Arts In Your Words: The Vienna Secession

The Vienna Secession was a break away art movement set up by artists disillusioned with the traditional and oppressive art body; the Kunstlerhaus. It was founded in 1897 but continued to develop ideas through the first decades of the 20th Century.

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Although the Kunstlerhaus held exhibitions for the city’s artists, the senior members favoured classical techniques and realistic paintings meaning that impressionist and modernist works were rejected. With new ideas of symbolism occurring in Vienna and throughout Europe some members, notably Gustav Klimt, sort a way of representing the world through pictorial instincts rather than pure reality.

Klimt had risen to fame painting murals in the magnificent Burgtheatre and History of Art Museum in the City and they conformed to the conventional ideas of realism, as did most of his early works. But in 1897 he and many other members, including Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann, established their own group that would be known as the Vienna Secession. They held 24 large scale exhibitions between that year and 1905, with responses in equal amounts of praise and criticism.

There was a clear objective behind the Secession; to promote international art in Austria and develop a more modernist and progressive convention. It not only covered fine art but also design, architecture and crafts, allowing various forms to unite under one artistic language

Klimt’s most famous piece, indeed, one of the most famous of all paintings, was The Kiss (painted in 1907-8) as It represented everything the movement came to signify. The couple that embrace in the middle are surrounded by blocks of colour, patterned shapes and gold; Klimt’s signature colour. Perspective is abolished in favour of flat planes with just a carpet of flowers beneath them to ground the couple in some sort of reality. Emotion through facial expression, was something new but very important to the artists of the secession. Klimt’s painting, Judith I (1901), depicts the biblical character holding the head of St John as she looks out to the viewer with an unnerving expression of seduction and ecstasy. This art spoke to the viewer directly through form, colour and emotion rather than plane realism.

Another artist of the movement, who took over Klimt’s responsibilities’ in 1905, was Egon Schiele. The figures he painted were often in a contorted pose and he extenuated their characteristics with hard lines and sharp corners. He did this most successfully in his self portraits. He and Klimt fell into a contest over who could create the best works, and while both had a unique style, the similarities come from the secession and its principles.

The group was so successful it was able to fund the building of a new centre for their works. The Secession Building was built in 1897 on the City’s Ringstrasse where everyone could see it as they went about Vienna. It was built by Joseph Olbrich who designed it with clean white walls and intricate gold decorations. It stood as a monument to the movement that pioneered modernism and international arts in a conservative Vienna and helped the city establish itself as a centre of cultural excellence.


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May 2022
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