What significance does a single image have in visual culture? The postcard, that old redoubt of tourists in need of a (semi-ironic) memento to send back home, doesn’t play such an active role in our contemporary aesthetics, but it once did.
At the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, Florida, a unique space that highlights a range of objects including functional art, architecture, and design, an exhibition of postcards created by the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop) from 1907–1919 show off examples of a lively and dynamic medium that seems like it would have been the Tumblr of its day: an ambient social network based on the exchange of images between artists, consumers, and the creative community at large.
The very first postcard, a printed image that was sent by itself through the mail, was accepted in Hungary in 1869, and the first advertising cards appeared in 1872 in Great Britain. The first postcard in the United States came in 1873, with a depiction of the main building of the Inter-State Industrial Exposition in Chicago. In Paris, cards displaying the Eiffel Tower were printed in 1889 (construction on the iconic tower finished that year).
In the beginning of the 20th century, the US government allowed publishers to simply mark their mailings “Post Card” on the back to be allowed through the mail system, and the postcard era began in earnest. A history of postcard collecting outlines no less than five different types of cards, from “view” cards depicting famous sites (think of those early Eiffel Tower examples) to “historical” and “art” cards, limited edition productions that featured prints of famous works or new pieces from acclaimed living artists.
All of these types are on display at the Wolfsonian’s exhibition. In the space, white display cases with running black accents that bring to mind the Art Nouveau aesthetic of the period are stocked with beautiful examples of cards featuring seasonal scenes, fashion advertisements, and moral lessons in a collectible, distributable format, all designed by a group of artists in Vienna who came together in 1903 to form a design and production collective.
The collective’s work served a function in the wider world, but it was also visually stunning. Urban Janke’s 1908 postcard views of Vienna show St. Michael’s Church and the Palais Schwarzenberg in thin lines and block colors, more evocative than any photographic image could ever be, while Adalberta Kiessewetter’s Old Courtyard series of postcards are looser, depicting the city’s cobbled streets in webs of rambling lines.
Other cards don’t serve to mark a specific place as much as they underline a mood. Anton Velim’s wintry greeting cards, each composed with “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy New Year” and a blank space to inscribe a message in, show a sleigh pulled by rabbits, bundled-up children petting a deer in the snowy woods, and a cloaked figure carrying a Christmas tree while riding a stag.
What reminded me the most of today’s Tumblr image culture in the exhibition was the Wolfsonian’s inclusion of a slew of “fashion” cards. Like street-style blogs, these images show the clothing of the time, from Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill’s severe lines to Maria Likarz’s illustrations of hairstyles and headdresses.
The fashion cards also served as advertisements – as a total production house, the Wiener Werkstatte also made clothing and accessories, and these departments were among the most profitable of the studio. Mela Koehler’s oversize, square postcards of extravagant, voluminous hats (which the workshop produced using its own fabric) are hypnotizing in their freshness. By looking at pieces of art not necessarily destined for permanence (though these cards were collectors’ objects), we gain an insight into the aesthetic churn of the early-20th-century moment: Koehler’s women stare out at us, shaded in the round, decked out with what must have been the day’s most dramatic headwear. Not so much has changed in our individualist sartorial culture since then.
Mailed or not, these postcards served as a distribution network for aesthetics, a way for outwardly-oriented visual artists to inject their ideas directly into culture, engaging with the world at large. That they remain compelling is a testament to how well the strategy worked.
Postcards of the Wiener Werkstatte: Selections from the Collection of Leonard A. Lauder runs at the Wolfsonian Museum (1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida) through March 31, 2013.