Tuesday 28 March 2023

Print & textile : Valerie Petter-Zeis


When I looked at the whole sheet of Valerie Petter Zeiss' colour woodcut (above), it made me think of the work Bernard Rice did in Bosnia about the same time, especially the way the hand-made paper was left to show as if it was all part of the work. I remember being was sorry when I had Rice's View of Travnik framed. It not only meant covering the handmade paper with all its loose fibres and was careful to ask Les not to cut the paper but to fold it so at least it would remain intact. The paper was obviously part of the work in his case. As I have never seen any of Petter-Zeiss' woodcuts let alone own one, this has to be only a suggestion. Rice himself trained at the School of Arts and Crafts at Innsbruck.  It is not easy to sort out the training of Valerie Petter Zeis. Where she began and what she became are two different things. She began as a student of painting at a private school in Vienna before the first war but ended up with her own workshop in Myrtengasse where she sold textiles and prints amongst other things. This was presumably before she married Franz Zeis in 1925.

The odd thing is Rice also used textile. I have a tablecloth by him printed with horse designs and he also printed directly onto cotton. It made me wonder whether Petter Zeiss had studied with him at the school of arts and crafts he worked in while he was in Bosnia because there was an obvious change in direction. Before the war she was a student of fine art but during the war she was making prints that were patterned like textiles. She was not alone in adopting a very different way of working but her application stands out. It was all thought through in a way that is unusual. Arthur Rigden Read took a similar approach but he had been trained in an architect's office  where that kind of way of working was par for the course.

Not surprisingly, she made batik like Kathleen Rigden Read. She also used a variety of materials in her clothes like glass beads and fortunately some have survived in good condition. This not not make it any easier to sort out the rest of her life when she was not working. I do not know when she opened her workshop or how long it lasted but her work was either sold in British people bought it in Austrian because it has turned up at auction in this country.

The Easter card (above) was made for sale at the Wiener Werkstaette shop as early as 1908 and shows her using a combination of floral and archaic designs typical of the period before the war. Most of the more whimsical decoration was eventually chucked out in favour of work with a stronger and more thorough sense of design like this cushion cover. It remains floral but the old self-conscious schematic manner has gone. The flowers are sort-of identifiable at least and it is richer, livelier and direct as work intended for sale in a shop needs to be.

Going back to Bosnia woodcuts, at least one of them is dated 1917. This only means it was made then. She may have visited before the war and made the prints later. Either way, they are unusual and Rice is the only artist I know of who made a comparable series of woodcuts depicting part of the unique European culture of that hapless country. What I especially like is the way the print above suggests the Ottoman history of Bosnia. The way the shops and mosques crowd around an open space is redolent of lost or wrecked cities like Aleppo and Sarajevo makes the prints valuable records.

They share a faux naif style with Rice's woodcuts which make me think they knew one another's work. The main difference between the two artists is Petter Zeiss' use of colour and of other mediums like watercolour (above). Because of the palm trees, I assume the watercolour doesn't depict anywhere in Bosnia. North Africa is possible though the minarets look Ottoman so it could be anywhere in the Muslim Mediterranean, specially Egypt. 

Wherever it is, we get an idea of her broad her interests and sympathies and I do not want to imply that her woodcuts were a major part of her work. The overall approach is what matters and I get the impression from the mere survival of her other designs that textiles were at the heart of what she was doing. To make prints of Bosnia and the Near East with its great tradition of textile manufacture shows how sensitive she was to cultures just beyond our own boundaries. In discovering something about that culture, she revived something in her own.