The Movement Secession

The Vienna Secession grew out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional practices of the Kunstlerhausgenossenschaft; an association which could have been called the Vienna Academie. The Kunstlerhaus was, in Gustav Klimt’s eyes, directed by commercial motivations which were limiting in their disregard of foreign artists and maintained art as something separate from the lives of the majority of the Austrian people. This conflict between new ideals and the establishment came to a head in 1897 when forty members of the Kunstlerhaus seceded and founded their own association with Gustav Klimt as their president.

Group portrait of Vienna Secession members on the occasion of the XIV exhibition in 1902. Left to right: Anton Stark, Gustav Klimt (in armchair), Kolo Moser (in front of Klimt, wearing hat), Adolf Böhm, Maximilian Lenz (reclining), Ernst Stöhr (with hat), Wilhelm List, Emil Orlik (sitting), Maximilian Kurzweil (wearing cap), Leopold Stolba, Carl Moll (reclining), Rudolf Bacher. Photo: Photographic archives of the Austrian National Library, Moriz Nähr There was no strict coda or written philosophy attached to the Vienna Secession but to strive for “art as life” or an art which did not distinguish between ‘great art’ and the crafts, or art for the rich and art for the poor, was high on their agenda. Their first exhibition was held in the greenhouses of the Society of Horticulture and Klimt designed a poster depicting Theseus and the Minotaur under the protective gaze of Athena who was to become a recurrent figure throughout Klimt’s involvement with the Secessionists.

The preface to the catalogue expressed their aims: In our first exhibitions we were at pains to show the modern art of foreign countries to the public, in order to set it a higher standard whereby to appraise our native productions… It is obviously no part of our intention to give a comprehensive view of contemporary art; all we want to do is exhibit the officers of troops who are right up in the firing line. For we are a party and intend to remain a party until the stagnating standards of art in Vienna are revived, and Austrian artists and the Austrian public have produced a picture worthy of the modern movement in art. Our exhibition is bound to make an epoch making effect on Vienna in the artistic field. Artists represented in the associations premier included Giovanni Segantini, Ferdinand Khnopff, Constantin Meunier, Puvis De Chavanne, Auguste Rodin, Franz von Stuck and Max Klinger amongst others. Over 57,000 attendances were recorded and the funds made through these exhibitions were used to buy works of art from within each exhibition. These works were then donated to various public galleries. A large part of this exhibition was devoted to the arts and crafts thus fulfilling the first steps of the Secession group, toward equal recognition of art and handicrafts. In the eleventh room the Secessions journal; Ver Sacrum was brought to the attention of the public. The room was set out as one huge poster and in other areas of the display works were set at eye level and each artist was grouped together instead of being spread about from floor to ceiling.

<The design,  the building: The erection of its own exhibition building was on of the guiding principles of the “Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession” that was discussed in the foundation meeting. The Secession members commissioned the hardly 30-year-old architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, who was at the time a member of Otto Wagner’s atelier, to design the building, which was to become a key work of Viennese Art Nouveau. A site along the Ringstrasse was originally chosen, but Olbrich’s designs met with violent reaction on the part of the Municipal Council. It was only after the site was transferred to a plot on Friedrichstrasse that the Municipal Council granted permission for “the erection of a provisional exhibition pavilion for the period of the next ten years” (minutes of the meeting of the Municipal Council of 17 November, 1897). The necessary financial resources for construction was partly supplied by patrons, especially the industrial magnate Karl Wittgenstein, and partly from the proceeds of the first exhibition in the k..k.Gartenbaugesellschaft (Royal and Imperial Gardening Society). The Municipality of Vienna allocated the site along the Wienzeile. Joseph Maria Olbrich design the building over the course ten months, continually modifying his designs to correspond to new requirements, while reviewing and refining them at the same time. The cornerstone was laid on 28 April 1898 within the framework of a small celebration. Only six months later, on 29 October 1898, the construction was complete. The Architecture: The ground plan and cross-section of the Secession reveals very simple geometrical forms. The building itself covers an area of about 1000m2 and has a centralised floor plan. Olbrich exploited the square as a basic motif in a number of cruciform combinations in the entrance area and exhibition wing. This scheme for the floor plan determines the e entire [plastic] shape of the building is evolved from elevationlevationand with it the of the building. Unbroken planes dominate on the exterior of the building. The massive, unbroken walls lend the exterior the appearance of being constructed from a series of solid cubes. However, this rather rigid geometry is utilised by Olbrich as a general framework, which he softens with sinuous lines, curves and overlapping. Olbrich laid out the design so that it incorporated a “head” and a “body”, i.e. a formal entrance area and a functional exhibition area. The entrance is flanked by hermetic blocks that are dominated by four pylons that encase the dome. The exhibition hall has a basilica form with a lofty nave and two lower aisles and a closing transept/asp. It is almost completely covered by tent-like glazed roofs which bathe the interior in a constant/even light. The Symbolism of the Architecture. The laurel leaf is the dominant symbol in the completed building. It can be found on the pilasters of the front/anterior wing and the entrance niche/recess, as well as in the various garlands along the side elevations and it hovers over the building in the form of the 3000 gilt leaves and 700 berries of the dome. The entrance area is decorated by the masks of the three Gorgons, which symbolise architecture, sculpture and painting. The side elevations also feature owls that were formed by Olbrich himself (to the designs of Kolo Moser). The Gorgons and the owl are attributes of Pallas Athene, the godess of wisdom, victory and the crafts. Joseph Maria Olbrich integrated a symbolic language in the building, that is given a fresh and unacademic/unpedantic interpretation here. Contemporary Reaction: The Secession building, which is now recognised as one the high points of any visit to Vienna, was heaped with derision at the turn of the century. The building was described as Opiniona “Temple for Bullfrogs”, “A Temple of the Anarchic Art Movement”, a “mausoleum”, a “Pharoah’s Tomb”, “The Grave of the Mahdi” and a “crematorium”, the dome was know as “a head of cabbage”, the whole building dismissed as a “a bastard between temple and warehouse” and “a cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace”. The History of the Building The Vienna Secession was adapted and renovated several times in the course of its hundred year history. The entrance hall was already being altered in 1901. In 1908, part of the ornamentation and the slogan “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“For every time its art. For art its Freedom”) were removed The building was damaged by bombs during World War II and set on fire by the retreating German army. During the reconstruction in 1963 the original décor was renewed and a second floor inserted in the entrance hall. Adolf Krischanitz was responsible for the most recent renovation in 1984/85. Alongside the restitution of the central entrance hall and main exhibitions spaces to their original proportions, the ancilliary rooms for exhibition organisation and administration were reorganised and developed further. A total of about 20 exhibitions take place in the Vienna Secession (in the Main Hall, Gallery, Graphic Cabinet and Ver Sacrum Room)each year. The total exhibition area is approx. 1000 m2. All of the exhibitions are accompanied by a publication and often by parallel events, lectures, symposia, art discussions, etc.