The MAK honors Koloman Moser influential and abundant body of work

“Koloman Moser Universalkünstler” proclaims the publicity by the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) for their current exhibition; whether the boyish-looking designer saw himself as such, we may never know. After all, this implies being a genius, in the parthenon of De Vinci, Picasso and company. Certainly a number of great Austrian artists were not so modest: Hans Makart and Ernst Fuchs probably regarded themselves that way and our venerable André Heller seems not to protest too much.

Most likely Moser’s impish sense of humor protected him from artistic hubris: A key photo in the exhibition poses him in profile, a simple chalk halo neatly surrounding his tousle-haired head. This is self-irony, not self-canonization.

Moser was a big fish in the cohort of Viennese young Turks, alongside Klimt, Wagner and Hoffmann. Between 1880 and 1920, they were the movers who brought the magic of classical art to everyday things, from coffee cans to card tables and from banknotes to subway stations, responsible for much of what still makes Vienna such a visually charming and livable city today.

All of them were productive, but Moser’s output in his shortish working life (he died in 1918, aged 50) was staggering. The compact exhibition walks you through his huge oeuvre in easy steps. It happens to share MAK’s upstairs with the Sagmeister and Walsh Beauty show, but where those two theorize about the concept of beauty, Moser simply overwhelms you with beautiful things – the difference between discussing recipes and enjoying the meal.

Everyday Beauty

The MAK’s handsome 288-page catalogue of his life’s work is a meal in itself.  Every page is laid out on graph paper, reflecting Moser’s obsession with practicality. He recalled how as child he learned how to tie bouquets of flowers from the gardener and how to make his own rabbit hutch from the carpenter. His understanding of craftsmanship is visible in everything, from book bindings, glass, ceramic and metal tableware to the textiles, the furniture and the stained glass windows produced by many workshops to his designs. To mention only one of a thousand: liqueur glasses with seemingly endless 12 inch stems, tempting enough to make the most devout prohibitionist reach for the bottle. His almost excessive quest for beauty in things of everyday use stretched the “father of modernity” Otto Wagner’s creed that, ultimately, only practical objects can be truly beautiful.

In the end, the perfectionist overcame the successful commercial designer. His demanding standards meant that realistic market pricing barely covered the costs of production. He became increasingly frustrated with his clientele “who never really know what they want” – the cris de coeur of creatives through the centuries, from Michelangelo to lowly advertising copywriters. The great Salonnière Berta Zuckerkandl described how Moser returned “in disgust” to his first love, painting.

Luckily for us: in his last productive years around 1912-1914, he produced a series of ravishing pictures, mainly portraits, nude studies and landscapes. Where the portraits are merely pleasant in the conventional manner of the period, the nudes are powerful expressionist works, bold brushwork in subdued but unsettling colors. The landscapes are perhaps his most interesting – low-key layered horizons in intriguing shades of mournful color. Had Moser lived another twenty years, he would surely have been among the great painters of the early 20th century.

© MAK/Ingrid Schindler
© Belvedere, Wien Vienna/Johannes Stoll
© Aslan Kudrnofsky/MAK