Modern Opulence in Vienna: The Wittgenstein Vitrine

November 13, 2014 — Last year, the Dallas Museum of Art acquired one of the most significant additions to its collection to date: an exceptional silver vitrine originally owned by the Wittgenstein family of Vienna and designed by Carl Otto Czeschka (1878–1960) of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops). Since its arrival in Dallas, the Wittgenstein Vitrine has been the subject of an intensive research and conservation program.

The new exhibition Modern Opulence in Vienna: The Wittgenstein Vitrine, on view November 15, 2014 through October 18, 2015 in the DMA’s Conservation Gallery, reveals these results by exploring the conservation effort and charting the context and history of this masterwork’s design and fabrication, iconography, and provenance. Modern Opulence in Vienna also presents new perspectives on designer Carl Otto Czeschka, his work for the Wiener Werkstätte, and the important patronage of the Wittgenstein family.

“With the opening of Modern Opulence in Vienna: The Wittgenstein Vitrine, we are able to celebrate an exquisite work of international importance now housed in the Museum’s collection, and, with this exhibition, superbly demonstrate our commitment both to the stewardship of our remarkable holdings and to an innovative program of conservation research and practice,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, the Museum’s Eugene McDermott Director. “Artistically, the Wittgenstein Vitrine represents a signal moment in European design and of design aesthetics in the 20th century, and we are so pleased to place it now on view in its full and astonishing glory.”  

Standing over five feet tall, this vitrine was originally owned by the Wittgenstein family of Vienna and is the largest and most lavish example known of the silverwork of the Wiener Werkstätte. A triumph of early 20th-century design, it is made of silver encrusted with enamel, pearls, opal, and other gemstones. The piece was intended to be as much a work of art as any precious object that could be placed within it. Designed by Werkstätte member Carl Otto Czeschka (1878–1960) and presented as the centerpiece of a gallery dedicated to their work at the 1908 Vienna Kunstschau (Art Show), this vitrine reflects a move from the rectilinear forms previously favored by Werkstätte co-founder Josef Hoffmann to an ornamental aesthetic characteristic of the work of Czeschka. The use of opulent materials and particular stylized ornamentation—including a pair of regal caryatid figures supporting the onyx top and a variety of leaves, birds and squirrels that decorate the case—reflects both Czeschka’s prior work and the inspiration of modern Viennese paintings by artists such as Gustav Klimt, an associate of Czeschka whose paintings were prominently featured in the 1908 exhibition. 

“Few, if any, objects so effectively convey the exuberant spirit of progressive Viennese design in the first decade of the 20th century as does this unique masterpiece, noted Kevin W. Tucker, the DMA’s Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design. “The cabinet and its ornamentation resonate with the tensions between the Werkstätte’s progressive aesthetic, historicism and the opulent materials that they favored, eloquently questioning the evolving definition of modernity and the very future of design in Europe and beyond.”

On Saturday, November 15, the DMA will host an international symposium on 20th-century Viennese design, with the Wittgenstein Vitrine as a focus of discussion and members of the Wittgenstein family in attendance. Additional topics at the public event will include presentations on the Wiener Werkstätte’s architecture and design and the influence of the Werkstätte on modernism. Guest lecturers include Fran Baas, Associate Conservator of Objects, DMA; Kevin W. Tucker, The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, DMA; Christian Witt-Dörring, Curator, MAK-Austrian Museum for Applied Arts; Alessandra Comini, University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita at Southern Methodist University; Samuel D. Albert, Adjunct, Fashion Institute of Technology; and Christopher Long, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Architecture, The University of Texas at Austin.

The Conservation Gallery exhibition Modern Opulence in Vienna: The Wittgenstein Vitrine is co-curated by Baas and Tucker. Conservation on the vitrine was funded through the 2014 Art Conservation Project grant from Bank of America. The conservation program at the DMA is led by Chief Conservator Mark Leonard.

Images: Wittgenstein Vitrine (for the 1908 Kunstschau), 1908, Carl Otto Czeschka, Austrian, 1878-1960, designer; Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), Vienna, Austria, 1903–1932; Josef Berger, Austrian, 1874/75-?, goldsmith; Josef Hoszfeld, Austrian, 1869–1918, Adolf Erbrich, Austrian, 1874–?, Alfred Mayer, Austrian, 1873–?, silversmiths; Josef Weber, dates unknown, cabinetmaker; Wabak, Albrech, Plasinsky, Cerhan (unidentified craftsmen), silver, moonstone, opal, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, baroque pearls, onyx, ivory, enamel, glass, and ebony veneers (replaced), Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.

About the Dallas Museum of Art
Established in 1903, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) is among the 10 largest art museums in the country and is distinguished by its commitment to research, innovation and public engagement. At the heart of the Museum and its programs is its global collection, which encompasses more than 22,000 works and spans 5,000 years of history, representing a full range of world cultures. Located in the nation’s largest arts district, the Museum welcomes over 650,000 visitors annually and acts as a catalyst for community creativity, engaging people of all ages and backgrounds with a diverse spectrum of programming, from exhibitions and lectures to concerts, literary events, and dramatic and dance presentations. In January 2013, the DMA returned to a free general admission policy and launched DMA Friends, the first free museum membership program in the country, which currently has over 80,000 members. For more information, visit DMA.org.

The Dallas Museum of Art is supported, in part, by the generosity of DMA Partners and donors, the citizens of Dallas through the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Texas Commission on the Arts.