A historical view of Mariska Karasz's work

This article by Madelyn Shaw, Curator of Costume and Textiles, The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, is the preface to the book by Ashley Callahan the author of "Modern Threads: Fashion and Art by Mariska Karasz". Links and images have been added.

As twenty-first-century historians of American art and culture reevaluate the twentieth century, they have begun to broaden our view, adding to the canon of artists whose creative endeavors we must understand if we are to fully appreciate that era. This work by Ashley Callahan, on the career and contributions of Mariska Karasz, reintroduces to contemporary audiences a woman who was widely admired and influential in her day, but whose career, for reasons that have little to do with the caliber of her work, was overshadowed by other names.

Mariska lived a life defined by creativity and shaped by the principles and aesthetics she had absorbed in her birthplace, Budapest. One of the twin capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1867, Budapest shared the vital artistic life characteristic of its sister capital, Vienna, in the late nineteenth century. As recent scholarship has shown, Hungarian artists were certainly exposed to the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles prevalent in western Europe, but in keeping with the cultural nationalism prevalent in Hungary (and indeed many other young nations in Europe) at the time, they tempered these new fashions by consciously including and adapting elements of Hungarian folk art.1 Hungarian artists, designers, and architects, such as the members of the Gödöllö artists’ colony (1901–1921), treated their past with respect, as a source to draw from in creating the modern Hungary, not as a handicap to be discarded in the search for modernity. They also happily accepted certain principles associated with the British Arts and Crafts movement, the Vienna Secession, and its successor the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop). Artists and patrons alike were encouraged to view all of the arts, from architecture to fashion, as integral to the creation of a cultured environment and character. Among the Werkstätte artists (in these early years), there was little sense of hierarchy—Josef Hoffman (1870–1956), for example, trained as an architect but designed furniture, textiles, and ceramics, too. The traditional boundaries between art and craft were blurred, and the Werkstätte and its adherents honored good craftsmanship as well as good design. In addition, women were accorded the right and opportunity to seek a career in art. Female artists such as Mitzi Friedmann-Otten (1884–1955) and Vally Wieselthier (1895–1945) were active and prolific members of the Werkstätte, also working in several media, and may well have been role models for younger women. The Viennese artists, too, wanted to create a modern style that had a recognizably national character.2 Mariska’s understanding of what it meant to be an artist was formed within this environment.

When Mariska arrived in the United States, joining her mother and sister just prior to the outbreak of the World War I in Europe, she came to a place that was physically very different from her former home but intellectually very similar and just as vibrant. American artists were interested in the new theories of art being propounded in Europe, and the 1913 art exhibition known as the Armory show brought together many works of Cubist and Futurist painting and sculpture by European artists. This exhibition and those at the New York art gallery run by pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) exposed American audiences to new ways of making, looking at, and thinking about art. Artists and intellectuals gathering in New York were creating their own community, moving into inexpensive spaces in Greenwich Village formerly occupied by the working class and the urban poor.3 Many women found that the new avant-garde climate, in which feminism played a significant part, accepted and encouraged their desire to be artists. Just as Hungary’s ethnic diversity had contributed to the national character of its arts, immigrants from many nations added their own political and moral philosophies and literary, visual, and performing arts to the cultural crucible that was New York.

At the same time, producers of consumer goods (led by the textile and fashion industries) began to question a long-held belief that American industrial designers could—and perhaps should—only copy, not create. In December 1912, the New York Times announced a competition to encourage American “style creators.”  Ethel Traphagen, who would later run an important fashion design school in New York, won first prize in the evening dress group for her interpretation of the “color, composition, and entire spirit” of James A. McNeill Whistler’s (1834–1903) Nocturne in Blue and Gold.4 In early 1914, American silk manufacturer M. C. Migel & Co. introduced a line of boldly colored printed silk dress fabrics whose designs were based on Mexican and southwestern American Indian motifs. The war in Europe that began in August 1914 speeded up America’s coming of age in terms of art and design. Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, and Italy, the nations who were the leaders in the arts and in industry, were also those most deeply enmeshed in the war. The huge numbers of men and quantities of materiel that fed the slaughter on the western front left little energy and few resources available to cater to the market for consumer luxuries. With such an opening, theorists such as William Laurel Harris and M. D. C. Crawford called for the formation of a national American aesthetic. By 1917, the “Made-in America” movement to encourage American manufacturers to produce quality design independent of European models and, equally important, to encourage American consumers to purchase it, had gained support from many in the fashion industry.5 Cultural nationalism as the basis for self-consciously modern design—a very different ideology from the reverence for the past that marked the Colonial Revival style—had finally arrived in the United States. It would mature into a kind of cultural eclecticism over time, as Americans realized how immigration, migration, and education had transmitted a broad range of influences across the country.6

Mariska and her sister fit into this new social, intellectual, and cultural mix immediately. The fact that she and Ilonka brought with them what they knew of the arts in Hungary meant not only that New York would be eager to absorb what they could share, but that they were entering a world that they would find familiar. As Callahan has pointed out in her 2003 book Enchanting Modern: Ilonka Karasz, 1896-1981,Ilonka, who arrived in New York a year before her sister, established herself quickly in Greenwich Village as a pioneer modernist with interests in painting and graphic design who also taught and contributed to avant-garde publications. Mariska’s decision to pursue fashion as her medium may have had something to do with her sister’s wide-ranging, almost omnivorous, talents. Fashion was the one area Ilonka left alone, and Mariska more than filled the gap.

In the early 1910s, high fashion was still the preserve of the upper class, patrons of the Paris couture houses and elite American custom dressmakers. Ready-to-wear clothing for women was generally confined to garments such as skirts, overcoats, and shirtwaists that could accommodate some range of body types in the fit and sold well at lower price levels. As the fashionable silhouette changed and simplified from the 1910s into the 1920s, ready-to-wear became a more acceptable (less expensive and reasonably well-fitting) option. For many, status still demanded a custom wardrobe, and those women wanted not only impeccable fit, but combinations of fabrics, trim, and details that would not and could not be found in ready-made garments. Opening a new couture business in this transitional period was fraught with obstacles. The high end of custom designing and dressmaking was an intensely competitive business, with dozens of options open to potential clients. Sustained profitability was dependent on too many factors outside of the proprietor’s control to be certain. Clients had to be found, seen in the right places and wearing your clothes in the right way, buy enough from you to make their custom worth your time, and pay their bills. The clothes had to be in sync with fashion; different enough to be individual but not so bizarre as to be unwearable. Publicity of the right sort had to be obtained, whether by word of mouth or through the fashion press.7

Mariska seems to have worked around those factors. She was not a proponent of the extreme edge of fashion. Instead she found a niche that relied heavily on the aesthetic ideals of her youth: a folk design vocabulary brought up-to-date, skilled craftsmanship, vivid colors, the integration of ornament into the structure of the garment. Her business—even her children’s wear—was near the top of the scale, but like many other small custom houses, hers was not a featured name in the big fashion magazines. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, for example, concentrated their attention on only a few names, such as Jessie Franklin Turner, Elizabeth Hawes, and Sally Milgrim, who headed their own salons, and Sophie Gimbel of Saks Fifth Avenue and Fira Benenson of Bonwit Teller, designers who worked in the custom salons of the big department and specialty stores. Mariska’s contract designing for ready-to-wear firms conforms to the pattern of these top designers. Hawes, for example, created several different product lines, including handbags. Very often, designers viewed this commission work as a way to subsidize their custom business.8

Mariska’s transfer of her talents to embroidery from fashion design occurred at just about the time when the fashion business was growing all across the country. Ready-to-wear clothing was available at all price points, satisfying status-conscious customers who did not have or wish to set aside the time for the two or three fittings necessary for custom-made clothing. Much of the country’s textile and clothing manufacturing base was turned over to military production soon after the United States entered World War II in December 1941. What consumer goods were being produced were rationed. Although the press again used the circumstances of the war to push American designers, they focused largely on ready-to-wear designers, whose clothes were worn by the majority of Americans. It was a sensible time for a career change.

Mariska’s embroidered works of the 1940s and 1950s were not a departure in the field of handmade textiles as fine art. From the 1910s into the 1930s many American artists—Marguerite Zorach (1887–1968), Lydia Bush-Brown (1887–1984), and Arthur Crisp (1881–1974), as well as Ilonka and Mariska—were creating unique works of art in embroidery and other textile techniques such as batik, following the tradition of the decorative woven tapestry or needlework hanging. This early work was mostly either pictorial or derived from folk traditions, including Western vernacular art and the art of non-Western cultures. The objects were often meant to hang on a wall, with the textile plane functioning in the same way as a painted picture. In the 1940s, weavers such as Dorothy Liebes (1897–1972) and Maria Kipp, whose work involved rather more assertive texture, color, and pattern than most Bauhaus-influenced artists, became more prominent. Their textiles, used primarily as decorative and functional furnishing fabrics, were an important part of the American modernist interior and may have helped pave the way for Mariska’s positioning of embroidery as a means of adding warmth and personality to plain, unadorned rooms. The post–World War II emphasis on “Good Design” as a means of bringing higher aesthetic ideals to mass-produced goods and, therefore, to the masses also created a market for publications and exhibitions that sought to educate the public in both recognizing good taste and ensuring that one’s home environment exuded it. The publications on dressmaking and embroidery that Mariska produced during this period, however, did not encourage consumption of predigested good design.9 Instead it harked back to an earlier Arts and Crafts philosophy that valued personal expression and believed in offering the tools of creativity to everyone.

Liebes’s free experimentation with new fibers and materials may have influenced many artists who chose to work with fiber in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of these artists, such as Ed Rossbach (1914–2002), Dorian Zachai, Lenore Tawney (b. 1925), and Mariska, began to move away from two-dimensional textile work, drawing materials and techniques into three dimensions, in spite of a critical atmosphere that denigrated work that might be viewed as decorative or that violated the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane. Texture, depth, dimension, and volume were not used by these artists merely as surface qualities, but celebrated as inherent in the chosen medium. By the 1960s, some of this work was fully three-dimensional and had gone beyond picture into sculpture. The collaged assemblages of the last stage of Mariska’s life presage the work of many artists in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Ann Hamilton and Ann Wilson, who adopted fiber materials into their own creative expression but did not and do not think of themselves as Fiber artists. Mariska, too, would probably have refuted that label, given her early training in an environment that challenged hierarchy and compartmentalization in art.10

Mariska Karasz’s varied career in the arts fulfilled the training of her youth. Unlike many of her contemporaries, who espoused Modernism in its most rational form, Mariska preferred to acknowledge humanity’s emotional needs in her work. Her tools were color, texture, and pattern, and her strong belief that art belonged in everyday life was her guiding principle.


Madelyn Shaw
Curator of Costume and Textiles,
The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

  1. See Juliet Kinchin, “Hungary: Shaping a National Consciousness,” in Wendy Kaplan, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920: Design for the Modern World, 142–77 (New York: Thames and Hudson, in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2004). Kinchin’s essay provides essential background for understanding the art of both Karasz sisters.
  2. Werner J. Schweiger, Wiener Werkstätte: Design In Vienna, 1903-1932 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), 19.
  3. See Caroline F. Ware, Greenwich Village, 1920-1930; A Comment on American Civilization in the Post-War Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), for a near-contemporary look at this transition.
  4. Edward Bok, “Names of the Nine Prize Winners and Descriptions of their Designs,” New York Times, February 23, 1913.
  5. Lauren Whitley, “Morris decamp Crawford and the ‘Designed in America’ Campaign, 1916-1922,” in Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, and Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. (New York: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1998), 410–419.
  6. The Arts and Crafts style in America seems to me to owe more to European and Asian design models than to vernacular American arts.
  7. For related discussions of dressmaking and the fashion industry see Pamela A. Parmal, “Line, Color, Detail, Distinction, Individuality: A. & L. Tirocchi, Providence Dressmakers” and Madelyn Shaw, “American Fashion: The Tirocchi Sisters in Context,” both in From Paris to Providence: Fashion, Art, and the Tirocchi Dressmakers’ Shop, 1915-1947, ed. Susan Hay (Providence, RI: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2000), 25–49, 105–30.
  8. Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach (New York: Random House, 1938), 196–201.
  9. I am grateful to Joanne Dolan Ingersoll for pointing out the importance of mass consumption to those most involved in the Good Design movement.
  10. See Jane Fassett Brite and Jean Stamsta, “R/Evolution” in Fiber R/Evolution, exh. cat. (Milwaukee Art Museum and University Art Museum, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1986), 9–20.