Sculpture, sculpture on the wall…

February 10, 2011

Those of you who have been following this blog through the last month or so won’t be surprised to hear that among my recent reading there was The Folklore of Discworld, written by Terry Pratchett and folklorist Jacqueline Simpson. It’s a sort of compendium of the innumerable folk and fairy tales that, over the years, have helped shape the imaginary world of Pratchett’s novels. All this reading about fairytales made me go back to the original material itself and, for the first time in years, check out some of the classic collections of (German) fairytales: J. K. A. Musäus’ Volksmährchen der Deutschen (1782-1786), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812-1815) and Ludwig Bechstein’s Deutsches Märchenbuch (1845). It also made me go back and check out a certain building which is only a short walk from our apartment – the Elementary School in Petrusgasse 10, Vienna, which is decorated on the outside with four reliefs showing scenes from popular fairytales:

Little Red Riding Hood

As you probably know, most fairytales weren’t originally intended for children. It was only 19th century collectors like the Grimms or Bechstein who edited out the more gory details and the explicit content, declared those stories to be of high educational value and began marketing them for a young audience. This strategy proved highly successful, so much in fact that fairytales have become unequivocally associated with children and their education. It is only fitting, therefore, that this kind of material should have been chosen to decorate a school building.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

As you can see from the photos, these reliefs aren’t exactly what you’d call high art. For all I know, no art historian has so far deemed them worthy of attention, and it proved impossible for me to even find out the name of the artist who made them. The only information I have to offer is that the building and its decoration were executed in the years 1910-1911 under the direction of Vienna’s Stadtbauamt, i.e. the city’s Civic Bureau of Architecture and Urban Development.

While the reliefs may not be high art, they’re actually not bad either. What’s probably most striking about them is the way the main protagonists in the foreground are carved out almost entirely, resembling free-standing sculptures rather than mere reliefs, and set against an atmospheric, almost impressionistic background of buildings and landscape elements worked in very flat relief. This characteristic is clearly indebted to the style of Rudolf Weyr (1847-1914), Vienna’s most prominent sculptor of that era, who was involved in the decoration of many of the city’s most prestigious buildings, including the Hofburg [Imperial Palace], the Burgtheater [Imperial Court Theatre] and the Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Fine Arts].*

What I find even more striking, though, is how the unknown artist fit the figures into the very low, oblong frame of the scenes. While Little Red Riding Hood or the children of Hamelin don’t have any problems standing up in them, the grown-ups certainly do. Just look at the way the Pied Piper is all bent and crooked and just about manages to find room within the relief’s narrow boundaries. What I find so intriguing about this is that the artist actually succeeds in making this somewhat forced posture look natural: The Piper’s body is bent down and backwards because he is directing his playing at the children that follow him while his feet are bent because he’s apparently doing some kind of dance routine which looks like a mix of a Russian kazachok and an Italian tarantella. So, on a narrative level, it’s perfectly plausible that the Piper is shown exactly the way he is, while on a formal level we realize that he couldn’t possibly get out of this position because the upper frame simply wouldn’t allow it. This, in my opinion, creates an interesting tension which is also present in the relief showing the Seven Swabians:

The Seven Swabians

This popular story has been included both by the Grimms and Bechstein in their collections of fairytales even though, technically, it’s more like a comic folktale: It tells of seven self-declared heroes who set out, heavily armed, to slay a ferocious monster but end up fleeing panicky from a hare. This is the moment that is shown in the relief, and, again, the protagonists’ knees and backs are bent, some of them are even falling over, in order to fit them into the frame while, on a narrative level, all this is plausibly explained by their backing away from the fearful hare.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Something similar could be said about the last of the four reliefs: Here, Snow White’s body, lying outstretched on a bed, fills almost the whole length of the relief, whereas the Seven Dwarfs just about take up its entire height with their tiny bodies. This, again, creates a certain tension and, again, Snow White as a grown-up human being couldn’t possibly get out of her position and stand up.

My favourite bit about this particular relief, however, is the fact that the composition closely resembles certain late-medieval representations of the Death of the Virgin, i.e. the Virgin Mary lying on her deathbed, surrounded by Christ’s Apostles:

Death of the Virgin, late 15th century, Amtzell, Parish Church (image taken from Wikimedia Commons, © Andreas Praefcke)

By this, though, I don’t mean to suggest that the artist who did the Snow White relief was actually inspired by such medieval works of art – most probably, he** wasn’t even aware that they existed. He did add a decisive medieval touch to his works though: The Pied Piper and the Seven Swabians are dressed in what, a hundred years ago, would have passed for medieval garb and probably still passes for it today. And then there is, of course, the Romanesque pillar in the Snow White relief creating a medieval setting for the story. By the early 20th century, both the pseudo-medieval dresses and elements of Romanesque architecture were, it should be noted, stock-motifs of fairytale illustrations that had been introduced and popularized by (late-) Romantic artists like Ludwig Richter or Moritz von Schwind:

Moritz von Schwind, The Prince discovers the Faithful Sister in the Woods, illustration to "The Seven Ravens and the Faithful Sister", 1858

So while the creator of the fairytale reliefs most probably didn’t draw from medieval models, his compositions are nevertheless firmly routed in an artistic tradition. But, due not least to the reliefs’ unusually elongated, frieze-like format, he still created something new and original that, I believe, merits our attention.

* Incidentally, Weyr is also the author of that Charlemagne relief which Jonathan Jarrett mentioned in his comment to one of our recent posts. Dating to 1906, it’s a good example of the style Weyr employed around the time the fairytale reliefs were created.

** Since we don’t know the artist’s identity, he may just as well have been a she. But we do know that the artist was an employee of a civic institution, and I highly doubt that in conservative Habsburg Vienna such a position would have been given to a woman. I might be wrong, of course, but considering these circumstances it seems safe to assume the artist was male, so I’ll just stick with the he.

One Response to “Sculpture, sculpture on the wall…”

  1. […] 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 […]

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