The Vienna Secession movement that sprung in the late 1890s was a pivotal moment in the history of art, architecture, graphic design, and other allied fine arts. Up to this point, the Association of Austrian Artists was the primary voice in the country, and the Vienna Secession movement was seen as a reaction to the dated philosophies of the association. 

Several artists, architects, designers, and sculptors began meeting to freely exchange ideas, and to talk about the future of art. This soon resulted in them resigning from the association, and forming a new group under the banner of Viennese Secessionists

The association itself had always been stylistically naturalist and had believed in mimicking the landscape by staying true to the natural order. The secessionists on the other hand found themselves transgressing these beliefs, tried to find meaning in expressing themselves differently, and steered away from traditional naturalism.

The timing and occurrence of this movement were not coincidence. It was around the same time Sigmund Freud had made public his groundbreaking psychoanalysis on dreams and the subconscious, and the conversation about humans being a lot more than what appears on the surface was highly prevalent. These notions of looking inward, of introspection and thought, had a clear influence on the artists of the time as they started to explore much more complex themes of human behavior in their work. 

Gustav Klimt, one of the most recognizable names from this movement, who also served as the president of the Secessionists, did three ceiling murals early in his career that started reflecting these beliefs. His work caused quite a scandal at the time it was done, it showed a much darker picture of humanity and human experience as it explored the themes of philosophy, medicine, and law.

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The ceiling mural by Gustav Klimt_DW

The Secessionists were very influenced by Japanese culture as well. Around this time, Japanese art was being presented in Austria quite regularly. And so, the simplistic decorative elements, the balance between dark and light, and the material expression in Japanese art became very significant in the Secessionist work that was about to be seen. 

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The Woman in Gold’ by Gustav Klimt: note the use of golden guiding and repetition of geometric forms_Le journal d’une maîtresse

Even with these influences on the work of the artists at the time, secessionist paintings assumed highly original characteristics. Decorative floral motifs, geometric forms, and repetition of shapes were a few of these. Paint was no longer seen as a mere medium, but started to exhibit a physical, material quality. Klimt in particular started to use gold gilding as a way to give more physicality to his work. 

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The movement inspire new forms of poster design and iconography_Pinterest

The Secession Building

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The Secession building as seen from the front_Inexhibit

The Secessionist movement had a major influence on architecture as well. One of the most obvious examples was the secession building itself, which was designed as an exhibition space for displaying the work relevant to the movement. Designed by architect Josef Olbrich, its design echoes the philosophies of the time.

The bronze leafy dome sitting atop the building_Rethinking The Future

Apart from the entrance, the design consists of three rectangular rooms that are arranged around a central hall. The four of these spaces are lit by a large skylight each, getting diffused light to wash over the displays. The rectangular rooms are expressed as white cubic volumes in form, mostly unadorned except for really specific ornamentation. Carvings of owls, sculptures of Medusa, and several floral motifs can be found on the elevation, and harken to a bygone classicist architecture. 

One of the most striking features of the design is a gold dome that sits atop the white volumes- often dubbed as the ‘Gold Cabbage’ by the Viennese people, its constructed out of leaf-like elements that are conjoined in a highly detailed latticework, and give it a perforated and light appearance. The apparent connection between the roof is hidden by two volumes that go slightly over the main roofline which gives the dome a precarious appearance, of one sitting gingerly like an object over the otherwise heavyset white cuboids. 

The inscription over the entrance reads ‘Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit’, which stands for ‘To every age its art, to every art its freedom’- an opposite saying that sums up all that the movement stands for. 

Other architects like Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann, worked at the peak of their careers within the movement and designed several projects including the Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station in the center of Vienna. Around 1910, the group itself split with several members resigning due to irreconcilable differences, but continued to work in individual capacities to forward the movement and propagate the thought. 

The breaking away from traditional sensibilities was the first step in rethinking design and all of its allied fields. The movement, therefore, holds a critical place in history and is considered essential in providing the impetus toward the dawn of modernism. 

Varun Sethi
Author

Varun is a Masters in Architecture graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an architect, he is passionate about good design, interactivity with architecture, walkability, and dense cities. When not working, he tries to find time for sketching, going for a swim or reading architectural theory.

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