Art in Europe,  English

The Viennese Secession: Art in the time of canons

Apart from Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch, many other artists participated in the beginning of the movement: Wilhelm List, Carl Moll, Ernst Stöhr, Max Kurzweil, Koloman Moser, and Josef Engelhart. This core group essentially founded in 1897 the Vienna Secession after a coffee-house meeting. Later, the architects Josef Hoffmann, who was also one of the co-founders of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna’s Workshops), and Josef Maria Olbrich joined the illustrious group as well. Gustav Klimt , barely aged 35, took up the presidency. Soon a motto was found as well: “Every era needs its own art and all art needs its freedom.”

Group portrait of the artists of the Viennese Secession before the opening of the 14th Exhibition: Klinger, Beethoven, 1902. Back row, left to right: Anton Nowak, Gustav Klimt (sitting), Adolf Boehm, Wilhelm List, Maximilian Kurzweil (with cap), Leopold Stolba, Rudolf Bacher; Front row, left to right: Koloman Moser (sitting), Maximilian Lemz (lying), Ernst Stöhr (with hat), Emil Orlik (sitting), Carl Moll (lying).
Photograph by Moriz Mähr, 1902.

Thus, program and mission statement for the movement were set for the forty members who were all already established artists. In practice, their motto could also have been “Art for everyone and for every stratum of society.” During this decade, Vienna was basically obsessed with aesthetics and eroticism. It was an era of happiness, craze and a flurry of intellectual activity. The Secessionists were searching for new artistic expressions, had developed their own ideal of beauty and wanted to steer their movement into a direction that did not require submission to political, economical or financial constraints; in essence, they wanted a “typically Austrian Jugendstil”.

As to satisfy the conditions of etiquette and formality, they drafted a letter of termination to the Genossenschaft der bildenden Künstler Wiens im Künstlerhaus:

The board of directors is probably aware that a group of artists within the organisation has been trying to make themselves and their artistic ideas heard for years. These ideas now culminate in the realisation of a necessity: the necessity to establish contact between the artistic scene in Vienna and the ever-progressing art scene outside of Austria. Furthermore exhibitions need to be freed of commercial interests and organised according to purely artistic standards, so that a pure and modern concept of art can be taught to the broader public. Finally, a higher understanding of art needs to be awakened in higher circles.

Klimt, Moll, and Hoffmann were responsible for the organisation of exhibitions until 1905. This function in the Secession naturally furthered Klimt’s reputation, which led to him gaining more influence at the Imperial court, with the government and his colleagues. The Secession was ultimately successful in finding wealthy patrons and securing subsidies for their fledgling association. They received commissions from museums, theatres, and other official institutions. However, first and foremost the founders of the movement had several specific objectives they wanted to accomplish: to help young artists exhibit their work; invite the best foreign artists to Vienna; publish a distinctive and original art magazine; and finally elevate the artistic standard in Vienna to an international level.

For that reason, four non-resident artists were invited into the Secession: Fernand Khnopff from Belgium, Max Klinger from Germany, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, and Jan Toorop from the Netherlands.

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