A Brief History of the Vienna Secession Design Movement

A Brief History of the Vienna Secession Design Movement

All architecture movements throughout history spur from shifts in society that demand a new style that better reflects the way that technology has advanced the practice and how people express their political, religious, and moral beliefs and practices. While some shifts occur over a period of several years, others are experienced as a sudden revolt. The Vienna Secession was undoubtedly the latter. At the end of the 19th century, a group of artists and architects aimed to explore what art should be as it pertained to filtering global influences in a way that could introduce new modernism.

During this time, Europe was undergoing a renaissance, as empires collapsed, new countries and governments emerged, new discoveries in sciences and technologies thrust society into a new world. However, as architecture tends to be a lagging trend, many designers and artists felt that the ambiguity of what this era would bring would remain if significant action was not taken. In 1897, a group of well-known Austrian creatives, including Koloman Moser, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Gustav Klimt resigned from their posts at the Association of Austrian Artists. It established the Union of Austrian Artists, known as Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, or the Vienna Secession. Their goal was to break conservative traditions that rooted themselves in history and create an internationalist, all-encompassing view of artistic genres that was both contemporary and timeless.

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Original members of the Vienna Secession Movement. Image © Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Secessionists decided to design a building that would embody their ideals, and also serve as their physical home where they could come together and plan public events that would introduce the world to the new, modern Viennese movement of design. The result was the Secession Building, imagined by Olbrich, who was a student of Otto Wagner, which stood in stark contrast to several other large cultural institutions that surrounded it. The building was known as “Mahdi’s Tomb” for its white facade, and “The Golden Cabbage” because of the lattice structure of the dome on top of the roof. Above the entrance was inscribed in German “Der Zeit ihr Kunst- der Kunst ihr Freiheit” (To the age its art, to art its freedom), a bold reference to their revolution and their devotion to changing the aesthetics of art.


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Majolika-Haus . Image © Fabio Lotti via Shutterstock

Collectively, the secessionists sparked a new movement that wasn't characterized by any one style but held together through a “Jugendstil”, or “youth style”, which was inspired by Germany’s adaptation of Art Nouveau. The Viennese version also used curving lines and made references to plants and nature, but evolved to emphasize simple, geometric forms and decoration. A year after their founding, the group designed an exhibition to present their work and that of other international artists who they favored. The display grew global attention and was praised for its innovation in contemporary arts.

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Karlsplatz Metro Station. Image © Pudelek, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Vienna Secession, despite its meteoric rise, changed over the years as its members began to focus on their individual pursuits and artistic interests. Eventually, internal disagreements and the increase in consumerism distinguished the movement. Regardless, the movement was a critical precedent that significantly contributed to the rise of culture in Austria throughout the 20th century. Its memory is cemented in the Secessionist building, Klimt’s artwork including “The Kiss”, and Otto Wagner’s Karlsplatz Metro Station.

The movement is even considered a moment of cultural identity in Austria. In 2004, one hundred years after the group dissolved, the country issued a cold collectors coin on a 100 Euro. The front featured the Secession building, and the back featured a frieze by Klimt. While we may never see a more powerful and sudden jolt in the way that architecture transforms throughout time, we have the Vienna Secession to thank for opening the path for artists and architects to introduce modernism as we know it.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "A Brief History of the Vienna Secession Design Movement" 31 May 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/982832/a-brief-history-of-the-vienna-secession-design-movement> ISSN 0719-8884

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