Art Nouveau And the Vienna Secession: To The Time Its Art

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Art Nouveau And the Vienna Secession: To The Time Its Art Introduction History being a continuum, it is often difficult to pinpoint beginnings. To be sure, some…
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Art Nouveau And the Vienna Secession: To The Time Its Art Introduction History being a continuum, it is often difficult to pinpoint beginnings. To be sure, some specific events can be dated with precision: the Sack of Rome in 387 BCE; the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776; Neil Armstrong‟s first footstep on the Moon at 2:56 GMT on 21 July 1969. But, in a very real sense, these singular events, while marking a beginning for what followed upon them, were also culminations. They marked the end of sequences of events, actions, and reactions—as well as to other attempts to effect change— influenced and motivated by stimuli of a highly eclectic nature. Not only is it practically impossible to identify a causa causans, but one may not actually exist. In topology, the answer to the question of the true length of a coastline is, “It depends on how small a ruler you use to measure it.” An infinitesimally small measuring unit would yield an infinitely long measurement. In the same way, the causes of a given historical event can become uncountable if the granularity of causes and effects is examined too minutely. This essay will seek to examine the broad-stroke causes and effects which led up to the formation of the Vienna Secession on 27 March 18971; its place in the wider movement of Art Nouveau; the contributions of some of the Secession‟s most influential founders and members; and its ultimate legacy to the world of art, craft, and design. Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession did not focus on petit genre subjects as had Realism and Impressionism before them. Figures in Art Nouveau works were heavily idealized and romanticized. Also, while Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession embraced architecture and declared that “. . . the dwellings of ordinary people . . . [were] worthy of an architect‟s time, and also that a simple object such as a chair or vase . . . may command an artist‟s attention,”2 their target audience tended more toward the affluent middle class, rather than the common man. What revolutionary zeal they evinced was directed more at breaking the 1 monopoly of the existing art establishment (the Künstlerhaus) than in unseating the dynastic governments which still held sway in Europe in the early twentieth century. The Secession Style was a fluid and highly decorative art form, and can be more likened to the Rococo of the eighteenth century than to the social-commentary art forms which were its own contemporaries. Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession in particular (in which “Art Nouveau reached its most bizarre extremes. . .”3) were marked by an internationalist attitude, but were perhaps also a manifestation of a desire to ignore the ominous rumblings which exploded at the declaration of war on Serbia by Austria on 28 July 1914. While a case can be made for an attitude within such styles as Symbolism and Decadence toward a duty of the artist to highlight socio-political dissatisfactions , Art Nouveau was “ . . . highly individualistic [and] . . . a vehicle for expression for workers in the field of decorative arts.”4 It was an art which displayed “. . . a highly feminine flavor,”5 and which depicted figures who were “. . . all seemingly removed from the pressures of everyday life.”6 In short, Sezessionstil, like Art Nouveau in general, “. . . may be generally defined as an escapist sort of style.”7 As Carl Schorske has written, “If the Viennese burghers had begun by supporting the temple of art as a surrogate form of assimilation into the aristocracy, they ended by finding in it an escape, a refuge from the unpleasant world of increasingly threatening political reality.”8 Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Schorske says, “. . . saw the increased devotion to art as related to the anxiety resulting from civic failure. „We must take leave of the world before it collapses,‟ [Hofmannsthal] wrote in 1905.”9 2 The fin-de-siècle Socio-Political Upheavals The Revolutions of 1848 in Europe and some of its colonies had largely been failures, or what gains they had made were quickly reversed. Two notable exceptions were Switzerland, which gained a new constitution and became a federal republic, and France, where Louis-Phillipe was deposed and the Second Republic founded. These two successes—as well as the unification of Italy in 1861 for the first time since the fall of Rome—helped to ensure that the embers of revolution throughout Europe were not extinguished, but continued to smolder. Prussia defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, rising in power and importance in Europe. Austria lost territory, as well as all her influence over the member states of the former German Confederation. She would eventually come to rely for military support upon the Triple Alliance with Prussia, which resulted in her “. . . unwillingness to act unilaterally . . .”10 in 1914 without the express support of Imperial Germany. In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise was signed, converting the former Habsburg empire into a dual monarchy in which the Hungarian government in Buda had equal legal status with the Austrian government in Vienna. Although it was an attempt on the part of the Habsburg rulers to weaken nationalism within the empire, it largely had the opposite effect. Separatists in Serbia, especially, would come to play a significant role in the second decade of the approaching twentieth century. “National awareness, which, during the nineteenth century, had been growing among the Monarchy‟s ethnic groups was now beginning to exacerbate their mutual rivalry.”11 Austria was not alone. Nationalist ideology persisted in agitating against the long-standing dynasties under which many Europeans were not citizens, but subjects of 3 monarchs who often held a different religion, spoke a different language, and were removed from those they ruled not only by class and wealth, but geographically, as well. John Keegan has written in The First World War that “. . . Europe in 1914 was a continent of naked nationalism . . .”12 in which “The three great European empires, German, Austrian and Russian, felt threatened by the national dissatisfactions of their minorities, particularly in Austria-Hungary. . . ,”13 which as “. . . a polity of five major religions and a dozen languages, survived in dread of ethnic subversion.”14 The Imperial government feared that yielding to the nationalist demands of one of its minorities would result in a cascade of such compromises and “. . . that way lay the dissolution of the empire itself.”15 Carl E. Schorske writes that when the Medieval Ringstrasse (the tract of open land surrounding the city center) was opened for civic development in 1857, the military leadership in Vienna opposed the plan. In the Imperial capital, for them, “The enemy in question was not now a foreign invader, but a revolutionary people,”16 and that “The imperial court must be secure[d] against possible attacks „from the proletariat in the suburbs and outlying localities.‟ ”17 Indeed, Keegan adds, there still existed in Europe “. . . the age-old quest for security in military superiority. . . ,”18 which led to an “. . . industry of creating soldiers. . . ,”19 and maintained “. . . within European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong. . . .”20 These circumstances arose from more than changes in military theorizing. New ways of thinking about the world had appeared in other disciplines, as well. The Communist Manifesto had been published in 1848, codifying its anti-capitalist and anti-aristocratic ideology, and espousing a completely egalitarian socio-economic system in which the value of an object was based upon the labor used to produce it, not in any of its inherent attributes. Darwin‟s Origin of Species had appeared in 1859, and was popularly seen as giving scientific respectability to 4 a number of ideas about race and society which had their origins in the Enlightenment. Advances in the fields of astronomy and physics had begun altering man‟s understanding of himself in relation to the rest of the universe; telegraphy became commonplace and began to shrink the world by improving long-distance communication. The work of Faraday and Maxwell, and the experiments of Michelson and Morley would be instrumental in Einstein‟s formulation of Special Relativity in 1905. Nor can it be overlooked that Vienna in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the classroom in which a failed artist from rural Austria would begin to develop a political awareness and a social ideology which would devastate Europe in the Second World War. The Vienna Adolf Hitler knew in the 1890s was the Vienna of Georg Schönerer and his Pan-German nationalism, and of the anti-Semitic Christian Socialism of Karl Lueger, who was ratified mayor of Vienna in 1897 by the Emperor “. . . bowing to the electorate‟s will.”21 Lueger was considered by Hitler to be “. . . the greatest German mayor of all times . . . .”22 and is considered to have been one of the greatest influences on Hitler‟s own anti-Semitism. For Hitler and others, Europe‟s Jews, because “Their civic and economic existence depended not on their participation in a national community . . . but on not acquiring such a status,”23 were seen as even more dangerous than nationalist agitators like the Serbs or Czechs, because they were eternal outsiders. Changes in The Arts In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Realists and Naturalists sought to depict their subjects on canvas with the same impartiality as that which the camera was perceived to do. They were reacting against the Neoclassical elitism of subject matter (aristocrats, gods and heroes, and biblical figures), as seen in Jacques-Louis David‟s Oath of the Horatii (1784) (Figure 1); and its focus on flawless technique (no visible linework around shapes, smooth 5 shading, no visible brushstrokes), as in Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres‟ Princesse Albert de Broglie (1853) (Figure 2). Ironically, it was Ingres who was to advise Degas to “. . . draw lines, young man, draw lines.”24 The Realists/Naturalists were also reacting against Romanticism‟s focus on intense emotions, such as the despair and outrage engendered by Théodore Géricault‟s Raft of the Medusa (1819) (Figure 3) and its quest for the “sublime” through an emphasis on man‟s insignificance in comparison to the forces of nature, as in Caspar David Friedrich‟s Woman Before a Sunrise (1818) (Figure 4). Courbet‟s The Stonebreakers (1848) (Figure 5) was neither about a lofty subject, nor was it executed with consummate technical skill. It lauded the honor of a day‟s strenuous labor, but highlighted simultaneously the difficult lives of the working classes, as did Millet‟s The Angelus (1857-59) (Figure 6). Artists like Jean-Honoré Daumier interpreted Realism to be as much about depicting the reality of the world of Marx‟s proletarians. His The Third Class Carriage (1863-65) (Figure 7), sought to expand awareness of the disparity between the social and economic classes. Impressionism entered the scene in France in 1863, pioneered by artists like Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, who had met at the atelier of Marc-CharlesGabriel Gleyre, whose emphasis on academicism they both chafed against and ultimately rejected. Their works were naturalistic, often produced en plein air, and designed to capture the essence of a moment‟s glance at the scene before them—the artist‟s impression. In England at about the same time, the Arts and Crafts Movement was founded by William Morris and others, receiving much support from the Socialist writer and art critic, John Ruskin. Ruskin had long decried the negative aspects of the Industrial Revolution, especially the poor conditions of life and work for the laboring classes. Morris also felt that mass-produced consumer goods were causing a general reduction in the quality of decorative 6 arts and a consequent decline in respect for the skill and efforts of individual craftsmen. The Arts and Crafts Movement was designed to renew respect for artists and craftsmen by emphasizing the superior quality of hand-made items of craftsmanship and by fostering a closer working relationship between fine artists and fine craftsmen. This philosophy was to have a wide-ranging influence. Closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, who believed that “. . . art had taken a wrong turn around the time of Raphael (14831520), [having become] frivolous . . . approved imitations of the Greeks, and paintings that would ape Michelangelo and Titian.”25 Art, for them, had become “. . . florid and insincere, lacking in a moral seriousness that was necessary for it to be uplifting.”26 For the art world in Austria and Vienna, control was largely in the hands of the Künstlerhaus, “. . . a society of architects, artists and sculptors founded in 1861. . .”27 which “. . . stood for opulence and grandeur. . .”28 and whose artists were “. . . history painters and monumental portrait sculptors.”29 The 1894 Künstlerhaus exhibition featured works by the likes of Laurence Alma-Tadema (an Academic Classicist), Josef Israëls (a Realist), Sir Frederick Leighton (an Academic Classicist also associated with the Pre-Raphaelites), and Puvis de Chavannes (a Symbolist).30 The work of younger artists with fresher ideas was discouraged, or outright ignored. The break came in 1897, when the dissatisfied artists, led by Klimt, “. . . discontented with the conservatism and lack of imagination in what was being exhibited. . . ,”31 left the Künstlerhaus and founded the Vienna Secession. 7 Ver Sacrum: To Art Its Freedom Gustav Klimt Gustav Klimt has been called “The Leader of the Revolt.”32 He is perhaps the most widely recognized among the Vienna Secessionists, and in the wider realm of Art Nouveau is probably second only to Alphonse Mucha in notoriety. He had “. . . won his spurs in decorating the ceiling [of the Grand Staircase of the Burgtheater in the Ringstrasse] with canvases depicting the history of the theater.”33 In 1890, he was awarded “. . . the Kaiserpreis of 400 ducats for his painting of the interior of the Burgtheater, but in 1893, after he had been unanimously proposed for a professorship in history painting at the Academy . . . was turned down . . . due to direct intervention at the highest level, probably that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.”34 He and several other artists—including Koloman Moser, who would in 1905 become a founding member of the Wiener Werkstätte—broke away from the Künstlerhaus to form their own group, officially known as the Vereinigung bildener Künstler Österreichs35 (the Union of Austrian Artists). The Secession had its first public exhibition in 1898, the year after its founding. The poster for the exhibition (Figure 8) was done by Klimt, and is a prime example of many of the tenets of Art Nouveau works, such as flatness, strong curvilinear lines, use of symbols and symbolism, and text integrated with or accompanying graphical elements. Across the bottom fifth of the poster is the textual matter, advertizing the exhibition and giving its sponsors (the Union of Austrian Artists), its location, and dates. The font is very curvilinear and not uniform in glyph width, height, or spacing, with marked distinction between vertical and diagonal or curving elements. Only the vine-like braces enclosing the word Secession and the heavy wavy line beneath the word Gesellschaft in the lower right corner depart from straight text in this part of the poster. 8 Above the text panel, prominently on the right of the middle section of the poster, the goddess Athena stands in profile, holding a spear and a shield, her aegis, and wearing an ornate, decorated helmet. Her skirts, visible from the bottom of the shield to her sandaled feet, are represented by a mass of closely spaced lines progressing from strictly linear in front to strongly curving in back, interspersed with dots. This treatment of her dress presages Klimt‟s later focus on textile patterning. The aegis bears a device of the monstrous face of Medusa, staring wide-eyed and with sharp teeth bared. Her eyebrows, nose, jawline, and chin are formed by a series of loose, sinuous, tangential curves. The serpents of her hair are represented by mirrored rows of tight Archimedean spirals, which curl around to form the foundation of her face, graduating from quite diagonal beneath her ears to fully vertical under the center of her chin. Athena holds in thin and delicately curved fingers a spear, stretching from her feet to above the top of the poster, the point angled slightly away from her and the shaft partially obscured by the disk of the shield. Aside from the phylloid spearhead, the spear is rigidly rectilinear. Above the shield is Athena‟s head, her hair flowing in a series of thick, black, wavy lines extending vertically from beneath the helmet to disappear behind the shield. The helmet is decorated with curving lines and more Archimedean spirals, continuing the motif in the shield. Sprouting from the top of the helmet is a plume or mane composed of a large black mass limned by curved lines. Suggestive of a shepherd‟s crook, this element partially obscurs outline letters spelling out Ver Sacrum in the top panel. The plume shape both reflects and contrasts with the spear, not only in the linework used, but also in symbolism. A spear is carried by a warrior, a crook by a shepherd, yet both stand as guardians and protectors of those in their charge. These are attributes of the goddess; they are also symbolic of the mission the Secessionists set themselves. 9 Across the top of the poster, partially behind Athena as if it were a mural painted on a wall before which she stands, is a scene from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.* The Minotaur was the guardian of the Labyrinth of King Minos of Crete, and the offspring of a union between his wife and a white bull. Athens, having lost a war with Crete, was obliged to send as tribute seven youths and seven virgins each year. These were imprisoned in the Labyrinth were imprisoned as prey for the Minotaur.36 The symbolism in the choice of this myth for this panel of the poster can hardly be missed. The Secessionists saw themselves as battling the bull-headed, reactionary autocracy of the established art community in Vienna and throughout Austria—the Künstlerhaus, itself— here represented by King Minos through the intermediary of the Minotaur. The youths and virgins required by Minos represent in absentia the younger artists of the Secession and those whose share their views, sent into the labyrinthine network of the traditional Austrian art world, never to be seen again (except as well-behaved apers of passé modes of artistic production and subject matter). Theseus, of course, represents the corporate body of the Secession members. Theseus was a self-recognized hero who took it upon himself to rescue the most recent group of young Athenians sent to Minos and put an end once and for all to the tribute. The Secessionists saw themselves as modern heroes with a valiant mission to rescue the young artists of their time—and ever after—from the fatal intractability of accepted Viennese art. Graphically, this section of the poster is as typically Art Nouveau as the rest. The figure of Theseus, athletically straining against the Minotaur, his sword poised for the killing thrust, is represented entirely by organic, curvilinear lines of a uniform width and weight, the arrangement of short fragments within the outline of his body suggesting the shapes of his * The Minotaur is represented in this poster in the common configuration of a bull’s head atop a human body, yet, interestingly, Bulfinch states that it was “…a monster with a bull
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