The Vienna Secession was an art movement that began in 1897 as a protest: a group of young artists resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists in order to pursue more modern and radical forms of art.
Their legacy has been monumental, helping inspire and shape a raft of similar movements across Europe. Here are 10 facts about this revolutionary artistic movement.
1. The Vienna Secession was not the first secession movement, although it is the most famous
Secession is a German term: in 1892, a Munich Secession group formed, followed swiftly by the Berliner Secession in 1893. French artists had been reacting against the academy and the standards imposed by it for decades, but this was a new chapter in German reactionary art.
In order to survive, the artists formed a co-operative and used their contacts from academy days and high society to obtain commissions and economic backing to ensure their longevity as a movement.
The Vienna Secession has become best known, partly because of its permanence within Vienna’s physical landscape, but also because of its artistic legacy and production.
2. Its first president was Gustav Klimt
Klimt was a Symbolist painter who rose to fame in Vienna in 1888, when he received the Golden Order of Merit from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria for his murals at the Burgtheater in Vienna. His work was allegorical and often overtly sexual: many condemned it as perverse, but many more were fascinated by his studies of the female form and use of gold.
He was elected president of the Secession movement by the other 50 members, and led the group to success, gaining enough support from the government to allow the movement to lease a former public hall in which to showcase Secession works.
3. Secession was heavily influenced by Art Nouveau
The Art Nouveau movement had taken Europe by storm in the late 19th century. Inspired by natural forms, it is often characterised by sinuous curves, decorative forms and modern materials, as well as a desire to break down the boundaries between fine arts and applied arts.
The Vienna Secession movement articulated their desire to be international, open-minded and to create a ‘total art’, unifying painting, architecture and decorative arts rather than seeing them as distinct and separate entities.
4. The movement put Austria back on the artistic map
Prior to 1897, Austrian art had traditionally been conservative, wedded to the academy and its ideals. Secession allowed new ideas and artists to flourish, drawing on modernist movements across Europe and creating something entirely new.
As Secession artists developed and began to display their work publicly, they drew the gaze of Europe back to Austria, inspiring similar movements across Eastern Europe as well as provoking and inspiring individual artists.
5. The movement found a permanent home that still stands today
In 1898, one of the founders of Secession, Joseph Maria Olbrich, completed the Secession Building on Vienna’s Fredrichstrasse. Designed to be an architectural manifesto for the movement, it has the motto Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit (To every age its art, to every art its freedom) inscribed above the entrance to the pavilion.
The building is open to the public today: Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze is inside, and the façade is covered in detailed designs in line with Secessionist beliefs about ‘total art’ – sculptures and drawings adorn the outside of the building as much as the inside. Exhibitions were held there regularly by Secession artists throughout the early 20th century.
6. The group published a magazine entitled Ver Sacrum (Sacred Truth)
Ver Sacrum was founded in 1898 by Gustav Klimt and Max Kurzweil and ran for 5 years. The magazine was a place in which art and writing by members or sympathisers of the Secession movement could express or present ideas. The graphic design and typefaces used were cutting edge for the time, and also reflected Secession ideas.
The name stemmed from Latin, and was a reference to the divide between youth and the elders. It also recognised the fact that classical art could, and did, co-exist in harmony with modern art:
7. Ceramics, furniture and glass were all key aspects of Secession design
Architecture, painting and sculpture were all important parts of Secession design, but so too were decorative arts. Furniture in particular was seen as an extension of architecture in many respects and stained glass windows were a popular decorative element of Secession buildings.
Mosaic tiles were popular on ceramics, and Klimt’s paintings reflect the interest in geometric shapes and mosaic like patterns. Modern materials and techniques were used in all of these elements, particularly furniture, which lent itself to innovation and experimental materials.
8. The Vienna Secession splintered in 1905
As the Secession movement flourished and grew, ideological divides began to appear between members. Some wished to give precedence to traditional final arts, whereas others believed that decorative arts should be given equal precedence.
In 1905, the division came to a head over the proposed purchase of the Gallery Miethke by the Secession group in order to display more of the group’s work. When it came to a vote, those who supported the equal balance between decorative and fine arts lost, and subsequently resigned from the Secession movement.
9. The Nazis viewed Secession as ‘decadent art’
When they came to power in the 1930s, the Nazis condemned Secession movements across Europe as decadent and degenerate art, and they destroyed Vienna’s Secession Building (although it was later faithfully reconstructed).
Despite their distaste for Secession art, paintings by Gustav Klimt, amongst other artists, were looted, stolen and sold by the Nazis, who sometimes kept them for their own collection.
10. Secession lived on well into the 20th century
Despite the group’s split, the Secession movement continued on. It provided a space for contemporary and experimental art and a way of opening discourse on aesthetics and politics that help define this work and which inspire those who produce it.