If your taste in the visual arts tends to favor decorative excess, symbolist fantasy and a superabundance of ornamental detail, then the exhibition to visit and revisit this winter is a decorative-arts extravaganza called Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte at the Neue Galerie New York. Don’t be put off if you’ve never heard of the Austrian designer Dagobert Peche (1887-1923). I never had, and you won’t find many people in the New York art world who have. This exhibition, based on a show that has already been seen in Vienna, is the first retrospective ever to be devoted to Peche’s work.
Peche belonged to the same generation as the painter Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and the novelist Robert Musil (1880-1942), but despite all the attention that has lately been lavished on the fin-de-siècle Viennese avant-garde, Peche has remained an unknown figure on this side of the Atlantic. One can easily understand why after seeing this exhibition, which abounds in a preciosity that’s excessive even when compared to the extremes of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements that clearly nourished the artist’s imagination.
In this respect, Peche strikes me as more akin in sensibility to some of the subjects of Kokoschka’s portraits of his Viennese contemporaries than to Kokoschka himself, and one could easily imagine him as a minor character in Musil’s great novel, The Man Without Qualities . Or so I conclude, anyway, not only from Peche’s own work, but also from accounts of the man himself in the voluminous catalog that accompanies the current exhibition.
In the indispensable biographical notes that Anne-Katrin Rossberg has contributed to the catalog, the following passage provides a key to Peche’s sensibility: “His work eludes the art historian’s attempts at categorization: new developments are contradicted, practicality is abandoned, the gender-specific is ignored, and luxury goods abound in defiance of wartime. While he was in Zurich [during World War I], Peche once covered the fruit of an apple tree with gold leaf, causing Adolf Loos to complain that he had destroyed a whole year’s harvest. Imbued with Loos’s pragmatism, modernists see Peche only as the master of useless, extravagant bric-a-brac …. But such categorization blinds one to his highly individual, startling use of materials.”
Still another key to Peche’s sensibility was his discovery, at the age of 23, of the work of Aubrey Beardsley, whose bizarre illustrations exerted a powerful influence on Peche’s own drawings, and indeed on his entire conception of himself as an artist. Which is to say that there remains in all of Peche’s design conceptions a distinct strain of the “decadent” aestheticism we associate with the 1890’s. Try to imagine entire rooms furnished with Beardsleyesque furniture, wallpaper and decorative objects, and you’ll have an approximate notion of what awaits you as a visitor to Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte .
This is a big exhibition, more than 400 items: furniture, of course (some of it great fun to look at, even if one wouldn’t care to live with it), much jewelry, glass, ceramics, fabrics, wallpaper and many, many drawings. Everything is wildly inventive and sometimes absurd; sometimes weird, too, and simply perverse. Would it be too facile to suggest that it all represents a culture and a society ripe for destruction-as, indeed, it proved to be? Perhaps. But from our own historical perspective in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s hard not to think of what awaited Peche in his generation in the German-speaking world in the 1920’s and 30’s. First came the Bauhaus, which swept away everything that Peche’s work embodied, its appetite for ornament and embellishment. Then came the Nazis, with their doctrine of “degenerate art,” which made no distinction between Bauhaus austerity and Peche’s bourgeois ornamentalism-or any other modern style that didn’t conform to Hitler’s aesthetic ideas.
For anyone who goes to this exhibition with some understanding of 20th-century history, it’s hard not to see it as illustrating a society in peril. The exhibition also leaves one wondering about Peche himself: How could anyone who died so young-at 36-have produced so much that required such finical attention and creative invention? Peche was anything but an ivory-tower aesthete. He married and had a family and lived the life of a bourgeois. He even served in the Austrian army during the First World War. (When he painted those apples with gold leaf, he had been invalided out of the army.) And yet there was a strain of sheer silliness in his work that defies us to take it seriously.
Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte remains on view at the Neue Galerie New York, 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, through Feb. 10. As the museum is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, it’s best to call-628-6200-or consult the museum Web site, http://www.neuegalerie.org, for exact times.