Secession building and exhibition program

In the eyes of Vienna's citizens, Joseph Maria Olbrich's Secession building rose like some strange apparition on the edge of the market place. Opened in October 1898, this purpose-built exhibition hall – a temple to art – was unlike anything else in the rapidly changing city.

Olbrich's design was constructed in less than a year, its monumental white cubic form relieved by an extravagant gilded dome of 3,000 laurel leaves symbolising victory, dignity and purity.

The building attracted much attention and numerous nick-names including 'the Golden Cabbage' inspired by its glittering laurel leaves echoing in fantastical splendour its name-sake vegetable in the adjacent market place.

To the age its art …

Embossed in gold lettering above the pavilion's entrance is the Secessionists' motto: To the age its art. To art its freedom. Golden trees and Medusa heads also adorn the entrance and laurel garlands embellish the plain exterior walls.

The interior is based on a Roman Basilica and has a large central hall, two side halls and a vaulted glass roof allowing daylight to illuminate the spaces.

Secession exhibitions

The Secession building hosted a busy exhibition schedule (by 1902 it had staged 13 exhibitions) introducing Viennese audiences to works by foreign artists such as the French Impressionists as well as exquisitely designed items made by local craftsmen and designers more fully realising the Secession's ambition to integrate the arts and crafts.

Gustav KLIMT
Austria 1862–1918
Beethoven Frieze: Central wall 1901-02 (detail)
painted plaster
216.0 x 3438.0 cm
Belvedere, Vienna

Beethoven Frieze

Perhaps the most famous show was the fourteenth exhibition dedicated to Vienna's beloved composer Ludwig van Beethoven who embodied the notion of genius for the Viennese public and artistic community.

Hoffmann designed the galleries for the show, which featured Max Klinger's over life-sized sculpture of Beethoven in the central hall. In an adjacent gallery, Gustav Klimt's 34 metre-long frescoed frieze was both a homage to Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the fourth movement of his 9th Symphony and an allegory of humanity's redemption through the arts.

The frieze's narrative depicts the journey of Man and Woman through the wilderness of human degradation. In the central panel, they encounter the forces of darkness in which evil is personified by the ancient mythological beast Typhoeus (depicted as part gorilla, part snake and part bird) echoing the shock of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Women represent the symbolic figures of lewdness, lust and excess.

Though resolution comes to mankind (the couple is rescued by the knight in armour) its manifestation is ultimately more erotic than the embrace of universal love intended by Schiller's poem and Beethoven's setting of it.

Total work of art

The Beethoven Frieze celebrates the victory of the human spirit through painting, sculpture, music and poetry in Klimt's realisation of the Secessionist ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art).

© 2011 National Gallery of Victoria