Fairytale Mugs

February 26, 2011

To round off this month’s fairytale theme, here’s something I stumbled upon at my parents’ house just the other day:

According to my mum, my sister and me had these mugs when we were little kids, though personally I don’t have any recollection of it. To me they look like they might as well be relics from my mum’s own childhood…

I’m not sure what material the mugs are made of, but it seems to be some sort of glazed metal. By now, of course, they’re a bit battered and at some spots the glazing’s coming off, so I guess if you actually drank from them, you’d end up with metal poisoning.

But aren’t they cute?


Sixteen Tiles & Sixteen Tales

February 24, 2011

This is a follow up to my post of two weeks ago – it comes a bit belatedly since I spent last week skiing in the Carinthian Alps with my parents (more on which another time). Anyway, that last post about the fairytale-reliefs which decorate the school in Vienna’s Petrusgasse made me remember another building adorned with an even more extensive cycle of scenes from popular fairytales, i.e. the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung, a large housing estate in Vienna’s 10th district.

(Top: Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, both by Jan Hendrik Foitik. Bottom: Cinderella by Hans Burger, dated 1939; Hansel and Gretel, signed “RA”)

Built in 1929-1931 by architect Karl Schmalhofer under the supervision of Vienna’s Stadtbauamt (the Civic Bureau of Architecture and Urban Development), the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung consists of 24 tenement houses. In 1939-1940, a set of 16 panels showing motives from fairytales were inserted into the estate’s long facade along Raxstraße (Rax Street). Half of them are painted majolicas while the other half consists of terracotta reliefs, and at least a dozen different artists were involved in their creation.

(Top: The Seven Swabians, unsigned; Hans in Luck, signature illegible. Bottom: Puss in Boots by Andre Roder, dated 1939; The Dwarf Nose, signature illegible)

Why this particular imagery was chosen to decorate a block of council houses remains something of a mystery. Helmut Weihsmann, in his seminal book on the public building programme of socialist Vienna from 1919 to 1934, has suggested that the fairytale scenes might have been intended to recall the idyllic life of Vienna’s Siedlerbewegung (“Squatters’ Movement”).* The Squatters’ Movement had originated in the years following the end of World War I when both food and housing space were in short supply so that people began to (illegally) build their own log cabins and plant their own vegetable patches in the parks and the woodlands on the outskirts of the city. Soon enough, though, this self-help movement received support from Vienna’s socialist city council and was eventually integrated into the city’s expansive programme of social housing. This was only consequent as the original Siedlerbewegung itself was fueled by socialist ideas and most of its proponents were socialists, marxists or communists. Indeed, many of the movement’s more prominent members – like Otto Neurath – had to leave the country for political reasons when chancellor Dollfuß established his right-wing Austro-Fascist regime in 1934. And even more of them had to flee or went into hiding when, in 1938, the Nazis invaded Austria and made it a part of Hitler’s fascist empire.

And that’s why I find it somewhat difficult to follow Weihsmann’s argument: The fairytale panels were added to the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung only in 1939-1940 when Vienna, like the rest of the country, was under Nazi rule. And even though the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung – like many of the tenement blocks built by the socialists in the 1920s – remained a sort of an antifascist stronghold even after 1938, its decoration would still have been commissioned by the then fascist city council rather than by the inhabitants of the housing estate itself. But why on earth would the city’s Nazi authorities want to commemorate the idyllic life of the essentially marxist, anti-fascist Squatters’ Movement? To me, that just doesn’t make sense…

(Snow White, unsigned; King Thrushbeard, signed/dated “Krali 40”)

Unfortunately, I can’t provide an alternative, cogent interpretation, either. Of course, the Nazis were big fans of ancient fairytales, especially those by the Brothers Grimm, since those stories were believed to be pure emanations of the “spirit” of the German people. Consequently, fairytales played an important part in the Nazis’ educational programme, but, as far as I can see, only as far as children’s education was concerned. Just why they would choose the tales of the Brother’s Grimm** to decorate a block of tenement houses eludes me…

(The Clever Little Tailor, signed “G. Mundt”; The Wishing-Table, the Gold-Ass and the Cudgel in the Sack, unsigned)

Regardless of who commissioned the images and why, it needs to be said, however, that motives from fairytales had appeared more or less frequently in Viennese art of the 1920s and 1930s even apart from the realm of children’s education. This may have to do with the Heimatkunstbewegung (“Homeland arts movement”) of the late 19th and early 20th century, a literary and artistic movement which in the face of urbanization and industrialization propagated a return to old time values and rural life. I have to admit, I’m only guessing here, but the fascination with folk- and fairytales fits in well with that movement’s ideals… Be that as it may, a surprisingly large number of small statuettes, bronzes and ceramics produced around that time by the famous Wiener Werkstätte and its followers and imitators actually shows figures from folk- and fairytales. For instance, sculptor Karl Perl (1876-1965) created a large number of medals and small plaques with scenes and figures from fairytales. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he also contributed to the decoration of the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung:

(Rübezahl by Karl Perl)

Something similar may be said for Adolf Wagner von der Mühl (1884-1962) who, in 1922, created a bronze figurine showing the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When it came to decorating the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung almost twenty years later, his contribution was a terracotta relief showing – surprise, surprise – the Pied Piper of Hamelin:

(The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Adolf Wagner von der Mühl)

One last thing: I have been wondering for quite some time why half of the images are colourful painted majolicas and half of them are monochrome terracotta reliefs, but now I think I’m able to provide an explanation for that… The coloured ones are all illustrations to “classic” fairytales, most of them featuring enchanted princesses and/or evil stepmothers. More importantly perhaps, in seven out of eight the main protagonist is female, while in the eighth (Hansel and Gretel) the protagonists are little kids. The terracotta reliefs, on the other hand, are dedicated to stories where the lead character is male, and many of them could be defined as legends and (comic) folktales rather than actual fairytales. This, so to speak, semantic division is clearly mirrored in the choice of technique which reinforces the traditional gender roles: The “female” images are done in a colourfully naive way that seems indebted to children’s book illustration, while the “male” ones are executed in the more prestigious relief technique and in a style reminiscent of the high-end art produced by the Wiener Werkstätte.

(Mother Hulda, unsigned; The Goose Girl, signature illegible)

And the moral of this story is: While there’s a lot of “great” art on display in Vienna’s numerous churches and museums, there’s also a lot of “low-key” art to be discovered all around the city, even on the facades of tenement houses. Artworks like the fairytale scenes on the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung may look innocent and inconspicuous at first, but if you take a closer look, you realize that they are deeply embedded in political and gender discourses.

* Helmut Weihsmann, Das Rote Wien. Sozialdemokratische Architektur und Kommunalpolitik 1919–1934, Vienna 2002.

** Well, most of the images on the Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung are from the Brothers Grimm’s collection of fairytales, anyway. Strictly speaking, though, three of them aren’t, namely: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Dwarf Nose and Rübezahl.


All images in this post are taken from Wikimedia Commons – they were made by Wikimedia/Wikipedia contributor Buchhändler who holds the copyright to all of them.