In 1897 a group of young artists headed by Gustav Klimt seceded from the Viennese Artists' Society to establish an association of their own: the Secession. When the founding members met on April 3, it was clear to them that above all they needed an exhibition building that would offer a suitable setting for the groundbreaking presentations of art they were planning. The foundation stone for the Secession was laid in April 1988. The building site on Linke Wienzeile had been provided free of charge by the Municipality of Vienna.
The architect Joseph Maria Olbrich designed the Secession as a 'Temple of Art'. While his plans show the influence of the buildings of his mentor and teacher Otto Wagner, they also refer to sketches made by Gustav Klimt. The building, which resembles a pavilion, is divided in two distinct parts: the ceremonial entrance hall and the exhibition rooms.
When the Secession first opened many critical voices were raised against its modern architecture. Epithets included 'an assault on good taste', 'a cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace', 'a temple for bullfrogs', 'a bastard begot of temple and warehouse'. Today the building is widely regarded as one of the foremost works of the Viennese art nouveau style and its golden dome has become a Viennese landmark. The Secession has emerged as one of the best-known examples of European architecture at the turning point from historicism to modernism.
The gallery facades were decorated with frescoes by Koloman Moser and sculptural ornaments, some of which are still in place today. The floral elements adorning the walls resolve themselves into parts of a laurel bush with its upper branches joining to form a canopy. This articulates the 'return to the vital origin of art and culture' envisaged by the movement through the flowering of the 'ver sacrum' (sacred spring).
We walked around the outside of the building
and then went in. Most of the building was closed to the public because they were mounting a new exhibition but we were able to view the entrance hall and one of the rooms that contains the Klimt frescoes.
The foyer is minimalist, simple and austere.
Gustav Klimt's fresco, the Beethoven Frieze, takes its theme from Richard Wagner's interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and depicts humankind's search for happiness.
To symbolise this yearning, Klimt chose floating genii who lead us into the story. This horizontal band is interrupted by one group of figures: a naked woman standing and a naked couple kneeling - symbols of suffering humanity - beg the knight in shining armour for help.
In the scene facing us as we enter the room, humanity must face the dangers and temptations of the 'Hostile Forces'. The giant Typhoeus, a hybrid monster with shaggy fur, blue wings, and a snake like body, extends across almost the entire wall, fixing the viewer with mother of pearl eyes. To his left stand his daughters, the three Gorgons, and above them, mask-like female heads stare out of the picture, allegorical representations of Sickness, Madness and Death. The women to the monster's right symbolise Lasciviousness, Wantonness and Intemperance, the latter identifiable by her large belly.
Slightly further to the right cowers the emaciated female figure of 'Gnawing Grief'. At the top right we see the head of a floating genie, that stands for humankind's wishes and desires overcoming the 'Hostile Forces'.
On the right-hand wall, humanity's yearning for happiness finds fulfilment in poetry, portrayed as a female figure with a lyre. This is followed by an empty section under which, in the original exhibition layout an opening gave a view of Klinger's Beethoven sculpture.
In the final scene, female figures symbolising the arts lead the way into the ideal realm of art.
Klimt's apotheosis of art consists of a kissing couple in front of the' Choir of Angels' referring directly to Beethoven.
In another small room we were able to see copies of Ver Sacrum, the official organ of the Association of Austrian artists. At their first general assembly on July 21, 1897, the founding members of the Vienna Secession resolved to produce their own art magazine in order to publicise their ideas about the integration of different media.
In the preface to the inaugural issue, titled 'Why we publish a magazine', the artists proclaimed: 'this magazine is meant to ... appeal to the population's artistic sensibility and stimulate, foster and spread creative engagement and creative independence'. Art, they argued, needed to become again what it once had been: a practice woven into the fabric of life.
The magazine featured contributions on the visual arts as well as works of avant-garde literature. Illustrations and typography, vignettes, margins, and selected original works of graphic art as well as the unusual almost square format made each issue a unique artefact. Ver Sacrum inspired generations of Austrian book designers.
Poster by Irma von Dutczynska