Darmstadt Celebrates 100 Years of Art Nouveau

Article excerpt

FEW visitors to central Germany would include Darmstadt as part of their itinerary. Just south of that gigantic beehive that is Frankfurt, and slightly off the majestic river Rhine, it is a place where one might easily miss an important chapter of European history of art, written here 100 years ago, let alone a multitude of events to commemorate the fact.

Whenever I approach Darmstadt by train via the bleak industrial estates that surround it, I make every effort to spot the city's most famous landmark: the Wedding Tower, designed in 1905 by Art Nouveau architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, and clearly visible from a distance. Via a splendid Art Nouveau Hauptbahnhof (railway station) and a short bus ride, I will reach the tower soon after. Forty-eight metres of square brick with a few tiny windows and a green copper crown in the shape of five 'fingers' must surely have seemed somewhat 'novel' at that time! A kissing couple with angelic wings, inlaid in blue and gold mosaic above the entrance, indicates that this building is nothing other than the local Registrar's Office -- itself a successful marriage of function and beauty.

This is a concept that continues visibly throughout the surrounding area, named Mathildenhohe. Originally open parkland on top of a hill, it is covered in a neat array of ornate, almost dreamlike, yet strangely functional Art Nouveau architecture. Two sparkling white exhibition halls, a row of residential mansions in curved flowery ornate shapes, a Russian orthodox chapel with colourful mosaics, small filigree domes and gold plated turrets, a large fountain, sandstone sculptures and a square of plane trees all together look like something out of a fairy tale. It seems a haven of peace away from city life, a place to escape to.

In the summer of 1899, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse invited seven carefully selected artists from all over Germany and Austria to Darmstadt, with the aim of starting an 'artists' colony' on top of the Mathildenhohe which he owned. The Grand Duke, an art lover and grandson of Queen Victoria, had spent much time in Britain where his taste had been profoundly influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Now that he was in a position to promote art back home, it did not happen merely for art's sake: crafts and home furnishings were potentially big business at the time. A local presence of some of the best modem artists was expected to supply endless ideas, designs and models to Darmstadt craftsmen and manufacturers, thus boosting the local economy. Last but not least there were political motives: Hesse-Darmstadt had been an independent German state since 1866, a small enclave within the large Prussian province of Hesse-Nassau but with few political rights and, culturally, in the shadow of n earby Frankfurt. The Grand Duke saw culture as one of the few opportunities he had to express the individuality of a city then numbering only 30,000 inhabitants.

Today, an exhibition entitled 'The First Seven' on the Mathildenhohe commemorates the artists who took up work there on three-year salaried contracts precisely 100 years ago. They were Peter Behrens, a painter and interior designer; Rudolf Bosselt, a sculptor; Paul Burck, a graphic artist specialising in wallpapers and carpets; Hans Christiansen, also a graphic artist but specialising in stained glass and china; Ludwig Habich, another sculptor; Patriz Huber, an interior designer who also created jewellery; and last but not least Joseph Maria Olbrich, an architect. Except for Olbrich who had already achieved international fame through the 'Secession' building he had designed in his native Vienna, they were all fresh graduates in their early twenties -- raw talent waiting to flourish.

Their first exhibition as a group took place the following year: the Great Exhibition in Paris featured entire 'Darmstadt rooms' which were fully furnished and equipped, with every minute detail a work of art. …