Saturday, 31 October 2015
Carl Moser: castles of refinement
We have come to associate Tyrol with colour woodcut. Even if Engelbert Lap was born in Graz, he served with the Tyrolean Kaiserjaeger and settled in Innsbruck in 1910 and later made a career out of the mountainous landscape. Herbert Gurschner was born in Innsbruck and trained at the School of Applied Arts there but married an Englishwoman in 1924, lived in London from 1932 and eventually became a British national even though he remains best known of his prints of Tyrolean farming folk.
Carl Moser was different. He was not only more talented than either Lap or Gurschner, he was born in the Italian town of Bolzano many miles to the south. I say Italian because the town was predominantly Italian-speaking but was surrounded by mountains where most people spoke southern German except for townships to the east where others spoke the old romance language of Ladin - and it is Ladin that provides the key to the complicated nature of this Austrian Lebanon.; it was the old language of southern Tyrol. Italian and German speakers were more recent arrivals. But Moser isn't best known for Tyrolean subjects. Moser is best known for his Breton subjects. Unlike artists who came from regions like Alsace or the Sudetenland or even cities like Prague where German was spoken but eventually moved to Germany itself, Moser adopted another outlying province as an imaginative home, a sure sign of a sensitive and complex imagination.
The subject for his masterly Schloss Runkelstein is only a few miles to the north of Bolzano but by the time he made this colour woodcut in 1922, he had studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Munich and at the Academy Julian in Paris. Sources variously say he was introduced to colour woodcut in 1902 by Max Kurzweil or saw them exhibited at the National School of Fine Art. Either way nothing quite explains the utter refinement of his work. We can only look at it and wonder.
As you can see from the two versions of the print (and there is at least two others) Moser was a colourist. I certainly think the importance of Japanese art to Moser has been overdone. You only need to consider the way the castle sits squarely on its rock and the rock sits squarely beside the river or the peacock in Weissgefleckter Pfau (also from 1922) turns in space to see how much of a Western artist he was. What really is interesting is the way he looked back to the heyday of the Vienna Secession and made Weissgefleckter Pfau a self-conscious summary of its great achievements because it was certainly dead and buried by 1922. I think his imagination was historical. Japan was only another imaginative element in his work.
Look at the way he plays the modern world of silk hats and parasols off against the lace delicacy of the Breton bonnets. Audaciously, he even gives us two versions of the same figure in the one print. An archaic world fades away before our eyes. Folksy it may appear but the irony and the candid glance are modern. But it is the figure that is sensational. The woman on the right is just as solid as Schloss Runkelstein. Moser is not only concerned with surface pattern. The patterns help to describe form. More than that, as she looks over her shoulder, she reminds us of her ancestry. Manet is there, after all, and farther back, there is Goya perhaps, and certainly Vermeer.
Bretonische Hochzeit comes from 1906 while he was still studying and working in France. No doubt about it, he was an assiduous student and remained at the Academy Julian for six years when he was already capable of work as good as the wedding print and Bretonisches Dorf von Schiff aus (1904). He had begun to learn his trade early on in his father's studio and there is a sense of the studio in the foreground boat with the secondary image acting as subject. The framing devices and the ornate pile of rope are obviously Japanese. But it is the sense of space that he has picked up from Hokusai that is more profound, perhaps even the delicate psychology.
Moser was as tactful in his observation as he was in his use of colour and his borrowings from other artists, close to hand and far away. But he was a rather half-hearted symbolist. Pelikan is just too real to be a lot more than an ironic enquiry into ungainliness by an artist who was incapable of such a thing. But let's face it, the drawing and the colouring, the realisation of the pelican's body are superb. All the rest is froth, isn't it?