Gustav Klimt: Secession and Pallas Athena (1898)

Wien Museum

Wien Museum

In the spring of 1897 a number of artists—among them Gustav Klimt, Carl Moll, and Josef Engelhart founded the famous Society of Austrian Fine Artists–Secession. In November 1898, the Secession Building, built according to plans by Joseph Maria Olbrich, opened. Shown here for the first time was Gustav Klimt’s painting Pallas Athena the primary programmatic image of the new artists’ group.

Final drawing for the poster of the first Secession exhibition (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Poster of the first Secession exhibition, 1898

As his motif for the first exhibition poster of the Secession, Klimt chose an episode from Greek mythology, namely Theseus’s victory over the Minotaur. Theseus received protection from Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, of the arts, of war, and of peace.A comparison between the original print and the version released after censorship reveals that Klimt was compelled to partly camouflage Theseus' heroic nudity by tree trunks which had to be printed over the finished posters.

Poster of the first Secession exhibition (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Uncensored version

Poster of the first Secession exhibition (censored version) (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Censored version

Final drawing for the poster of the first Secession exhibition (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

The textual section which provides the viewer with the necessary data on the place and date of the exhibition is confined to a block of text along the lower edge; regarding the place of exhibition, the text of the final drawing differs slightly from the printed version.

The explanatory title “Theseus und Minotaurus” is printed to the left-hand side of the scene.

The words “Ver Sacrum,” which appear twice, are to be understood programmatically, ...

... the slogan “Heiliger Frühling” (Sacred Spring) alludes to the optimistic strivings toward the rebirth and renewal of art that was the central aspiration of the Secessionists.

Design for the building of the Vienna Secession (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

The Secession Building

This sheet bears one of Klimt’s two existing designs for the Secession Building. Without doubt, his proposals influenced the design of the ultimate exhibition building, erected according to plans by Joseph Maria Olbrich. Found already in Klimt’s design is the reference to the unity of painting, sculpture, and architecture in the spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art).

The Secession Building was built in 1897/98 by Joseph Maria Olbrich as an exhibition hall for contemporary art and is still used as such today.

Pallas Athene (1898) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Pallas Athena

In 1898, Klimt produced the oil painting of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and art who was invoked as a key figure and tutelary goddess by the new Viennese artists’ association, just as she had been earlier by the Munich Secession, founded in 1892.

The protective goddess confronts the viewer with an aggressive pose, thereby holding him at a distance. Her metal breastplate in the form of a Medusa’s head grins at us, at the same time showing us its tongue—an undisguised polemic against the critics of the Secession.

In her right hand, she holds a small female figure—not Nike, the winged goddess of victory, as in traditional depictions of Pallas Athena, but instead a nude figure which holds a mirror up to the viewer, and which may be interpreted as embodying Nuda Veritas, or “Naked Truth”.

Recognizable in the background is the struggle between Hercules (personification of a new art) and the sea monster Triton (emblem of stiffness and conservatism), a scene which Klimt adopted directly from two early Greek bowls decorated in black-figure style by the painter Tleson.

Klimt’s Pallas Athena, then, may be interpreted as allegorical and programmatic image for the Secession, one that anticipates stylistically the hotly contested Symbolist ceiling paintings he would later execute for the assembly hall of the university.

Poster for the eighteenth exhibition of the Secession (1904) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

The eighteenth Secession exhibition in 1904 was devoted to the works of Gustav Klimt. Needless to say, Klimt also designed the poster for this exhibition. The final drawing for the lettering was located recently among the original holdings of the Wien Museum – hitherto unknown, it testifies to the painstaking care which Klimt devoted to typographic matters as well.

Credits: Story

Abridged texts from the exhibition catalogue:

Klimt. The Collection of the Wien Museum
Editor: Ursula Storch

Editing: Ursula Storch and Kerstin Krenn

301 pages, Hatje Cantz Verlag 2012, ISBN 978-3-7757-3360-1

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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