Architecture Around the World.

Secession Building
Vienna, Austria

Joseph Maria Olbrich,
Art Nouveau/Secessionist
1984-88  renovation architect: Adolf Krischanitz

TEXT Beneath illustrations

In 1896, Gustav Klimt and a number of other artists quit the conservative Künstlerhaus and founded a new art association called the Secession. The building of the same name was completed in 1898.

Frieze:  “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art, to every art its freedom”)  ...  The building has been selected to figure on the national side of the €0.50 Austrian coin

3,000 gilt laurel leaves

"The leafwork dome ('golden cabbage') is the symbol of the Secession and visible from afar." - "Secession" on  Vienna Now Forever   (online Jan. 2017)

Entrance surround

Entrance surround  ...  Medusas with snake hair

Entrance surround

Side elevation

Note painted wreath, detailed below:

Three owls and wreath  ...   Further detailed below:

Decorative owls  by Joseph Olbrich

Side elevation

Three details below:

Detail #1

Detail #2

Detail #3

Vienna Secession

From the onset, the Vienna Secession brought together Naturalists, Modernists, Impressionists and cross-pollinated among all disciplines forming a total work of art; a Gesamkunstwerk. In this respect, the Secession drew inspiration from William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement which sought to re-unite fine and applied arts. Like Morris, the Secessionists spurned 19th century manufacturing techniques and favoured quality handmade objects, believing that a return to handwork could rescue society from the moral decay caused by industrialization.

Stylistically, the Secession has mistakenly been seen as synonymous with the Jugendstil movement, the German version of art nouveau. It is true that the Secessionists incorporated many of Jugendstil elements in its work such as the curvilinear lines that decorate the facade of the Secession building. Many of the organization’s members had been working in the Jugendstil style prior to joining and the group did honour the Art Nouveau movement in France by devoting an entire issue of Ver Sacrum in 1898 to the work Alphonse Mucha. Nevertheless, the Secession developed its own unique ‘Secession-stil’ centred around symmetry and repetition rather than natural forms.

The dominant form was the square and the recurring motifs were the grid and checkerboard. The influence came not so much from French and Belgian Art Nouveau, but again from the Arts and Crafts movement. In particular the work of William Asbhee and Charles Renee Mackintosh both of whom incorporated geometric design and floral-inspired decorative motifs, played a large part in forming the Secession-style. The Secessionist admiration of Mackintosh’s work was evident by the fact that he was brought to Vienna for the 8th Secession exhibition.

The influence of Japanese design cannot be understated in relation to the Secession. Japonism had swept through Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and French artists like Cezanne and Van Gogh; both of whom were avid collectors of woodblock prints were quick to incorporate elements in their work.

When Japonism arrived in Austria, the Viennese were also not immune to its influence. The Vienna International Exposition of 1873 featured a Japanese display complete with a shinto shrine and Japanese garden and hundreds of art objects. Japanese design was quickly incorporated by the Secessionists for its restrained use of decoration, its preference for natural materials over artifice, the preference for handwork over machine-made, and its balance of negative and positive space. In a way, the Secessionists saw in Japanese design their ideals of a ‘Gesamkunstwerk’, whereby design was seamlessly incorporated into everyday life. So strong were these ties that they devoted the Secession exhibit of 1903 to Japanese art.

- Excerpts:  R. Rosenman, "Vienna Secession: A History," pub. on Vienna Secession  in 2015 (online Jan. 2017)

Secession Building

The large, white, cubic Secession Building was designed by architect Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1897 as the manifesto of the Secessionist movement. The exhibition hall opened in October 1898.

Most of the original interior was looted during World War II and the building was left in a desolate state until the passion for Viennese Art Nouveau was rediscovered in the 1970s and the pavilion rescued from decay.

The building is quite sober and only uses two colours, white and gold. Due to its massive, unbroken walls, the construction has the appearance of being constructed from a series of solid cubes. The most prominent feature of the otherwise clean design is the dome, made of 3,000 gilt laurel leaves. The laurel symbolizes victory, dignity and purity. Today the structure is one of the most treasured examples of a particularly Viennese artistic period.
- Secession Building  (online Jan. 2017)

Secession Building

The Vienna Secession Building, was built in 1898 by Joseph Maria Olbrich, in the Jugendstil style as a showcase for the Secession movement’s artists . The building has been adapted and renovated several times: The entrance hall was altered in 1901. In 1908, part of the ornamentation and the slogan “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“For every time its art. For art its Freedom”) were removed. The building was damaged by bombs during World War II and set on fire by the retreating German army.

Adolf Krischanitz was responsible for the most recent renovation in 1984-88.

Its best-known exhibit is Gustav Klimt famous Beethoven Frieze – a monumental wall cycle – designed in 1902. This exhibition, conceived as an homage to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, most sublimely embodied the secessionist idea of the gesamtkunstwerk – a comprehensive work of art.

A total of about 20 exhibitions take place in the Vienna Secession (in the Main Hall, Gallery, Graphic Cabinet and Ver Sacrum Room) each year.
- Secession Building in Vienna  (online Jan. 2017)

Secession Building

From the collection of  Paul M. Robinson

From the onset, one of the most important aims of the secessionists was to have their own exhibition building. They had been required to rent for a considerable sum the building of the Horticultural Society for the first secession exhibition in March of 1898 and had seen the need to revise exhibition spaces from the traditional Salon model. Thanks to the financial success of this exhibition which drew some 57,000 visitors; including Emperor Franz Josef himself, they were able to undertake the construction of a permanent exhibition building. The location for this building; an area of roughly 1000 square meters on the corner of Karlsplatz just beneath the window of the Academy of Fine Arts and a short walk from the Ringstrasse, was both symbolic and controversial.

The architect chosen for the project was Josef Olbrich, a young pupil of Otto Wagner and one of only three architects (Josef Hoffmann, and Mayreder) who had joined the Secession. He had worked as a chief draugftsman for Wagner on the Stadtbahn during which time he was able to absorb Wagner’s trademark art nouveau ornamental details.

By the time Olbrich was designing the Secession building however, we see a drastic simplification of these Art Nouveau elements. Viewing Olbrich’s original sketches for the building, we can see a gradual reduction of decorative elements to basic geometric forms signifying a break from Wagner’s grandious art nouveau style. 

Originally nicknamed ‘Mahdi’s Tomb’ or the ‘Assyrian convenience, it was not until the gold  cuppola was in place that the most famous of nicknames was coined; ‘The golden cabbage.’

Like Klimt, Olbrich incorporated references to classical antiquity in the
owl and gorgon (medussa heads) decorative motifs. Signifying the attributes of Athena; the goddess of wisdom and victory, Olbrich makes her both a liberator and guardian of the arts.
- Excerpts: R. Rosenman, "Vienna Secession: A History," pub. on Vienna Secession  in 2015 (online Jan. 2017)

Photos and their arrangement © 2008 Chuck LaChiusa
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