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Wednesday, April 25, 2012


A page from the catalogue of the
First Impresssionist Exhibition,
Paris, 1874
As Americans, when we hear the term "secession" our eyes glaze over and we lapse into a U.S. Civil War history daze expecting the next word out of the instructor's mouth to be "reconstruction."  Few people are familiar with the term "secession" as it applies to art history.  You can relax, it has nothing to do with American Civil War art history. The term came to use around 1900, not in the U.S. but in Central Europe. Moreover, it had little to do with politics and everything to do with the oppressive force of various national art academies and their near total domination of the art world at the time. The French Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had fought the battle first, though they didn't call it secession.

A poster from a 1900 Secessionist exhibit.
The First Secessionist movement came in 1892 in Munich, followed quickly by the Berlin Secession in 1893, and the most famous, the Viennese Secession in 1897. Later came the Roman Secession, which was an adverse reaction to not only Academic art, but Futurism as well (very strong in Italy at the time). The effort was to make art global in nature, uniting artists from the various local schools opposing Academicism into an international force, making the work various secessionist movements and their members known all over the western world. They did this by emphasizing two, often-opposing elements, quality and quantity in not only their work but in the dozens of exhibitions they mounted to promote their goals. The Secessionist movements embraced not only painting, but sculpture, graphic arts, and architecture as well. Symbolism played an important part, as did various Art Nouveau influences--almost anything that was not Renaissance, not Baroque, not Rococo, and especially NOT ACADEMIC.

The most famous Secessionist movement
developed in Vienna, which had its own
museum as seen in this 2006 photo.
Secessionist movements were very democratic, admission prices to their exhibitions were often free or very modest, with free catalogs and guided tours. It was an overt strategy to bypass traditional avenues to artistic acceptance in favor of mass, public appeal. Often the exhibits centered on a single work of art or artist with all the other participants creating and exhibiting work to supplement the main theme. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Carl Moll, Koloman Moser, Maximillian Lenz and Max Klinger rose to prominence from these movements. And the various secessionist movements were not merely flashes of greatness. Their exhibits continued well into the first decade of the new century, and were to lay the groundwork for what later came to be know as Avant-garde art.  In fact, had they not mounted their crusade for freedom from the Academic past, there might never have been and Avant-garde movement.

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