Vienna, at the dawn of the 20th Century, was a huge city, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the fourth World political and financial centre. It is the classical era of Franz Joseph and Sissi, valses and operas, and viennois luxurious palaces and eclectic buildings. However, near the antiquated atmosphere led by the decadent Habsburg aristocracy and the close-minded artistic rationalism, there was an avant-garde hive of artists in the shadows, bursting with intellectual and sensual energy. This "clandestine" generation's works, progressist and provocative, constantly clashed with the conservatism in Austro-Hungarian culture. Nowadays, our modern point of view considers this one of History's most creative movements.
Symbolism vs Realism
During the last years of the previous century, the influence of symbolist trend arrived in Austria. This style had arisen as opposition to the prevailing realism and naturalism, which had stopped making sense after the spreading of photography. Symbolism rejected the mere representation of apparency in favor of ideas, a neo-romantic, spiritual new way of thinking. Thoughts are depicted about life and death, love, divinity, nature, the seasons of the year, etc. Specially the woman's figure is generally painted, itself symbolizing both desire and death (Klimt), a sensual being that becomes nearly magic (Mucha) and finally, simply provoking (Schiele).
Surrounded by this atmosphere between academism and symbolism, by old and new generations of artists from the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, the young Gustav Klimt, son of a Bohemian immigrant, made his studies. He grew up in a poor, but close to art, family, and became an admirer of classicist painter Hans Makart. However, his experiments with allegoric motifs and his golden works in architectural decoration shaped his personal style, together with the search of the symbology transmitted by feminine sensuality.
In fact, he had trouble with the latter, when he performed the paintings called Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna in 1894. The conservative personalities in politics, arts and religion from the Empire were scandalized by the explicit sexual language in these works, openly considered as "pornographic". Klimt never accepted assignments from public institutions anymore.
The secession of Vienna
Meanwhile, in France and Britain, Art Nouveau appeared. Directly related with symbolism, but much more focused on aesthetics than concepts, one of its greatest representatives was the Czech painter and designer Alfons Mucha, born in Moravia. After his failure in Vienna, he moved to Paris, where he achieved great prestige and an unexpected commercial success, specially designing the posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt and in symbolist magazines (La plume, 1898). Even without being related to Klimt, he also pursued spirituality through sensually depicting the feminine body, while treating woman as an untouchable character from a fairy tale.
The Austrian version for this kind of arts was represented by the movement of the Secession of Vienna, founded by Klimt and other artists in 1897, as a copy of those in Munich and Berlin. Years later, this would eventually have more influence than the latter in Art Nouveau trends. The aim for this institution was opposing the insipid prevailing eclecticism and encourage experimentation in new materials and decorative forms that, again, broke the classic trends of that time. In fact, they built their own exhibition pavilion, designed by one of its members, architect Joseph Maria Olbrich. Other artists in the institution were architects Otto Wagner and Joseph Hoffman, and painter Koloman Moser.
For five years, the company effectively created a new style, seceded from anything else existing at that time, by using purer, more abstract shapes and motifs in their works. Besides, they managed to mix different decorative arts in a single one -architecture, painting, metal work, decoration- nearly reaching the pursued idea of "total work of art".
In 1903, three of the main artists of the movement, Klimt, Hoffman and Moser, could not coexist with a faction opposed to the fusion of decorative arts anymore -the so-called naturalists-, and founded the independent Wiener Werkstätte. This institution eventually created the most truly distinctive style of Art Nouveau, by applying beauty to practical objects, characterized by simple shapes, minimalist decoration and use of geometric patterns.
Some years before, in 1899, in his Nuda Verita, Klimt had introduced a quote from Schiller: "If you cannot please everybody with your facts and arts, then just please a few". In effect, the arts produced at the Werkstätte defended the value of being manual and unique, in opposition to industrialist tendencies from schools of Arts and Crafts all along Europe, progressively more oriented to mass production. This elitist spirit was confirmed by Hoffman, when quoting that "as it is not possible to work for all the market anymore, then let us concentrate in those that can afford it".
Clashing with the surrounding social trends had a price: Both Hoffman and Olbricht were banished, the first to Brussels, the latter to Darmstadt (Germany), where he continued taking an active part in the city's modernist school. Meanwhile, Hoffman went on pursuing the practical application of arts into everyday objects, eventually creating the bases for the future Art Deco.
New secessions. Expressionism
Together with his disciple, Egon Schiele, Klimt created the Vienna Kunsthalle (Arts Hall) in 1917, in order to attract local artists and prevent them from fleeing abroad. Klimt became very interested in the young painter, introduced him to the Wiener Werkstätte, and in 1908 he got his first exhibition. Together they experimented with new symbolist trends, more focused on dreams and darker aspects of human conscience, such as anger and loneliness. Schiele's style, however, got increasingly different from his master's, as he overlooked the aesthetics of his works in order to concentrate in the pure expression of the idea. Expressionism had arrived.
We should not forget, with more a personal style, the genial, eccentric Hungarian painter Csontváry, also in the middle between symbolism and expressionism, and his mysterious paintings full of metaphors and dramatic sentiments.
Schiele abandoned Klimt to completely focus on the new style. Same as his master, Schiele gained great reputation all over Europe despite disliking traveling, in fact he preferred installing in his studio, far from the noises of Vienna. However, he did not cease to observe the neurotic behaviors of the population in the city, decadent and closed on itself, which were described by Sigmund Freud and depicted by Schiele and his contemporaneous Oskar Kokoschka, also disciple of genial Klimt. The latter became, after the premature deaths of the master and Schiele in 1918, arguably the most intense expressionist painter during the 20th Century, whose works, declared "depraved" by the Nazis and persecuted, showed the darkest, most heart-rending aspects of the hard period he lived.