Section of the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt in the Secession Building. 1902.

“To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” – Gustav Klimt

In 1897, a group of Austrian artists founded the Vienna Secession, a movement intended to create a platform for artistic expression as it attempted to free itself from a stifling ‘old-guard.’ At the time, the Viennese art scene centered around the Vienna Academy of Arts–the Kunstlerhause—an institution the Secession artists felt was overly rooted in historicism, and was preventing them from showing their work, which they wanted to be art ‘of the time.’

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Portrait. Gustav Klimt. 1907.

Their founding principles were to communicate and exchange ideas with artists outside of Austria, (parallel ‘Secessionist’ movements were happening in other countries across Europe,) contest artistic nationalism, and to establish a contemporary “total art” that unified the decorative arts, painting, and architecture.

Secessionist work is distinctive in how artists of different media collaborated to create what they considered ‘total art.’ In this paradigm, the nature-inspired, graphic forms from their painting and illustration can be found weaving into building ornament; geometric patterns found in the architecture gets transferred over onto the furniture, glassware and ceramics. And styles and techniques from the decorative arts would cycle back and influence painting and architecture.

Danae. Gustav Klimt. 1907 – 1908.

The 20th Century Draws Near…

To better understand the Secession movement, one has to consider its timing. The fin-de-siecle was buzzing with the early days of the Second Industrial Revolution/Technological Revolution. Railways now connected the world. The earliest automobiles were navigating the roads. Modern plumbing was being installed. The rapid urbanization of the second half of the nineteenth century brought with it both issues of poverty, child-labor and over-crowding, as well as new affluence and the acceleration of culture connected to life in the big city.The advent of steel, and modern machining techniques were expanding the possibilities for building. Everyone was adapting to life in the future.

Idylle. GustavKlimt. 1884.

Freedom, Progress, and Function in Art and Architecture

The philosophy of the Secession movement was laid out in bold manifestos in their official publication ‘Ver Sacrum’ (Sacred Spring.) One of the chief Secessionist writers, Hermann Bahr, described it in his 1900 essay, ‘Secession’: ‘Life has changed, fashions have changed, every thought, every feeling and the whole art of the people has changed, so the people’s buildings must change, to express their new tastes and deeds. Such wishes have been loudly voiced and will no longer be silenced.’

Destroyed Klimt painting.

This spirit of uprising characterized the movement. Key recurring concepts were to be moving towards art and architecture of necessity, purpose and functionalism, while moving away from tradition and symbolism.

In studying the buildings and art created during this period, many questions arise:

  • What is ‘necessity’ when it comes to art and architecture? How does the pursuit of this concept influence our experience of a space, or of a painting?
  • Where to form and function overlap?
  • What is the role of history as it influences design? How does an understanding and appreciation for history combine with the desire to make something ‘contemporary’?
  • What happens when an artist is inspired by both technology and nature?

Serpentinentänzerin. Koloman Moser. Painting. 1902.

In the work, we are charmed by its bold futurism, by the freedom of its expression and by its artistic skill. It is also clear that the Secessionists were not in pursuit of the stripped-down ‘minimalism’ that can be seen in later movements that shared similar language in their theories. We are drawn to the work of the Secessionists because of how they combine new materials and were inspired by new technologies, and yet created work that remains timeless. Their pursuit of function and necessity still included a connection to artistic craft. The resulting work is new, provocative, and challenging. It answers some of the questions and raises others. It leaves us satisfied and wanting more.

Woman in a yellow dress. Painting. Max Kurzweil. 1907.

To be continued…