Art in Motion: Vienna Secession
by Taylor Slattery | November 9, 2022
At the end of the 19th century, a new wave of Austrian artists based in the country’s capital of Vienna, began to break from tradition, rejecting the predominant conservative aesthetic in favor of something new, fresh, and entirely their own. Finding a way to escape the influences of a rich visual history you’ve been exposed to for your entire life is no simple task, though, and for the Secessionists, the break wasn’t nearly as clean as they might have liked.
This complex relationship between the present, full of its references to the past, and the future they were trying to create is perhaps best embodied in the work of one of the movement’s leaders and most well-known practitioners, Gustav Klimt. While the aesthetic of Klimt’s paintings is a clear departure from tradition, the subject matter depicted is not. As a representational artist, and especially so for an artist living at this time, there is only so much available to you to explore thematically. While Klimt’s paintings are full of personal symbolism and imaginative abstraction, he was still limited by the constraints of his points of reference, which were mostly rooted in allegories from Rome and Greece.
The movement, which consisted of visual artists, writers, designers, craftsmen, and architects was unlike many others in the degree to which it was formally organized, which is perhaps why its aesthetic feels so cohesive across its many practitioners and mediums. While most movements throughout art history are birthed from some sort of manifesto outlining their objectives and values, few have an official building that not only serves as a physical manifestation of those values, but also provides the group with a venue to gather and exhibit their work.
Klimt was elected as the first president of the Secession, which had amassed more than 50 members. The group’s focus was on the unification of all craft, combining elements of what were considered high and low forms of art to create a singular form of expression through every medium, united by a decorative approach to creation.
The group strongly opposed the nation’s fine art establishments like the academies and the salons as they believed they placed too much value on tradition in the name of commercial success and prevented the progression of contemporary art as a result. The strict boundaries between what were deemed fine art and craft was also something the Secessionists disagreed with and actively worked against to sway public opinion.
The exact duration of the Vienna Secession varies from source to source, though for many, the movement’s final day was June 14, 1905, when, just 8 years after its founding in 1897, founders Klimt and Moser parted ways with the movement over internal disputes about the group’s trajectory.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.