A rediscovery of Friedrich von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini’s eccentric œuvre in dialogue with works by Kamilla Bischof, Josef Frank, Julian Göthe, Elisabeth Karlinsky, Ulrike Müller, Oswald Oberhuber, Dagobert Peche, Marianne My Ullmann, Amelie von Wulffen & Nico Ihlein, Laura Welker, Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill and Min Yoon
Curated by Cosima Rainer und Robert Müller
University of Applied Arts Vienna, Heiligenkreuzerhof, May 02 – June 01, 2019
Last year our co-founder and editor Amar Priganica met Cosima Rainer and Robert Müller to talk about their group exhibition “Der Hausfreund” at Heiligenkreuzerhof in Vienna. The show was set up as a reflection on the practice of Friedrich von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini – a neglected and forgotten Austrian painter, graphic artist and designer. By combining a lucid visual language with an exotic vocabulary oscillating between Rococo and Art Déco, Berzeviczy-Pallavicini celebrated a burlesque crossing of boundaries between tradition and Modernism that has regained currency today. The open approach towards the exhibition design and collaborating with other, contemporary and peer artists allowed for a new perspective on the intriguing work of Berzeviczy as well as contextualizing his practice in a present-time environment and younger scene.
In a very extensive and fruitful conversation, Cosima and Robert talked about the idea of décor finding its way back into the contemporary scene as well as the exhibition display and the institution’s agenda.
Amar Priganica: Good afternoon Cosima and Robert. First of all, thank you for taking the time for this interview. Cosima, you’ve been the director of the collection and archive of the University of Applied Arts for one-and-a-half years now. Would you mind sharing the experiences you’ve had working at the collection so far and tell us about the institution’s history and position nowadays?
Cosima Rainer: The collection and archive has quite an interesting standing in terms of perception and visibility – it was more known to experts and researchers than to a broader range of people. In a few conversations with several artists, I noticed that most of them were really interested in the institution, but at the same time didn’t know so much about the collection and how long the archive had existed. The collection was rather visible in a more subtle way, since the works have mostly been shown in different exhibitions in other Viennese institutions such as the Belvedere or the Leopold Museum. And even though parts of the collection were on display at these big local institutions as well as in international group shows, there was a general lack of awareness for the collection as an independent institution in its own rights.
The University of Applied Arts, formerly “Kunstgewerbeschule” founded in 1867, at first had its own archive consisting of mostly teaching materials and archival documents. It was only in the 1970s that the idea arose to actually build a distinguished collection.
At the beginning of this shaping process, the collection was funded rather meagerly, but in the 1980s Oswald Oberhuber, as the new director, developed a strong interest and engagement in expanding the institution. He started to acquire new works and, being an artist himself, had a lot of special knowledge about the scene and the different positions within the avantgarde movement of the turn of the century. He was very informed and tried to take care that not only masterpieces were represented, but was always keen on the work of contemporary artists living and working in the city as well. Being very aware of the bigger constellation of people who influenced each other, he also knew of and collected a lot of female artists who weren’t recognized back in those days. As an artist he had a different approach than art historians.
Oberhuber could also be considered a kind of generalist. Through his curatorial engagement at the Galerie St Stephan since the late 1960s and his involvement in cultural politics, he was an influential figure in those days. He was trying to organise a “Gegenkanon”, a counter-canon to the one that dominated Austrian culture. He tried to put an emphasis on neglected and forgotten positions as well.
When Oswald Oberhuber started to work on the collection, they had about 300 items. Now we own more than 60,000 objects, and a lot of this attitude toward actively collecting comes from him, actually. Together with Erika Patka he curated a lot of pioneering exhibitions in the Heiligenkreuzerhof as well, showing positions like Erich Malina, Dagobert Peche, Erika Giovanna Klien, Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann, who weren’t nearly as famous at that time as they are now. Another great example is his exhibition „Die Vertreibung des Geistigen aus Österreich. Zur Kulturpolitik des Nationalsozialismus“ (1986). We are currently working on a new website where we want to present a different view of the institution’s history.
Throughout the years we kept a lot of archival material that shows how all those people were connected, and of course, we still have the work and leftovers from all the different students, classes and periods. Now we can get a much clearer image of the way students worked, of former teaching methods and what was important at that time.
To look at the institution’s history from this perspective is very intriguing and we keep on finding things. It’s always surprising.
AP: How did you discover or rather rediscover the work of Friedrich von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini, whose practice was the starting point of the exhibition “Der Hausfreund”?
CR: When I first saw his works in the collection, I thought they were kind of special and interesting, and immediately had some ideas about exhibiting them in a classical group show setting, highlighting a more fantastic and symbolist aspect of modernism.
As I kept on diving further into his practice, I found his décor works for shop windows, several packaging designs, paravents, a little double-faced drawing of a bird with a woman’s head and some other exciting things.
I thought that it was really amazing how he brings all of those different realms and contexts together in his practice. His work for the Viennese confectionery “Demel” was in fact quite popular, but we weren’t really aware of this history.
Soon I realized that we own more than a thousand of his objects and artworks, and that he is actually a focal part of the institution’s collection.
AP: How did Friedrich von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini and his peers get “forgotten”? Can you tell us a bit more about the historical context of their works?
Robert Müller: There was a theoretical problem behind it. As the first world war had happened before, there was a huge shift in the 1920s, seeing how the devastation of Europe was left over. As the K.u.K. and the German monarchy had ended it was important to provide a new outset which shifted the focus not so much towards items of decoration, as it had been in the Jugendstil and the Fin de Siècle before, but more to approach the existential minimum and a transgression towards new ways of culture and social living.
Even though there was still a demand for décor items in the remaining upper-class, the attempts to decorate everyday life as a cultural endeavour, in the fashion that had happened before World War 1, had become increasingly difficult. Also aesthetically, the aspect of decoration had become more differentiated, and I think this is a point where early modernism got split into two spheres: the first one coming from Jugendstil was perceived as old fashioned and suspicious while the second one, which was intertwined with mass production and modern transport, prevailed. As soon as our society started adapting to these new, modern ways of living it became really difficult for figures like Dagobert Peche to keep up as a formal and aesthetical model for artistic production.
Regarding old techniques like the intricate weaving mechanisms in the posamentir industry, that were under threat from modern production tools and aesthetic purposes, it was really important to find ways of integrating them into new styles and to produce innovative output that could keep up with the industrial production standards. Figures like Berzeviczy-Pallavicini stood for this process and continually integrated those outdated techniques in contemporary designs regardless of their dwindling industrial demands.
Due to this anachronistic stance though, it was harder to integrate those figures in the canon than the Wiener Werkstätte – Hoffmann was applicable, Peche not so much anymore.
AP: The exhibition setting and display of “Der Hausfreund” contains a lot of elements of surprise: on the one hand there are these vitrines (designed by artists Robert Müller, Julian Goethe, Lukas Kaufmann and Thomas Hitchcock) that might look modern and slick but at the same serve a very classical purpose. The viewer can discover a lot of small hidden gestures and is invited to go on a treasure hunt in this late 17th century former private apartment of the Abbot in Heiligenkreuz.
But then on the other hand the paintings from Kamilla Bischof are positioned spatially as paravents and almost block the way to the next room, which is an odd and unexpected way to show paintings in a setting like this.
This clash of display, combined with the fact that it’s a show about Berzeviczy’s work contextualized within the positions of contemporary artists while consciously not showing masterpieces or blockbuster works at all, make it really interesting to engage oneself within the show. I had the feeling that it broke with certain conventions and codes of how to put together a group show.
CR: For me it’s important to create new and unpredictable perspectives towards the works in the collection. So I started dialogues with artists and colleagues about the works. Later on I decided to invite the artist Robert Müller to create the exhibition display and to work with me as a curator for the show. Additionally, we invited other contemporary artists because of their affinities with the work of Berzeviczy-Pallavicini. As part of the University we always want to create links to the younger scene.
Also, we wanted to show that the topic of décor in the work of Berzeviczy has recently become more important for the new generation, since a lot of younger artists work with these hierarchies and tensions between fine and applied arts. Part of the concept was to not label the works in the show directly as fine or applied art objects, but rather to keep it open.
You can definitely see the exhibition setting as a reference to the “Moderne Raumkunst” movement of the turn of the century, but in a contemporary manner. Additionally, we have this really interesting baroque context with frescos on the wall of the Heiligenkreuzer Hof, which again fits so well with Berceviczy and his aristocratic background.
The younger artists were all invited to produce artworks specifically for the show. I think we got really interesting results which more often than not have turned out to be very close to Berzeviczy’s approach.
I think that this experimental way of working is crucial from a contemporary point of view. I’m always interested in producing something unconventional to make it not too easy. A “historical-show-only” wouldn’t have been as interesting, I think. It always really depends but, in this case, it just made so much sense to do it as we did. I really want to maintain this collaborative approach in the next few years and will continue to work in a dialogue with contemporary artists.
Furthermore, it was very important for us that the show never looked like a representative exhibition. There is a certain way of doing exhibitions in bigger institutions that makes use of this representative aesthetic. And every time I see that, I tend to lose interest a bit. It doesn’t really trigger a lot of new exciting thought, and I think it’s important to question conventional modes of display to find new and different forms of reception.
In the end, the most important things were the little subtle decisions. Working within the space was so much about those delicate gestures and how you can energize or activate something, in order to make it more precise.
AP: I completely agree! And even though one can sense the influence of the “Moderene Raumkunst” movement, I don’t see the show as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” in a totalitarian Wagnerian sense – in the moment where it seems to be or rather look like that, it disintegrates formally and aesthaetically in the next one.
RM: There are some approaches to that idea in modernity which we mentioned before – this way of thinking of art as a complete transformation of life through art. But I think in this case it would be the absolutely false approach to the show as it never intended to be that, really. I think the show and especially the work of Berzeviczy is much more about decorating and accentuating everyday life in very specific ways, rather than aiming at this transformative process of societal values through an artistic practice.
Regarding the show we’re looking at a very complex body of floating light decisions that are never focused on a sharp line. And I think that this was also the most difficult thing in putting this show together, to not get fixed on one aspect and never make it too narrow.
The open approach towards the display creates the opportunity to see the objects as they are but at the same time reminds us to not take them more seriously than they actually take themselves. It’s not about making fun of them either but rather about taking the work seriously without idealizing it.
We’re walking on a very thin line because in the end it’s not about our work. It’s about the work of Berzeviczy and the way we address it. Julian Göthe,for instance, put works of Berzeviczy into the vitrine that he designed as an interpretation of a cabinet design that Berzeviczy himself took from Peche – so it’s a very long thread of how you approach these things to keep their integrity and that they still remain the work of Berzeviczy.
We could have had this approach where we don’t touch it and keep it as the thing it is. But we do think that it’s much more interesting to integrate it in a way that can make it more accessible and vibrant.
Please find the exhibition catalogue of “Der Hausfreund” under the following link as well as in all respective book stores: https://www.dieangewandte.at/publikationen/der_hausfreund