To the Age its Art, to Art its Freedom

The Secession Building in Vienna featuring the Secession “motto”:”To the Age its Art, to Art its Freedom” (“Der Zeit Ihre Kunst. Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit”)

I had just turned 21 and was on my third year of Architecture school.  Life has never been a straight line for me and my interests were all over the place.  For some reason in the previous years I had fallen in love with the German language and had plunged into the German culture and literature while going to Architecture school.  After a few years, I found myself with a plane ticket to Freiburg-im-Breisgau (a small student town in the south of Germany, in the Black Forest) and a scholarship to study German at the Freiburg University.  At that time, one of my favorite Professors from the Architecture School was living in Vienna.  Well, this Professor, Rosa, was kind enough to invite me to spend some time with her in her apartment in the very heart of Vienna, before my classes started. When I look back, what else could a 21-year old want from life? I had no money, but I had friends, adventurous perspectives and my whole life ahead of me. Life was good – very, very good. In fact, every time I hear the Timbuk3 song, I think of that time:

(…) I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
I’m doing all right, getting good grades
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades (…)

I arrived in Vienna after a long train ride from Belgium, where I was “based” (my mom’s sister has been living in Belgium forever, and she has always been kind enough to embrace me as a daughter all the times I was in Europe. By the way, I am Brazilian and was living in Rio at that time). When I arrived in Vienna, Rosa was waiting for me with some friends and a glass of wine at the train station. I remember that night: we hit a few pubs, I ate my first Goulash (Goulash is a Hungarian dish, and Budapest is just around the corner…) and I also lost my recent-Paris-acquired red beret in one of the restaurants we visited. It was December and cold, dark and windy; in spite of that, the streets were crowded and the people were in coffee houses, pubs, restaurants. Rosa knew a lot of people. Life was pulsating and there was no doubt about that.

While I walked downtown, I noticed that the old buildings had sometimes a beautiful plate next to the door, saying something like “Here lived Schubert – or Freud – from (year) to (year)”. Those plates were everywhere, mostly with great musicians names. At night, in the narrow and curvy streets illuminated by old lanterns, I felt that I had come to a magical place that I did not want to leave. Vienna was definitely a mix of East and West Europe, and having Eastern Europe in my blood (my dad was from Belgrade), that city could not speak more to my heart.

Why this long introduction? Well, you can imagine how easy it was for me to fall in love with the art and architecture that I saw in Vienna.

Let me explain that what first caught my eyes in Vienna was the Jungendstil (German for “youth style”) : the Viennese / German version of the Art Nouveau. It was everywhere, but most obviously at the buildings doors. The Art Nouveau or Jungendstil was a reaction to academic art of the 19th century, and it was inspired by natural forms and structures. Curved lines, twisted iron, experiences with curves. Architects tried to harmonize with the natural environment.

It is hard to figure out exactly what brought up that style (how can you really pin-point one single cause?). Real artists can grasp the Zeitgeist and translate it into forms, and that’s what happened in Vienna, at the turn of the century (1890-19….). Wikipedia says that
“The style was influenced strongly by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, when Mucha produced a lithographed poster, which appeared on 1 January 1895 in the streets of Paris as an advertisement for the play Gismonda by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt. ”
Gallery Direct has Mucha’s poster – see it here.

Alfons Mucha – Gismonda, 1894

Of all the artists involved in the Jungendstil movement, Gustav Klimt is certainly still the best known.

In the years of 1895 to 1900, Klimt pressed a personal crisis of middle age into a service of radical reorientation of his professional work (just like Freud, also living in Vienna and already a famous doctor). Klimt decisively rejected the realism in which he had been reared. He plunged into the self and embarked into a “voyage interieur”. When he exhibited to the public the results of his explorations inside his world of “instincts”, he encountered resistance from two ends: from liberal-rationalist academic orthodoxy, and from anti-Semites. In the face of hostility, Klimt withdrew from the public scene to the shelter of a small cottage house – to preserve and further explore the terrain he had just conquered and discovered.

 

We need to remember that at that time, Vienna was not in Austria, but part of the the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and all over the world Imperialism had its days counted. Klimt represented the cultural situation in which psychoanalysis also arose. He, like Freud, confronted a period of historical transition. With other intellectuals of his class and generation, Klimt shared a crisis of culture characterized by the search of a new self.

Gustav Klimt finally rose to fame in the service of wealthy families of Vienna. He decorated the Museum of Art History and the Burgtheather. During the years when these paintings won Klimt his fame, the social layer whose values he expressed was being undermined. The liberal society was crying for reform and a widespread, collective revolt began to spread through the Austrian middle class. “Die Jungen” (“The Youth”) became the common name chosen by the rebels in one filed after another. In the mid-nineties, the revolt agains tradition finally spread to art and architecture. Within the principal artists’ association – die Jungen – the name was used again – organized themselves to break the prevailing academic constrains in favor of an open, experimental attitude toward painting. They rejected the classical realist tradition of their masters in the search for modern man’s true face.

Section from Klimt’s ‘Beethoven Frieze’ with the character of ‘Lasciviousness.’
She’s the redhead seated on the back of the beast. Secession, 1902.

Klimt, though himself a young master of the old school, early assumed leadership in the revolt of die Jungen in the visual arts. In 1897, he led them out of the established artists’ association to found the Secession. Like I once heard, un-learning is so often so more difficult than learning! And in order to deconstruct, it is so important to have achieved the knowledge of the “conventional”.

In 1898 the movement gained its own building, a project by the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich. The exhibition building soon became known simply as “the Secession” (die Sezession). This building became an icon of the movement. You can see more photos of Secession building below, with Klimt’s paintings inside.

Check the poster for the first exhibit on sale at Gallery Direct here. It is fascinating, how strong this image still is!

I could write more, but what about giving you a break and continuing next week in “Vienna – Part ii?” Also, next time you buy a Klimt, think about all that the man went through, and all the freedom that his paitnings represent. No wonder they’re strong until today.

I found the images in this post in the web. I don’t think my own photos survived these years, unfortunately. If you want to read more about Vienna and the “Fin-de-Siecle”, I firmly recommend this book, which I consulted to write this post: “Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture”, by Carl E. Schorske.

Klimt’s 1902 Beethoven painting in the Secession Building

The Secession Building from another angle

2 thoughts on “To the Age its Art, to Art its Freedom

  1. Wow! Marina! I’m not sure what I am more impressed by, your writing or your fascinating life that reads like a novel! (have you missed your calling as a writer??)…anyway, do you write these regularly? If so let me know when your new blogs come out. ….thanks for the good read with my Sunday coffee! :)

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