Progression of Art
Secession Building Vienna
The Secession Building in Vienna is the movement's physical and spiritual home and its permanent visual form. Designed by Josef Maria Olbrich, a young architect and former student of Otto Wagner, the building, located in a culturally vibrant part of Vienna, needed to hold its own against several larger institutional structures. Its somewhat unconventional appearance led detractors to nickname it "Mahdi's Tomb" or the "Assyrian Convenience," but its location on the former site of a vegetable market also led to the nickname of "The Golden Cabbage" for the lattice of leaves in the dome. The leaves appear much like the stylized crown of foliage at the top of a tree that seems as if breaking through the roof of the building - much like the Secessionists were themselves breaking free of the mold of the display spaces that literally contained (and constrained) art in Vienna - as also emphasized by their journal Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring), whose title appears to the left of the entrance and references the ancient Roman rituals of the founding of new communities from old ones.
Above the entrance read the German words "Der Zeit ihr Kunst - der Kunst ihr Freiheit" (To the Age its Art; to Art its Freedom), a clear reference to the revolutionary nature of the Secession as an institution devoted to the aesthetic expression of the age, with the implication that for contemporary art, that expression will naturally change. One can see the abstracted forms of the gold foliage, along with the thin trunks of trees also outlined in gold, around the facade, as if to evoke the idea of a protected glade for viewing the artistic work inside. The use of gold on white arguably emphasizes the purity of the space as well as the precious nature of the art.
Lit by skylights, the interior of the Secession Building functioned as a highly effective display space. Movable partitions maximized spatial flexibility for the frequent changes in exhibitions of the Secession and foreign artists. Its floor plan was divided originally into three parts: a rectangular central space flanked by side aisles, much like a Roman/early Christian basilica. One might thus see the building as a kind of temple for contemporary art - the only such space specifically and permanently dedicated to such a purpose at that time. Its flexibility reflected the inherently changing and unpredictable nature of contemporary art itself, in virtually every respect, and thus privileged no individual style, movement, or trend over another. Ironically, however, it achieved such effectiveness by relying on a very old spatial layout, thereby suggesting the inability of contemporaneous artistic practice to completely break from established tropes.
Auchentaller joined the Secession at its inception, but, as one of Gustav Klimt's supporters, broke with the group over the search for a gallery space in 1905. This poster, from the year the Secession Building was built, demonstrates the way that Secessionists from the beginning exhibited links with foreign artists - in this case, the Art Nouveau graphics that were sweeping through Europe. This advertising poster for hair coloring draws on French examples, particularly the techniques of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: the nearly-silhouetted figures in the background whose figures all seem to blend into each other; the flattened planes of color with minimal shapely articulation besides their well-defined outlines; the use of three colors, specifically black, golden yellow, and red; and the curvilinear typeface at the center. It also demonstrates the use of color lithography on a large scale, another technological innovation of the era.
Likewise, this piece also shows the way that Secessionists accepted the entry of the poster into the realm of fine art, something that Toulouse-Lautrec and other graphic artists in France like Jules Cheret, Alphonse Mucha, Pierre Bonnard, and Theophile Steinlen had achieved by 1900. The work of the Secessionists in large-scale graphic advertising and their reproduction in Ver Sacrum points to how in Vienna the gap in prestige was narrowing between graphic art and the traditional arts of painting and sculpture - at least in terms of talent if not in terms of monetary compensation - one of the primary goals of the Secession. Auchentaller himself would go on to produce numerous other posters over the next decade.
Here there is an interesting break with French posters, which tend to generally abstract all aspects of human figures in an almost cartoonish manner. Auchentaller has instead decided to keep a highly plastic, naturalistic depiction of the faces in this poster, particularly the woman at the center, which has the effect of animating the movement of the figures overall. It also arguably makes the connection with the viewer more tangible, as if to show off the enhancement of the woman's natural glow from using the product advertised, beyond merely her hair. In this respect, therefore, Auchentaller shows himself not as a derivative artist, but one sensitive to the demands and requirements of the individual commission.
Though the Secessionists were known as a group that attempted to break with artistic traditions, their relationship with the past was more complex than a simple forward-looking mentality. Klimt, along with many of his fellow painters and graphic artists, cultivated a keen understanding of the symbolic nature of mythical and allegorical figures and narratives from Greece and Rome and other ancient civilizations. With his soft colors and uncertain boundaries between elements, Klimt begins the dissolution of the figural to abstraction that would come to full force in the years after he left the Secession. This painting exudes thus a sensory conception of the imperial, powerful presence of the Greco-Roman goddess of wisdom, Athena, and the inability of humans to fully grasp that, rather than a crisp, detailed visual summation of her persona.
Also significantly, the hazy quality of the image also allows Klimt to emphasize the goddess' androgynous character, a blurring of gendered identity that was featured in ancient descriptions and depictions of her, and explored by many other artists and cultural luminaries, at the turn of the century. She is dressed in the military regalia that traditionally identifies her as a warrior and the protector of her eponymous city, Athens - qualities normally associated with masculinity. Only the strands of hair that thinly drape down from each side of her neck (and almost blend with the golden color of her helmet and breastplate) give a hint as to her femininity. Barely visible at the left side of the painting, she holds the nude figure of Nike, representing victory, arguably the only clear feminine reference in the work.
The haziness evokes the contemporaneous exploration of dreams by Sigmund Freud, whose seminal work on the subject would be published in Vienna just two years later. It is tempting to read Klimt's painting in the context of Freud's view of dreams as the fulfillment of wishes, which might suggest that the powerful, imperious woman is the object of male desire, but also potentially that the traditional feminine persona must be costumed in order to attain such powerful status.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Wien Museum, Vienna
Poster for the Fifth Secession Exhibition
Moser's poster for the Fifth Secession Exhibition in 1899 is an oft-reproduced work of the Secession artists, and represents the full flowering of Moser's creative powers in Jugendstil (the German term for Art Nouveau) graphic design. Amazingly, the imagery here is lithographed in a set of just three colors - a pale yellow, dark green, and an old gold - and yet it conveys a clear sense of depth and figural plasticity. Moser's free use of line produces a rare seamlessness in the design that is difficult to achieve even within Jugendstil. The various regions of the poster are knit together by the vine-like whiplash curves that also fill nearly all of the negative space. Even the lettering, for example, blends thoroughly with the rest of the lines - in most cases, it is not even distinguished from the imagery by a separate border - and yet manages to stand out just enough to be entirely and easily legible. Thus Moser achieves a high degree of aesthetic unity without sacrificing functionality.
While there is an emphasis on nature, there is a mysterious, unknown quality that Moser has left behind: while we can see the central winged figure, it is difficult to define its identity precisely - is it a sprite, or an angel, or a godlike spirit, or something else? A similar character is exuded by the plantlike form he grasps - is it a set of grapes, or berries, or other fruit? The ambiguity of the imagery here acts as a leveler among the viewers, privileging nobody's knowledge over anyone else's. Like his Art Nouveau contemporary, Hector Guimard, who was designing his entrances to the Paris Metro at precisely the same moment, Moser uses the imagery here as a means to democratize the Secession's art, making it equally accessible and understandable to everyone. Its ambiguity acts as a teaser, drawing the viewer in to the exhibition and inviting him to explore the group's work more.
Karlsplatz Station, Vienna S-Bahn
Otto Wagner's stations for the Vienna Stadtbahn (city railway), designed also at the same time as Guimard's Metro stations in Paris, help inextricably link Art Nouveau with the technology of the age, which places it firmly in the context of contemporaneity that the Secessionists sought. They also exude the way that the many Art Nouveau artists and architects sought to break from the past to create a truly modern aesthetic.
It is difficult to say that Wagner completely succeeded on the second count here or in his other S-bahn stations. Here at Karlsplatz the familiar central archway, symmetrical balance, and columnar structure of previous architectures are all visible, but the frank expression of industrial materials and the unusual way in which those are combined with forms of nature - the green paint applied to the iron, making it look like abstracted or straightened vines, along with the flattened stenciling of the flower pattern - indicates a move in a different direction.
At this point, the fullest expression of technology as the defining aesthetic, along with the abandonment of the natural forms of Jugendstil, was yet to come from Wagner - one would have to wait for the completion of his Postal Savings Bank in 1904. Significantly, the evolution of the personal style of Wagner, who was Olbrich's teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts, indicates that he was willing to not only symbolically break with the past by joining the Secession, but also to incorporate such changes into his own practice. One can also see this in the way that Wagner's station here relies on three colors: gold, green, and white, reflective of the way that Jugendstil posters like those of Auchentaller and Moser were lithographed in three colors, and make liberal use of line to define otherwise flattened surfaces. We thus see the integral nature of artistic exchange among the Secessionists, even when they were not officially collaborating on the same work with one another.
Vienna Woods in Autumn
Bohm, known mostly from his painting and graphic arts, completed the stained glass for the living room of the large villa that Otto Wagner built for himself on the outskirts of Vienna in 1885-86, nearly fifteen years before this commission was awarded. The completed room illustrates the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk that was attractive to both the Secessionists and other contemporaneous styles and currents such as Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts Movement; in particular, it shows the collaborative nature of the format, as it required the viewer's immersion within an artistically-designed environment, usually pieced together by a group of specialists in a variety of media.
In this space, Bohm's work effectively represents the last piece of the puzzle (the others already designed by Wagner) to achieve that immersive effect. At once the stained glass windows' opacity closes off the living room in which they are installed from the outside world, yet the landscape they depict, which extends across all the panels, makes it seem as if the living room constitutes an exterior terrace or balcony that opens onto an infinite expanse of nature beyond. One could thus argue that Bohm's windows ironically create more of a connection of the space with nature than actually seeing nature itself through transparent windows; or, at the very least, that that closeness is heightened because natural light itself illuminates the windows during the day and bathes the space in radiant color. The effect, therefore, is to seem to freeze time at a singular moment of perfection, in which the natural environment has been captured in full bloom and preserved through the technological powers of art and architecture.
Stained glass - Wagner Villa I, Vienna
Pilgrims Approaching Mount Fuji
The Secessionists' fascination with Japanese art places them squarely within the more generalized Western attraction to Japanese culture that was spurred by the Japanese displays at world's fairs throughout the last half of the 19th century. These included Vienna's 1873 Weltausstellung, which first introduced Japanese products directly to an Austrian public.
Orlik's woodcut here, based on his own trip to Japan in 1900-01, highlights probably more clearly than nearly any other artwork produced by the Secessionists how the group was influenced by the art of the Far East. The woodcut itself is a defining technique of Japanese printmaking, as is the elongated horizontal orientation of the work, which also recalls the horizontal orientation of other Secessionist works, most conspicuously Klimt's Beethoven Frieze. The flattened planes and forms here (the tree in the background appears as essentially a silhouette), and uniform colors of the regions evoke the work of the great Japanese artists Utamaro and Hokusai, as does the limited color palette.
Nonetheless, there are significant ways in which Orlik here breaks with Japanese tradition. While many Eastern prints illustrate individual scenes from a larger narrative, leaving the viewer's imagination to fill in the visual aspects of the rest of the story, Orlik constructs this print with no greater framework behind it, merely as a genre scene. It is arguably less about the actions of the figures than an experiment with form, balance, color, and pattern, as there appears to be a rhythm of alternating white-and-beige regions of the figures' clothing as they are laid out across the image. In Orlik's print there is also a diminished emphasis on the landscape, which often dramatically frames or forms a backdrop to the figural narrative action of Japanese works; only the small peak of Mt. Fuji - which often forms a geographic anchoring purpose in Hokusai's works - is visible in the background here. Orlik's work, which focuses on ordinary subjects, carries a kind of Realist air, though it also appears empty of any political content or agenda.
The Beethoven Frieze, only a detail of which is shown here, was painted by Gustav Klimt for the 14th Secession exhibition in 1902 - arguably the group's most famous - dedicated to the eponymous German composer who was a longtime Vienna resident. It is a monumental work, measuring some 7 feet tall by 112 feet long, and weighing 4 tons. Painted on the interior walls of the Secession Building, it was preserved but was not displayed again until 1986; and it is now permanently on view in the basement.
The main significance of the Beethoven Frieze is that it forms part of the exhibition-as-Gesamtkustwerk, or total artistic environment that the Secessionists sought to create. For them, this often included all branches of the arts - not simply the visual arts, but also the performing arts, such as symphonic works, theater, and opera; accordingly, the contemporary Viennese composer Gustav Mahler's adaptation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was playing at the opening of this exhibition of the Secession. The Gesamtkunstwerk is underscored by details such as the incorporation of gems into the painted surfaces to add to the shimmering effects.
The frieze's narrative tracks the narrative of three female figures, called Genii, that represent humanity seeking fulfillment. They rely on a gigantic knight in shining armor - said to be representative of a great leader for the German-speaking countries of Europe - to lead them through a harrowing minefield of characters, including the ones seen in the excerpt above, whose elongated and exaggerated forms at once reference the Gorgons like Medusa from Greek mythology and represent disaster and vices such as sickness, madness, death, intemperance, and wantonness. Fulfillment does come at the end, represented by a pair of nude female and male figures locked in an almost erotic embrace in a golden aura, surrounded by a choir, a reference to the choral performance of Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" at the end of the Ninth Symphony.
Despite the modern notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the reliance on very old tropes - not only figures from Greek mythology but the flattened depictions of figures like those seen on ancient Greek vases - demonstrate the range of influences on the Secessionists. It also suggests their desire to synthesize a contemporary art from old and new, innovation and tradition, which responds to the hopes and desires of contemporary society.