Secession (28)

Why is Secession the turning point in Viennese art?

It all started with the frustration of the Austrian bourgeoisie who, finding themselves unable to participate in political and social transformations, channelled their efforts into the support for cultural revolts. These efforts were focused on literature, science, art, supporting young artists and participating in counter-culture movements. 

One of the first Secessionist groups that rebelled against academic and traditional rules was "Jung Wien" (Young Vienna), though the true "Secession" was conceived in the House of Artists, the only association of artists in Vienna at the time that organized exhibitions in order to display the creations of its members. The participating artists were selected by jury and older members did not allow the inclusion in exhibitions of works by artists whose vision was different to theirs and, of course, they did not admit foreign artists. In other words, works of art were subjected to a purely commercial vision.

When the works of Theodor von Hoermann and Josef Engelhart, painters who had travelled to Paris and made contact with the Impressionists, were rejected by the jury, a revolt led by the younger artists was inevitable. This is the point at which a group of artists, among them Karl Moll, Joseph Engelhart and Gustav Klimt, began to contemplate a break with the established system. 

The real detonator would be the election of the new president of the association in 1896, which was won by just 16 votes by the representative of mainstream academia, the painter Eugen Felix. It was clear that two clearly opposing groups existed.

The opposition group of about 40 artists - Klimt, Moll, Alfred Roller and Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Max Kurzweil and others - finally met on the 3rd of April, 1897, to form a new, independent organization, the Association of Austrian Artists.

Klimt was elected president and wrote a letter setting out the arguments that had led to the split: "It is necessary to establish a spirit of exhibition with a purely cultural base, free of commercial character" - in addition to the objectives of the new movement - "to encourage, first of all, artistic activity, interest in art in our city and, once it has reached a national level, extend it to everyone "-.

On the 27th of June, 1897, the first general assembly of the Secession is held, in which those present would agree on the development of a constitution, the foundation of an art publication, and the construction of their own exhibition space. 

The group called the publication "Ver Sacrum" (Sacred Spring), signifying the Secessionists desire for a new artistic 'spring', and if you look closely you will see it inscribed to the left of the entrance of the building.

The task of designing the pavilion was entrusted to Joseph Maria Olbrich and the first group exhibition was held on the 15th of March, 1898, while the building was still under construction

On the occasion of the inauguration of the building, on the 12th of November, 1898, the second exhibition featured Klimt's Palas Athena Klimt, one of the symbols of the movement. Over the next 8 years, the Secession organized 23 exhibitions, the most important being that held in 1902, dedicated to Beethoven.

As one of the aims of the movement was to bring modern art to the Viennese, much of the funds raised from exhibitions were invested in acquiring paintings by modern artists such as Van Gogh in order to donate them to the Austrian Gallery. At the same time guided tours were organised for the working classes on Sunday mornings. 

The Secessionists wanted to create their own art, and while Secession can be included in the Jugendstil or Modernism movements typical of the end of historical or cultural periods, it presents some important differences. While the Viennese artists had no desire to imitate contemporary artists, the French Art, Art Nouveau or Catalan Modernism, these did serve as inspiration and analysis for the group, who wished for a more stripped-down, naked form of expression for their art. Decoratively, the Secessionists also toyed with the organic and naturalistic, though they sought something more stylized and abstract. For this reason this rupture it is included as part of the avant-garde movement.

During the Secession, there was a search of elegance, and formal sobriety prevailed. The works are highly structured and much importance is given to order, balance and geometrization. As you can see, the square and the cube are repeated continuously. It is also evident that typography is a determining factor in Secessionist art, and great importance is given to the letter, which is conferred a formal value as an element of communication and composition.

Their ultimate aesthetic goal was the "total work of art" or Gesamtkunstwerk, a term coined by Richard Wagner to refer to an art form that condenses all other forms.

This simple, modern white cube, which ended up being called simply Secession, is crowned by a beautiful golden dome composed of 3000 gilt leaves. At the time, critics of Secession would disparagingly refer to the dome as "the golden cabbage".

Olbrich included many symbolically charged elements in his work.  The three heads of Medusa symbolize the goddess Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, victory and the arts.

Fine bas-reliefs and figures adorn the structure. These include flowers and a series of animals including lizards and, especially well-known, the owls attributed to Koloman Moser.

The pavilion is, in fact, the oldest independent gallery devoted exclusively to contemporary art. As we mentioned earlier, the building enjoyed one of its most glorious moments in 1902, when members of the association decided to dedicate their fourteenth exhibition to a tribute to the great Ludwig van Beethoven. Never before they had so fully developed their much-loved concept of "total art or synthesis of the arts."

This exhibition, curated by Josef Hoffmann, featured a figure of the composer sculpted by Max Klinger surrounded by a series of paintings and decorations created by Alfred Roller, Adolf Böhm, Ferdinand Andri and other members of the group. 

However, the monumental 34-metre-long frieze painted by Gustav Klimt was undoubtedly the star of the show. Significantly different from the frescoes created years previously for the Burgtheater, it represents one of his most famous works and can still be contemplated today in all its splendour. Unfortunately we cannot say the same for the Klinger statue or the furniture designed by Olbrich and Hoffmann, as these disappeared during the turmoil of World War II.

The building stands on concrete pillars eight metres deep, sinking well into the Ottakringer, the underground rivulet that flows into the Wien not far from here. 

To the right of the building is a bronze statue of Marco Antonio, designed by Arthur Strasser. In this piece the Roman general is shown as lazy and decadent and is believed to represent the end-of-the-century atmosphere that prevailed at the time. The bronze doors of the entrance were designed by Georg Klimt, Gustav's brother.

On the front door visitors can read an inscription: "Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit": To every age its art, and to every art its freedom, attributed to the Jewish-Hungarian writer and art critic Ludwig Hevesi. This perfectly reflects the philosophy of the movement.

The building has been restored in several phases since it was badly damaged by bombs during World War II.

As a curiosity we can tell you that it has not always been so white as, in 1998, in celebration of "a century of artistic freedom", guest artist Markus Geiger painted it entirely in red, a fact that caused quite a stir.

So there you have it, under this extraordinary "cabbage" lays a museum that was once a very significant turning point in the world of art.

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