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Art movements: the Vienna Secession

By Megan Farrimond

Following her year abroad in Vienna, Fashion Editor Megan Farrimond discusses the Vienna Secession and its hidden links to art in Glasgow.

“The choice between commerce and art is the issue at stake in our Secession. It is not a debate over aesthetics, but a confrontation between two different spiritual states.” – Hermann Bahr 

The Vienna Secession was a branch of the Art Nouveau style movement, formed in 1897 by symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, famous for his paintings The Kiss and The Three Ages of Woman. The Secession’s main goal was global connection, as well as a move away from artistic nationalism, something ingrained in the Austrian culture of the time. The progressive move towards decorative and applied arts, as opposed to fine art and sculpture, was not showcased in Vienna due to the tradition of conservatism in the Association of Austrian Artists. Thus, a dissatisfied group emerged. A unification of painting, architecture and decorative arts was at the forefront of the movement, pioneered by artists such as Klimt, Otto Wagner, and Wilhelm Bernatzik. 

In 1898 Joseph Olbrich was selected to design a new exhibition space in Vienna, in order to display the designs of the Secessionist artists. Above the entrance read the slogan, “To every age its art, to every art its freedom”, symbolically contrasted to the city that they believed to be stuck in its ways. I was lucky enough to live the past year in Vienna and the contrast of the classical buildings on the Ringstrasse against Olbrich’s Secession building is a refreshingly modern corner of a very traditional city ­– the sign of an underground rebellion away from the conservatism of artistic institutions. 

The artists of the Vienna Secession were famous for their posters, showcasing the exhibitions held in the building, designed by artists such as Koloman Moser and Alfred Roller. Art became fleeting, yet accessible; a contrast to institutions such as the official Vienna Academy of the Arts, the Vienna Künstlerhaus, and official art salons, which kept art in a realm for the upper classes. With posters in the streets, the roads of Vienna became the “art gallery for the poor man”.

Glasgow played its own part in the creation of this movement away from tradition. In 1900, praised by German and Austrian magazines, the Glasgow Four (consisting of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hubert James McNair, and Frances and Margaret MacDonald) were commissioned to design an interior for the Vienna Secession. The relationship between Austria and Scotland was tainted by the war, but the link between the two countries remained prevalent in the art created in both Vienna and Glasgow. When Mackintosh designed the Hill House, he was heavily inspired by the art collective Wiener Werkstätte, and influenced his first use of incised circles which eventually became a defining element of his designs. 

“The work of The Four was a revelation to the Viennese, with Klimt and Hoffman particularly taken aback,” says Stuart Robertson, director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society. “In fact, Klimt’s career was on a bit of a decline at the time and he was particularly inspired by what he saw. You can see the influence on his later work – there is a point where he changes his approach. I don’t think you would have seen work like The Kiss if it hadn’t been for Mackintosh and the Glasgow influence.” It’s surprising that this link between such a notable piece and a Glaswegian artist is not so widely known…


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