OBRIST, Hermann
(b. 1862, Kilchberg, d. 1927, München)


Swiss craftsman and teacher. After studying science and medicine at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg (1885-87), he travelled to England and Scotland in 1887. There the Arts and Crafts Movement influenced his decision to turn his attentions to the applied arts. Following brief studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Karlsruhe and an apprenticeship as a potter, his ceramics and furniture won gold medals at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. In 1890, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris before visiting Berlin and Florence. He experimented with marble sculpture and established an embroidery studio to carry out his designs. He moved his studio to Munich in 1894.

In April 1896, an exhibition in Munich at the Galerie Littauer of 35 embroideries designed by Obrist and executed by Berthe Ruchet attracted considerable critical acclaim, with commentators referring to the birth of new applied art. Obrist became the central figure in Munich's Jugendstil movement serving as both its catalyst and spokesperson. His monumental embroideries, Whiplash (Cyclamen, c. 1895, Münchner Stadtmuseum, Munich) and Blossoming Tree (c. 1895; Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Munich), and his inspired drawings (e.g. Fantastic Shell, c. 1896; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich) bore witness to his revolutionary notion that art must free itself from tired rehashings of worn-out styles and the relentless pursuit of nature. Rather, Obrist called for an art that would transcend mere imitation of nature to intensify life.

His creations were often semi-abstract, representing the 'dynamic' that he sought, as in the model for a monument entitled Movement (plaster, c. 1895; Museum Bellerive, Zurich, photo in Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich) or the Arch Pillar (1899; destroyed).

In 1901-02 Obrist, with Wilhelm von Debschitz (1871-1948), founded the Lehr- und Versuch-Ateliers für Angewandte und Freie Kunst in Munich to promulgate his ideals. The school was remarkably progressive for its time, insisting on individual freedom and requiring that its students learn to work in close cooperation with dealers and collectors. It is now recognized as an influential predecessor of the Bauhaus.

Forced by increasing deafness to withdraw from public life, Obrist left the school in 1904. His essays had been published in 1903 under the title Neue Möglichkeiten in der bildenden Kunst, after that, his only outlets were infrequent exhibitions of his works and a few commissions for funerary monuments. His death in 1927 came after years of failing health.