A Brief History of the Vienna Secession

The Secession Building. Photography Courtesy of Shutterstock

Like many styles in the late 19th through 20th centuries, the Vienna Secession was a rejection of the traditional conservative style that was prevalent throughout art, architecture, and design. Begun by notable artists and architects Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Koloman Moser, and Josef Hoffman among others who had been part of the Association of Austrian Arts, the group founded the Union of Austrian Artists (now known as the Vienna Secession) in 1897. The creation of the Union Austrian Arts was meant as a means of exploring and displaying contemporary art that embraced various aesthetics while reevaluating historical styles. It is most often associated with Art Nouveau—which spread from France to other countries that included Britain and the United States—and Jugendstil, the German version of Art Nouveau.

In 1898, the Vienna Secession group constructed “The Secession” (die Sezession), a building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, to act as an exhibition space near the town square of Karlsplatz. The Secession would house artwork that included paintings, sculptures, architecture, and graphic design, showcasing the broad adoption of the style. The motto of the movement, which translates to “To every age its art. To every art its freedom.” is carved over the main entrance.

Ver Sacrum

From 1989 to 1903, the Vienna Secession group published the magazine Ver Sacrum. Latin for “Sacred Spring,” the name was a reference to classical stories of youth secession from elders to create their own new society. Indeed, the idea behind Ver Sacrum and the Vienna Secession was rooted in celebrating youth and youthful ideals. For the first two years, Ver Sacrum was released monthly with each issue focusing on an artist. From 1900 to 1903, it was released in a smaller format 24 times a year.

Due to the reach of Ver Sacrum, the Vienna Secession was able to spread its aesthetic and philosophical ideals internationally. Although it had a relatively short run, it continues to influence art and design magazines.


While many styles of the time were a complete rejection of classical design and art, the Vienna Secession didn’t fully reject previous characteristics. In particular, it was a response to the Beaux-Arts classicism that was used in the design of municipal buildings in Vienna from 1871 to 1891, which many people believed didn’t adequately fit in contemporary Austria, but the Vienna Secession still took some influence from neoclassicism and nature. 

Like Art Nouveau, the style of the Vienna Secession often utilized whiplash curves and floral motifs. It also took influence from the Arts and Crafts movement and utilized similar organic ornamental designs as Jugendstil. Secessionists embraced geometry and abstract elements, including within architectural design. Because the Vienna Secession was meant as a means of showcasing innovation in contemporary art, it was more of a philosophical thought than a style with concrete elements. As such, it didn’t support a singular style although it encouraged an anti-academic and anti-historical stance.

The Vienna Secession Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries

Although Klimt, Hoffman and Otto Wagner—who joined the group in 1899—among other prominent members quit the Vienna Secession in 1905, the group continued through the midcentury. During the Nazis occupation of Austria, the Secession building, which had continued as an exhibition space for contemporary art, was destroyed as it was a symbol of what the Nazis considered decadent art. It was reconstructed after World War II. Additionally, Hoffmann rejoined the Vienna Secession in 1945 and acted as elected President from 1948 to 1950. The Vienna Secession group continues to exist today, regularly holding exhibitions in the Secession building.

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