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May 2004

Go With the Flow

Enjoy the sweep and curve of Jugendstil at Villa Stuck

Munich’s reputation as a somewhat conservative city does little justice to its history as a center of artistic development. In the late 19th century, when modernity struggled to shake off the shackles of official art policies, Munich artists founded their own Secessionist movement in 1892, a full seven years before their colleagues in Berlin followed suit. In 1896, the weekly review Die Jugend began to be published in Munich. It was dedicated to liberating art from the narrow academic constraints of the past, celebrating nature in all its diverse and decorative natural forms and, as the title implies, proclaiming the liveliness, virility and audacity of youth and the coming century. German Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, takes its name from the publication.

A major player in both developments was Franz von Stuck, a Bavarian artist who had attended not only the local Art Academy but also spent ten years at the School of Arts and Crafts, learning the ins and outs of many and varied artisan skills. Nobody was better equipped to design and furnish his own villa (see this month’s Landmark Feature on page 37). The Villa Stuck is currently home to a wide selection of art and artifacts from the Art Nouveau period on show within the framework of five separate exhibitions. Three of these deal with the manufacture of specific objects: Art Nouveau glass from Nancy, and Jugendstil textiles and furniture from Munich. The remaining two are arranged thematically to show illustrations produced for Die Jugend and a selection of work in all media by the protagonists of Munich Jugendstil.

In passing through the exhibition rooms you may have to exercise your imagination and picture yourself in turn-of-the-century Munich because, frankly, despite the abundance and opulence of the objects on show, they are not arranged in a manner that is evocative of that very specific ambience. The furniture displayed in the first room as small, isolated units of chairs and tables only falls into place with the help of photos of Art Nouveau interiors on the rear wall, providing the visitor with a welcome glimpse into “living” Art Nouveau. On the entresol, two magnificent carpets are laid out for inspection, but appear a little lost in the otherwise empty space. The exhibition, however, does come alive on the second floor in the section entitled “Von der Seele geformt,” which shows work by artists active in Munich during the Jugendstil era. It is above all the ceramics, glassware and lamps displayed here that—besides being breathtaking examples of craftsmanship—are easier to appreciate because many of the forms and patterns are still very much part of today’s Wohnkultur. The rectangular vase with blackberries, for example, created around 1900 by Antoine Daum, with its thick milky green and pink glass and chunky shape, would certainly not be out of place in a Rosenthal catalogue. Emilie Butter’s blue vase with beads has a surprisingly retro 1970s feel, whilst the pot and plate in black and white by Clara Truebreflect was clearly inspired by Japanese art, which so fascinated the Impressionists active at the same time. The classic Art Nouveau lamp by Richard Riemerschmid of 1897 is a wonderful example of the organic forms that lent themselves so well to reading lamps: a metal base rising on a elegant stem from which a floral glass lampshade nods gracefully like an oversize bluebell.

The exhibition devoted to the graphic illustrations for Die Jugend is likely to appeal above all to illustrators and bibliophiles. For lesser mortals, the exhibits in the textile section are more immediately pleasing: voluptuously tactile fabrics, rich in color and texture. Once again, however, the lack of context gives the individual pieces a surprisingly barren feel, as if the plants that inspired them had been uprooted and left to wither. These used to be curtains, tablecloths and throws that formed part of a Gesamtkunstwerk of interior decoration, uniting work and leisure, the ornamental and the artistic, the useful and the beautiful. It is hoped that the spirit of the age will be more tangible next year, when the historical rooms of the Villa Stuck are due to be re-opened after extensive renovation. Until then, this is a good opportunity to examine the parts that made up the whole. When planning your visit, bear in mind that two of the exhibitions are on until the end of May (textiles and graphics), one is on show until September (furniture) and the remaining two can be seen until January of next year.

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