Vienna Secession

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The secession building at Vienna, built in 1897 by Joseph Maria Olbrich for exhibitions of the secession group

The Vienna Secession (German: Wiener Secession; also known as the Union of Austrian Artists, or Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs) is an art movement formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, housed in the Vienna Künstlerhaus. This movement included painters, sculptors, and architects. The first president of the Secession was Gustav Klimt, and Rudolf von Alt was made honorary president. Its official magazine was called Ver Sacrum. The Secession is best known for its initial period between 1897 and 1905, but it still exists as a society promoting and hosting exhibitions of global contemporary art in Vienna.


A view of the secession building focusing on the dome.


The Vienna Secession was not without precedents. It was actually the third, but most famous, of several "secessions" or reactions against the conservative artistic establishments in German-speaking countries in the 1890s, after Munich and Berlin. The first of these, in Munich, was primarily related to painting, and occurred in 1892 when a group of artists including Fritz von Uhde, Wilhelm Trübner, Franz von Stuck, Eugene Spiro and Arnold Böcklin refused to conform to the academicism of the period as favored by most exhibition venues and artist societies. They soon crystallized around the local art and culture journal Jugend, starting in 1896, and later the revue Pan.

The Vienna Secession began under similar circumstances, wherein contemporary artists in the city became increasingly frustrated with the policies of the Künstlerhaus, the only venue in the city for the display of contemporary art, to favor more conservative-minded artists in part because their work sold better and the Künstlerhaus took a 10% commission on all sales. The Vienna Secession was founded on 3 April 1897 by artists Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Max Kurzweil, Wilhelm Bernatzik and others, who resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, who controlled exhibitions at the Künstlerhaus. Although the architect Otto Wagner is widely recognised as an important member of the Vienna Secession he was not a founding member.

The artists of the Vienna Secession had several goals:

  • Reunite the creative minds of the nation
  • Make contacts with artists internationally
  • Promote an international exchange of ideas
  • Campaign against the nationalist spirit amongst European countries
  • Renew the applied and decorative arts
  • Create a "total art" (a commitment to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artistically-designed environment)
  • Create a new artistic expression opposed to the debased art of the official Vienna salons

In order to reach these objectives, the Secession committed to building its own a new exhibition venue. It secured land in the city's cultural district near the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna Museum of Fine Arts, Municipal Concert Hall, Technical University of Vienna, and the Künstlerhaus itself. Also conveniently located near the Karlsplatz subway station (which would be designed by Otto Wagner in the years just afterwards), the Secession Building was built in 1897-98 to the designs of Josef Maria Olbrich, one of Wagner's students. Above the entrance to the building read the German words "To the age, its art; to art its freedom" signaling the group's double commitment to artistic freedom and art that was in step with the times.

To underscore the impetus behind the group's formation, the critic and Secession supporter Hermann Bahr wrote in the first issue of Ver Sacrum, the society's journal produced from January 1898 through 1903: "Our art is not a fight of modern artists against old ones, but the promotion of arts against the peddlers who pass for artists and have a commercial interest that prevents art from flourishing. Commerce or art, that is the issue before our Secession. It is not an aesthetic debate, but a confrontation between two states of the spirit."

The Secession quickly gained notoriety for its promotion of non-academic and foreign art, in particular its attempts to bring to Austria the interest in nature that was promulgated by Art Nouveau, which was quickly gaining a foothold around Europe in the mid-to-late 1890s. Ver Sacrum helped promote both the work of its members and contemporary issues in art elsewhere. The Secession was in large part responsible for introducing and popularizing much of the work of the French Impressionists among the Viennese public and even invited Scottish Art Nouveau architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to exhibit, to mostly positive reviews. Ver Sacrum was issued frequently, with the editors eventually settling on two issues per month (24 per year), while the Secession itself held new expositions of its work with even greater frequently. The group gained considerable credence in 1898 when Otto Wagner, the most respected Austrian architect of the day, announced that he would join the group, shocking the academic establishment, which had long considered him a staunch member of the old guard. The 14th Secession exhibition, designed by Josef Hoffmann and dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven, was especially famous. A statue of Beethoven by Max Klinger stood at the center, with Klimt's Beethoven frieze mounted around it. The Klimt frieze has been restored and can be seen in the gallery today.

Although the Secession did promote the applied arts, it was within a much more holistic framework of artistic endeavors. Its membership fluctuated; as early as 1899, Olbrich left the group for Darmstadt, Germany, where he had been invited as one of the founding members of a new artists' colony by the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernst Ludwig. In 1903, therefore, Hoffmann and Moser founded a separate organization called the Wiener Werkstätte with the specific goal of reforming the applied arts (arts and crafts), supported by the wealthy textile magnate Fritz Wärndorfer. The two did not resign from the Secession, but focused their energies on these new endeavors, which inherently did have a larger commercial focus, though it retained the emphasis on artistic freedom.

Despite its lofty goals, the Secession nonetheless could not overcome the difficulties of dealing with the commercial side of marketing its artwork. Vienna was a city that did not have a gallery-dealer system like Paris that constantly brought new pieces to interested collectors, and public commissions were extremely rare in the decades following the completion of the great institutional projects on the Ringstrasse in the 1880s. Klimt suggested therefore that the Secession purchase the Gallery Miethke in order to properly market its work; the issue was put to the entire body, and by a single vote Klimt's faction (the "Stylists" as opposed to the "Naturalists," primarily easel painters) lost. On 14 June 1905, then, Klimt, Koloman Moser, and their supporters resigned from the Vienna Secession. Their close friend, the artist Carl Moll, had already been forced to resign because of a conflict of interest with another gallery.

Klimt and his colleagues' resignation was a major blow from which the Secession never recovered; it had lost its most significant members, and while it did not sink completely into oblivion, it never regained the reputation as the organization for avant-garde, cutting-edge art that it had previously enjoyed. Today when most scholars and critics speak of the Vienna Secession, they are usually referring to its history up to 1905.

The Secession nonetheless continued to host exhibitions of contemporary art in its dedicated venue, which was burned during World War II by the Nazis, who were famously antagonistic to modern art. It was nonetheless rebuilt and continues to function as such today.


Jugendstil owls - Detail of the facade of the Viennese Secession Building. These designs for the building’s facade decoration are attributed to Koloman Moser.
The Beethovenfries, created by Gustav Klimt, is housed in the lower floor.

Unlike other movements, there is not one style that unites the work of all artists who were part of the Vienna Secession. The Secession building could be considered the icon of the movement. Above its entrance was placed the phrase "Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit." ("To every age its art. To every art its freedom."). Secession artists were concerned, above all else, with exploring the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition. They hoped to create a new style that owed nothing to historical influence. In this way they were very much in keeping with the iconoclastic spirit of turn-of-the-century Vienna (the time and place that also saw the publication of Freud's first writings).


Along with painters and sculptors, there were several prominent architects who became associated with the Vienna Secession. During this time, architects focused on bringing purer geometric forms into the designs of their buildings. Even though they had their own type of design, the inspiration came from neoclassical architecture, with the addition of leaves and natural motifs. The three main architects of this movement were Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Otto Wagner. Secessionist architects often decorated the surface of their buildings with linear ornamentation in a form commonly called whiplash or eel style, although Wagner's buildings tended towards greater simplicity and he has been regarded[1] as a pioneer of modernism.

In 1898, the group's exhibition house was built in the vicinity of Karlsplatz. Designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, the exhibition building soon became known simply as "the Secession" (die Sezession) and became an icon of the movement. The secession building displayed art from several other influential artists such as Max Klinger, Eugène Grasset, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Arnold Bocklin.

Otto Wagner's Majolika Haus in Vienna (c. 1898) is a significant example of the Austrian use of line. Other significant works of Otto Wagner include The Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station in Vienna (1900), and Austrian Postal Savings Bank in Vienna (1904–1906).

Wagner's way of modifying Art Nouveau decoration in a classical manner did not find favour with some of his pupils who broke away to form the Secessionists. One was Josef Hoffmann who left to form the Wiener Werkstätte. A good example of his work is the Stoclet Palace in Brussels (1905).


The Secession movement was selected as the theme for a commemorative coin: the 100 euro Secession commemorative coin minted on 10 November 2004.

On the obverse side there is a view of the Secession exhibition hall in Vienna. The reverse side features a small portion of the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt. The extract from the painting features three figures: a knight in armor representing Armed Strength, one woman in the background symbolizing Ambition and holding up a wreath of victory, and a second woman representing Sympathy with lowered head and clasped hands.

On the obverse side of the Austrian € 0,50 or 50 euro-cent coin, the Vienna Secession Building figures within a circle, symbolising the birth of art nouveau and a new age in the country.

Other Secession artists[edit]

Exhibitions (sample)[edit]


  1. ^ Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design, Penguin Books, 1960
  • Schorske, Carl E. "Gustav Klimt: Painting and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego" in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. Vintage Books, 1981. ISBN 978-0-394-74478-0
  • Borsi, Franco, and Ezio Godoli. "Vienna 1900 Architecture and Design". New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 1986. ISBN 978-0-8478-0616-4
  • Arnanson, Harvard H. "History of Modern Art". Ed. Daniel Wheeler. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1986. ISBN 978-0-13-390360-7.
  • Kathrin Romberg (ed.): Maurizio Cattelan. Text by Francesco Bonami, Wiener Secession, Wien. ISBN 3-900803-87-0
  • Topp, Leslie. "Architecture and truth in fin-de-siecle vienna". Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004. ISBN 978-0-521-82275-6
  • "Architecture in Austria in the 20th and 21st Centuries". Ed. Gudrun Hausegger. Basel, SW: Birkhauser, 2006. ISBN 978-3-7643-7694-9
  • Sekler, Eduard F. "Josef Hoffmann The Architectural Work". Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985. ISBN 978-0-691-06572-4
  • O'Connor, Anne-Marie (2012). The Lady in Gold, The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, ISBN 0-307-26564-1.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 48°12′02″N 16°21′57″E / 48.20056°N 16.36583°E / 48.20056; 16.36583