New York City—By 1907, the Wiener Werkstätte was broke. Founded only four years earlier by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, the artists’ collective could no longer survive on the patronage of the rich (those willing to pay a premium for craftsmanship), so it decided to broaden its customer base with a popular innovation—the multicolored picture postcard. The venture was not only a source of income but also an advertisement for the workshop’s wares, which included ceramics, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and fashion.
“In a way, it’s a very modern thought—you have this very inexpensive product together with this very high-style product,” says Christian Witt-Dörring, the curator of Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte, on view at the Neue Galerie through January 17. By bridging high and low culture, the postcards also satisfied the studio’s core mission of delivering beauty to the masses in the face of industrialization. Over the course of 13 years, dozens of artists contributed illustrations on such diverse subjects as holidays, cityscapes, dark caricatures, and stylish ladies. At a time when many so-called artists’ postcards simply replicated paintings or drawings, the Wiener Werkstätte designed graphics expressly for the smaller dimensions of the medium. “It’s not just the image,” Witt-Dörring says. “It’s the unity of the image with the graphic design. That’s what makes them so special.”
Introduced in Austria in 1869, postcards were the Twitter of the 19th century: cheap, fast ways to send short messages.
With the arrival of the full-color picture postcard in the 1890s, they also became a popular art form. And that form reached an apex of finesse in cards produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, or Vienna Workshop, under the leadership of Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann, in the first two decades of the 20th century.
These cards, with their vivid, innovative graphics, still look fabulous. The collector Leonard A. Lauder obviously thinks so. He spent decades tracking down pristine examples of the card designs issued by the workshop — about 1,000 in all — and gave his near-complete set as a promised gift to the Neue Galerie (which his brother Ronald S. Lauder helped found), where roughly half are on view. Some were the work of artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, now famous, and of Hoffmann himself. A brilliantly busy design he devised for a 1910 Easter postcard would have looked equally appetizing on curtains or dress fabrics, and that was the Werkstätte’s point: aestheticize daily life; turn everything around you into one big matching set.
To do so required some shopping, and the other Werkstätte point was to sell its designs in fashion and furniture. Postcards were a form of advertising. Several female artists, among them Mela Koehler and Maria Likarz-Strauss, specialized in cards illustrating clothing designs, while Josef Diveky made extraordinary — and extraordinarily strange — cards promoting a Werkstätte line of dolls.
There was a period taste for the bizarre, and the artist Moriz Jung went for it. Some of his designs, like the one of an airplane pilot delivering flowers to the window of a sweetheart in a high-rise, are sweet. His portraits of Viennese cafe “types” — the clumsy waiter, the morose writer, the street tippler helping himself to drinks from an outdoor table — are grotesque but funny. (All these characters have their counterparts in New York City today.) But who on earth did he have in mind as the recipient for something like “The Child Prodigy,” an image of a fetus playing a tiny violin?
He probably intended it as a limited-run collectible to be shared with friends. Most cards, though, were meant for a general audience, people who might have seen in them something like what we see today: a record of a way of life, specifically an upwardly mobile bourgeois life, and a way of thinking — modern and secular but with close ties to religious and folk traditions — in the years before World War I. You get big hats and happy holidays, but also goblins scary enough to make you want to sleep with the lights on.
During the war, and after a brush with bankruptcy, the workshop’s lights dimmed and never came back up. There are no cards in the Lauder collection — all of it now published as a catalog — dating from 1914 to 1918. A few appeared in 1919 and 1920, but that was it.
If, however, the show, organized by Christian Witt-Dörring, stirs ripples of regret, they are not for an Austro-Hungarian empire lost but for the thought of the potential postcard treasures you may have missed in family attics and flea markets all these years.