Erwin Puchinger: A Genius for Design

Erwin Puchinger (1876-1944) was a talented Viennese painter; illustrator and graphic designer. An influential figure in the incredibly rich artistic and cultural milieu of turn-of-the-century Vienna, he had a genius for design and was one of the leaders of the Austrian Jugendstil and Gesamtkunstwer (total art) movements, which sought to erase the boundaries between fine art and applied art. Puchinger worked in London and Paris as well as the Austrian capital and collaborated with other major figures in Viennese art and design. For many years he also served as a highly respected art professor who taught generations of Austrian students.


Student Days in Fin-de-Monde Vienna

Erwin Puchinger was born in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on July 7, 1875. He came from a prominent and influential family, which encouraged his artistic talents and made sure that he received professional training from an early age. In 1891 and 1892, Puchinger attended evening drawing classes at the newly opened (1888) Graphic Arts and Research Institute, the school (der Graphischen Lehr und Versuchsanstelt) where he would eventually teach. This was an experimental institute that aimed to create a synthesized approach to training professionals in the emerging field of the graphic arts by combining a photography school, a photographic research institute and an art school all at a single location in Vienna.

The School of Arts and Crafts was where many of the great turn-of-the-century Viennese designers matriculated and he and his classmates like Kolomon Moser (1868-1918) were ambitious young men with an interest in mastering virtually every discipline that a designer would be likely to encounter. The course of instruction that they followed gave them not only theoretical instruction, with hands-on experience in graphic design and the production of magazines and books, but also industrial design and the crafts of enameling, ceramic manufacture, metalwork and working with fabrics. This gave them the ability to speak the same language as the craftsmen who would be charged with translating their designs into objects that could be manufactured and sold.

Drawing and painting were still at the core of the curriculum, and by the time Puchinger and Moser attended it the art department of the Kunstgewerbeschule rivaled that of the old academy in prestige. Puchinger is first listed as studying with the figurative painter Ludwig Minnigerode (1847-1930). Both Moser and Puchinger also studied with the popular art professor Franz von Matsch (1861-1942). With the talented brothers Gustav (1862-1918) and Ernst Klimt (1864-1892), Matsch had had a decorating company that did elaborate murals for wealthy clients. The firm closed because of Ernst Klimt’s untimely death and disagreements between the remaining partners. Puchinger’s proximity to Klimt clearly influenced the later direction of his art. Even a cursory glance at Puchinger’s early student works of 1893 and 1894 reveal his talent as a draftsman. His landscape and architectural drawings of 1892 and 1893 were already of a professional quality, drawn with a confident hand and an artistic flair, but in these early works, there was not yet a hint of the direction his work would take in the final years of the 19th century.

From the beginning of his career, Erwin Puchinger was first and foremost a draftsman, an artist who could draw with dexterity and precision. In his era, drawing was still properly seen as the foundation on which an artistic career was constructed. However, in fin-de-siècle Vienna, drawing was much more than a medium used for preliminary works or a discipline that artists had to master through on their way to becoming painters. It was not, in other words, subservient to painting, but rather its own discipline. In 1891, when Puchinger was just beginning his studies in the art of drawing, the German Symbolist sculptor and draftsman Max Klinger (1857-1920) came out with a popular and influential essay (“Painting and Drawing” or Malerei und Zeichnung in German) in which he advocated drawing as a separate and distinct form of expression. He felt painting should be used for the portrayal of reality while drawing and graphic media were an ideal way to depict fantastic ideas, dreams, and fantasies. Even the finest of the Viennese painters, like the Promethean Gustav Klimt, were first and foremost draftsmen, although many of Klimt’s early drawings emphasized tonality over linearity. In Vienna, graphic media of all types – graphite, charcoal, pen & ink and printmaking – were valued as an end in themselves, and during his student career Puchinger became skilled in virtually all of them.

1890s Vienna was an exciting place, a center for artistic and intellectual development that rivaled Paris and London. It was home to the composers Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and the architects Otto Wagner (1841-1918), Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908) and Josef Hoffman (1870-1956). The old town walls had been torn down and the famous loop of the Ringstrasse has been born. While the famous “Dual Monarchy” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was old decrepit and would soon fall, its instability seemed to add to Vienna’s intellectual, political, cultural and artistic ferment. In every European capital, society was being re-shuffled. For the first time, people who came from marginalized groups were beginning to contribute, not only to commercial enterprises, but also to the intellectual and cultural development of their nations. Thanks to the process of industrialization, a person with a good idea and the capital to back it could succeed beyond his wildest dreams, even if by rising to the top he risked causing resentment and upsetting the old order of things.

In Vienna, new thinkers in every realm of society were challenging ideas that had been fixed, concepts that had been part of the common currency of their culture. It seemed like everything – politics, religion, sexuality, art, culture – was up for discussion in the hothouse environment of the famous Viennese coffeehouse. The era of one Strauss and his das Bleu Danube was over and the era of another Strauss and his Also sprach Zarathustra was just beginning, and soon the rebellious rabble would be waltzing on the graves of their monarchs. After the crackdowns that followed the revolts of 1848, a growing middle class had risen up and demanded limits to the power of the Monarchy and, in the second half of the 19th century, a series of reforms led to a more liberal and tolerant social order. However, this temporary liberalism papered over the ugly truth of a vicious factionalism that remained just beneath the surface of society, a factionalism that would eventually pit the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Germanic peoples against the Slavs and the other ethnic and religious minorities that made up a large part of the empire’s population.

Atop the tottering “Dual Monarchy” of Austria and Hungary sat the aged Franz Josef (1830-1916), heir to the Hapsburg dynasty, who had ascended to the throne in the wake of the upheavals of ‘48. His life had been full of tragedy. In 1853, he barely survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Hungarian nationalist in. In 1889, his son and only male heir, Crown Prince Rudolph (1858-1889), committed suicide at the Mayerling Hunting Lodge with his illicit lover. Franz’s wife and empress, Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837-1898), was assassinated eleven years after the death of their son. In spite of all this, Franz-Josef remained on the throne and by the 1890s, graphic artists like Puchinger were kept busy creating art that celebrated his various silver jubilees and rendering the double eagles that were symbolic of the empire he ruled. It is probably the fact that we know what loomed ahead, the fate that awaited Austria, that gives fin-de-monde Vienna, the Vienna of the artists, architects and designers, its own unique romantic aura, for there is a whiff of doom in everything we view and read.

When Puchinger was in the midst of his artistic studies, a group of young architects and artists began to challenge the old order. Seeking to create a cultural world that reflected its time, their motto encapsulated their belief that “To the Age, Its Art.". The young architects, Wagner, Hoffman and Olbrich, rejected the opulent and decadent style of the day, the hodge-podge of architectural styles of the Ringstrasse. Influenced by classical Greece and Rome and with a new spirit, they created new buildings that were clean and modern, yet still retained a striking decorative element.

In the Viennese art world, Gustav Klimt, who had been the protégé of Hans Makaert (1840-1884), the great master of the Viennese academy, became an artistic rebel who rejected the conformity of the academy and what he saw as a stifling creative atmosphere. Klimt was a born draftsman, skilled with either tone or line. For years he had been a successful decorative painter in the service of the Viennese elite and while he had a thorough academic grounding, his eclectic tastes gradually overcame his training and a myriad of influences changed his work dramatically. There was a strong naturalistic element to his output, but there were also echoes of ancient Egypt, the classical world and even Florentine decorative painting of the Renaissance. Klimt absorbed contemporary influences as well - everything from the work of the emerging German and Belgian Symbolists to the art of the more interesting painters of the French and English schools. Everything he saw and felt was synthesized and came pouring out in his work. He created easel paintings and murals that were startling, powerful and uniquely decorative, an art that truly reflected Vienna as it was at the end of end of the glittering, gilded and decadent 19th century and the beginning of a 20th century of clashing ideologies.

In 1897, a group of the most dynamic Viennese artists and architects broke away from the old academy, the Association of Austrian Artists that had held its exhibitions in the old Kunstlerhaus, to create a new union known as the Union of Austrian Artists (Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs) that will forever be known as the Vienna Secession (das Wien Sezission). The original members of the new union of forty painters, artisans and architects included the artists Gustav Klimt, Kolomon Moser and Max Kurtzweil (1867-1916) as well as the architects Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffman. Klimt was elected President of the new organization. Although Otto Wagner, who designed the Sezession Haus, became one of the group’s iconic members, he was not one of its initial founders. While most rebellious artistic groups have a manifesto or at the very least a number of common stylistic similarities, this wasn’t the case with the Viennese Secession. They were a group of artists who were united by what they were against – the notion of artistic conformity – rather than what they were for. This lack of common goals and interests eventually led to divisions between the Secessionists and collaborations between members who shared the same ideals.

Every young art student in Vienna paid rapt attention to the saga of the Secession and the controversies between Klimt and von Matsch and their ill-fated commission to paint decorations for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. Most of them wanted their work to be fresh and new, to reflect their times. At the Kunstgewerbeschule, Puchinger was friends with “Kolo” Moser, a graphic artist and designer who seemed to effortlessly throw off designs for everything from books to furniture to household objects to complete interiors. Even a cursory comparison reveals many commonalities between their graphic art and design work, but whether they exerted an influence on one another in their student years or were simply drinking from the same well of creativity and influences has not yet been established.

The Viennese students passed around copies of the Munich publisher George Hirth’s (1841-1916) influential little art weekly Jugend (Youth). Jugend, which was founded in 1896, grew out of the international Arts and Crafts movement; Its thin issues were filled with the latest in graphic art by the finest young painters from Germany and abroad. Jugend was so influential that it gave its name to the German Art Nouveau movement, which became known as Jugendstil, or “Youth-style,” after the magazine. Puchinger and the other art students of the day absorbed the heady mix of mythology, symbolism and eroticism that was found in Jugend and a similar publication, titled Pan. The hand-lettered typefaces that were found in its pages also had an effect on the young artist who would soon be producing lettering for the emerging Viennese Jugendstil publications. While we can see the influence of the harder-edged Germanic style of Art Nouveau on Puchinger’s emerging turn-of-the-century work, he also came under the spell of the work of French and Belgian Art Nouveau designers and their more organic style that relied on natural forms for inspiration.

In January of 1898, the members of the Viennese Secession released the first issue of their own art publication, Ver Sacrum (latin for “Sacred Spring”). Their goal for the publication was to produce an artistic journal with a uniquely unified design. The designers sought to unify typography, ornamentation and images into pages where none of the components were subordinate to the other, where each would be part of a seamless whole. Members of the Secession even designed the advertisements. From the beginning, the short-lived (1898-1903) and incredibly time-consuming publication was a quixotic endeavor. In addition to exceptional Viennese artists like Kolomon Moser and its first editor Alfred Roller (1864-1935), its contributors included the Moravian architect Alfred Loos (1870-1933) and the Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Each issue was given over to a theme, such as the influence of Japanese Art. The beautiful periodical introduced foreign artists like the Parisian-based Czech Alphonse Mucha (1840-1939) and the Belgian Symbolist Ferdinand Khnopff (1858-1921) to its German-language audience.

In the last decade of the 19th century, Viennese art and design was heading towards a new notion, the concept of a synthesis of the arts, of an idealized work of art or a total art, which became known in German as Gesamtkunstwerk. Although the actual term had been coined back in 1827 by a little known German writer and then popularized by the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) for his new concept of opera, it had a different meaning when applied to the world of art and design. To a number of the Viennese Secessionists, Gesamtkunstwerk meant two things – first, eliminating what they saw as artificial barriers between fine and applied arts; and second, creating living environments where everything was part of a unified concept. Now, the idea of unified design had first re-emerged during the Arts & Crafts movement with creative designers like William Morris (1834-1896). When Art Nouveau was born, the emphasis on hand-made and well-designed objects took on a new look and young artists decided they wanted to design practical as well as decorative objects. When the Viennese designers – and their counterparts like Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) in Brussels or Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) in Glasgow – looked back at a Renaissance genius like Michelangelo, they realized that the creative spirit should see no barriers, no division of labor between the tasks of designing and engineering a building, furnishing it and then creating sculpture or paintings to enhance it. When one of the emerging Viennese architects designed a building, he wanted to design and supervise the entire process – the landscaping, design and construction of the building, the interior design, the furniture and even the housewares. To them, it was all design, total design. So artists and architects of a like mind began to collaborate on ambitious projects, for commercial or institutional use or for residences.

For a talented young man like Erwin Puchinger, the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk was appealing, for he had not only the ambition, but also the talent, drive and a decade’s worth of workshop training that would allow him to blur what used to be firm boundaries between fine art and applied art. Puchinger could design decorative wallpaper, wall hangings, ceramics, furniture and household objects crafted in metal. His graphic design work (known as Flächenkunst in German for flat or graphic art) had developed in the emerging Jugendstil style where illustrations and text were all part of a grand design. Puchinger’s pen & ink drawings reproduced beautifully on the printed page and by the dawn of the new century, he would take his place in the pantheon of fin-de-monde Viennese artists and designers and would see his work exhibited to acclaim throughout Europe.


Paris 1900

1900 was the pivotal year in Erwin Puchinger’s early career. After nine long years at the Institute, he finally completed his course of study. He had made sketching trips to Capri and Rome, where he drew from the antique and absorbed the classical influences that were popular sources of inspiration for Viennese designers and architects. Growing out of the more austere Arts-and-Crafts movement and influenced by Japanese art, Art Nouveau was a truly international style and different offshoots of this dynamic movement were found in Paris, London, Chicago, New York, Prague, Brussels and Moscow as well as Vienna. At the international exhibitions and through the pages of magazines like International Studio, the artists and designers influenced each other and Art Nouveau was to reach its high water mark at the famous Exposition Universelle, the 1900 Paris World's Fair, on the cusp of a new century.

At the Fin-de-Siecle fair, Art Nouveau was all the rage and the huge Austrian pavilion featured the finest in Viennese Jugendstil design. It was decorated with paintings and applied art that reflected the exciting developments that had occurred in Vienna in the 1890s, and the young artists and artisans of the Kunstgewerbeschule had an elaborate exhibit. This exhibit was a personal triumph for Erwin Puchinger, for his major decorative painting was the centerpiece of the exhibit. This work still resides permanently on the walls of Austrian Musuem of Applied Art, (The famous “MAK,” or Osterreichisches Museum fur angewandte Kunst Gegebwartskunst). Puchinger collaborated with Georg Klimt (1867-1931), another talented younger brother of Gustav Klimt, on its unique metal repoussé frame in the curvilinear Art Nouveau style. The exhibit that Puchinger was such a vital part of featured an elaborate Jugenstil interior with sweeping decorative designs on the walls, completed with specially designed furniture. In the French catalog, the exhibit was listed as a “Panneau pour a salon du musique. Cadre de E. Puchinger, scuplte de G. Kilmt et F. Siegel.” (Panel for a music salon by the Puchinger group, sculpture by G. Klimt and F. Siegel) The interior was an idealized space, an example of the principle of Gasamtkunstwerk, of integrated design where everything in the interior was part of a unified whole.

1900 was also the year that Puchinger chose which of the Viennese artistic factions he would join. Instead of joining the artistic progressives of the Secession Haus or the conservatives of the Kunstlerhaus, he was one of the artists that formed a third group that seemed to split the difference between the two opposing camps. Resigning from the traditional academic group, the Kunstlerhaus, they formed the Hagenbund, named for the patron of the café they met in. The artists who ate and drank at the Zum Blauen Freihaus included Puchinger, Oskar Laske (1874-1951), Michael Powolny (1874-1954), Josef Urban (1872-1933) and Heinrich Lefler (1863-1919). Most of the artists of the Hagenbund group focused on the landscape and the group remained active until 1938, when it was dissolved following the Anchluss.

1900, the last year of the old century, was also the beginning of Puchinger’s professional career and he received a great boost when his Paris Exposition work was reproduced in the first issue of the legendary applied art periodical Das Interieur (The Interior). He also received an offer to begin teaching drawing at the Graphic Arts Research Institute (der Graphischen Lehr-und Versuchsanstelt), where he had began his studies in 1891. With the development of photo-offset lithography and other new methods of reproduction, there was a great demand for designers and artisans who were qualified through professional training.

 

To be continued...

 

 
       
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