The Viennese Secession

The Viennese Secession

In 1891, Klimt and the Company join the influential Künstlerhaus (the Austrian Artists’ Society). Over the years, Klimt’s art evolves beyond the conventional approach. Followed by others, he criticises the Künstlerhaus’ conservative doctrine. In 1897, the rupture is under way. In a letter informing director, Eugène Félix, of their separation, Klimt explains the aims of his new group, The Viennese Secession: “To awaken Viennese art to vital international developments and to create exhibitions with pure artistic character, free from pandering to market demands.”

Klimt becomes the first president of the Viennese Secession. From its inception, he is joined by approximately forty graphic artists of vastly different styles, three of whom are architects: Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman and Josef Maria Olbrich. While the Secession does not provide a manifesto, what they are responsible for, beginning in January 1898, is the organisation of regular exhibitions and the publication of a review, entitled Ver Sacrum

Klimt creates the poster for the first exhibition in 1898 and it is extremely symbolic. The poster depicts Theseus, king of Athens, killing the Minotaur, a metaphor for civilisation overthrowing an archaic order. Within this metaphor, one might also observe the birth of the Secession personified in the character of Theseus and the Künstlerhaus in that of the defeated Minotaur. In the foreground of the same poster, we see Athena, the goddess of war, whose image will become emblematic for the Secession.

With around 57,000 visitors and a third of the works sold, this first exhibition is an undeniable success. Even Emperor Franz Joseph I attends. With the revenue earned, the Secession acquires some pieces from foreign artists (including Van Gogh) and buys, with the help of the State, a plot of land on which to build a permanent exhibition building: The Secession Building. Conceived by Olbrich, it resembles a dazzling white cube with a mystical allure. The building’s façade does not boast any windows, which is ideal for the scenography of exhibitions, and in their stead, large skylights supply ample natural light. The building is topped by a dome of golden laurel, which shatters any illusion of austerity and places the pavilion under the aegis of Apollo, the god of arts. Above the main entrance, their motto is clear: “To every time its art. To art its freedom.” For the secessionists, Historicism is dead.

For a decade, the Secession exhibitions are the apex of Viennese artistic events. Artists from all over Europe attend to exhibit and exchange works. It is in the Secession Building that Klimt unveils some of his most emblematic pieces, such as Pallas Athena and the Beethoven Frieze. Klimt will even be given a retrospective here in 1903, two years before he divorces from the Secession due to internal disputes, linked with the emphasis given to applied arts.