bogenhausen, and at first glance looks more like an English country house than an avant-garde villa. At Maria-Theresia-Str. 27, designed by Martin Dülfer, the 1896-98 Villa Bechtolsheim features regularized vine patterns on its turret and bay window that hint at its progressive character. His Schwabing works convey a more complex understanding of the movement's aims, but still rely on exterior ornamentation instead of construction method and room layout to achieve their modern character. Designed as standard turn-of-the-century Mietpaläste, or noble apartment houses, the complexes at Ohmstr. 13 and Gedonstr. 4 better show the transition from floral appliqué to a alanced blend of rectilinear and natural elements. The 1905-07 Ohmstr. house, stretching around the corner to Königinstr. 85, is a telling example of the style's evolution. A white vine, sculpted stucco like that at Villa Bechtolsheim, crawls across a central panel and waves to the balconies below. The tiny terraces undulate, mimicking the plant's pattern, and transfer the ornament's movement to the building's body. Horizontal ranks of ribbed stucco and perpendicular decor ensure that the projections stay stationary within the wall. The result is a contrapuntal rhythm, a modern architectural dance. The Gedonstr. house heightens the tempo, with a colony of brightly painted bees coursing over the facade in columns, buzzing by turquoise gems and fields of pale-green combed stucco. Dülfer transferred brilliant energy and devilish delight into his facades, an achievement made remarkable by the fact that he was traditionally trained. Munich's premier architect, Friedrich Thiersch, best known for the Justizgebäude (Court of Justice) on Karlsplatz, had taught him to build neo-Baroque, but Dülfer defected to usher in the new style. Dülfer's work was a key transition between old styles and modernism. Textile and furniture designer Hermann Obrist took the movement a step further by formulating a more radical approach. At first committed to plant and animal forms, having studied natural science before turning to the arts, he used the Jugendstil program to transform his knowledge and appreciation for natural beauty into an abstract expression. His 1895 Whiplash, a rectangular cloth emblazoned with silk embroidery, tests the limit between the natural and the man-made. The figure, an uprooted flowering vine hurtling through the air, is far too tortured to be real. Although it has leaves, petals and roots, its madly wriggling pose belies its relationship to botanical reality. Its departure from recognizable plant characteristics is a bold step toward abstract art. Like Obrist, August Endell was an artist whose works marked a leap into design for the exterior of the Hofatelier Elvira, a photography studio demolished as "degenerate art" at Hitler's command, is reminiscent of Obrist's Whiplash. But Endell took the next logical step and abandoned nature altogether, allowing conjectural concepts to rule his compositions. The studio's reedy clay appliqué had a disturbing psychological quality, and embodied the "ease, edge, and momentum" that was the essence of artistic genius. Endell insisted that artists rely on their feelings and use forms that did not represent or symbolize anything discernible. "There is no greater idiocy than the idea that conscientiously copied nature is art," Endell wrote in his essay On Beauty. As he saw it, the effect of total abstraction would be uplifting, total freedom from historical baggage. ASIAN INFLUENCE The movement started around 1890 when Emile Gallé, an artist in northern France, introduced exotic,curvilinear ceramic objets d'art to high society collectors. "After the English opened up global ports to international trade at the beginning of the 1860s, Europe encountered oriental art at the world expositions," explains Hufnagl. "Without the influence of Japanese ceramics, Gallé's Nancy crafts, so influential in this new movement, would not have been imaginable." Hamburg entrepreneur Samuel Bing established the gallery L'Art Nouveau near the Paris opera, giving Gallé's work a new name and a splendid marketing venue. The fashion caught on quickly, and student factions at prestigious arts academies denounced their teachers and succumbed to the new sensation. They rejected the Victorian age and wanted to be modern, preferring sleek lines and slick forms to historical pastiche. They didn't want a renaissance of old ideas, but a new birth instead. Art was changing because technology spurred it. Metal construction came to the fore, giving strong, straight silhouettes a novelty that undermined style's significance. The 1893 Chicago World's Colombian Exposition helped such structural innovation to render style obsolete. The fair's main court was a deceptive urban facsimile — a neoclassical forum that looked like the mall in Washington, D.C., or Munich's Königsplatz, but was actually just a paper-maché shell over a metal frame. The massive stage set exemplified the century's identity crisis in the arts. In its wake, artists struggled to decide whether style was like a cake's icing, sweet but merely decorative, or something more significant. Jugendstil had taken bold steps toward a modern language of abstract form by 1897 when Munich's Glaspalast hosted Europe's first Jugendstil Exposition, which gave the movement international renown and combined creative currents that had been coursing across the continent for years. Designers Peter Behrens and Bruno Paul were among the contributors who embraced industrial production as the best means of promoting their products. Art critic Hermann Muthesius applauded machine-made artwork as a step toward economic pragmatism. Handmade products "that only the wealthiest ten percent could even dream of acquiring" were beautiful, he said, but presented a business risk for artists. Consumers might admire them, but most could not buy them. Design based on grids and simple geometry was better suited to mass production than organic forms, sealing the partnership between artistic abstraction and the machine. Otto Eckmann, Bernhard Pankok, and Richard Riemerschmid, three of Munich's foremost contributors to the 1897 fair, applied this approach to interior decoration and furniture design, each adding an individual interpretation to the growing body of Jugendstil works. Eckmann, who got his start contributing graphic art to Jugend, earned greater fame with his metal work. His floral wrought-iron candlesticks lent themselves to the mass market. The modest medium and simplified, affable shapes made them easy to reproduce and affordable for Munich collectors. At the other end of the spectrum was Bernhard Pankok, who, originally trained as a decorative painter, crossed over to furniture design for the 1897 show. The silhouettes of his pieces, at first subdued and reserved, became feverishly organic and even outlandish as the turn of the century approached. The furniture he designed for Obrist's Schwabing villa looks like it could leap to life, and reveals an appreciation for medieval line and curve combined with a modern sense of animation. In contrast, Richard Riemerschmid's work is strictly functional. By far the most versatile of Munich's Jugendstil artists, Riemerschmid pared his designs to the bare minimum in ornament. Whether it was painting, furniture, textiles or china, he demonstrated a masterful grasp of how Jugendstil's mixed aesthetic could move forward into the next century. His entries in the initial Jugendstil show confirm his complete rejection of stylistic heritage. No historical style can be convincingly connected to them, and the floral motif popular in his colleagues' work is barely detectable. Although Jugendstil got its start using natural motifs, such as flowers, Munich artists reduced them through oriental influences into sleek, striated forms until they no longer carried any recognizable representational value. The result was a wholly new aesthetic, a style that was anti-style at its core. As the movement progressed, it discarded the natural patterns it came to view as the flotsam and jetsam of historical styles. Munich's Jugendstil provided a crucial crossing from barren historical allusion to a fertile, uncharted frontier. For the first time in history, mankind denounced nature in favor of the machine, choosing a man-made muse over the cosmos' impenetrable mystery. Modernism lost no time, and staked its claim.

tell a friend