The Wittgenstein Vitrine, designed by Carl Otto Czeschka and executed by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) for the 1908 Kunstschau (Art Show), is the focus of the exhibition Modern Opulence in Vienna: The Wittgenstein Vitrine, now on view in the Conservation Gallery. Upon entering the gallery, you will notice the vitrine’s enormous scale, its reflective silver surface, and its dark Macassar ebony veneered base. As you approach the vitrine, you will discern a multitude of details, most notably the fretwork that wraps the vitrine and forms an ecosystem teeming with plant and animal life.
Flora and fauna motifs, inspired by Central European folk art and Arts and Crafts design, reoccur throughout Czeschka’s designs in a variety of media—metal, lacquer, and textile, among others; however, the detail, diversity, and dynamism of the animals on the Wittgenstein Vitrine’s fretwork are unprecedented in the designer’s oeuvre. Birds of various sizes, shapes, and patterns perch amidst dense foliage, while squirrels, weasels, mice, and lizards scamper across scrolling vines in search of baroque pearl “fruits.”
These critters so captivated curators and conservators that the DMA turned to Dr. Marcy Brown Marsden, ornithologist and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Dallas, in order to identify the avian, as well as mammal and reptile, species represented on the vitrine. Identification of birds in nature involves five qualities—shape, size, color, song, and behavior. Because the birds on the vitrine are monochromatic, static, and silent, their identifications as Central European species were based on physical features—such as bills, tails, crests, and feathers—and behavioral characteristics. Dr. Brown Marsden and University of Dallas undergraduate students Allison Rodgers and Nicole Stevens identified a total of twenty-four species, including a few of my favorites listed below!
The Eurasian Hoopoe (Upapa epops) is characterized by a prominent crest, a long tail, and a distinctive pattern on its feathers.
With its plump body, short tail, and extended bill, the Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) on the vitrine is nearly identical to its counterpart in nature.
The Eurasian Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), with tufted ears and a bushy tail, appears several times on the vitrine in various positions. This squirrel holds a baroque pearl “acorn” in its paws.
The weasel (Mustela) is identified by the distinctive shape of its head, body, and tail. On the vitrine, it chases a mouse (Mus) with prominent ears and an elongated tail, its natural prey.
The gaping position of this bird’s bill suggests it is a Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), a species renowned for its powerful and beautiful song and popular in European literature, poetry, and music.
To spot all twenty-four species represented on the Wittgenstein Vitrine, visit Modern Opulence in Vienna: The Wittgenstein Vitrine and pick up the in-gallery guide “A Birder’s Guide to the Wittgenstein Vitrine.”
Samantha Robinson is the McDermott Graduate Curatorial Intern of American and Decorative Art at the DMA.
Image: Wittgenstein Vitrine (for the 1908 Kunstschau), 1908, Carl Otto Czeschka, Austrian, 1878-1960, designer; Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops), Vienna, Austria, 1903–1932; Josef Berger, Austrian, 1874/75-?, goldsmith; Josef Hoszfeld, Austrian, 1869–1918, Adolf Erbrich, Austrian, 1874–?, Alfred Mayer, Austrian, 1873–?, silversmiths; Josef Weber, dates unknown, cabinetmaker; Wabak, Albrech, Plasinsky, Cerhan (unidentified craftsmen), silver, moonstone, opal, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, baroque pearls, onyx, ivory, enamel, glass, and ebony veneers (replaced), Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.