Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jugendstil Vestments from Klosterneuburg

Daniel Mitsui over at The Lion and the Cardinal posted some photos of some absolutely magnificent vestments from the monastery of Klosterneuburg made in the early twentieth century, done in the Jugendstil style (if that is not too much of a tautology), the German (and Austrian) counterpart to Art Nouveau. I have long been fond of Jugendstil, the style associated with the architect Otto Wagner, and used in a handful of striking ecclesiastical architectural projects (such as the Kirche am Steinhof), but had never seen it applied to liturgical decorative arts, aside from a few altars and interior schemes.

The relative simplicity of the style, combined with its ability to incorporate in some abstracted manner more traditional architectonic elements--Wagner's work incorporates clear if modified references to everything from Byzantine to Baroque-- renders it particularly useful for modern church-building, especially when budgets are a concern; there is less of the risk of the finished product appearing, in some sense, undercooked, when key decorative elements are removed due to monetary constraints.

Nevertheless, its decorative applications (such as these vestments, or the jewelry and textiles of the Wiener Werkstätte) and its more elaborate architectural incarnations, show its ability to utilize more noble and lavish materials in a striking manner that while novel in some respects, remains within the broader stream of tradition. These vestments are particularly fine examples, retaining the basic traditional cut (including the particularly continental embellishment of tassels, something not seen nearly enough these days) but allowing a number of notable stylistic exaggerations in cut and ornamentation that create great visual interest without distorting the essential, traditional nature of the items themselves.

While I by no means wish to draw attention away from the growing revival of classical and Gothic church architecture, a judicious renewal of some varieties of Jugendstil art and architecture in an ecclesiastical context would establish a foundation for the development of a practical, beautiful new style that is nonetheless anchored in organic tradition in a way that most "contemporary" styles are not. (One would have to be prudent, of course, as there were strands of proto-modernism even amid the gold, but then what is needed is an artistic search-and-rescue mission of sorts.) Whether Jugendstil's proponents would agree with this retrospective assessment, as they no doubt considered themselves quite up-to-the-minute modern in turn-of-the-century new-old Vienna, is another matter. (Though, even then, there is modern and there is modern.) But at least some of the time what the artist actually produces is more useful than what he thinks he is producing. All beauty is from God, whatever excuses we make up for it.

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