By Melody Amsel-Arieli
A group of modernist Austrian artists, including Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, and Josef Hoffmann, established the Vienna Secessionist Movement in 1897.
Secessionist Pave Way for Art Deco Movement
Unlike the traditional Austrian Artists’ Society, this new exhibiting organization promoted contemporary art. Their endeavor, also known as Jugendstil (German for Art Nouveau), was short-lived, lasting only through 1920 or so. Yet it works, realized in innovative shapes and styles adorned with geometrics, naturalistic elements, flowing lines, exotic themes, as well as classical motifs, greatly influenced the world of art. Through exploration of architecture, painting, sculpture, woodwork, metalwork, leatherwork, textiles, graphics and other areas of creativity, Secessionist Era art heralded the Art Deco Movement.
Secession ceramicists fashioned not only costly, decorative vases, candlesticks, and jardinières in a variety of colors, designs, and shapes. They also created scores of inexpensive items like soap dishes, bowl and pitcher wash basins, toothbrush holders, jugs, lidded trinket pots, and coffee sets. Through constant use, however, many of these attractive, everyday wares were eventually damaged or destroyed.
Collecting Tip: Look for WW Mark
“Today, the best Secessionist works we see,” explains David Rago, Partner and Co-Director, 20th/21st Century, Decorative Art & Design Department at ragoarts.com, “usually bear the WW mark, symbol of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), which was established in 1903. Members of this decorative arts studio, in addition to creating an assortment of art forms for a wealthy clientele, also created ceramic pieces from red or white clay.
“They differ markedly from one another,” Rago continues. “Red pieces, which tend to feature ‘sketchier,’ loosely drawn figures and are partially, if not entirely, hand modelled, are fired at lower temperatures than those of white clay. Because they are softer, they are more prone to nicks, chips, and outright serious damage. Though prices are deeply hurt by these flaws, buyers may be more forgiving of minor nicking on a particularly good, hand modeled figural piece, however. Small, red clay Wiener Werkstätte bowls and vases are relatively inexpensive, running in the low hundreds of dollars. Great hand modeled pieces, more desirable than hand painted and quite rare, however, may run as high as $10,000 each.
Wiener Werkstätte white bowls, compotes, and vases, because they feature higher quality, more polished clay, seem neo-classical in appearance. “Though many are molded with colorful accents,” Rago cautions, “sticking with the Secessionist ideal aesthetic — black on white — is best.
Powolny Pieces Garnering Attention and Leading Prices
“The highest prices I’ve seen,” he adds, “have been for white clay pieces by sculptor and ceramicist
Michael Powolny.” Those that depict putti (naked cherubs or cupids), supporting decorative basins or bearing cascades of flowers, currently begin at about $1,000, but sometimes reach ten times as much. Works by other Wiener Werkstätte ceramicists, especially those bearing signatures of notables like Hoffman, Schiele, and Wahliss incised into the undersides or the exteriors of their bases, can also be quite costly.
From the end of the century through about 1920, Mintons Ltd., a leading British ceramics manufacturer, introduced a range of decorative and functional pieces in the Art Nouveau style. Initially, these molded earthenware works, known as ‘Minton Secessionist Ware’ after the popular Viennese movement, were jointly designed by Leon Solon and John Wadsworth.
These early pieces bore flat or relief molded patterns of naturalistic birds, florals, and figures, some hand finished with foliage-featured block-prints on blue, green or turquoise grounds. In time, richer, more vibrant red, pink, and blue lead glazes, featuring characteristic naturally produced runs and irregularities, were introduced.
Evolution of Shapes Prompts Changes in Design
Over time, as Minton shapes evolved into elongated cylinders, inverted trumpets, and innovative bottle forms, their motifs, enhanced by thicker glazing, became bolder, more stylized, convoluted, and fantastical. Some display ornamental transfer decals, while others feature surface images outlined with raised clay tube trailings. These accents, which were produced by forcing slip (thin layers of liquid clay) through glass tubes, resemble sugar lettering piped on birthday cakes.
In addition to their aesthetic appeal, Minton Secessionist Ware suits all pockets. Their largest pieces, like floor standing vases and jardinières, if complete and undamaged, are very desirable and quite expensive. Rare, unusually shaped items, like a pair of large, glazed, signed candlesticks featuring hand-colored florals accented by clay tube trailings, might command between $5,000 and $7,000 – if they can be found on the market. On the other hand, unusual glazed, twin handled vases, which feature bulbous bodies that extend into tapered necks, currently cost from $500 to $700 each.
A decorative Minton chamber pot, observe Ben and David Tulk of Madelena Antiques and Collectibles, based in the United Kingdom, would make a fine planter. “Since it typifies Secession Ware usefulness and multi-colored running glazes, colors, and style,” they add, “it’s a great way to start a collection.” These currently run at $400 to $650 each.
Available and Affordable
“Yet a small vase, readily available in a variety of colors and found in good condition, may be found for around $80,” the Tulks allow. “One in prime condition – with no cracks, no hairlines, no chips, no crazing, and no flakes, however, may cost as much as $150. Minton vases that are flanked by characteristic delicate, flowing handles, because they are particularly vulnerable to damage, should be carefully inspected. Repairs or restorations lower their market value considerably.”
During this period, Mintons produced highly decorative sets of tableware, featuring bowls, saucers, salad, bread and butter, and dinner plates, which are sometimes sold separately. In addition, they created larger, dramatic, handcrafted platters for use as decorative wall hangings or chargers (base plates that were retained beneath soup bowls), salad dishes, and main dishes during festive dinners. These vary widely in color palette and design. Scores feature combinations of enamel images, painted classical scenes, gilded rims, and pierced borders.
Others feature raised pâte-sur-pâte patterns, achieved by hand painting successive layers with liquid clay prior to firing and glazing. Depending on their rarity, design, and condition, these pieces, currently run from hundreds to many thousands of dollars.