23 July 2013

Sonja Knips: A Patron And Her Collection

This is the  face of the woman who stares from Gustav Klimt's Whistlererian Portrait Of Sonia Knips (1898, Belvedere Gallery, Vienna).  In the painting, a young woman wears an elaborate pink cake of a dress with a high ruffled neck; her left arm grips the chair as she sits forward, alert and possibly a bit wary.  Guarded is the word that comes to mind when looking at her not quite looking at the viewer.  When she sat for Klimt in 1898,  Sonja Knips had already known the artist for   several years, even before her marriage, and there had been the hint of an aborted romance in that past.   For Knips, the highlight of the year 1898 may have been her introduction to  the architect Josef Hoffmann  - not the portrait we know her by.  From its formation, Sonja Knips was an important patron of the Vienna Secession and of its favorite architect, yet the lengthy entry  in The Grove Dictionary of Art manages to dodge any mention of her role in the arts.  All three, Klimt, Knips, and Hoffmann, shared a common aim: the acceptance of the new  Viennese art. 

Sonja, Baroness Poitiers des Eschelles, was the wife of industrial magnate Anton Knips. Josef Hoffmann was a young architect from Moravia, recently employed in the studio of Otto Wagner.  According to several who wrote about their encounters with Hoffmann, he was  a man of few words, difficult and difficult to know.  Yet the young Baroness Knips (1873-1959) established a relationship with him, based on artistic empathy, that lasted for decades.   Hoffmann once wrote that "One should not obstruct the intuition,"was a remarkable comment from one who banished the curvilinear  lines of Art Nouveau in favor of the geometry of straight lines, squares, and triangles.    Knips also was unusual for a woman of her position in her adventurousness, eschewing the historicist style favored by the upper classes.   Her taste and discernment enabled the new art  to survive and flourish in a city that was of two minds about the relative merits of its glorious past and its exciting but unsettling present.

Fruit Trees,  one of Klimt's earliest oil landscapes, was a favorite of Sonja Knips.   The painting was  included in the Seventh Secession Exhibition of March 1900. The location of the scene has been tentatively identified as St. Agatha, near Goisern in Upper Austria where the artist had spent a happy summer.  After purchasing  the picture, Knips was photographed on a number of occasions with the picture displayed in her home.  What made Fruit Trees look so new was  the artist's telescopic focus on the foliage (matched by Knips's  Japanese-influenced reform dress (see second photo at top).

Delighted by Hoffmann's remodeling of some rooms in her Gumpendroferstrasse residence, in 1903 Knips commissioned Hoffmann to design a  country home for her family in Seeboden, a resort town  on the Milstattersee in southern Austria.  The  house, measuring only 9 by 15 meters, was furnished with simple wood and wicker also designed by the architect.  The summer house  sits at the left of the photograph, with a boathouse to its right, directly on the lake.  There was also a horse barn on the property and plenty of room for her dogs to run.

Knips also supported the Wiener Werkstatte by wearing its 'reform dresses' in a long-running publicity campaign, in the terms of the day.  Loose-fitting and boldly-patterned, reform  dresses were a way for a woman to ally herself with revolutionary modernism in art  and attitude.   Founded in 1903,  the Wiener Werkstatte, first through the Mosers - Koloman and Ditha - designed and produced the clothing. The Werkstatte grew to  more than one hundred craftspeople in just two years, a silver workshop was followed by others devoted to  ceramics, textiles, metalwork, etc. 

Knips appeared frequently in magazines devoted to art and design, lending her image through  photography to promote the new art.  In 1905 a review celebrating the Viennese art colony designed by Hoffmann at Hohe Warte included a feature on Knips’s wardrobe. On several occasions, Knips modeled outfits and accessories at the Salon Floge. run by Emilie Floge, a close confidante of Klimt.
The flower basket brooch Knips wore at the neck of her dress (photo at right)  was designed for her by Hoffmann, as was the collar worn in the photo at top, a dramatic piece designed by Moser.

It seems a peculiarly touching gesture of confidence from patron to artist that Knips asked Hoffmann to design a monument for the Knips family grave site at Vienna's Hietzinger Friedhof cemetery in 1919.    Both Sonja Knips and her husband Anton lived long lives, with Anton dying in 1946 and Sonja living for another four decades after she gave the commission.  But Knips, whose marriage was widely believed to be unhappy, maintained a personal decorum that, while perhaps a contrast her always forward-looking and active interest in the arts, shared some of the attributes of Hoffmann's austere modernism.  The triangular shape of the monument, while unusual for its purpose, is not flamboyant.

In January of 1926, Sonia Knips left her bridal home  for the one she had dreamed of since Hoffmann began his room-by-room redesign of her Gumpendorferstrassse  residence 23 years before – a complete “Hoffmann-Haus"  in Dobling, an old Biedermeier  district of Vienna. Hoffmann honored the historic neighborhood by  designing the Villa Knips to harmonize with its neighbors.  Although the facade was asymmetrical and the windows were different sizes on all three floors, the proportions  adhered to a rigorously worked-out geometry.   And yet - those proportions dance.

For the site of her dream house, (Knips wrote after moving in that she had dreamed of living there forever)  Knips chose to buy the Villa Zuckerkandl from her journalist friend, not for the existing house but rather for its site, making the genesis of Villa Knips an early version of the ‘tear-down.’  The decorations were designed by Dagobert Peche, unabashedly described by Berta Zuckerkandl  as  “the greatest genius of ornament that Austria has possessed since the Baroque.”   She had a point; the short-lived Peche overflowed with ideas, occasionally too many at once, but not in his decoration of Villa Knips.  A home, a total work of art, and a meeting place for artists and writers, Villa Knips was everything Sonja Knips had hoped for.

Villa Knips was to be the last urban home that Hoffmann built.  In the years following World War I the  Austrian economy was weak and  Hoffmann received few building commissions, most  coming from neighboring countries.   

Christina Ehrlich, who studied with Hoffmann and with ceramicist Michael Powolny, carried out the stucco work, both exterior and interior.  The facade of Villa Knips was studded with rows of discreet diamond-shaped accents, a frequent Hoffmann touch (he used them on the wicker furniture for the summer house in Seeboden, too).  Just inside the front door was Ehrlich's staircase,  a series of  stucco columns spectacularly decorated in the vocabulary of 1920s Werkstatte design.  For the interior decoration, Knips chose Dagobert Peche, one of a new generation of Werkstatte designers,  whose Viola carpeting is visible throughout rooms on the main floor.   

Knips allowed  her private suite of rooms to be  displayed at the International Exposition in Paris in 1925 where the sophisticated French critics were shocked - or  titillated - by the  exoticism of its furnishings.  A sculptured Venus by Susi Singer and paintings by Maria Strauss-Likarz were among her personal items near a sleeping alcove with a bar and smoking area.  The homely  knitting basket with balls of wool escaped notice.  This may be the moment to note that, like Lili Waerndorfer (recently profiled here), Knips was quite happy to own and display a Klimt nude,  one of the artist's  last completed paintings, Adam and Eve.  After the death of Koloman Moser in 1918, Knips and Martin Haberditzl pooled resources to purchase Klimt's controversial Medicine (c. 1899) as a gift to the Belvedere Gallery.  Unfortunately, the mural was destroyed in 1945, a casualty of war, while it was in storage outside Vienna.

If Knips began her career as a patron by sitting for her portrait, she soon became an active protagonist in Viennese art.  We can watch her taste evoke and her interests broaden over three decades.  From an apartment renovation, begun in 1903, to a country home, to a family mausoleum, to a new urban villa, her architectural commissions provided Josef Hoffmann with important opportunity and visibility.  Her relationship with the reticent Hoffmann, if documented, would surely make a  fascinating tale.  From the first workshop of the Wiener Werkstatte, she ordered a 105-piece set of its radically-streamlined flat silverware.  She was gracious in allowing herself and her homes to be photographed and documented for such publications as Deutsch Kunst und Dekoration and Moderne Bauformen.  Her efforts did not diminish after the deaths of Klimt and Moser, nor was she deterred in her efforts by the transition of the works from culture to history.  There is so much more to know about this complex woman; if only we could.

For more on Sonia Knips

Additional text & images added 07/29/13.
For further reading: Sonja Knips Und Die Wiener Moderne by Manu von Miller, Vienna, Verlag Christan Brandstatter:  2004. (available in German only)

Images: unless noted otherwise, from Christian Brandstatter Archive, Vienna.
1. Sonia Knips - photographed at the Floge Salon in a Reform dress and collar designed for he by Koloman Moser, c. 1904.
2. Sonia Knips In A Japanese-influenced Reform Dress, photographed at home -  Gumpendorferstrasse -with Gustav Klimt's Fruit Trees.
3. Gustav Klimt - Fruit Trees, c. 1901, private collection.
4. Josef Hoffmann - Knips Country House (at left) With Boathouse (center).
5. Sonja Knips Wearing A Dress From The Wiener Werkstatte in a fabric designed by Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill, with a brooch designed by Josef Hoffmann at the neck, 1911.
6. Josef Hoffmann - brooch designed for Sonja Knips, 1910, Museum of Applied 
Culture, Vienna.
7. Josef Hoffmann, sketch for a Knips family grave site, 1919.
8. Front view of Villa Knips at Nusswaldgasse 22, Dobling, c. 1926.
9. Foyer of Villa Knips, with stucco work by Christina Erhlich, 1926, Moderne Bauformen Magazine.
10. Villa Knips, seating area with upholstery and carpeting by Dagobert Peche and a painting by Josef August Lux, 1931.
11. Villa Knips - Music room with a view of the garden, late 1920s, Museum of applied Cutlure, Vienna.
12. Gustav Klimt - Adam And Eve, c.1917, Belvedere Gallery, Vienna.
13. Villa Knips - seating area with Klimt's Adam and Eve, c.1926-31.



Hels said...

The Wiener Werkstatte was brilliant and daring way back in 1903, and became critically important in training up craftsmen in silver, ceramics, textiles and every other thing.

But it wouldn't have mattered how talented the young artists were. Without brilliant and daring patrons, the artists would have starved in their garrets. Especially Sonja Knips and Berta Zuckerkandl.

I wish I had their access to money and their great taste.

Jane said...

Hels, quite so. I sometimes think that there are as many ways to erase women from history as there are women. No one has ever suggested that Anton Knips had anything to with association of the Knips name with art, and yet Sonja Knips is still treated as a minor character. I'll stop now so I can sigh once again in frustration.

Tania said...

Fascinating, Jane ! Thanks for informations and illustrations, details...
Did you read this ? http://ilyaunsiecle.blog.lemonde.fr/2007/12/17/17-decembre-1907-sous-le-charme-de-sonja-knips/

Jane said...

Thanks, Tania, for sharing this link. Merci beaucoup.

rebeccahappy said...

This was an interesting read. Sonja was my great grandmother and you have added information that I had not known of and am grateful. I am intrigued as to how you pieced it together as there does not seem to be much info on her.
We have some photos etc and maybe some other stuff but it needs to be sifted through as it is in German.

Jane said...

Rebecca, so nice to hear from you. I spent an entire weekend holed up with "Sonia Knips Und Die Wiener Moderne" and Cassells' German-English dictionary, for one. Also, when I visited the Neue Galerie in New York City I asked questions of anyyone I could talk with there. I think if you contacted the Neue Galerie there would be someone who would be thrilled to assist you. When it comes to women who have been overlooked or under-appreciated, I leave no stones unturned. Do let me know if you get a response from the Museum.

Karina von Winckler said...

Please write "Wiener Werkstätte". Pronouncing "stätte" like the "e" in better.

I'm not a teacher but a German ;-)