22 November 2023 -

Report: Child Creativity from Secessionist Vienna to Postwar America by Megan Brandow-Falller (recipient of the Research Access Grant [Professional])

Megan Brandow-Falller, Professor of History at the City University of New York KBCC, reports on research undertaken for the book project Child Creativity from Secessionist Vienna to Postwar America, supported by the DHS Research Access Grant (Professional)


I wish to extend my thanks to the DHS for a 2021 Research Access Grant, which funded part of the research for my newest book project, Child Creativity from Secessionist Vienna to Postwar America.

This book traces the dissemination, popularization and commodification of Secessionist ideas child creativity in postwar America through the lens of three artistic visionaries and their students: Franz Cižek, a member of the Vienna Secession famed as the ‘discover’ of untutored children’s drawings, and Austrian-American emigres like craftswoman/pedagogue Emmy Zweybrück, who rose to prominence through American lecture tours and as Artistic Director of the American Crayon Company, and Viktor Löwenfeld, a pioneering figure in the field of art education renowned for his work with marginalized groups like the blind, the differently-abled and African-Americans.

The cult of child creativity taking root in postwar America—or notions that all children are inherently creative with unique access to imaginative and expressive powers—remains ubiquitous in contemporary American society, as manifested in elementary and preschool curricula, a pervasive “do-it-yourself” culture for artistic practice in the home, and a multi-billion dollar art supply industry. But rarely are such discourses on creativity connected to their intellectual roots in Secessionist Vienna, widely likened to a ‘mecca’ of progressive art education in attracting floods of international visitors. Child Creativity recovers this compelling story, tracing the dissemination, popularization and commodification of Secessionist ideas of child creativity in postwar America through the lens of three pedagogical visionaries and their students.

The book opens with a reconsideration of the American legacy of Vienna Secessionist Franz Cižek, the ‘discover’ of child art responsible for exhibiting children’s artwork at the landmark 1908 Kunstschau exhibition renown for his permissive philosophy of ‘letting children grow’ ‘letting children be’ ‘letting children complete themselves.’ The book then moves into the interwar period by way of Austrian-American pedagogue and craftswoman Emmy Zweybrück, whose popular publications encouraged teachers to free the spark of creative genius slumbering in every child, ideas also spread through her work as artistic director of the American Crayon Company. Forming the final case study is Austria-American émigré Viktor Löwenfeld, a pioneer in the field of art education known for his work with marginalized groups like the blind, the differently-abled and African American youth and whose popular textbooks shifted the emphasis from aesthetics to the therapeutic effects of process. Anchored in the liberal lineage of Rousseau-Pestalozzi-Fröbel-Montessori and overlapping with contemporary thinkers like John Dewey, all three pedagogues championed the release of inner emotions and feelings through child-centered methods of ‘learning by doing’ less to train professional artists but to nurture children’s holistic development as socially-informed democratic citizens.

The DHS funds were used to 1) digitize important archival sources related to the project and 2) copy and or purchase important primary and secondary print materials. A vast collection of personal papers and archival sources relating to Franz Čižek are housed at the Wienbibliothek im Rathaus. The Čižek Archive contains a variety of published and unpublished manuscripts and drafts penned by Čižek that are critical to understanding the dissemination of his methods internationally. Particularly critical to the dissemination of Secessionist child art in America was a never-published manuscript Čižek drafted for Yale University Press. I was also able to purchase rare secondary and primary source materials, like the books Zweybrück wrote for the ACC’s “Everyday Art” series, as well as select secondary source materials, as it is cheaper to buy these print sources than pay copying and scanning fees. I was also able to pursue a select number of actual craft kits that Zweybrück produced and designed for the American Crayon Company, as discussed in the example below.

One such craft kit anticipating the pre-packaged, commercialized craft kits of the present can be found in Zweybrück’s “Come and Learn to Stencil Kit,” a collaboration with the ACC dating from the mid 1940s (Fig1). Simultaneously playing on the artist’s initials (E.Z.) and the acronyms of ACC products packaged inside the box, i.e. “E-Z-Cut-Stencil Paper,” users were instructed to “trace designs from the cover of this box or make up your own designs with accompanying stencil cutter and stencil paints.” The cover of the box featured deliberately naïve, folk-art inflected stenciled card designs by Vienna-based Zweybrück student Ruth von Kalmar of a peasant boy and girl, angel and girl at play, painted in an ombre-like fashion, married with a streamlined cursive lettering style often favored by the artist. Arguably, in assembling creative materials at children’s fingertips, Zweybrück’s kits attempted to unlock child creativity in the Cizek tradition as children were encouraged to invent their own designs rather than merely assemble pre-packaged materials.

Please follow @profbrandowfaller (IG) for news of this book project and other academic ventures


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