The Vienna Secession: What It Is, Origin And Characteristics

The Vienna Secession: what it is, origin and characteristics

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) is probably the best-known name of the Viennese Secession or Sezessionstil. His works, characterized by gold leaf backgrounds that refer to ancient Byzantine icons and by white, sinuous figures of fairy women, are famous throughout the world. Especially jobs like The kiss (Der Kuss, 1907-1908) or The Golden Lady (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer1907) have been reproduced on a large scale and their reproductions are found in many homes around the world.

But the Vienna Secession is not just Gustav Klimt.

It is true that the artist was one of its founders and its first president, as well as the most recognized (and criticized) during his lifetime. But the Viennese secessionist movement goes much further, and extends to poster art, architecture and design, in an attempt to achieve a “total art” (a Gesamtkunstwerk, as Otto Wagner called it). If you want to know more about the Viennese Secession, its origin and characteristics and what it meant for Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, read on. We invite you on a journey through one of the most fascinating movements in the history of art.

What is the Vienna Secession?

In April 1897, a group of artists belonging to the Vienna Company of Artists voluntarily split to create an independent group.. Gustav Klimt is at the head (by the way, he was also one of the founders of the Company), but at his side are also other artists such as Kolo Moser (1868-1918), Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), the architect who will shape the building-headquarters of the Secession.

There had been some disagreements between the Company and these dissident artists for some time, especially about the role of art in society and how to represent it. Thus, the Secession, as its name indicates, represented a voluntary split that gave rise to a group of creators who intended to move forward with their own artistic ideals.

What were these ideals? To understand them, we must put ourselves in the context. We are at the end of the 19th century, and new cultural ideas are bubbling everywhere. In France, artists like Gauguin, Van Gogh or Cézanne are revolutionizing the world of painting. Symbolism has also crept strongly into art and permeates many of the creations.. On the other hand, the concept of “art for art’s sake”, championed by writers such as Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), aims to raise a cry of protest against mercantilism and the industrialization of society. And, for its part, the movement widely known as Art Noveau advocates a return to craftsmanship, fantasy and inspiration from the past and the exotic.

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Is the Secession Art Noveau?

This Austrian movement is often included within the aforementioned Art Noveau, mainly due to its intention, shared with it, to move away from the industrialized and mechanical society. However, even though they share things in common, there are certain significant differences that we cannot ignore. A revealing fact is that the founders of the Secession themselves renounced Art Noveau, mainly because they considered it a “foreign art.”

The Sezessionstil draws, like Art Noveau, from symbolism and fantasy worlds to capture its works. Like that, takes often exaggerated decorative elements, such as gold leaf, plasters and the mixture of materials. However, there are some clear differences between one and the other. Let’s see them.

Firstly, and unlike the “organic” inspiration of Art Noveau, the art of the Secession is more committed to straight and geometric lines, very close to the square and the cube, which are a very clear precedent for future rationalist art. A clear example of this is the group’s exhibition pavilion, created by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1898 and which hosted the movement’s first exhibition. We will talk about this pavilion later, since it is an authentic secessionist masterpiece.

On the other hand, the Viennese Secession placed enormous importance on clear and uniform typographic elements. The designs are clean, quite far from the often bizarre modernist style of other latitudes. The figures, likewise, are flat, and white spaces abound (as can be seen in the famous Beethoven frieze by Klimt, located in the pavilion).

Thus, and despite sharing elements, the Vienna Secession actually represents a rejection of the prevailing Art Noveau and a search for its own Austrian national expression. Expression that, by the way, will spread to other German-speaking countries, such as, for example, the one known as the Berlin Secession, created a year later than the Vienna Secession.

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The Secession Pavilion and Beethoven’s Frieze

Joseph Maria Olbrich built, between 1897 and 1898, what would be the authentic symbol of the Viennese Secession: the Blattwerk-Kuppel, the pavilion where the group’s exhibitions would be located. Recognizable from a distance by its curious “dome” (called by the Viennese The golden cabbage), it is a perfect synthesis of the precepts of the new movement.


The building is built using clean straight lines that exude a marked classicism. We can make a quick comparison between this balance and that of the German Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, in Barcelona, ​​a much later work but which in turn has a clear perfection of lines and volumes. In the case of the Secession Pavilion, the straightness and monochrome of the white tones of the walls and ceiling are combined with strident gold, visible especially in the “cabbage” that crowns the entrance (a kind of sphere composed of intermingled leaves ) and the profuse decoration of the entrance wall, also made with golden leaves and their respective stems.

The classicism is accentuated by the faces in relief that also crown the entrance, where, by the way, and In equally golden letters, we can read the motto of the Secession: Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit (To each era its art, to each art its freedom). Quite explicit and descriptive for an association of artists that sought to create freely, openly and without giving credence to what society expected of them.

Currently, the Beethoven Frieze, one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous works, is on display in the Pavilion. The work was painted directly on the wall, with the aim of exhibiting it together with the XIV exhibition of Secession art, in 1902. The criticism, however, was fierce.

They took special pains in the emaciated figures of the frieze (especially those of the three Gorgons and that of the Sadness who, squatting, covers his thin body with his hands). The rejection can be understood if we take into account that what the public expected to see was an allegorical representation of the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven. Because, although Klimt carried out an extraordinary symbolic work, the lack of idealization of the naked bodies and their disturbing contortion caused “disgust” in the visitors, who called the work “disgusting.”

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The protagonists of the Secession

We have named the most outstanding members of the Viennese Secession. Next, we will give a brief review of his life and work.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the great leader

The undisputed architect of the Secession in Vienna and possibly the most celebrated and remembered. Born in the capital of the Austrian empire in the mid-19th century, the son of a Bohemian craftsman, Klimt became accustomed from a young age to having contact with and loving art. As a young man he founded, with his brother Ernest and another classmate, the Company of Artists, from which he would later split to light the Secession.

Independent, mysterious, contradictory, Klimt is an enigmatic figure for historians, since in life he said very little about himself. It is known that he had numerous lovers (most of them his own models) from whom he had six children. However, the most important woman in his life was his sister-in-law Emilie Flöge (1874-1952), who would be his companion and friend until the end of his life.

Koloman “Kolo” Moser (1868-1918), prolific designer

Moser was one of the most prominent designers of the Secession, author of publications, jewelry, furniture and tableware, among other varied items. His 1902 catalogue, Die Quelle (The Origin), represented one of the references in the design of the beginning of the century.

Together with Josef Hofmann, the other great Viennese secessionist, he founded the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese workshops), where everyday objects were designed and manufactured, in a clear precedent of the German Bauhaus.

Josef Hofmann (1870-1956), visionary architect and artist

Hofmann was a student of the architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918), who immortalized the term Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art.” With him and other teachers he acquired functionalist concepts that he was later able to capture in his architectural work and in his designs, which he imbued with modernity.

With his Secession companion Kolo Moser he founded the Vienna Workshops, for which more than a hundred people worked, including the also famous artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918).

Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908), the architect of the headquarters

If Olbrich is known for something, it is for his magnum opus, the Secession Pavilion, which still arouses admiration among visitors to the Austrian city. Conceived as a synthesis between straight lines and fanciful decoration, it is one of the greatest examples of artistic production of the Secession.