Glasses from the Empire and Biedermeier Period documents a rising middle class and its search for its own aesthetic

There’s nothing new about conspicuous consumption – Imperial Vienna understood very well how to sweeten everyday life with things of beauty. It was “glassmania,” said director Christoph Thun- Hohenstein, opening the sumptuous new show of ornamental glass from the Imperial and Biedermeier period (about 1780-1850) at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK). Two rows of severe, black-framed display cases glow with translucent magnificence.

This is a rare event, combining the best of the museum’s own with the Christian Kuhn collection: as Thun-Hohenstein pointed out, even the richness of Biedermeier was overshadowed by Vienna’s Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) that followed (well represented by the exhibit Glass of the Architects in the adjoining gallery).

Biedermeier Glass
© Hanady Mustafa

The Biedermeier era’s reputation suffers from coming perilously close to kitsch at times – even the term stands for boringly respectable (bieder translates roughly as “worthy” and Meier, a farm steward, is equivalent to “Smith” in the Anglo world).

This perception is unfair however: as the newly-prosperous middle class sought an aesthetic of their own, the Biedermeier movement began as a refreshingly simplistic push-back against the pompously elaborate French Empire style of the day.

The glasses shown are simple in form, mainly ­Becher (tumblers) or Ranftbecher, a popular variation with a heavy, often clumsy-looking base. But the ornamentation is anything but clumsy: brilliantly colored scenes, portraits and coats of arms, finely detailed engravings on glowing crystal and everything with breathtaking technical virtuosity. Art, craft or kitsch? The borders are fluid. For collector Kuhn, the unparalleled perfection of ­Josef Mildner’s work (mainly 1790s) makes it indisputably art, much of the rest brilliant craft. Later Biedermeier (1820-1830) works often depicted Vienna street scenes, dangerously close to tourist souvenirs; but at second glance, they’re painted with such a Canaletto-like perfection that they float in a category of their own.

Individual highlights are engraved glasses with puzzle pictures that come and go as you move your head, portraits viewed through a magnifier cut into the other side of the glass, and so-called Steingläser, a glass mixture that mimics exotic semi-precious stones.

Criticism? Well, yes, one tall enthusiast asked rather peevishly why the objects were set so low in the display cases, forcing her to go down on her knees to get a good look. She wasn’t wrong, but a small obeisance to such heavenly glory is worth the effort.

Glasses from the Empire and Biedermeier Period

Through April 17
Open Wed–Sun 10:00–18:00; Tue 10:00–22:00 (free admission after 18:00)

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English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.