Vienna Secession: The last great European Style

Text: Žikica Milošević

Lay people, that is ordinary citizens, and experts alike, say that secession may be the last major European style. After that, styles weren’t grandiose or European, or neither of these two, quite often. Of all the secession styles, we, in Serbia, are familiar with the Hungarian and Viennese the best.


The Viennese secession has nothing to do with a certain part of the country wanting to secede. On the contrary, it is an art movement, closely associated with Art Nouveau, launched in 1897 by a group of Austrian painters, graphic artists, sculptors and architects, including Josef Hoffman, Koloman Moser, Otto Wagner and Gustav Klimt. They resigned from the Austrian Association of Fine Artists in protest against the Association’s support for more traditional artistic styles. A secessionist building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, which was the site of the group’s exhibitions, was their most influential architectural work.

Hermann Bahr wrote about an important secession principle: “We want art that is not a slave to foreign influences, but at the same time, neither frightened nor hated by them.” Another important quote illustrating their ideas and ideals is written at the entrance to a secessionist building: “To every age its art, to art its freedom.” (DER ZEIT IHRE KUNST, DER KUNST IHRE FREIHEIT.)

The Viennese Secession was named after the Munich Secession. Its official magazine was called ‘Var Sacrum’ in which one could find very stylized and influential graphic art. Their mission was “total art”, and the unification of all art forms – the so-called Gesamtkunstwerk. They hated the historicism of the Vienna Academy (Künstlerhaus Wien). In 1905, the group split when some of its most prominent members, including Klimt, Wagner and Hoffmann, resigned in the priority dispute, but it continued to function and operate today from its seat in a secession building. It was an act of secession from secession.


Klimt loved the female body and his works are imbued with eroticism. Klimt may not be as shocking to us today as he was at the time, but it is still difficult to refrain from reacting even today when we see his monumentally erotic painting “The Kiss”. It is almost impossible to count how many reproductions this image has had, and how many notebooks and calendars depict it. Klimt’s artwork radiates yellow and gold, while the figures are usually placed in an erotic pose. This can be seen in the paintings such as “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” (1901), as well as in “The Kiss” (1907-1908), and especially in “Danae” (1907). Klimt drew inspiration from ancient artists, all the way to Albrecht Dürer. It goes without saying that the Nazis could not stand him.

The SS destroyed three paintings that were commissioned as decoration for the ceiling of the grand hall of the University of Vienna. His three paintings, “Philosophy”, “Medicine” and “Jurisprudence”, were severely criticized and classified as “perverted” and “pornographic”. And, of course, that meant the end of them. “The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is perhaps his most famous painting and was considered the “Austrian Mona Lisa”. It was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish industrialist from Vienna, who amassed his wealth by producing sugar. He was a great patron of the artist and his wife is the only person whom Gustav Klimt painted twice. Klimt spent three years doing the first painting. He did the second painting, called “The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” in 1912. Adele Bloch-Bauer was also targeted by the Nazis who, in 1941, renamed the painting “The Woman in Gold” in order to avoid mentioning her Jewish origin. The painting was exhibited at Belvedere until 2006 and was subsequently sold in the United States, at the request of the woman how inherited it. To this day, this painting remains a symbol of Vienna’s secession and the town’s golden age.

The legacy of secession artists is breathtaking. Design, applied arts, architecture, painting. Gesamtkunstwerk… Subsequently, Art Deco took over, but perhaps art reached its peak just before the Great War, in Vienna.

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