The "Secession" School of Painting:
Modernism finally arrives in Vienna

The entrance to the Secession Building in Vienna - gateway to a new age in the World of Art

The "Secession" is a characteristic building that you can spot on pretty much every other postcard of Vienna; its mosque-like architecture makes it very popular even with tourists who don′t give a damn about art. I have written an article that deals with the Secession as a building and as an exhibition venue; in this article, I would like to briefly outline the role that the "Secession" as a modern school of painting played - in a way, if the Secession building and museum is the hardware, the historic Secession school would be the software.

The "Wiener Secession" was founded in 1897 and became the hotbed for modern art, finally giving rise to Austrian branches of Vienna Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) and indirectly to other modern styles, such as the expressionism of Egon Schiele or Oskar Kokoschka. The Secession emerged from the school of symbolism. As with most styles that followed one another, the borders between "secessionism" (if such a thing exists) and symbolism are blurred.

Influenced by French artists and Edvard Munch, Viennese painters around Gustav Klimt gathered and started to abandon the historicist tradition that dominated mainstream art of Austria at that time. To illustrate this development, the Austrian National Gallery at Belvedere Palace has a small but fairly good selection of symbolist works by Edvard Munch, Giovanni Segantini or Ferdinand Hodler.

What the Wiener Sezession emerged from

From the beginning, the secessionists wanted to get away from the establishment: Out of the Academy of Fine Arts, away from conventional museums and galleries, to enhance every aspect of life and culture with art. Gustav Klimt soon became the central figure of the secessionists, Carl Moll is another important representative of this period. To expand art to items of your daily use, the Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1902 by some secessionists.

In 1905, a conflict about sale procedures arose between some key secessionists like Klimt and Moll on the one hand, and other people on the other - resulting in Klimt and Moll "ceding" from the secession. In the same year, the art school of the "Brücke" ("Bridge") formed in Dresden and the "Fauves" in Paris.

On contrast to the Secession, these two schools abandoned aesthetics in their paintings and emphasised expressive, impulsive features - soon picked up in Austria by the early expressionists like Richard Gerstl, once again an artist whose work you can trace in the Belvedere. A few years later, so approximately around 1910, young artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele became known to a wider public and expressionism has finally found its way to Vienna.

Ornaments kills the Sezession & Jugendstil

The Secession school, however, got closer to decorative work - Art Nouveau was increasingly commercialised and less interested in the rapid, progressive development of art that is typical for the modern age. Max Oppenheimer, Anton Faistauer, Herbert Boeckl and Anton Kolig are internationally less known, but their expressionist works are displayed in the Belvedere, too.

The Secession as a school of painting finally lost its significance by the end of WWI. Looking at the "golden period" of Gustav Klimt, the branches of this period are clearly visible: The Vienna modernism on the one hand, the chocolate boxes with "Adele" designs on the other. The Secession got stuck with the latter, and today, it is purely historic and the Sezession museum - torn between preserving Klimt′s symbolist Beethovenfries and organising temporary exhibitions of post-modern art - has so far failed to find a consistent identity.

Back to "background"

Further Reading

Wikipedia on the Vienna Secession

On Life & Work of Gustav Klimt

On the Wiener Werkstätte