The Jazz Age: Russell Barnett Aitken and the Viennese Influence

Submitted by Leslie Cade on

American design of the 1920s was influenced by Vienna nearly as much as by Paris, where the Austrian city was admired as a center of design education and production. As early as the 19th century, the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) was approaching design holistically, breaking down barriers between disciplines. The next century embraced design reformers such as Josef Hoffmann who applied their ideas to traditional crafts with the goal of producing a coherent and connected environment through related patterns, forms, and colors.

 From 1931 to 1933, celebrated Cleveland sculptor and enamellist Russell Barnett Aitken (1910-2002) studied with Hoffmann and ceramist Michael Powolny in Vienna. This contact with modernists influenced all of his later work. Having nearly died of spinal meningitis at the age of nine, Aitken embraced sports of all kinds. While in Vienna he rode for several weeks with the Czikos—Hungarian cowboys famous for their daring horsemanship, trained in German academic fencing, and skied with Hannes Schneider, ski instructor to both the Austrian and US armies. Several of his later ceramic works paid tribute to the Czikos and the Korps Hilaritas, a duelist fraternity into which he was inducted.

 

Csikos Punch Bowl, 1933. Russell Barnett Aitken (American, 1910-2002). Ceramic. Gift of Irene Roosevelt Aitken. 2013.359

Aitken was known for his distinctive caricatures of people and animals. He won first prizes in the museum’s annual May Show exhibition prior to moving to New York. He became a highly decorated soldier in World War II and went on to become one of the most celebrated outdoorsmen of the 20th century. Aitken used caricature to inject humor, irreverence, and commentary into his ceramics. A prolific medium of expression in the 1920s, caricature became especially potent in the 1930s when social and economic conditions were harsh.

 Irene Roosevelt Aitken donated the Russell Barnett Aitken manuscript collection to the museum archives in 2016. It includes scrapbooks, photographs, sketchbooks, and works of art that are currently on display in the Ingalls Library and Museum Archives. The collection is open to researchers during regular library hours.

Russell Barnett Aitken, n.d. Cecil Beaton