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The Philosophy and Aesthetic of the Vienna Secession Movement

  • The secession building in Vienna
September 16, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

There are several significant movements which marked the turn of the century, but certainly one of the most prolific ones was the Vienna Secession. It grew out of the revolt of the artists who were eager to question traditional understanding of what art is and what art should be in regards to the society. Unified by a new vision, this group of artists, architects and designers introduced new concepts by embracing different influences and in general opened a path for the upcoming wave of  Modernism.

In order to understand Vienna Secession properly, it is important to understand the context of the end of the nineteenth century or Fin de siècle, which was a quite a dazzling period. It was marked by the dominance of empires, the birth of the modern nation-states, outstanding scientific achievements and rapid industrialization. Nevertheless, a certain ambiguity hovered, so the common belief is that the last decades of the 1900s were followed by degeneration and colored with hope of a new beginning. It was also a time of outstanding contributions to philosophy and literature, all of which reflected on visual arts.

Governed by a desire to move things forward, in 1897 a group of Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Egon Schiele,  Max Kurzweil, Joseph Maria Olbrich and others resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, housed in the Vienna Künstlerhaus, and established the Union of Austrian Artists, or Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs. The group is now known as the Vienna Secession, and its production was dense and stimulative practically until the outbreak of the World War I.

Koloman Moser - Donauwellen
Koloman Moser – Donauwellen, 1901

Vienna Secession – The Request For Change

To be more precise, The Vienna Secession was formed as a critical reaction to the conservatism of the art institutions in the Austrian capital. It is important to point out that the city was a cultural hub in which a lot of significant figures circulated and started developing their careers – for instance, Sigmund Freud was one of them.

From the very beginning of its activity, the movement proposed new philosophical and aesthetic standpoints. The Secessionists embraced various styles in order to establish their own heterogeneous creative vision; they were interested in the artistic production which went beyond the academic canons, so they proposed an aesthetic which was not rooted in historical art.

Gustav Klimt, who was already a prominent artist, was the first president of the Secession, while Rudolf von Alt was made an honorary president. The Secessionists published a magazine called Ver Sacrum which featured the most representative works of that time closely associated with the Art Nouveau movement and enforced the later development of Expressionism.

Throughout the years, the Vienna Secession organized a number of exhibitions which promoted not only their doings but of the international avant-garde as well. The specific focus on architecture and design resulted in founding the Wiener Werkstätte, or Vienna Workshops, in 1903, an enterprise influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement.

Vienna Secession – One Of The First Modernist Art Movements

The Importance of Secession In Architecture

In 1898, the Vienna Secession group built their own exhibition space near the Karlsplatz town square. This astonishing structure was basically the first permanent exhibition space for contemporary art of all types. It was highly innovative since its interior provided a fluctuation between painting, sculpture, architecture and  and graphic design.

The iconic construction was designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, and it quickly became known solely as the Secession (die Sezession). It was financed by Karl Wittgenstein, the father of famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Various figures were involved in decoration – from Max Klinger and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to Arnold Bocklin. Above its main entrance, the phrase Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit (To every age its art. To every art it’s freedom) is carved, which represents the motto of the movement. The main feature of the building is one of the most recognized artworks of Secession stylethe Beethoven Frieze designed by Gustav Klimt.

Together with the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, there were also his peers Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner; all of them were entirely focused on the introduction and use of purified and much simpler geometric forms. They were drawn by the neoclassical architecture which is then extended with the use of floral ornaments. One of the main characteristics of the Secessionists style was the facades covered with linear ornamentation in a form commonly called whiplash.

Gustav Klimt - A section of the Beethoven Frieze
Gustav Klimt – The Beethoven Frieze, 1902

The Legacy Of Vienna Secession and its Art

The Vienna Secession was undoubtedly established to promote innovation in contemporary arts regardless of any particular style, yet it changed over the years since its members searched for new horizons are accepts current art tendencies. Finally, the internal divisions and commercialization of the movement rashly disrupted its activity.

Nevertheless, this phenomenon was a precedent in broader social context since it largely contributed to the rise of new intellectual and cultural climate in Vienna at the end of 19th and the begging of the 20th century. The domains of the Secessionist are still apparent in the city public space from the mentioned exhibition space (which is still being actively used for display of contemporary art), to Otto Wagner’s The Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station and permanent Klimt and Schiele installments at the Leopold Museum.

Furthermore, the Secessionist production is perceived as a pillar of the modern cultural identity of Austria. In November 2004, the state even issued the gold collectors’ coin – the 100 euro Secession commemorative coin. The front side features the Secession building, while on the back a fragment of the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt is presented. Also, on the front side of the Austrian 50 cent coin, the Vienna Secession Building is represented within a circle symbolizing the birth of Art nouveau.

vienna arts 1898 exhibition design 1898 olbrich wagner exhibition nouveau wagner exhibition nouveau wagner Editors’ Tip: Viennese Secession (Art of Century)

Symbol of a forecasted revolution, the Viennese Secession possesses within itself the dissidence of about twenty talented artists against the conservative academicism which petrified Vienna and the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. Influenced by the Art Nouveau, the Secession, created in 1897 by Klimt, Moll and Hoffmann, was not an anonymous artistic revolution among so many others. Dissenting in essence, defining itself as an “art total”, without any political or commercial constraint, it resembles more the philosophy that the ideological turmoil affected the craftsmen, architects, graphic artists and designers. Turning aside from the established art to dive into the generous and decorative shapes of Flora and the other nymphs, the artists open themselves to an aestheticism of which erotic power could only offend the bourgeoisie of the time.

Featured image: The secession building in Vienna, built in 1897 by Joseph Maria Olbrich for exhibitions of the Secession group. All images via creative commons.