Feature Image: Alphonse Mucha, The Nature, around 1900. Collection F. W. Neess, Photo- Museum Wiesbaden : Bernd Fickert
They come one after another, these treasures, nearly too many, too much, to absorb. There are the Rozenburg eggshell porcelain teapots, vases, and the like from Holland, fancifully daubed in bright colors that depict flora and fauna both real (butterflies and hummingbirds) and not (whimsical purple flowers bursting open like fireworks). They’re followed quickly by Sphinx, the rich, somber painting by the German artist Franz von Stuck, which illustrates a nude woman posed like the titular monument, her skin glowing alabaster against the black background. And then there are the two Tiffany table lamps, their bases forming tree trunks, their stained-glass shades patterned with delicate leaves and dainty, globular fruit in gentle shades of green and blue.
And this is only a little taste, a small slice of the rich, creamy confection that will be the Hesse State Museum of Art and Nature Wiesbaden’s new Art Nouveau—or Jugendstil, as it’s known in German—exhibition. This brief preview, which comes six weeks before the June 29 opening, includes just two of the half-dozen rooms that will house roughly 550 objects from the influential movement. But even this abbreviated peek is more than enough to stun. Including works from around the world that take forms ranging from furniture and sculpture to paintings, lamps, ceramics, clocks, and more, the display of objects is almost painfully lovely. Germany has proclaimed 2019 to be the year of Bauhaus in commemoration of that movement’s centennial, but within this serene space Art Nouveau is queen.
It’s an apt analogy. Bauhaus, all straight lines and geometrical shapes, seems decidedly masculine. Art Nouveau, with its sensuous curves and passion for natural elements, is gorgeously feminine. Its most famed sculptures depict women draped in flowing garments, elegantly posed, with windswept hair and blissful expressions. This look was given human form by Loie Fuller, an American performer who seduced and delighted the crowds at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris by dancing gracefully in diaphanous white robes under jewel-colored lights. Films of Fuller will open the Wiesbaden exhibit, while further inside, almost too many iconic sculptures to count await.
Wiesbaden, an historic spa town about twenty-five miles from Frankfurt, might seem an odd choice for an Art Nouveau repository. While there are touches of the style to be found in its architecture, Wiesbaden isn’t especially well-known for it. But it is the adopted home of Ferdinand Wolfgang Neess, the man who bequeathed the collection, some 700 pieces in all, to the museum. Nearing ninety—he’ll celebrate that milestone on the day of the opening—Neess had sought to donate the work he amassed over more than four decades to Neuss, the German town where he was born. Unable to cope with the demands of exhibiting such a large collection, Neuss, almost inconceivably, had to pass on the gift.
“His biggest wish is to keep the collection together,” Caren Jones, the Museum Wiesbaden’s registrar, who guided me through the exhibition preview, explained. “So for us, it was all or nothing. It’s such a unique collection, it’s such a unique opportunity, we couldn’t not take it, but we had to make changes to the museum to accommodate it. We had an extension done to the office buildings to get some more space. Joseph Beuys was on display here and he had to move elsewhere. So it all took us the better part of two years. Of course, this becomes a permanent exhibit, part of the collection of the museum. You couldn’t do this exhibit for a couple of weeks or months.”
Neess, who hails from a wealthy family, began collecting Art Nouveau in the early 1960s with the simple purchase of two cheap candlesticks from a Frankfurt shop, which he still owns. He had been apprenticing in a bank, but around the same time he bought the candlesticks he received a copy of art historian Robert Schmutzler’s Art Nouveau. Fascinated with the book, in which Schmutzler traces the British origins of the style to William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites, Neess poured over its pages endlessly. He became an art dealer, first in Frankfurt and then in Munich, overcome by the need to find and buy as many Art Nouveau pieces as possible. As he said in an interview published last August on the Friends of the Museum Wiesbaden website, “Art Nouveau had cast a spell on me, and that is still the case today. Since the ’60s, it was a life’s work … Today, good Art Nouveau goods have become infinitely scarce. The prices know no bounds anymore.”
Still, according to Jones, Neess continues to collect, adding to the few objects he didn’t send to the museum. Although he has indicated that he and his wife, Danielle, would move after transferring their art to the museum, they still reside in the stunning home where they lived with the collection for the better part of three decades. Built in 1901, the house boasts classic Art Nouveau ornamentation on its exterior, including flowers, vines, and women’s faces. Inside, as Jones described to me, were items like the desk and the dining room table and chairs that I saw in the preview.
“When I was there, tea cups were on the table, papers were on the desk,” she said. “So this furniture was really used. There were shoes under the settee, and cardigans over the armchair. It made it so unique. The collection was in a private home that was never opened to the public, although there have been loans to other exhibitions.”
The Museum Wiesbaden curators are taking advantage of the glimpse they received into how and where Neess used the objects in his daily life by doing their best to re-create the rooms and ensembles he put together. For example, the dining room area they designed is much the same as it was in the home, with the Louis Majorelle table and chairs situated similarly, and the great Sphinx painting by von Stuck hanging over the china cabinet.
Majorelle, Jones told me as I’d stood gazing open-mouthed at the masterfully detailed furniture, “was probably most prominent French designer and artist of that time. There are usually quite recognizable flowers and leaf patterns he uses when he does a series of furniture. There’s a rose series. There’s water lilies, magnolias, and then this combination of solid wood, brass, and glass. He designed meticulously and then worked with the highest-quality craftsmen in the production. The wood is mahogany, and it makes most of the furniture very, very heavy.”
When you are giving what has been appraised at $41 million, you can set a few ground rules. One of Neess’s is that the exhibit will consist only of his collection in its entirety. It constitutes his vision, and his alone. As Wiesbaden curator Peter Forster noted, it makes for “a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. Each piece makes its contribution to the coherence of the unity. Of course there are highlights like Alphonse Mucha’s bust La Nature, or works by [Belgian painter] Fernand Khnopff, but the density of the highlights is already overwhelming. Their unity and internationality make the collection special … it shows all facets of what the short phase of Art Nouveau had to offer in Europe and America.”
What must it be like to give away what you have called your life’s work, including the exquisite glasswork of the French artist Emile Gallé, the focal point of the collection? As Neess told the Friends of the Museum Wiesbaden, he feels lucky. “Now I know where my collection will go, that’s a security I did not have before,” he told them. “I still do not feel the pain of separation. One year ago, I became friends with the idea that my collection would not stay in this house. The good solution is an extraordinary comfort to me.” However, he acknowledged, “separation pain may still come.”
If it does, perhaps a visit to his collection, which will be ensconced in the museum’s south wing, will help. The curators’ inventiveness did not stop with showing some of the works as they were placed in Neess’s home. In the exhibit’s first room, the pieces are displayed against a deep blue background, opposite backlit, floor-to-ceiling reproduction stained glass in complementary shades of sapphire. It all creates a breathtaking visual effect, suffusing the space with a gentle glow that manages to add to the artworks’ beauty rather than compete with it. The second room, which features a magnificent grandfather clock
by Majorelle graced with small stars on the hands and bunched grapes on its case, is likewise adorned with the same wonderful blue.
According to Jones, there will be a third chamber dedicated to presenting the furniture as it was arranged by Neess in his home; the other rooms will focus on furniture and objects from Austrian designers; work after 1900; and in the last space, late Art Nouveau, which closely resembles, of all things, Bauhaus.
As we begin to make our way slowly out of the exhibit, Jones stops before a massive mirror by Jacques Gruber, which she calls “a wonderful example of the craftsmanship of the era’s wood carvers and the metal and glass workers.” Gruber, she explains, is best known for designing the glass roof at the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette. “I think we know Art Nouveau today from the objects we use. For example, I think many people would recognize Art Nouveau from the Métro sign in Paris. It’s more than a painting on the wall; Art Nouveau sort of really hits you in daily life—like when you’re looking for a transportation sign and what you find is a work of art. Or Tiffany lamps, which work, they provide light.” The movement’s artists embraced on a very practical level the idea of art having a relevance, that life and art should become one and you should be surrounded with wonderful objects that enrich your life. “As we at the museum,” Jones says with a
smile, “hope this exhibition will.”
Art Nouveau’s Big Year Wiesbaden
With the June 29 debut of Museum Wiesbaden’s new permanent Art Nouveau exhibit, the city of roughly 300,000 is set to join the list of the must-visit Jugendstil sites in Europe. To celebrate, 2019–20 has been declared the year of Art Nouveau in Wiesbaden, though the style’s influence has long been felt there.
The capital of the central-western German state of Hesse, Wiesbaden was once one of the world’s most famous spa towns, a playground for royalty and the very rich, who flocked to the healing waters of its hot springs. Its heyday around the turn of the century—when Kaiser Wilhelm II spent each summer in Wiesbaden—coincided with the Art Nouveau era, and many of the town’s most magnificent buildings, including Kaiser-Friedrich-Wilhelm Therme and the Kurhaus, are rich with the style’s embellishments.
Wiesbaden will offer Art Nouveau–themed tours of these architectural wonders and others regularly throughout the next year as part of the festivities, along with special concerts and operas, exhibitions, movie showings, plays, lectures, readings, seminars, and workshops.
For more information, visit jugendstiljahr.de.