Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Carl Moll : secessio plebis in montem sacrum

In 1900 Carl Moll (1861 - 1945) asked the architect and designer Josef Hoffman to build him a house on the Hohe Warte in Vienna. In fact, it was called a doppelhaus, not exactly what the British describe as semi-detached, but there was an adjoining house for the designer Koloman Moser (1868 - 1918). Moll was approaching forty, a successful painter, who had helped lead many talented artists out of the Kunstlerhaus, which was more or less the only place artists could exhibit, to form the Vienna Secession in 1897. It was curious name, radical and yet conservative. It had been adopted by the first secession at Munich in 1893 and based on the Latin tag secessio plebis in montem sacrum, recalling the way the common people had left the city of Rome to build their own homes away from the dominance of the patricians. You can see some leading members of the Secession in the well-known photograph taken at the 1902 Beethoven exhibition. Let's face it, none of them look especially plebian, not even Gustav Klimt, sitting on a throne in his dress-reform robe. (Moll is reclining far right with Emil Orlik next to him and Moser is sitting in front of Klimt).

It was only a year later that the Wiener Werkstaette was formed by Hoffman and Moser. In a similar style, Moll took up colour woodcuts, still only five years old as a medium for modern artists. The print showing the Hohe Warte in 1903 (at the top) was one of the earliest. I'm not sure whether this snow scene, below, comes from that first 1903 batch, possibly not, but it also shows the Hohe Warte where Moll lived. It's a fine print, expressive of a way of life where design counted down to the last detail.

You can see the terrace of his house above the trees in this painting. (He also made a print looking up at the house with its clipped bay trees but it was unavailable for use here). The combination of warm and cool tones, of growing things and a severity of design is something we would still accept even today as contemporary.

The photograph below was taken just round the corner - you can see the same chairs and the same rendering and brickwork on the house. Moll himself is seated at the centre, the teacher and stage-designer, Alfred Roller, is on his left and of course that is Gustav Mahler, his son-in-law, behind him. Hoffman was also present that day and it was around this time that the Secession split (in 1905, to be exact). If Moll had produced his first woodcuts in response to the founding of the Wiener Werkstaette, his second series was certainly published by them. His 'Ten woodcuts' portfolio of 1908 didn't contain the kind of prints that were numbered and marked handdruck but I assume they were produced in time for the great Kunstschau organised by the Secession in the same year (as I think LH Jungnickel's first animal prints were). They may have been tired of the unexciting marketplace the Kunstlerhaus had become but opportunities to exhibit and sell their work in a city with very few galleries were important. (You won't be surprised to learn that Moll was also a director of the Gallery Mietkhe for a time).

He also travelled, to Italy, of course, where I think the subject for this woodcut must come from. In some ways, it's another version of the Hohe Warte. On their own, they don't have alot of appeal to a modern audience used to woodcuts in the Japanese manner. He knew Orlik as we've seen but he didn't follow him. He appeared to take up woodcut with something specific in mind because he stopped making them after 1908.

The next house he built was never the subject for a print, so far as I know. But many of the prints are strong on architectural subject matter and this is one of their features that make them so typical of what they were all attempting at the time - to inter-relate the disciplines. Fine art, design, architecture, even music, as in the Beethoven exhibition. In Moll's case, it may have produced woodcuts that might strike us as arid today but they are worth looking at more closely, particularly the very first one.

Their use of light, shadow, perspective, linearity and particularly overprinting, are are quite novel and well-thought out. Moll wasn't a young man trying a medium that had just been rediscovered; he was an established artist, doing something new and, in many ways, relevant: presenting a view of urban life as well-ordered, interconnected and liveable, not a bad aim, after all, and one we still respond to.


  1. Well Charles, thank you for all the insight,time, research and clear language you have condensed into this posting. It is great to read and learn the context in which we should look, study and appreciate these prints.

  2. Thanks, Gerrie. The comments are very much appreciated. It was a long time coming but I got there in the end.

  3. I received an email last year from someone in Vienna who is trying to arrange an exhibition in New York City of Moll's work. Apparently, the cloud on his reputation from his personal life still makes it difficult to bring off.

  4. I deliberately avoided talking about Moll's politics and the dismal nature of his death. It doesn't make good reading but nevertheless the story is already available on the web. I think the perspctive on Moll in the US and notably New York would one a specific one - and possibly not universal.