Art History 101: The Vienna Secession

By Austin Bowes

The Vienna Secession 01

Today, I’m writing about two very distinct artists. However, they are so connected, I can’t imagine writing about them individually (though I could if I had the time). They are, if you couldn’t tell from the above photo of their work, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. My guess is that you’ve more than likely heard Klimt’s name, but less likely Schiele’s name. In any case, both artists have risen in popularity in recent years, so I thought it would be good to see why.

For some background information, both Klimt and Schiele were artists working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire collapsed after its defeat in World War I, but was largely “under construction” during the era in which the artists worked, as it was the end of the Habsburg Monarchy in Vienna. Much of the art world in Vienna was governed by the Vienna Künstlerhaus which held the Austrian Artists’ Society. Some artists started to object to its conservatism in keeping with the tradition of Historicism in painting. Upset, Gustav Klimt and other artists, such as Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich, founded the Vienna Secession in April of 1897. The Vienna Secession, with Klimt as its first president, worked towards making artists who did not keep within Historicism better known by housing other kinds of exhibitions. Think of how French Impressionist had their own independent exhibitions outside of the Salon. This is how Klimt, Schiele, and so many other artists were able to showcase their work in the Vienna Secession building, which is a wonderful piece of architecture in its own right.

So who is Gustav Klimt? Klimt was born near Vienna in 1862 as the second of seven children. All of the Klimts showed artistic promise. Klimt studied historical painting at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and even went to school with his younger brother Ernst. Klimt’s painting was highly academic and fit entirely within his conservative schooling; he was even honored by Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, the University of Munich, and the University of Vienna. However his style began to change when his father and brother died and he had to take over financial responsibly of their families. Klimt became close to Emilie Flöge, his sister-in-law by marriage (Emilie was sister to Helene, the wife of Ernst), and they were life partners until death. Many art historians believe that he painted her in many of his works, most notably his famous painting “The Kiss.” “The Kiss” is simply a man and a woman embracing. The painting, like much of Klimt’s famous work, glimmers with gold and includes a gold leaf, the characterization of his “golden phase.” It was in this style his painting, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was completed (now in New York’s Neue Galerie). Klimt is notable for his golden phase, but also for the immense symbolism and characteristic forms in his works. He is an artist with a distinct hand. Personally, I have to catch my breath whenever I see his work. It is through Gustav Klimt that I discovered Egon Schiele.

Egon Schiele was a younger contemporary to Klimt. He also attended the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, but only for a short period of time. Schiele was inspired by Klimt and sought him out as a mentor. Klimt was able to introduce Schiele to more of the art world at exhibitions that showed works by Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh. These, along with Klimt’s work, inspired him to explore the human form. But further, Schiele wanted to explore human sexuality. This is why much of Schiele’s work was found as too explicit or even disturbing. In some ways, his methods and intentions are unclear, as Schiele’s work shows an obsession of young women, mostly prostitutes. Nonetheless, his work is entirely emotional and it is clear that Schiele gained a unique insight into the human form. Most of his works are portraits: self-portraits (even many nude ones), those of young women, some of his contemporaries such as Max Oppenheimer, and even landscapes. For my New York readers, I highly recommend an amazing exhibit at the Neue Galerie called “Egon Schiele: Portraits” which features many of Schiele’s works.

These two artists made their mark in the art world by transcending boundaries of tradition with new ideas about the human form and sexuality. Today, they are celebrated for their talents — and rightfully so. Klimt and Schiele are some of my favorite artists. A short trip to a museum or even a Google search may make them some of your favorites as well.

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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