Sunrise over Mitteleuropa

At least the early work of the Secessionists was meant to provoke and cause outrage; an idea they were successful with. Ludwig Hevesi associated the architectural style of the Secession building, with its unusual oriental influences, with “the golden backdrop of medieval times”. Vienna’s citizens, however, mocked the building and called it “the Temple of the Three Frogs” or “The Tomb of Mahdi” or – even worse – “The Crematorium” and “The Mausoleum”. The dome was generally referred to as “the cabbage head”. Hermann Bahr spoke quite differently about the building in an article in October 1898:

[…] the building is the new house of the Secession and has been designed by the young architect Olbrich. On the 4th of November it is meant to become municipal. The same day will see the start of its first exhibition. I suspect that there will be a great outcry and the foolish people will rage. That is why I want to say the most important things right now, while I am calm and dispassionate. Polemics will come later.

After leaving the first room, we enter the building itself. Everything is functional here. There is no frivolous attempt to boast or to blind with pomp. The house of the Secession does not want to be a palace or a temple but rather a room that is able to arrange works of art to best effect possible. The artist did not ask himself, “How can I design this so that it looks the most impressive?” but rather “How can this serve its purpose, its new mission, our needs?” [….]

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Draft for the exhibition building of the Viennese Secession, perspective, 1897.
Pencil, charcoal, coloured pencil and opaque colour on light brown drawing board, 44.9 x 29.9 cm.
Library of Art, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin , Berlin. Photograph by Dietmar Katz.

Josef Hoffmann, who played an important role in the shaping of aesthetic perception and the study and understanding of aesthetics in the 20th century, also contributed to the success of the first exhibition. As a dedication to him, visitors of the second exhibition could read the following text in the catalogue:

“May the words of Hevesi, as they are written above our building, become true – Every era needs its art and all art needs its freedom” […].

The Viennese Secession differed in certain respects from the Jugendstil-movement. They used decorative elements that were directly derived from nature, like leaves, animals, or grapevine shoots. The floral elements often included three-dimensional adornments like snakes or salamanders. This association of arts was not only exclusive to painters as their membership was founded on the concept of holistic art. They were comprised of designers, architects, artisans, and painters who wanted to unite all aspects of life into one comprehensive artwork.

The sixth exhibition in 1900 was dedicated to Japanese art and Japonism as a European-born, Japanese-influenced branch of art. In essence, it was a time of awakening for all arts. For the 13th exhibition in 1902 – which 21 artists enriched with their contributions – Gustav Klimt created the Beethoven Frieze, an allegorical painting portraying man’s search for happiness, inspired by Beethoven’s last symphony.

The Beethoven Frieze at the 14th Secession Exhibition: Klinger, Beethoven.
Gustav Klimt. Photograph, 1902.

The 9th symphony in itself was a novelty in the history of music, as the movement required soloists and a mixed choir. Later, in 1985, this last movement – combined with Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy – would be chosen as the hymn for the European Union. Max Klinger also contributed to the Beethoven-theme with his sculpture Beethoven. Both works of art have come to symbolise The Viennese Secession .

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