by Ethan Leonard
The motto of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon was “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” While the exposition was primarily focused on displaying the triumphs of American westward expansion, in the tradition of the great World’s Fairs of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, the great powers of Europe and Asia also furnished lavish exhibitions of their cultural and technological prowess, including France, Italy, Japan, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Commenting on the latter, a correspondent for the Brush and Pencil artistic journal noted that “unlike the other national historical reproductions at the Fair… the Austrian home was quite modern” (Smith 9). Though the Austrian exhibit, itself designed by the renowned Art Nouveau architect Leopold Bauer, was adorned with vibrant works of the modern Secessionist movement alongside a variety of other works by artists representing the Empire’s innumerable ethnic cultures, “the most notable features were, of course, the Bohemian glassware and porcelain exhibit. The famous Bohemian glasswares, always so attractive to the lovers of the beautiful, showed in sixty different shades and colors the high progress constantly being made by manufacturers of the country” (Smith 11). Westward the Austrian Empire, only thirteen years away from its tumultuous dissolution, brought its finest glasswares from its northern reaches. While it is unlikely that the cup and saucer currently displayed at the Ackland Museum would have found itself alongside the masterworks selected for display at the Lewis and Clark Centennial, it nonetheless holds functions as an artifact of the complex intertwining of empire, art, modernity, and affluence which defined the same vanished world of the Habsburg Empire that amazed attendants of the 1905 Exposition.
The piece was manufactured in Bohemian village Steinschönau, now the town of Kamenický Šenov in the Czech Republic. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, however, Steinschönau and its surrounding towns boasted a prestigious collection of Fachschule, technical schools for the arts, which, under the auspices of the significant German minority in what was then the Austro-Hungarian imperial province of Bohemia, were renowned for their beautiful glassworks (Wiegelt & Christensen 48), the demand for which stretched as far as the Ottoman Empire (Bengisu & Bengisu 83). That the glassworks produced in Steinschönau cast such a wide net of influence is unsurprising considering that Bohemian crystal had been a treasured commodity since at least the Eighteenth Century, being employed as a decorative material in architectural triumphs as prestigious as Versailles and Monticello (Singerton 214).
What makes the Ackland piece of particular interest is that it appears to belong to a set. The piece is wheel carved, suggesting some level of industrialized production, although it should be noted that, even at its most prestigious, it was not uncommon for Bohemian glass to be cut (Levetus 68). Despite this, the use of wheel carving coupled with the fact that sets of glass and porcelain were a commonly sold product across Europe in 1905 allows one to view in the Ackland piece a glimpse of the social, cultural, and economic world of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the case of the latter, the decades preceding the piece’s manufacture, the Austrian Empire had undergone a rapid, albeit uneven, economic sprint forward (Cvrcek 24). This period of economic development, aided by a prolonged period of political and bureaucratic reorganization, gave rise to a distinct bourgeoisie and middle class element in Austria-Hungary, particularly in the Empire’s urban centers (Jelavich 80). Moreover, the increased integration of trade within Austria-Hungary allowed for goods produced in the periphery of the Empire to flow into its urban centers (Schulze & Wolf 671). Understanding the economic conditions in which the Ackland piece was produced and purchased allows one to understand its significance as an indicator of a lost historical world.
In the design of the object itself, one may find embedded the cultural landscape of urban bourgeoisie Austria-Hungary, an aspect most prominently featured in the art-nouveau filigree which adorns the cup and its accompanying saucer. The decorative vines and flowers call to mind a muted, more pedestrian, stylistic rendition of the works of Alphonse Mucha or Koloman Moser, Secessionist artists who embodied a modernist thrust in Austrian culture. One of the founding imperatives of the Secessionist Movement, so named for its heavily publicized divorce from the orthodox Association of Austrian Artists, was a desire to provide a refuge for modern man from the confines of a chaotic modernity (Shorschke 217). Traces of this impulse may be found in the function of the object itself: a teacup which represents a leisurely and social form of activity, along with the painted botanical flourishes, seemingly grapes, that harken back to the premodern decadence of Greece and Rome. For the urban bourgeoisie of the late Empire, liberal and modernist in temperament, yet also fighting a losing battle against the political forces of ethnic nationalism, social democracy, and reactionary populism (Schorske 118), the alluring premodernism offered by the Secessionist artists, made easily accessible in the form of mass produced objects of leisure, bore a particular salience.
The slippery archaeological power of objects, to at once possess a material permanence and a contextual significance, is a condition which remains true for the Ackland piece. The social context in which objects are used and produced, in this case by the bourgeoisie of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, is what allows them to serve as sites of profound historical excavation. Part of this lies not merely in the object itself, but in the tension which exists between the various qualities of an object, between form and function, between the uniquely crafted and mass produced. How these tensions manifest is what allows one to decode the significance of an object as an artifact of a distinct social world (Miller 129-130), to unspool it into the various threads of social, economic, and cultural life which become bound up in it. In examining the various historical forces which lie hidden in the Ackland piece, hopefully it has been demonstrated how even seemingly mundane objects can be indicative of a vast historical tapestry.
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