Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 13, 2023
Fabricating Empire: Folk Textiles and the Making of Early 20th-Century Austrian Design
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO, January 6–May 28, 2023
Fabricating Empire: Folk Textiles and the Making of Early 20th-Century Austrian Design, installation view, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, January 6–May 28, 2023

Although fin-de-siècle Vienna is often thought of as having been strictly Austrian, it is worth remembering that Vienna was one of two capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Divided between the dual monarchy of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, the empire’s borders extended from parts of modern-day Italy and Croatia to Romania and Ukraine. Fabricating Empire: Folk Textiles and the Making of Early 20th-Century Austrian Design, the small yet impactful exhibition curated by Genevieve Cortinovis at the St. Louis Art Museum, provides a hearty challenge to Austrian-centric historiography. Rather than refute Vienna’s importance, the exhibition situates it as the hub of an artistic and imperial network.

To this end, and as the exhibition webpage notes, Fabricating Empire examines how “the imperial government was at the center of promoting and appropriating folk art across the empire as it attempted to create an all-embracing identity for its diverse subjects and fragmented territories.” Specifically, the exhibition focuses on the empire’s promotion of traditional Czech, Croatian, Slovakian, Macedonian, and Hungarian textiles and their subsequent appropriation by the Wiener Werkstätte. Developed from the renowned Vienna Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1903 by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser as a creative center for designing and selling applied arts. While some Wiener Werkstätte artists were already familiar with folk art, the broader Viennese public was introduced to these practices in a 1905 exhibition of folk art at the Imperial Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry, and the 1908 jubilee parade for Emperor Franz Joseph. The latter, whose postcard designed by Moser is reproduced in the exhibition, included groups from the provinces dressed in traditional garb. As part of their function as a unifying cultural force across the empire, these events led to an upswing in popularity of folk textiles as collectable items and inspiration. 

Shown in the St. Louis Art Museum’s one-room textile gallery, Fabricating Empire’s restrained presentation of material is one of its greatest strengths. Rather than crowd the floor-to-ceiling display case or overwhelm the walls with exuberant patterns, Cortinovis generously spaced key examples to draw attention to the beauty and craftsmanship of each work. This careful arrangement lends itself to careful looking—a feat that compliments the nuanced, not forced connections, allowing the historical and regional continuities central to the exhibition to prevail. To highlight notions of aesthetic exchange, Cortinovis punctuated the gallery with the presentation of historic materials. Fabricating Empire opens with the unexpected display of an English woven fabric designed by J.H. Dearle in 1888–89 for William Morris’s famed design firm, Morris & Co. The wall label notes that the company, which was known by Hoffmann and Moser and loosely served as a model for the Wiener Werkstätte, frequently appropriated designs from Islamic textiles. This example introduces audiences to the exhibition’s thesis: textile designs in fin-de-siècle Europe circulated as both commercial products and models.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Wiener Werkstätte, appropriation took the form of artists in Vienna referencing designs from small towns in the provinces. In fact, in addition to the empire sponsoring the production of folk textiles by traditional makers, several Viennese artists in the exhibition originate from rural locales. Hoffmann, whose elegant Bellflower Carpet (ca. 1910) is displayed, was born in Brtnice, Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) and was deeply influenced by the artistic traditions of his homeland. Like the exquisite Moravian folk costume Girl’s Ensemble (ca. 1945, based on early twentieth-century design) on view, Bellflower Carpet juxtaposes a repeated floral motif with a geometric pattern that dominates the surface. Hoffman’s design follows a modernist idiom that emphasizes stark shapes and flatness, which leads to the titular flowers appearing more like abstractions rather than recognizable flora. Girl’s Ensemble also features a mixture of flowers and shapes. However, these elements are embroidered and give the design a three-dimensional quality that is further emphasized by the garment’s volume. These two examples signal the similarities and discrepancies between form and function that underscore the exhibition. Although it is unclear whether Hoffmann was familiar with this example of Moravian costume, the mention of its popularity and the artist’s origin suggests that he would have been acquainted with the style. Thus, Fabricating Empire productively uses evocations such as this to build a dialogue between folk and modernist designs.

It is remarkable how easily the Wiener Werkstätte patterned fabrics would fit in on today’s runways. Four individual examples by Lotte Frömel-Fochler, Carl Otto Czeschka, Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel, and Hoffman take the form of large fabric samples that patrons would view and order at the Wiener Werkstätte. To emphasize this commercial aspect, the bottom right corners of two samples are flipped to reveal the Wiener Werkstätte label, which includes descriptive information and pricing. Of these four, Frömel-Fochler’s Arctic Fox (ca. 1913) is especially captivating due to its seamless pattern that demonstrates the artist’s exceptional sense of composition and the technological capabilities of printed fabrics. The potential for this pattern to spread infinitely as both a design and commodity echoes the floral pattern of the early twentieth-century Croatian Woman’s Ensemble. Composed of an apron, blouse, cap, skirt, and coral necklace, the outfit features vibrantly embroidered flowers that effortlessly expand across the garments. The label points out that this form of embroidery was a modern development from the weaving techniques typical of Croatian costumes. Like Frömel-Fochler’s printed fabric, this modern embroidery traveled widely, including to international boutiques and world’s fairs. By showcasing these distinct yet entangled practices, the exhibition unveils how multiple modernisms developed in Austria-Hungary.

In a refreshing manner, and despite the clear connections to the commercial impact and value of many of the textiles on display, Fabricating Empire does not make the inevitable connection between the Wiener Werkstätte and the Bauhaus. The decision to forego this link supports Cortinovis’s interest in highlighting the specificity of lesser-known makers. A fascinating intervention includes the striking Macedonian Woman’s Ensemble (ca. 1900), whose fabric was likely produced by women in their homes. Interestingly, as the label notes, Macedonia was not part of the Ottoman Empire, but Austro-Hungarian coinage was used to decorate the garment and act as a status symbol. This small but crucial detail unveils the widespread presence of Austria-Hungary. Fabricating Empire also successfully builds upon research into gendered histories of design that have recently come to prominence (See, for example Elizabeth Otto’s Haunted Bauhaus from 2019, as well as the 2021 exhibition Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte at the MAK Museum in Vienna and its accompanying catalog). Further, by highlighting how styles, techniques, and aesthetics circulated between Vienna and smaller territories, the exhibition presents a more detailed look at the Wiener Werkstätte that signals the uniqueness of its own history. To that end, the diverse presentation of textiles included in Fabricating Empire freshly supplements our understanding of the comparable textiles from other producers like the Bauhaus or British Arts and Crafts movement and vice versa. This effort underlines the exhibition’s argument that aesthetics from this period—especially those that were commercialized—moved through a widespread network. Rather than pit Vienna against provinces, cosmopolitan against folk, or utilitarian against artistic, Fabricating Empire problematizes hierarchies of judgment by placing equal value to each object on view and its cultural origin.

Yet, the characterization of aesthetics as osmosis raises thought-provoking questions that should inspire further inquiry. One element that is nearly absent from Fabricating Empire is the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s colonial endeavors outside Europe. Although the empire never successfully colonized peoples and lands overseas, it still made notable attempts. Further, like other artistic movements in Europe during the early twentieth century, Viennese art was filled with primitivist and orientalist motifs. Artists from this period—including decorative artists—integrated non-Western elements into their practices. Thus, one wonders how the appropriation of non-Western imagery fits into the network that the exhibition so fruitfully reconstructs. Fabricating Empire does not set out to extrapolate every way colonialism, imperialism, and appropriation structured art making in Vienna. Indeed, its hyperfocus on practices within the bounds of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is important for reframing how we understand the relationships and discrepancies between imperialism and art. However, this focus risks suggesting that colonialism was absent from the empire. It was not an insular network, but one that extended globally.

Given Cortinovis’s extensive research and thoughtful curation, the larger narrative about the Austro-Hungarian foray into imperial conquest likely did not fit within the limited space of the St. Louis Art Museum’s textile gallery. With more resources, the exhibition surely could have addressed the global issue of appropriation it nods to in the label about Islamic influences in the Morris & Co. fabric. The fuller picture of early twentieth-century Austrian design is something that remains to be seen. Still, by showcasing folk textiles alongside Wiener Werkstätte examples, Fabricating Empire mends a vital part of a much larger pattern.

Peter Murphy
Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University