Michael Powolny 
Austrian 1871–1954

Michael Powolny’s highly original and decorative figures were produced in a climate of radical renewal in the arts in early twentieth-century Vienna, their compact modelling and fresh colours contrasting with the decadent elaboration and heavy colours of much late nineteenth-century art in Austria. The son of a potter, Powolny had a technical training in ceramics before studying sculpture at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), Vienna. He was influenced by the Vienna Secession movement (compare the decorative element in the painting of Gustav Klimt) and by the design ideals of the revolutionary architect and designer Josef Hoffmann (1870–1956). Powolny also taught with Hoffmann at the Kunstgewerbeschule: ceramics from 1909, and sculpture from 1932. (The influential studio potter Lucie Rie was among his students.) He designed works in many media, from a bronze statue of Pallas Athene for Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels to porcelain for the revived Augarten factory of Vienna, and glass for the firms of Lobmeyr and Lotz. 

Summer was designed for the Wiener Keramik studio, which Powolny operated from 1906 to 1913 with the painter and graphic artist Berthold Löffler (1874–1960), another former student of the Kunstgewerbeschule. By 1912 Powolny had provided about a hundred designs for both functional and decorative ceramics. From 1907 works made by the studio were sold and promoted internationally through the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops), founded by Hoffmann together with Kolo Moser. After 1913 the firm Gmundner Keramik, founded by one of Powolny’s pupils, continued production of many of his designs. 

Powolny worked according to the new ideal of the craftsman as designer for industry, an ideal with roots in Austrian admiration for the British Arts and Crafts movement. When designing for production in series, he made his models in three dimensions, preserving the craftsman’s close association with clay, while others, including Löffler and Hoffmann, supplied their designs as drawings. 

While some early functional ceramics of the Wiener Keramik studio show austere geometric shapes, Powolny’s characteristic putti are typically Viennese in the strength of their ornamental impulse. They show the influence of the exhibition of Viennese porcelain of the Rococo and Biedermeier periods that was held in 1904. 

The rare figure of Summer, shown as a putto bearing a cornucopia, completes the important set of Powolny Seasons acquired by the Gallery over several years, and complements the holdings of decorative arts by Hoffmann and by the radical Viennese architect Adolf Loos. 

Margaret Legge