Sunday, 14 May 2017

Secession Hall

Of all of the things I wanted to see in Vienna, the Secession building was perhaps top of the list. In a city full of architectural treasures, this to me was a real jewel, despite there being more architecturally important or ornate buildings in the city. I had seen pictures of that wonderful golden crown of laurel leaves (known locally as the golden cabbage), in a book I have of Wiener Werkstätte designs. For some reason it sparked my imagination and I was fascinated with the idea of experiencing it with my own eyes. Finally getting to see it on this visit was really exciting, and I must confess I got more than a little obsessed with the whole building, and Klimt's splendid Beethoven Frieze contained within.

The Vienna Secession building came about as a consequence of a group of artists being dissatisfied with the stifling attitudes of the established Academy of Fine Art, who were only interested in promoting neoclassicism and ignoring contemporay art and architecture in turn of the century Vienna. In 1897 a group of rebels including artist Gustav Klimt seceded, and were joined by architects Otto Wagner, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffman. The group of rebels included painters with diverse styles, and the aim of the Secession was to showcase modern, diverse craft, literature and graphic design as well as fine art. The ideas of the group would be spread by their magazine publication Ver Sacrum ( Holy Spring). The prevailing artistic style in europe at the time was a version of Art-Nouveau known as Jugendstil (Youthful Style). The Viennese variant of Jugendstil came to be known as Secession.

The showpiece of Secessionism was the Secession Hall building. It was designed by the barely thirty year old Josef Maria Olbrich in 1897 and was planned to be 'a temple of art'. It was supposed to be built on the Ringstraße alongside the city's other showcase neoclassical buildings, but there were strong objections from the very conservative city council. It wasn't until a site was found on Friedrichstraße, just outside Ringstraße, that permission was given for a temporary exhibition space to be built 'to last for a period of no more than ten years'. The Secession motto: Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit - "To every age its art, to every art its freedom" - is emblazoned above the front entrance of the building. Below this motto can be seen a sculpture of three gorgons who represent painting, sculpture and architecture. 

The first Secession exhibition in the new building opened in March 1898, and was praised for the then new concept of presenting applied art on the same level as that of fine art. The building though, with its synthesis of the traditional with stark modernity, and the gilded laurel leaf cupola came as something of a shock to Olbrich's architect contemporaries who were very disparaging of it, describing it as a 'mausoleum with a cabbage on top'. All important buildings constructed in the Innere Stadt (inner city) at the time were pastiches of 18th century styles, built to satisfy the ruling Habsburg's conservative tastes, so Secession Hall's modernity was a real affront to the status quo.

I noticed that most of the buildings in Vienna seemed to contain some form of laurel leaf motif or decoration. The Secession building in my opinion though, outshines all of the others with its crowning filigree globe of golden laurel leaves. This crown apparently represents Appollonian principles of form, order, and strength, and the laurel motif is repeated on the plasterwork of the facade of the building. Interestingly I was able to zoom in close on the dome with my camera and discovered these curious golden circles gilded onto the leaves, which I didn't notice from street level. They really seem to glow when the sun shines on them. 

These charming owl sculptures on the sides of the building were thought to be created by Secession artist Koloman Moser. The lizards darting down the front of the facade were another quirky touch.

Some lovely examples of typography found on the building.

The building has been renovated several times over the years. There were originally two large decorative plaster relief panels on the rear of the building (seen in the picture below), which were knocked down in 1908. These will be restored later this year to celebrate an important exhibition entitled: Vienna Secession - Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, and the Art of their Time, to be held in the building. I would love to be able to return to Vienna to see this exhibition.

Just outside the building is a bronze statue of Mark Anthony in his chariot being drawn by lions, created by Arthur Strasser in 1899.

I just think Secession Hall is a wonderful building, and still very decorative, if not in the traditional way of most other buildings in Vienna. Walking around it and discovering the building's details was a pleasure. I then made my way inside to acquaint myself with Klimt's Beethoven Frieze.

The interior now (above), is the typical white cube art space, and has been stripped of most of the original period decoration installed at the building's inception. This is due to renovations over the years and also bomb damage sustained during World War II. The following pictures are how the interior of the Secession building originally looked.

The gallery's spaces now play host to exhibitions by an international roster of artists who respond to the space, and the history of the Secession movement.

Downstairs are these original architectural models of the building and original turn of the century Secessionist graphics for Ver Sacrum.

The last room downstairs is devoted to Gustav Klimt's wonderful Beethoven Frieze. The Frieze was created to celebrate the composer in 1901 for the 14th Secession exhibition. It is an allegorical depiction of Beethoven's ninth symphony, and the conflict between good and evil. The frieze takes the viewer on a journey of our human desire for happiness despite the trials and suffering we endure in life, and as a result of our own weaknesses of character. We encounter the storm giant Typhoeus with his trio of gorgon daughters symbolising sickness, madness and death, whilst the three women represent lasciviousness, wantonness and intemperance. A knight in shining armour then appears as a saviour, and the frieze ends with humans finding joy in the arts and expressing this through love and an embrace. The frieze was painted directly onto the walls and was meant to last only for the duration of the exhibition, but it was preserved and restored to the Secession building in 1986. The frieze caused an outrage when it was unveiled as critics deemed it obscene. Today, in the luxury of retrospection, it is hailed as yet another Klimt masterpiece.

I was really happy to have had the opportunity to visit the Secession, it was my favourite piece of Viennese architecture. Despite the enforced alterations to the building it still manages to evoke the spirit of change and modernism that the Secessionists were hoping to bring about, and is a great and enduring legacy of the Secession movement.

Friedrichstaße 12 
1010 Vienna