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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Designing Empire: Austria and the Applied Arts, 1864-1918

  • Author(s): Rahman, Sabrina Karim
  • Advisor(s): Kaes, Anton J.
  • Tennant, Elaine C.
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates how the political history, aesthetic practices, and critical reception of modern Viennese design sought to absorb and thereby sublimate ethnic tensions in the final decades of the Habsburg Empire. The opening chapter uncovers how Austrian political authorities and intellectuals re-interpreted visual manifestations of nationalism to advance and popularize the imperial mission beyond the establishment of schools and museums for the applied arts and into the private homes of imperial subjects. In the early writings of Alois Riegl, the influential art historian and museum curator argues that individual folk traditions ought to be industrialized for the urban market of the imperial capital. Writing a decade later, the art critic and salon hostess Berta Zuckerkandl, in her essays on "authentic" and "inauthentic" folk art, problematizes the stylized utopian visions put forth by Riegl and others at the central Viennese applied arts institutions. Chapter 2 treats Emperor Franz Joseph's Diamond Jubilee, an event which saw thousands of Austria-Hungary's denizens descend upon Vienna's famed Ringstraße to pay homage to the monarch on June 12, 1908. In orchestrating the Jubilee, imperial authorities handed the vital task of designing posters, commemorative objects, costumes, and floats to artists working with the imperial design program. This hopeful celebration of Austria's multiethnic inheritance was intended to enact publicly the convergence of imperial and national concerns, but the modern and stylized designs of Viennese artists clashed with the more traditional, folk-inspired products of those from the provinces. Two key responses to this experiment in modern imperial spectacle were loud and scathing: for the architect Adolf Loos and the satirical journalist Karl Kraus, the event threw into question Vienna's self-proclaimed status as a cosmopolitan center based on the amalgamation of pluralistic identities and modern aesthetics. Their visceral reactions to the Jubilee's lateral display of both ornament and of the more "exotic" visitors from the crown lands form the basis of chapter 3. The polemical rhetoric of Kraus and Loos finds its way into Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (1930-42). The fourth and final chapter demonstrates how modern design and Habsburg policy intersect in Musil's novel within the foggy parameters of the so-called Parallel Action, a fictitious event celebrating Franz Joseph's would-be Seventieth Jubilee in 1918.

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