“To each age its art; to art its freedom.” Emblazoned across the facade of today’s well-known Vienna landmark, known as the Vienna Secession Building, this motto once served as a powerful mission statement for a pioneering network of Austrian artists. These creative figures sought to craft a mode of art unique to their age, one that was free from the strictures and limitations that had subdued innovation for so long.
Among the many innovative artists and designers active at the turn of the 20th century, those associated with the Vienna Secession stand out for their willingness to break from artistic conventions and embrace new creative paths. This network of artists wowed international audiences with their avant-garde creations, the effects of which would ripple through many artistic generations to come.
How extensive was the impact of these intrepid artists on the trajectory of modernism? In this article we celebrate these groundbreaking geniuses of the Vienna Secession and trace this legacy to the modern day. In addition to contextualizing the revolutionary nature of their movement and several individual styles, we’ll investigate these lasting legacies that their influential ideas enjoyed to position the artists of the Vienna Secession as essential to the rise of 20th-century modernism.
The Origins of the Vienna Secession
Understanding just how far-reaching the ideology of the Vienna Secession was for modern aesthetics begins with a brief overview of the movement’s origins and the core principles for which they advocated in their artwork.
A Changing Art World
The ideas of the Vienna Secession took root at a time when the art world was transforming. For generations prior, to succeed with the European art academy system meant conforming to traditional yet outdated hierarchies of maintaining and upholding tired techniques. As the 19th century came to a close, however, many European artists were beginning to rebel against, or at least question why, the ideas of conservative, conventional styles of art still held such sway in society. From the ideals of Impressionists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro that swept the European continent from the 1870s onward and encouraged artists to break down their brushstrokes and remix their palettes to the strikingly naturalistic and emotive sculpture of Auguste Rodin that deliberately shifted from the Classicizing proportions handed down from antiquity, it was clear that the aims of artists were taking a new direction.
Several young Austrian artists including Gustav Klimt and Koloman (“Kolo”) Moser used this growing pan-continental energy for change as a springboard to break away from preconceived notions of artistic expression. They wanted to bring some of this artistic novelty to Viennese audiences. To do so, they abandoned the rules that governed conventional art to instead embrace an unfettered freedom of expression.
Getting at Gesamtkunstwerk
Combined with this liberated mode of artistic production, the artists of the Vienna Secession put stock in the notion Gesamtkunstwerk. Roughly translated as the complete work of art, the idea of Gesamtkunstkwerk promoted the integration or intersection of different artistic methods in the hope of creating an engaging and immersive work of art. It was a direct and blatant rejection of the narrow parameters for artistic creation often dictated within Academic training, and it encouraged this young network of artists to experiment with blending new media and various artistic techniques within singular works of art. From these artist’s perspectives, this synthetic approach freed the creative spirit to follow each impulse across the fields of art, design, and architecture.
Gesamtkunstwerk in Painting
In painting, prime examples of such Gesamtkunstwerk genius could be found in Klimt’s paintings. His iconic work, The Kiss (1907-1908), for example, experimented with the ideas of mosaic in the flattening of the image, repetitive patterns, and emphasis on lustrous gold throughout. The result was a painting that invited the viewer in with a sensuous feel that also reinforced the amorous embrace of the two figures at the center.
Gesamtkunstwerk in Architecture
Paralleling Klimt’s work in the field of architecture was Joseph Maria Olbrich, another who joined the Vienna Secession in its early days. Olbrich, in fact, proved seminal for his creation of the Vienna Secession Building, which opened in the later 1890s as the home for Vienna Secession exhibitions. Though today’s visitor to Vienna will see a mostly reconstructed version (as the building was mostly destroyed during Allied bombing during World War II), the complex is still immediately identifiable by its central, colossal cupola covered in golden laurel leaves. This gilded element of nature is artfully juxtaposed against the clean white geometry of the remainder of the building’s facade that could be read as a series of intersecting planes. Often connected aesthetically with the Jugendstil movement, the Viennese adaption of the Art Nouveau style, this building reveals a budding blend of streamlined architecture with decadent, decorative, almost sculptural additions.
Gesamtkunstwerk in Design
Similarly, Moser and Josef Hoffmann carried the ideas of the Vienna Secession into designs for furniture, fabrics, and more. Indeed, following the disbanding of the short-lived Secession network, Hoffmann and Moser created the design powerhouse known as the Wiener Werkstätte in the early years of the 20th century. Their products, from Moser’s ashtrays and armchairs to Hoffmann’s inkwells and shagreen desk sets, also often paired clean geometric form with organic opulence to echo the merger of styles characteristic in Vienna Secession painting and architecture while also laying the groundwork for later 20th-century modernist design innovations.
Gesamtkunstwerk and Immersive Exhibitions
One final facet of the Vienna Secession’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk was the emphasis on the immersive feel that a work of art conveyed, an aspect that also factored into their design of interior spaces. In addition to dismantling the rules of art, the Vienna Secessionists wanted to break down the barriers to experiencing art and bring their avant-garde art to a wider audience. Evidence of this can be found in Olbrich’s design for the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession in their new building in 1898 which upset the traditional modes of displaying art in an exhibition context.
In short, the artists of the Vienna Secession can safely be positioned as central to an entirely new way of approaching art. This novelty occurred in the studio and the workshop, where these makers disregarded earlier rules and divisions to instead explore new relationships between materials and methods in the space of singular compositions. This innovation also informed the way their work was displayed to the world, heightening accessibility and encouraging audiences to become immersed in art in enticing ways.
The Vienna Secession’s Lasting Legacy
Though the artists of the Vienna Secession took the international art world by storm in the closing years of the 19th century, already by 1905 the group had begun to fracture. Despite this rapid fragmentation, the ideas that the Vienna Secession artists expressed through their work proved pivotal to subsequent generations of artists who sought new energy in their work. Here are some of the major movements influenced by the Vienna Secession:
The Advent of Abstraction
Part and parcel to the Vienna Secession’s premise was an unthwarted artistic freedom to create, which in turn welcomed a heightened level of stylization or abstraction. For example, Klimt’s mosaic-like works, including the previously mentioned painting The Kiss or Judith (1901; Österreichische Galerie Belvedere), played with the illusions of depth and surface that transformed the space of the composition into one that prefigured the neat fracturing of later Cubist compositions. At the same time, years before Pablo Picasso tiptoed into the realm of Cubist abstraction in paintings like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Women of Avignon) (1907; Museum of Modern Art), Josef Hoffmann debuted his Cubist Sculpture (1902) that featured a multidimensional plane of white rectangular forms.
Meanwhile, Kolo Moser’s paintings, like Frühling (Spring) (1900) updated the language of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism by inviting an even more electrified palette to illuminate the work. In this work, the vibrancy of spring visually comes to life via the colors Moser incorporated, exemplifying the expressive power of color that would prove central to artists like Henri Matisse and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner as the 20th century progressed.
A Celebration of Nature
Another facet welcomed by the Vienna Secessionists was the language of nature, one that was also celebrated by the parallel movement of Art Nouveau. While elements of Art Nouveau design filtered into some of the Vienna Secession creations, it can also be said that Secessionist art also impacted Art Nouveau’s expansion. The fact that both movements shared a revolutionary spirit that aimed to abandon earlier artistic modes in favor of new, less-explored ideas meant that both movements could be seen as sharing ideas on the visual impact of fluid linework, lush colors, and detailed designs.
Form and Functionality
The push of Vienna Secession designers past the prior conventional bounds of art undoubtedly foreshadowed Moser’s Hoffmann’s creations with the Wiener Werkstätt that celebrated the notions of utilitarianism in their streamlined designs. If the Vienna Secession helped to produce the Wiener Werkstätte, however, then the Wiener Werskstätte proved equally essential to the later development of the Bauhaus in Germany. Founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimar Germany, the Bauhaus had no formal links to members originally associated with the Vienna Secession. That said, the Bauhaus’ central premise – to unite material and methods of design into harmonious and functional forms – can only have been inspired by the ideas like Gesamptkunstwerk originally promoted by the Vienna Secession.
Gropius worked closely with his Bauhaus apprentices, who were trained in both art and design such that they could then contribute ideas for daily-use objects, from tea pots to armchairs. These concepts later transcended the Bauhaus workshop to become formative components for modern architecture. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for example, both a student and later director of the Bauhaus, used this modernist language as the root for his architectural designs like that for the Villa Wolf in Poland.
The Enduring Influence of the Vienna Secession Today
Given these various aesthetic impacts of the Vienna Secession over the 20th century, it should come as little surprise that the ideas introduced at the dawn of the century can still be sensed in contemporary 21st-century design. The streamlined profile of Bauhaus design still dominates many modern interiors, a presence made possible thanks only to the movement’s foundations in the Vienna Secession.
Even more directly, contemporary fashion has cited examples of Vienna Secessionist paintings. Gustav Klimt’s opulent mosaics of pattern have appeared in the designs of major fashion houses, such as John Galliano’s 2008 line for Dior; they appeared again in Valentino’s lines in 2015 to coincide with the opening of the Neue Galerie’s exhibition, “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch Bauer: The Woman in Gold.” The enduring influence of the artists of the Vienna Secession recalls the incredible beauty of their work and the seductive success of the immersive visual environments they sought to create.
At the same time, their works and larger ideas continue to serve as sources of inspiration for modern and contemporary artists and designers thanks to the freedom that the Vienna Secessionists unleashed for 20th-century art. Their innovations demonstrated to the art world that anything was possible and that creativity could conjure compelling conversations that crossed disciplinary and material bounds. So, the next time you encounter an artist who mixes their materials or breaks the rules of art to create a uniquely immersive work of art, remember the artists of the Vienna Secession who helped to make that novelty a reality.