13. August 2016

The society of fine artists known as the Viennese Secession was founded in 1898, but the Secession building on Vienna’s Naschmarkt continues to host exhibitions of contemporary art even today.

By Eugen El

“The time of your art, the art of your freedom”: In shining gold letters the motto of the Viennese Secession adorns the façade of the 1898 exhibition building of this society of artists. In 1897 a group of Viennese artists around Gustav Klimt founded the Secession with the aim of differentiating themselves from the conservative artists’ association of the Künstlerhaus. The founding members also included artists Koloman Moser (1868-1918) and Carl Moll (1861-1945) as well as architects Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908). The remarkable Secession building with its cupola of golden leaves was designed by Olbrich.

The building is in Vienna’s first district directly adjoining the Naschmarkt and in close proximity to the Academy of Fine Arts. The Viennese were initially skeptical. They claimed the Secession building was “a cross between a furnace and a glasshouse”, whilst others nicknamed it the “Assyrian convenience”. There was eventually agreement on the label “Goldenes Krauthappel”, meaning “golden cabbage”. Joseph Maria Olbrich left Vienna and joined the Darmstadt artists’ colony founded in 1899, and the “Hochzeitsturm” or “Wedding Tower” he designed in 1908 remains a symbol of the south Hessian city even today.

Sensitivity for line and surface stylization

During the 1890s artists’ associations sprang up in numerous European cities – in Munich and Berlin, Paris and London – with the aim of breaking away from established traditions. The Viennese Secessionists were bold enough to direct their gaze beyond their national borders. They wanted to present exhibitions of international contemporary art and to make Viennese and Austrian art compatible once again. At the same time, the Secessionists established a new sensitivity for line and surface stylization, also finding an appreciation for calligraphy and ornamentation. It was within this mélange that the Viennese woodcut was able to develop.

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Poster of the 2nd exhibition of Vienna (detail), 1898. Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Image via wsimag.com

From November 1899 until January 1900 this society of artists hosted its fifth exhibition in the Secession building, comprising only works on paper, including color woodcuts. At the time, this was something very new. The exhibition catalog lauded the woodcut as an “immediate and uniquely purposeful expression of an artistic intent” – a clear valorization of this form of print graphic. The sixth exhibition followed at the beginning of the year 1900 and focused on traditional Japanese art, thus bringing the “Japonism” trend to Vienna. There was a move towards “simplifying the pictorial world and taking it back to the bare essentials”, and this development was not lost on the color woodcut either.

The “Beethoven Exhibition”

Perhaps the most significant and most visited exhibition by the Viennese Secession was its 14th, held in 1902 and known as the “Beethoven Exhibition”. The central exhibit was Max Klinger’s statue of Beethoven, which was being presented for the first time and which is now located in Leipzig’s Museum der bildenden Künste. Especially for the exhibition, Gustav Klimt also painted the famous, 34-meter-long Beethoven Frieze, which marked the beginning of his “golden period”. The color woodcut did not feature in this exhibition, yet it played a key role in the exhibition catalog, which spanned around 100 pages. The small, square volume includes 16 original woodcuts by Secession members. “It was in this epochal exhibition […] that the modern Viennese woodcut was born”, explains the longstanding curator of the Albertina, Marian Bisanz-Prakken.

14th Vienna Secession exhibition 1902 with "Beethoven Frieze" by Gustav Klimt, imaga via secession.at

Gustav Klimt, "Beethoven Frieze", detail, Image via secession.at

It was in the spring of 1904 that the Secession’s 20th exhibition took place. The theme of the show was the presentation of the nude human being in contemporary art. For the first time, the Viennese color woodcut was allocated a room to itself, offering a conceivably heterogeneous compilation with regard to style and the exhibiting artists: Leopold Blauensteiner (1880–1947), Hugo Henneberg (1863–1918), Maximilian Kurzweil (1867–1916), Carl Moll (1861–1945), Emil Orlik, Carl Anton Reichel (1874–1944) and Leopold Stolba (1863–1929). Their works, including Henneberg’s nighttime city scenes and Reichel’s studies of female nudes along with many other positions of the Viennese color woodcut around 1900, are now on display in the “Art for All” exhibition at the Schirn. A significant tool in the dissemination and development of the color woodcut was also the magazine published by the Secession between 1898 and 1903, entitled “Ver Sacrum”, meaning “holy spring”.

Karl Anton Reichel, Study of a Female Nude, 1909, Vienna Albertina, © Albertina, Vienna

The Viennese Secession exists even today – as a democratically led “society of fine artists” – and Olbrich’s building has become a tourist magnet. After a period of travel that began in 1907, the Beethoven Frieze eventually made it back to the Secession in 1986, where it can still be seen today. The Secession building hosts between ten and 15 exhibitions every year, and the aim of the Secession, as back in Klimt’s time, is to present “currently relevant developments in international and Austrian art”, with a “willingness to experiment” given utmost priority.

Hugo Henneberg, Night Scene – Blue Pond, c. 1904, private collection (Courtesy Natter Fine Arts Wien)