“Secession: The Century of Artistic Freedom”


This honest and comprehensive survey of a century’s worth of the art exhibited at the Vienna Secession—basically a sampling of the more than 10,000 artists who have shown in what is perhaps the seminal space for the avant-garde in the world—gave the lie to the star system that elevates a particular artist at the expense of all others. As if this still required proving, an artist gains his or her identity and importance from the way he or she responds to the field and the issues that define it, not because of any inherent genius. Although the exhibition has been criticized in the Vienna press for crowding in too few works by too many artists, curator Robert Fleck’s show, by privileging none, emphasized the complexity and contradictoriness of avant-garde art as a whole.

The extraordinary variety of works seemed to prove that no avant-garde “position” remains dominant for long, further suggesting that artists are best studied in the context of avant-garde restlessness and change (and the reasons for that change), rather than as phenomena in their own right. Each artist, no matter how unique he or she seems, is no more than a fragment of a constantly shifting art scene (to which Secession was and remains remarkably attuned) that has a momentum of its own.

Because the Secession exhibition was more about a historical process than its products (however masterful they may be), it ended up being about radical differences rather than comfortable resemblances. From the moment in 1902 when the joint display of Gustav Klimt’s seductive Judith, 1901, and Josef Hoffmann’s severe, Constructivist relief Above the Door, 1902, demonstrated the conflict within the Viennese avant-garde, the Secession program seemed determined to make the point that there is no center to avant-garde art. Complex comparisons were invited throughout the history of the Secession: Edvard Munch’s Separation, 1894, and Ferdinand Hodler’s Summer Landscape (Small Chestnut Tree), 1903, were both exhibited there in 1904; Fernand Léger’s Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner), 1921, and Paul Klee’s Landscape with Child, 1923, were both shown in 1924. The international scope of the avant-garde was consistently acknowledged—denying privilege to any city claiming to offer the best conditions for making avant-garde art or any nation claiming a monopoly on originality.

Keeping its horizons open, the Secession has consistently tracked current developments in avant-garde art, forcing us to recognize the simultaneity of innovation and discovery in the context of different cultural heritages. Jackson Pollock’s Number 7, 1948, exhibited in 1956, and Arnulf Rainer’s Cross Black on Yellow, dated and exhibited in 1957, are equally abstract and expressionist, but the former looks back to American landscape tradition and the latter to European religious tradition. Similarly, the mood of living death—the sense of vacuum created by depression and disappointment—in Cindy Sherman’s 1984 Untitled (MP #133) and Gerhard Richter’s 1969 Landscape near Hubbelrath has a different cultural ancestry in each case, though both were exhibited in 1989.

The lack of consistency to twentieth-century avant-garde art, as seen through the show, is a result not only of the freedom that Secession trumpeted—a freedom that seems to have become a kind of compulsion—but of the pervasive belief that conflict is generative. The show exposed the paradox of the avant-garde: shattered by sectarianism from the beginning and going off in all directions at once, it lacks any clarifying rhyme or reason, even if, taken as a whole, it is cosmopolitan and consummate.

—Donald Kuspit