The Vienna Secession
Summary of The Vienna Secession
The formation of the Vienna Secession in 1897 marked, quite accurately, the formal beginning of modern art in Austria - a nation at the time noted for its attachment to a highly conservative tradition. It was the coalescence of the first movement of artists and designers who were committed to a forward-thinking, internationalist view of the art world, all-encompassing in its embrace and integration of genres and fields, and - highly idealistically - freed from the dictates of entrenched values or prevailing commercial tastes. Led at the beginning by Gustav Klimt, the Secessionists gave contemporary art its first dedicated venue in the city. This, in concert with their official journal Ver Sacrum, not only introduced the Austrian capital to their work, but that of contemporary and historical art movements on a global scale.
The Secessionists' work provides in large part the visual representations of the new intellectual and cultural flowering of Vienna around 1900, in fields as diverse as medicine, music, and philosophy. Before long, however, internal divisions and difficulties arising from the commercial side of the Secessionists' work ultimately fractured the group's monopoly on the scene for contemporary and decorative arts. Nonetheless, even today the Secession remains a key forum in Austria for the promotion and discourse surrounding contemporary art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The Vienna Secession was created as a reaction to the conservatism of the artistic institutions in the Austrian capital at the end of the 19th century. It literally consisted of a set of artists who broke away from the association that ran the city's own venue for contemporary art to form their own, progressive group along with a venue to display their work.
- The Vienna Secession's work is often referred to (during the years before World War I) as the Austrian version of Jugendstil, the German term for Art Nouveau, and it is the work of its members in association with that style that has contributed most to its fame, particularly outside of Austria. The Secession's most dramatic decline in fortunes occurred at virtually the same time that Jugendstil fell out of style elsewhere in Europe. When most people speak of the Vienna Secession, they are usually referring to the initial period of its history between 1897 and 1905.
- The Secession was in large part responsible for the meteoric rise to international fame of several of its members, including Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Koloman Moser, and Josef Hoffmann, who helped to a large extent put Austrian art back on the map during the first two decades of the 20th century and beyond.
- The Secession's building created the first dedicated, permanent exhibition space for contemporary art of all types in the West. It gave a physical form and geographic location to designers committed to narrowing the gap in prestige between the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture and the decorative and graphic arts, along with encouraging the exchanges between these genres.
- Since the Secession was founded to promote innovation in contemporary art and not to foster the development of any one style, the formal and discursive aspects of its members' work have changed over the years in keeping with current trends in the art world. It still exists and its famed building still functions as both an exhibition space for contemporary art and a location that displays the work of its famous founding members.
Overview of The Vienna Secession
Gustav Klimt framed his Nuda Veritas (1899), a nude young woman facing the viewer, with lines from Friedrich Schiller's poem "If you cannot please everyone with your actions and your art, you should satisfy a few. To please many is dangerous." He thus created a potent symbol of the Vienna Secession and expressed its artistic defiance.
Important Art and Artists of The Vienna Secession
The Secession Building in Vienna is the movement's physical and spiritual home and its permanent visual form. Designed by Josef Maria Olbrich, a young architect and former student of Otto Wagner, the building, located in a culturally vibrant part of Vienna, needed to hold its own against several larger institutional structures. Its somewhat unconventional appearance led detractors to nickname it "Mahdi's Tomb" or the "Assyrian Convenience," but its location on the former site of a vegetable market also led to the nickname of "The Golden Cabbage" for the lattice of leaves in the dome. The leaves appear much like the stylized crown of foliage at the top of a tree that seems as if breaking through the roof of the building - much like the Secessionists were themselves breaking free of the mold of the display spaces that literally contained (and constrained) art in Vienna - as also emphasized by their journal Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), whose title appears to the left of the entrance and references the ancient Roman rituals of the founding of new communities from old ones.
Above the entrance read the German words "Der Zeit ihr Kunst - der Kunst ihr Freiheit" (To the Age its Art; to Art its Freedom), a clear reference to the revolutionary nature of the Secession as an institution devoted to the aesthetic expression of the age, with the implication that for contemporary art, that expression will naturally change. One can see the abstracted forms of the gold foliage, along with the thin trunks of trees also outlined in gold, around the facade, as if to evoke the idea of a protected glade for viewing the artistic work inside. The use of gold on white arguably emphasizes the purity of the space as well as the precious nature of the art.
Lit by skylights, the interior of the Secession Building functioned as a highly effective display space. Movable partitions maximized spatial flexibility for the frequent changes in exhibitions of the Secession and foreign artists. Its floor plan was divided originally into three parts: a rectangular central space flanked by side aisles, much like a Roman/early Christian basilica. One might thus see the building as a kind of temple for contemporary art - the only such space specifically and permanently dedicated to such a purpose at that time. Its flexibility reflected the inherently changing and unpredictable nature of contemporary art itself, in virtually every respect, and thus privileged no individual style, movement, or trend over another. Ironically, however, it achieved such effectiveness by relying on a very old spatial layout, thereby suggesting the inability of contemporaneous artistic practice to completely break from established tropes.
Auchentaller joined the Secession at its inception, but, as one of Gustav Klimt's supporters, broke with the group over the search for a gallery space in 1905. This poster, from the year the Secession Building was built, demonstrates the way that Secessionists from the beginning exhibited links with foreign artists - in this case, the Art Nouveau graphics that were sweeping through Europe. This advertising poster for hair coloring draws on French examples, particularly the techniques of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: the nearly-silhouetted figures in the background whose figures all seem to blend into each other; the flattened planes of color with minimal shapely articulation besides their well-defined outlines; the use of three colors, specifically black, golden yellow, and red; and the curvilinear typeface at the center. It also demonstrates the use of color lithography on a large scale, another technological innovation of the era.
Likewise, this piece also shows the way that Secessionists accepted the entry of the poster into the realm of fine art, something that Toulouse-Lautrec and other graphic artists in France like Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha, Pierre Bonnard, and Theophile Steinlen had achieved by 1900. The work of the Secessionists in large-scale graphic advertising and their reproduction in Ver Sacrum points to how in Vienna the gap in prestige was narrowing between graphic art and the traditional arts of painting and sculpture - at least in terms of talent if not in terms of monetary compensation - one of the primary goals of the Secession. Auchentaller himself would go on to produce numerous other posters over the next decade.
Here there is an interesting break with French posters, which tend to generally abstract all aspects of human figures in an almost cartoonish manner. Auchentaller has instead decided to keep a highly plastic, naturalistic depiction of the faces in this poster, particularly the woman at the center, which has the effect of animating the movement of the figures overall. It also arguably makes the connection with the viewer more tangible, as if to show off the enhancement of the woman's natural glow from using the product advertised, beyond merely her hair. In this respect, therefore, Auchentaller shows himself not as a derivative artist, but one sensitive to the demands and requirements of the individual commission.
Though the Secessionists were known as a group that attempted to break with artistic traditions, their relationship with the past was more complex than a simple forward-looking mentality. Klimt, along with many of his fellow painters and graphic artists, cultivated a keen understanding of the symbolic nature of mythical and allegorical figures and narratives from Greece and Rome and other ancient civilizations. With his soft colors and uncertain boundaries between elements, Klimt begins the dissolution of the figural to abstraction that would come to full force in the years after he left the Secession. This painting exudes thus a sensory conception of the imperial, powerful presence of the Greco-Roman goddess of wisdom, Athena, and the inability of humans to fully grasp that, rather than a crisp, detailed visual summation of her persona.
Also significantly, the hazy quality of the image also allows Klimt to emphasize the goddess' androgynous character, a blurring of gendered identity that was featured in ancient descriptions and depictions of her, and explored by many other artists and cultural luminaries, at the turn of the century. She is dressed in the military regalia that traditionally identifies her as a warrior and the protector of her eponymous city, Athens - qualities normally associated with masculinity. Only the strands of hair that thinly drape down from each side of her neck (and almost blend with the golden color of her helmet and breastplate) give a hint as to her femininity. Barely visible at the left side of the painting, she holds the nude figure of Nike, representing victory, arguably the only clear feminine reference in the work.
The haziness evokes the contemporaneous exploration of dreams by Sigmund Freud, whose seminal work on the subject would be published in Vienna just two years later. It is tempting to read Klimt's painting in the context of Freud's view of dreams as the fulfillment of wishes, which might suggest that the powerful, imperious woman is the object of male desire, but also potentially that the traditional feminine persona must be costumed in order to attain such powerful status.
Useful Resources on The Vienna Secession
- Art in Vienna 1898 - 1918: Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele and their contemporaries (2015)Our PickSnapshot of the prominent works of the movement
- Vienna Secession 1898 - 1998: The Century of Artistic Freedom (1998)A look at the various exhibitions and exhibited works of the Vienna Secession
- Viennese Secession (Art of Century Collection) (2011)By Klaus Carl and Victoria Charles
- Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980)Our PickBy Carl Schorske
- Ornamental Posters of the Vienna Secession (1974)By Horst-Herbert Kossatz and Walter Koschatzky
- Klimt's Women, Real and on CanvasOur PickDetails on Klimt's personal affairs that sheds light on his famed works / By Ken Johnson / New York Times / October 2016
- Josef Maria Auchentaller: A Vienna Secessionist and his misfortunesSpotlight on a lesser known secessionist and his place in the movement / By Roderick Conway Morris / New York Times / 2008
- The Story Behind 'Woman in Gold': Nazi Art Thieves and One Painting's ReturnA look at the true story behind the film "Woman in Gold" / By Patricia Cohen / New York Times / March 2015
- How Egon Schiele Went From Radical Punk to Respected ArtistExhibition review that speaks to the life and work of Vienna Secessionist Egon Schiele / By Sarah Hyde / ArtNet News / February 2017
- Gustav Klimt and Secessionist ViennaOxford University lecture
- Thomas Negovan on Gustav Klimt and the Vienna SecessionBrief informational analysis and review of a poster in this featured Vienna Secessionist exhibition
- Whatever happened to Klimt's Golden lady?Our PickHour-long San Diego Library special on the famed Klimt's painting
- BBC: Masterpieces of Vienna - Schiele's Death and the MaidenOur Pick