The Viennese Secession
The city council has, in recent days, in a moment of epiphany, made the decision to grant the Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs (Association of Visual Artists in Austria) a piece of property for the construction of an art exhibition center on the corner of the Wollzeile in Vienna. The conditions, however, for this grant still need mitigation. This is what the Viennese would call a “Wiener Lokalnachricht” (a local headline) but compared to all the other headlines that have been published in the papers over the last years, this announcement is of tremendous importance. A magic word has been spoken which shall break the chains and raise the dead from their graves: an urban expansion is on the horizon that shall rejuvenate Vienna’s art scene.
As a city of the arts, Vienna, this formidable little town shall finally become Great Vienna, truly a New Vienna. The citizens of Vienna themselves are going to be surprised by the news since all the conspirators behind this project have been untiringly working in deepest silence in their metaphorical mountain retreat. The time of planning is finally over; today action speaks louder than words, for this courageous venture is already secured, both artistically and financially, at least for the next decade.
It was a group of young artists with strong and fresh blood running through their veins whose determination set this movement in motion; it is the most consistent movement in Vienna ever since the fiery temperament and genius of Hans Makart set the world of art on fire. This movement holds great promise; it might follow in the footsteps of all the other great art movements: The “Vereinigung der XI” in Berlin who exhibit their art in Schulte’s art gallery or it might even be a Secession just as in Munich, Paris and other art capitals all over the world. It could be an exodus to the Holy Mountain; one part movement of opposition, one part new creation, an “Anti-Salon” which will – by nature – always be a salon for the rejected.
This general, international approval is an important safeguard for the Viennese group. It provides them with contacts beyond Austria, which is highly crucial, since it is getting more and more difficult to organize a Viennese exhibition with a European character. Even during the last international exhibition in the Künstlerhaus, the 30,000 guilders that had been granted by the government were not sufficient to purchase foreign artworks. Munich, Berlin and Dresden allow their art galleries to keep up with the development in the world of art and thus give their youth access to a modern artistic education. By contrast, in Vienna the circumstances are getting more difficult; without the Emperor and the Prince of Liechtenstein things would have gotten worse already.
THE THEATRE OF TAORMINA, 1886-1888, Oil on canvas, 750 x 400 cm, Burgtheater, Vienna
In the 1880s Gustav Klimt, together with his brother Ernst and their friend and former fellow student Franz Matsch, established a reputation for producing large scale decorative schemes for theatres in cities that looked to Vienna for inspiration such as Karlsbad, Bucharest and Fiume. More prestigious still was the commission in 1886 to decorate the ceilings in the two monumental staircases that led to the boxes in the newly constructed Burgtheater on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. This magnificent building realised by the veteran theatre architect Gottfried Semper in collaboration with Karl von Hasenauer, was one of a string of buildings that collectively formed an astonishing architectural fancy dress ball around the Ringstrasse in what was, after Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, the most ambitious scheme of urban renewal in the nineteenth century.
With his paintings illustrating the history of theatre from ancient times onwards, Klimt established himself as the legitimate successor to Hans Makart as Vienna’s most admired decorator of public spaces. At the same time, though he distanced himself from Makart’s old masterful methods by adopting a bright, slick technique closer to that of Parisian academic artists such as Gerome and Bouguereau, and to the brightly coloured and meticulous archaeological reconstructions of the Victorian painter, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The completion of the Burgtheater scheme was greeted with general praise and marked the highpoint of Klimt’s success as a historical painter in conservative art circles. For this work he received the prestigious award of the Gold Cross of Merit.
MUSIC I, 1895, Oil, gold and bronze on canvas, 27.5 x 35.5 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Music was the most widely loved of the arts in Vienna at the turn of the century. Vienna was still regarded as the musical capital of the world. It was the city of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert and more recently of Brahms, the Strauss family, Bruckner and Mahler. In 1897 Gustav Mahler took over the direction of the Imperial Opera and brought something new to the musical life of Vienna in much the same way that the founding of the Secession did in the same year. Mahler’s provocative declaration, “Tradition is sloppiness” paralleled the more elegantly phrased motto, “To every age its art, to art its freedom” that adorned the façade of the new Secession building. Music I of 1895 is stylistically far in advance of Love painted in the same year. Indeed Music I was one of Klimt’s first exercises in the manner shortly to be dubbed the “Secession style”. A second version of three years later was paired with Schubert at the piano to decorate the music room of the Palais Dumba.
NUDA VERITAS, 1899, Oil on canvas, 252 x 56 cm, Theatersammlung der Nationalbibliothek, Vienna
In Nuda Veritas, which was exhibited at the fourth exhibition of the Vienna Secession in March 1899, we see brought together all the elements that we associate with the Secession style. Klimt finally achieved a satisfactory synthesis of naturalistic and abstract, decorative elements.
The text on the gilded ground and the surrounding frame are integral to the composition. The frontally posed nude with her halo of fiery hair, her somewhat sinister allure and her explicitly depicted pubic hair conform to what would be from now on Klimt’s feminine ideal. The image of naked truth and the provocative quote from Schiller, “If by your actions and your art you cannot please everyone – please a few. To please everyone is bad”, refers not only to Klimt’s rejection of the hypocrisy of conservative Vienna, but also (according to Klimt’s friend Bertha Zuckerkandl), expresses his response to the contemporary struggle for truth in France by the supporters of the unjustly accused Captain Dreyfus.
As Klimt’s major patrons and supporters were almost exclusively Jewish, it is hardly surprising that Klimt should have sympathised with the Dreyfusards. It was the Dreyfus Affair that shocked the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl into abandoning his hopes for the assimilation of Jews into European society and inspired his call for the founding of a Jewish state.
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