Interior of the Secession building at its opening in 1898
Interior of the Secession building at its opening in 1898

Eleanora Louis looks at the history of the Vienna Secession.

On 27 March 1897 art critic Ludwig Hevesi wrote enthusiastically: ‘The art city of Vienna, this gigantic small town, will now finally become a Big-Vienna, a true New-Vienna.’ He had heard that a group of young artists was to found the Association of Visual Artists (Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs). This was the beginning of the Vienna Secession. On 3 April the constituting assembly of the new association was held. Gustav Klimt, 35 years old, was elected as president, 85-year-old artist Rudolf von Alt, who had always been an advocate of the young, was elected Honorary President. The new association should exist as a kind of club within the ‘Genossenschaft bildender Künstler Wiens’. Since 1861 the Genossenschaft (abbreviated to ‘Künstlerhaus’) had been the official representation with its own exhibition house at the Karlsplatz in Vienna. But when fierce differences arose between established and young artists concerning the delegations to exhibitions in Dresden and Munich, the artists around Gustav Klimt finally declared their secession on 24 May. Among their first members: the architects Josef Hoffmann and Josef Maria Olbrich, the painters Josef Engelhart, Carl Moll, Koloman Moser and Alfred Roller who had studied architecture as well as painting. This final break with the Künstlerhaus manifested itself in a change in the Vereinigung’s statutes as well, forbidding its members to participate in the public exhibitions of other houses.

Despite only existing for eight years from 1897 to 1905, the new style of exhibiting fine arts and arts and crafts, and the new exhibition hall, led to the group being known as the ‘Vienna Secession’. Immediately after leaving the Künstlerhaus, the dissidents prepared the journalistic ground for their future exhibitions by founding the art magazine Ver Sacrum. The publication announced the intention of using exhibitions as a field for experiments in the aesthetic fusion of art and literature, graphic art and text. From the beginning, there was a broad aesthetic spectrum, as the artists did not follow a certain common style, and a euphoric sense of a new world of art. Ver Sacrum lasted until 1903, and for a while could be found across Europe. The first issue was published in January 1889, even before the Secession’s first exhibition. Alfred Roller designed the cover. It showed a young blossoming tree in a wooden vessel, its roots bursting through into the open space – symbolising the artists bursting the corset of historicism. The name Ver Sacrum (Holy Spring) referred to rituals in antiquity, and Max Burckhard would write on this subject for the first issue.

At the end of March in 1898 the Vienna Secession opened its first exhibition in the building of the K.K. Gartenbau-Gesellschaft on the Parkring in the centre of Vienna. Here, not only works of international artists’ styles were shown, but also new forms of exhibition design, for which the Secessionist exhibitions should become famous. A short quotation from one of the many enthusiastic reviews described it: ‘Blunt obelisks flank the entrance; on the pedestals stand exquisite metal and marble sculptures by Frampton, Richard Dautenhayn, and the Munich artists Floßmann and Beyerer; decorative plants surround uniquely appealing furniture after English patterns with ornamental vessels and bibelots, while the frieze above shows a fantastical aster motif… The vaulted ceiling is transformed into a light tent roof; a frieze of golden foliage, luxuriantly growing over the portal arch, marks the upper boundaries of the taupe-coloured walls at a moderate height. Recent watercolours by Honorary President R. v. Alt lean against easels.’ The set pieces of this presentation, for which Joseph Maria Olbrich was responsible, retained the atmosphere of nineteenth century artists’ houses and studios. But the equal billing given to applied art and fine arts in one exhibition was a new idea.

Within this first exhibition the concept and design of the Ver Sacrum room had been entrusted to architect Josef Hoffmann, the youngest of the Secessionist members. Here the new approach to space and surfaces could be seen in actual fact, and Hoffmann’s exhibition design soon replaced those of Olbrich, later defining Austrian Modernism. It was also he who designed the room which displayed Klimt’s paintings at the World Fair in Paris in 1900. Among the paintings there was Philosophie, for which the artist won the ‘golden medal for foreigners’. It was the first time that the Secessionists had presented work on an international level. Shortly before the presentation in Paris, this painting and Klimt’s Medizin had caused one of the greatest art scandals in the history of Vienna. The paintings were part of a commission by the Ministry of Education for the festival hall of the university. The presentation of the paintings in the exhibition building of the Secessionists caused a storm of conservative protest against Klimt within the university and the Ministry cancelled the commission. Klimt used his funds advance to buy back his paintings, and refused all official commissions from then on. Instead, he painted portraits of the families of the patrons and collectors of the Viennese Secession, already well-known worldwide.

The construction of a new exhibition building had always been planned by the founding assembly of the Secession. Joseph M. Olbrich, one of the founders, prepared the plans and created a key-work of Viennese Jugenstil, planning a ‘temple of art’. Its synthesis of archaic and the modern, the contrast of sacral entrée, the cupola of gilded laurel leaves and of the sober functionality of the exhibition space shocked his contemporaries. It was called a ‘temple for bullfrogs’, ‘crematorium”, ‘mosque’, ‘Assyrian lavatory’, ‘assassination on good taste’ and much more. Since then its revolutionary qualities of space; concise silhouette and the aura of the interior space has lead it to become the apex of Viennese Art and Architecture.

The fourteenth Secession exhibition, the so called Beethoven Exhibition, became a highlight of first eight years of the Society’s existence. It was a collectively created Gesamtkunstwerk of architecture, painting, and sculpture, executed with high skill. Opening in April 1902, it included Gustav Mahler’s conduction of his arrangement of a motif from the choir at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The exhibition became one of the greatest hits in the Secession’s history with nearly 60,000 visitors in three months. Twenty one members of the Secession created a unique Raumkunstausstellung (designed space) around the Beethoven sculpture of German artist Max Klinger as homage to Beethoven. The Beethoven Frieze was placed in the left aisle of the exhibition hall, and showed a monumental interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The frieze remained here for two following exhibitions, until it was finally taken down and given to its new owner, industrialist Carl Reininghaus.

Nine months later, at the beginning of 1903, the Secessionists presented ‘The development of Impressionism in Painting and Sculpture”. It was the first exhibition in Vienna focusing on this artistic style. The show attempted a historic and scholarly overview of the development of art up to the Secession’s contemporaries, and art historians like Julius Meier-Graefe (an enthusiast of Impressionism) and Richard Muther were invited to hold lectures. Their topics broadly ranged from Tintoretto, Rubens, Vermeer, Goya, Delacroix to Cézanne, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, and so on. For the Secessionists all these artists were in the tradition of the modern and advanced.

In the same year the Secessionists Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and banker and collector Fritz Wärndorfer founded the Wiener Werkstätte, following the example of the Guild of Handicraft, founded by British artist Charles Robert Ashbee in London. Arts and Crafts had already been dedicated an exclusive exhibition at the end of 1900 (the eighth exhibition in the Secession building). The Secession artists, as well younger generation artists such as Oskar Kokoschka made designs for the Werkstätte. Initially it was a financial success, but this became a downward trend before it had to declare bankruptcy in 1932.

In Spring 1905 the so-called ‘Klimt Group’ left the Secession, including the most distinguished and internationally renowned members who had worked with the Raumkunstausstellung. Josef Engelhart and the other remaining artists devoted themselves primarily to painting. There were few artistically exciting exhibitions, such as the International Art Exhibition in 1924, which showed a cross-section of European modern art with Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky and many others. In 1927 the public marvelled at ‘Masterpieces of English Painting from Three Centuries’ and the exhibition closed with a record of visitors. But the spirit of the Secession concerning space design had gone with the departure of the Klimt Group.

Since that time many artists have tied in with the Secessionist myth, particularly since The Beethoven Frieze returned to the Secession building after a major renovation in 1984 to1985. A series of large-scale concepts for the main exhibition space began with an exhibition of action paintings by Hermann Nitsch, which were in the spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Two and a half years later, Joseph Kosuth curated the artistic part of an exhibition on Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose father had supported and sponsored the Secessionists very generously. The art works were placed in a panoramic view, like a continuous frieze. Sol LeWitt worked quite differently with the building, adding flat geometric forms to the existing ones by painting on the walls. Daniel Buren, too, was inspired by the Klimt frieze to make a flat wall-work. In the 1990s Austrian artist Peter Kogler covered the walls (and even the ceiling) of the main hall with his typical tube-motif. Another example of the continuing generations of artists inspired by the site, its architecture and its history.