Vienna Secession
Wiener Sezession: History, Characteristics, Aims, Gustav Klimt: Vienna Workshop.

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Haus der Wiener Sezession
(Headquarters of Vienna Secession)
Designed by the Austrian architect
Joseph Maria Olbrich, one of the
greatest architects of the day.

Vienna Secession (1897-1939)


Vienna Secession: History, Characteristics
Viennese Culture
Secessionist Aims and Ideals
Haus der Wiener Sezession
Development of the Vienna Secession
Vienna Workshop (Wiener Werkstatte)
Palais Stoclet
1920s Onwards

The Kiss (1908).
Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna.
By Gustav Klimt, first President
of the Wiener Sezession.

See: History of Art.
For specifics, see: Art Movements.

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sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
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Vienna Secession: History, Characteristics

In modern art, the phrase "Vienna Secession" (Wiener Sezession) refers to the actions of progressive modern artists in Vienna, who broke away from the conservative Academy of Arts in the city, whose annual Salon and art schools remained wedded to an old-fashioned style of academic art. The Secessionist trend appeared in several cities across Europe, beginning in Munich in 1892, where the newly formed Secession, led by Franz von Stuck, soon outshone the official arts organization. The Viennese Secession, formed in 1897 under Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), was the most influential breakaway and published its own periodical Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) to promote its ideas. It also built a spectacular new headquarters building (Haus der Wiener Sezession), designed by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908). There were no unifying characteristics of Viennese Secessionist painting or sculpture, or even architecture: instead, its members were committed to the ideal of modernising Austrian art by acquainting it with the latest modern art movements, including the latest trends in Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, as well as the fashionable styles of decorative art, like Art Nouveau. However it was Klimt's paintings that caused the greatest controversy. His pictures Philosophy and Medicine (both 1900), commissioned for the University were deemed to be too explicitly physical, as was his Beethoven Frieze (1902) and The Kiss (1907-8), whose shimmering canvas benefited greatly from Klimt's extensive knowledge of applied art.


Viennese Culture

The Secession, or breaking away, of young artists from official academies was a feature of fin de siecle art, especially in German-speaking countries. At Munich in 1892, Berlin in 1898, and later at Dresden, Dusseldorf, Leipzig and also Weimar, young painters, sculptors and architects protested against the conservative stranglehold that their elders maintained on exhibitions and arts policies by setting up independent societies. The Vienna of the period was a centre of extraordinary and radical intellectual vitality: psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, composer Arnold Schonberg, novelist Robert Musil and architect Adolf Loos were all based in Vienna at this time. The artists based in the city proved no less radical than their contemporaries in other fields. The Vienna Secession was formed on 25 May 1897 by a group of nineteen artists and architects who decided to break away from the official Viennese Artists' Association. Painter Gustav Klimt along with architects and designers Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), Joseph Maria Olbrich and Koloman Moser (1868-1918) remain the most famous of the founder-members. Klimt became the group's first President.


Secessionist Aims and Ideals

Rejecting the revivalist styles endorsed by the conservative academies, the group promoted an art that would celebrate modernity. Like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain - which the members cited in their declarations - they favoured a broader definition of art which would include decorative art and a number of crafts, and were of the opinion that art could play a central role in social improvement. And this included all types of art, not just academic disciplines. In fact, an early statement published by the group reads: 'We do not recognize any difference between great and minor art, between the art of the rich and that of the poor. Art belongs to all.' Like Les Vingt in Belgium, the group held exhibitions to promote the latest international developments in decorative design, as well as painting, sculpture and architecture.

Note: See also the Munich Secession (1892) under Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) and the later Berlin Secession (1898) led by Max Liebermann (1847–1935).

Haus der Wiener Sezession

The first Exhibition of the Vienna Secession featured - alongside work by Secession members - recent productions by French sculptor Auguste Rodin and the Belgians Fernand Khnopff and Henry Van de Velde, all former members of Les Vingt. The exhibition was such a success that the Secessionists commissioned Olbrich to design a permanent exhibition space, the Haus der Wiener Sezession (1897-98). The modern, functional building, based on geometric forms and sparsely decorated with ornamental friezes of plant and animal motifs, boasted an inscription over the doorway that read: "To each age its art, to art its freedom." It was a powerful statement of both the ideals and the visual characteristics of the new art advocated by the group. The Vienna Secession hosted twenty-three exhibitions in the new building from 1898 to 1905, and introduced the Austrian public to Impressionism, as well as Symbolism, Arts and Crafts, Japanese art, and the various strains of international Art Nouveau.

Development of the Vienna Secession

At first the Secessionists were affiliated with Art Nouveau and Jugendstil; indeed, in Austria, Art Nouveau was called Sezessionstil. As a result, important external influences on the evolution of Secessionist art included Gauguin's Synthetism and Emile Bernard's Cloisonnism, the poster art of Paris-based colour-lithographers such as Alphonse Mucha, and the curvilinear drawing of the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.

An early boost to Secessionist architecture occurred in 1899 when Vienna's leading architect, Otto Wagner (1841-1918), already established as an advocate of the Art Nouveau style with his Karlsplatz Station (1894) and Majolica House (1898), defected from the establishment to join the new group.

From 1900, the date of the Eighth Exhibition of the Secession, at which British applied art was shown, the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh was the dominant influence on Sezessionstil. Mackintosh's rectilinear designs and muted colours were preferred by the Austrians to the more rococo style of Continental Art Nouveau. The Secession also published a periodical, Ver Sacrum (Latin: Sacred Spring), from 1898-1903, to publicize their designs and broadcast their call for unity in the arts, including folk art.

In 1905 there was a split in the Secession itself. The Naturalists of the group wanted to focus on fine art. The more radical artists, including Klimt, Hoffmann and Wagner, wanted to promote the applied arts and seek closer ties with industry. In the end they left to form a new group, the Klimtgruppe.

Vienna Workshop (Wiener Werkstatte)

In 1903, following a fact-finding mission to C.R.Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft in England, Hoffmann and fellow Secessionist Moser and banker Fritz Warndorfer founded the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop), a decorative arts studio, to produce Art Nouveau arts and crafts. Hoffmann defined their goals in the Workshop's program: Our aim is to create an island of tranquillity in our own country, which, amid the joyful hum of arts and crafts, would be welcome to anyone who professes faith in Ruskin and Morris. However, Hoffmann and Moser were not interested in the social reform aspects of the English Arts and Crafts workshops, nor in their German colleagues' attempts to produce inexpensive furniture. They concentrated their energies on the reform of design: beautiful objects for a wealthy clientele. The Vienna Workshop soon enjoyed an international reputation for progressive design, which anticipated and influenced Art Deco. Hoffmann in particular favoured the use of cubes and rectangles in his designs, earning him the nickname of 'right-angle' Hoffmann. Within two years, over a hundred craftsmen were employed by the Werkstatte, among them Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and the young Egon Schiele (1890-1918), who designed women's clothing for them. The Workshop continued to produce goods for the international luxury market until its closure in 1932.

Palais Stoclet: Architecture, Interior Decoration

One of the Werkstatte's first commissions was for a private residence in Brussels, the Palais Stoclet (1905-11), executed by Hoffmann. Mackintosh's bold influence can be seen in the geometric architecture of the building, the stark linear design and restricted ornamentation. The mural painting for the dining hall, designed by Klimt and carried out in mosaic by other members of the Werkstatte, contain his most famous work, The Kiss. Shimmering with the all-over gold abstract design, it is as erotically charged as any work by the artists described as Symbolists or Decadents.

1920s Onwards

Klimt, Olbrich, Moser and Wagner had all died by 1918, though their influence persisted. The functionalist approach, geometric compositions and two-dimensional quality of much of the early Vienna Secessionists' output anticipated and inspired many modernist movements in art, architecture, and design, including the Bauhaus design school as well as the International Style and Art Deco. The defence of artistic freedom symbolized by the group was also a powerful example for supporters of emerging avant-garde art throughout Austria. The Vienna Secession itself continued as a group until 1939, when the growing pressures of Nazism led to its dissolution. (See also Nazi art.) After World War II it reformed and has continued to sponsor exhibitions, both in the (rebuilt) Secession building and elsewhere.

Works reflecting the style of this art movement can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.

We acknowledge with gratitude the use of reference data from Styles, Schools and Movements by Amy Dempsey (Thames & Hudson, 2007), one of the top publications on western art, and one we strongly recommend for all students of 19th century fine and applied art in Germany and Austria.

• For a chronological guide to the evolution of modern painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about 20th century Viennese culture, see: Homepage.

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