The New Style and the Bronze Industry

Door handle to the bathroom in the Military Museum in Vienna.
Door handle to the bathroom in the Military Museum in Vienna.

But does the crafts industry itself not know what it’s best products are? Oh no. It knows as little about its own production as the poet, the painter, in fact any artist at all can know about his own art. Such an artist will always value most highly those products of his muse which have cost him the most effort and vexation. Those creations, however, which he produced almost naturally, without effort, to which he was predisposed and which bear most strongly the stamp of his own individuality, his own character—these he dismisses as not particularly important. Only the unanimous agreement of the public is able to convey to him the correct opinion of his products.

. . .We in fact have something most people lack: our celebrated Viennese good taste, of which some could even be jealous. It is only those unreasonable schools of ours which are to be blamed. They have inhibited the natural development of our arts and crafts.

But the answer to that persistent question goes like this: everything that an earlier period has already produced, insofar as it is still useful today, can be imitated. But the new phenomena of our culture (railway cars, telephones, typewriters, and so forth) must be resolved without any conscious echoes of a formal style that has already been superseded. Modifications of old objects in order to assimilate them to modern uses are not permitted. And so the rule is this: either imitate or create something that is totally new. Of course, I do not necessarily mean by this that that which is new is always the opposite of what came before.

As far as I know, this challenge has never before been expressed so exactly and so precisely, even though similar statements have been made abroad and in professional circles, and even recently in the Austrian Museum. But people have actually been working according to this principle for years now. And this is perfectly comprehensible. A copy of an old master is also a work of art. Who can forget Lenbach’s magnificent imitations of old Italian Masters in the Schack Gallery in Munich? But what is totally unworthy of being called a true work of art is the conscious effort to express new ideas in the style of an old master. It is destined to fail. This is not to say that a modern artist, through an extensive study of a particular school, through a predilection or a reverence for particular period or master, cannot make that style so much his own that his work strongly bears the spiritual imprint of his master. I only have to think of the old-master feeling in Lenbach, or the Quattrocento pictures by the English. But the true artist cannot paint now a la Botticelli, now a la Titian, now a la Raphael Mengs.

What would one think of a writer who today wrote a play in the style of Aeschylus, tomorrow composed a poem in the style of Gerhart Hauptman, and the day after tomorrow, a farce in the style of Hans Sachs? And worse, what writer would have the pitiful courage to reveal his own impotence by confessing his sources? And now let us consider a state school for poets where young artists would be emasculated by being constrained to follow this doctrine of counterfeit, where this kind of literary servitude would be raised to a principle. The whole world would pity the victims of such a method. Yet such a school exists, not for poets, but for the arts and crafts.

. . .

The School of Applied Arts sets the fashion for useful objects. In Vienna it is no easy task to get a hold of a good coal scuttle or fireplace fender! And how difficult it is to find good hardware for doors and windows! I once wrote somewhere that in the last two decades we have gotten Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo blisters on our hands because of our door handles. There is, however, one proper door handle in Vienna to which I have access; I make a pilgrimage to it whenever I am in the neighborhood. It is located in the new building on Kohlmarkt and was designed by Professor König. But do not go there, my dear reader! They would suspect that I was teasing them if you did. That is how unobtrusive this handle is. (15-17)

Adolf Loos, Neue Freie Presse, May 28, 1998