Exhibit Review, September 2007

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Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity.Traveling Exhibition. Milwaukee Art Museum ( 16 Sept. 2006-- 1 Jan. 2007); Albertina ( 2 Feb. 2007 - 13 May 2007), Deutsches Historisches Museum (8 Jun.-- 2 Sept. 2007); Musée du Louvre (1 Oct.-- 31 Dec. 2007)

Hans Ottomeyer, Klaus Albrecht Schröder and Laurie Winters, eds. Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog. With Albrecht Pyritz, Maria Luise Sternath-Schuppanz, Paul Asenbaum, Regina Karner, Gisela Maul, Jutta Annette Page, Cornelia Reiter, Laurie A. Stein, Sabine Thümmler, and Christian Witt-Dörring. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2006. 400 pp. Illustrations, bibliography. $45.00 (paper) ISBN 987-0-944110-89-8

Reviewed for H-German by Margaret Eleanor Menninger, Texas State University, San Marcos

Simplicity Strikes Back

Organized jointly by the Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Albertina, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum, “Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity” made a splash last winter at the equally splashy Milwaukee Art Museum, marking the first time this peculiarly northern European style has received treatment on this grand a scale in North America. [1] The exhibition traveled last spring to Vienna and is currently on view at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), where it will remain until September, when it moves on to Paris.

As the exhibit’s subtitle suggests, one clear purpose of its makers was to demonstrate how a new aesthetic emphasizing simplicity developed in the wake of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, centered particularly in Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, and Copenhagen. The other primary aim was to rehabilitate Biedermeier design from its allegedly undeserved reputation. But whence this name? Wieland Gottlieb Biedermaier was a fictional schoolteacher and poet from small-town Swabia birthed in the 1850s from the pages of the Munich publicationFliegende Blätter. The character was based on a recently deceased gentleman whose verses apparently number “among the worst written in any language,” and Biedermeier (the name gradually evolved to its current spelling) was intended as a means of looking back at the plain and provincial cultural values of the first half of the nineteenth century, albeit with a clear overtone of patronizing indulgence. [2] Many Germanists and German historians have a fleeting impression of what sort of terms resonate with Biedermeier: domestic, feminine, middle-class, simple if not simplistic, naïve, and petit-bourgeois. The term functions a bit as a catch-all, and has been variously applied to literature, art, and design.

Because the term has functioned historically, it is difficult to place it within different disciplinary narratives; it is hard to determine how Biedermeier relates to both neo-classicism and romanticism. The exhibitors have tried to mute these confusions by avoiding a historicized vision of Biedermeier and focusing instead, as stated in the catalog, on “the unconventional perspective of the aesthetics. Biedermeier is here identified as a term for an artistic era characterized by an emphasis on functionality and natural beauty. The style is marked by a considered balance of opposites in the ideal of nature and the simplicity of design. In its pure form, Biedermeier is characterized by an overall abstraction and geometry, brilliant color, and a lack of superficial ornamentation.” [3]

In other words, this is an exhibit about form, not function, and the placement of the objects follows this argument carefully. In Wisconsin, the exhibition began with an antechamber featuring some introductory panels introducing the term Biedermeier and showing some of objects in situ. Directly in the viewer’s sightline, however, were the spectacular woodencabinets, each piece set apart from every other as if on display in a particularly upscale furniture store. The dramatic and distinctive shape and appearance of these cabinets made it difficult to concentrate on anything else at first. This was followed by a display of Viennese silver along side a selection of landscape paintings, most of which had been created by Danish artists. In the next larger room, a parade of chairs took center stage, with more paintings, silver, glassware and porcelain grouped outside the edges of this central display. Generally speaking, objects were grouped together by type (silver with silver, chairs with chairs) but also, curiously, by location, about which more in a moment.

There were only vague hints as to how the separate pieces might look grouped in tableaux. (Each separate museum has slightly varied the layout. The exhibit’s topography in Berlin can be glimpsed via the DHM’s website panoramas at:http://www.dhm.de/ausstellungen/biedermeier/panoramen.html). Although it still included paintings, the final third of the exhibit largely featured design drawings, smaller articles such as ironwork jewelry, and a display devoted to Goethe and his theories of color which were so influential during this era.

The greatest strength of Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity as an exhibition was the way in which the actual objects and their "modern" appearance (more about that in a moment) challenge conventional stereotypes about Biedermeier. It is impossible to view these objects from a twenty-first-century standpoint without a gut-felt “wow” sense of recognition. For me, this was especially the case with the silver, particularly a set of coffee pots dating from around 1805 which would have done Walter Gropius and his buddies proud. Comparisons with the “international style” (a phrase deliberately used by Laurie Winters in her introductory essay) of the 1920s are equally applicable to some of the furniture. At the Milwaukee staging of the exhibition, this point was driven home with one object in particular. An 1825 armchair from Vienna using modular cushioning (Catalog Number II-32. Plate 53) was explicitly compared with Le Corbusier's "Fauteuil Grand Comfort" made in 1928: the description of the former contained a photograph of the latter. [4]

The unadorned mode of presenting these everyday and yet beautiful objects underscores their extraordinary simplicity (particularly when compared with the more florid styles of the eighteenth century). [5] In most cases, there is little ornamentation other than the material itself. And what beautiful materials these craftsmen had to work with! The sheer beauty of the wood is a central design point for much of the furniture on display--new techniques for using veneers made it possible for these pieces to showcase the wood grain in spectacular ways. [6] The porcelain is saturated with bright and bold colors. In many cases, the decorations are limited to gilding of the edges, creating spectacular tromp l’œil three-dimensional ribbons or mimicking the surface of stone. If more elaborate embellishment is needed, it tends toward floral themes. Equally surprising but not really simple are the exhibited sheets of wallpaper, and especially the pattern books from Vienna in the 1820s. With their vibrant colors and sometimes dizzying optical illusions, these wallpaper designs would have thrilled the residents of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood some one hundred and forty years later.

The exhibition raises a number of questions. The first to spring to mind has to do with the way the objects are displayed. Each object is gorgeous, but almost all of them were placed exclusively as if they were on parade. Splendid in their isolation, these objects make it difficult to envision how each object would interact with others. There are some suggestions as to how a Biedermeier room would look--the exhibition includes some interior views. Indeed, these Zimmerbilder offer the strongest evidence of the curators’ thesis that Biedermeier design was in fact nurtured and adopted by the ruling elites of Europe and was not (as has been the conventional interpretation) a mass-produced “look” for the middle classes. Certainly many of the identified paintings of rooms do show the private apartments of various crowned princes, but others are unidentifiable either by artist or by location. Incidentally, in most of these rooms, the furniture is lined up along the walls with little in the middle. Separating each piece out from a “real” or imitated interior works to the advantage of the exhibit’s curators. Their argument very clearly suggests to the visitor the clear links between simplicity of the design of Biedermeier and its modernity. This point, however, can easily be undercut by putting the furniture in the rooms with the wild wallpaper and particularly with the clothing of the period, which seem not really to match at all. So, in other words, the clothing of the 1820s still looks old-fashioned even if the desks and the coffeepots don’t.

The exhibit itself tells us little about why this style emerged, or much about its cultural significance within the Bürgertum. We learn very little about its antecedents or its context within the broader culture. There is also little discussion of mass production and consumption, particularly with respect to the porcelain and glassware.


Many of these issues are addressed in the companion catalog of the exhibition, but here the viewer and later (or earlier) reader runs into the odd sensation that she has “read” two parallel versions of the exhibit--one in the museum and one in print. These two versions frequently talk past each other and in some sense the catalog essays undercut the displays. For example, in the Milwaukee exhibit no historical context was given. The exhibit legends tended to rehash older arguments about the "woman-centered" influence of the "character" of cultural life (i.e. movement to a domestic sphere) and alluded to the bourgeois and middle-class ideals represented. This in specific is explicitly undermined by the catalog’s presentation of these materials. In a special section labeled “Exhibition Thesis,” Laurie Winters argues that this exhibition interprets Biedermeier “not as a lowly product of bourgeois taste but rather as a highly cultivated and refined quest for simplicity and purity of form that has its roots in the late eighteenth century. The provenances for many of the most important works clearly indicate that the patrons were members of the courts or the aristocracy” (although they commissioned such works for their private apartments, not rooms of state). [7] So, rather than being made for the broader middle class out of rather cheap materials, Biedermeier objects were in fact fashioned from rare materials and purchased and supported by the elites. The primary evidence for this at the exhibit exists in the paintings of interior rooms used by German and Austrian royalty for their private apartments. The relatively spartan furnishings and undecorated surfaces of Biedermeier furniture would have made a dramatic contrast to the spaces designated for state occasions. This very interestinghistorical argument is buttressed in the next essay by Hans Ottomeyer, who suggests that one reason for this sort of spare decoration in private apartments is that owners had taken to reading Rousseau and had absorbed his strictures on “elegant modesty.” [8] Leaving aside for the moment that this seems a slender reed upon which to hang such a weighty thesis, the discussion had no strong presence in the exhibit and also undercuts the deliberately ahistorical presentation of the objects.

There is a very deliberate effort made in the catalog to discuss Biedermeier as an aesthetic movement with multiple centers, primarily Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, and Copenhagen(curiously identified as "near” Berlin and Dresden). In fact, the contributors to the catalog have connections to the museums where many of the objects assembled in Milwaukee are permanently located. The buzzword in this context is "interconnections.” The presentation of the objects, however, challenged this thesis. The displays were arranged by national or city origin. For example, all the silver in the first dedicated vitrine was made by silversmiths active in Vienna (of whom, by the way, almost half were actually born in Vienna and the rest in Habsburg territories). The Berlin silver was equally isolated and this was true of much of the porcelain as well. Where the paintings are concerned, the first section of paintings featured Copenhagen particularly. In fact the exhibit included an explanatory panel text about Danish painting that described Biedermeier in Denmark as the "golden age or the Age of Christian Købke.” Later paintings highlighted artists from Berlin, frequently influenced by the “dominant artistic spirit” of Karl Friedrich Schinkel.[9] Two particularly good examples of this were Johann Erdmann Hummel’s two paintings showing the installation of the Granite Basin into the Berliner Lustgarten and in front of Schinkel’s museum. [10] Here again, however, where the catalog laments the “nationa lization” and in particular the “Deutschification” of Biedermeier, the exhibit was set up to do exactly that. The two “texts” thus seemed to be at cross purposes.


One final disappointment of mine was that the catalog’s constant reference to Goethe’s theories of color was not adequately explored in the exhibit itself. Goethe’s 1810Farbenlehre, it is clear by inference, was an important contemporary source, but it remained unexplored in the displays. Only one small cabinet addressed this theme and the exhibitors provided no explication of what Goethe was talking about. The theme of aesthetic perception and elite prescriptions about it would have been an opportunity for some “hands-on” examples for experimentation, for example. This lack, while small in its own right, underscores the overall impression made by this exhibit. While the objects in and of themselves are dramatic in their simplicity and the way they resonate with much more recent design, the distant and cool way in which these marvelous furnishings are displayed keeps the viewer out and away from any sense of who might have sat on that chair or written at that desk.


[1]. More on the Milwaukee Art Museum.

[2]. James J. Sheehan, German History 1770-1866 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 536. Sheehan’s work is the sole work of history mentioned in the exhibition catalog. Good thing they picked a winner!

[3]. Laurie Winters, “The Rediscovery of the Biedermeier Period,” in Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog (Milwaukee : Milwaukee Art Museum, 2006), p. 32.

[4]. Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog, p. 131 and 341. For the Corbusier chair, click here

[5]. The authors make deliberate connections to other design styles known for their simplicity. See for example Christian Witt-Dörring’s essay “The Aesthetics of Biedermeier Furniture,” in Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog, pp. 57-69, particularly the New Yorker cartoon about Shaker vs. Biedermeier (p. 58), which can be viewed here. (Peter Steiner, The New Yorker, March 5, 1990, p. 35).

[6]. Hans Ottomeyer, “Furniture Veneers,” in Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog, pp. 82-83.

[7]. Laurie Winters, “The Rediscovery of the Biedermeier Period,” in Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog, p. 39.

[8]. Hans Ottomeyer, “The Invention of Simplicity,” in Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog, p. 46.

[9]. Laurie Winters, “Northern European Painting and Drawing Section XII,” in Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity, Exhibition Catalog, p. 261.

[10]. One of these paintings can be seen at the National Gallery of Art website.