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The Art and Culture of fin-de-siecle Vienna

Presented by Gavin Plumley

12th March 2024

Gavin Plumley.jpg

A bland title can mask the most enthralling lecture. This was certainly the case at the March meeting of The Arts Society Alton when Gavin Plumley introduced us to fascinating facts and images of Fin de Siècle Vienna.

A swift overview of the 700-year history of the Habsburgs put into context the political, cultural and social history of Vienna. The formation of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy coincided with huge physical and societal changes in Vienna.

A failed assassination attempt on 18 year old Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853 led his brother to plan the construction of Vienna’s neo-gothic Votive Church. Funded by contributions, much of the finance came from Viennese Jews who had thrived in the city having been allowed nobility and property ownership rights since the late 18th century.

Due to physical constraints on the city’s growth, in 1857 Franz Joseph decreed that the old medieval city walls should be demolished to remodel the centre. He planned a magnificent boulevard encircling the centre of Vienna lined with all the stately buildings of a modern democracy. It was intended to be a showcase of the grandeur and glory of the Habsburg Empire. The Ringstrasse was created and wealthy Viennese rushed to build showy mansions and palaces along the boulevard. Gavin described it as the Las Vegas of its day!

Amongst the stunning images used to illustrate his talk was a painting by Theodore Zasche depicting the rich and powerful inhabitants of Vienna strolling on the Ringstrasse, seeing and being seen. It shows the flourishing city but disguises the emergence of a more egalitarian art movement.

The Vienna Secession was formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists reuniting fine and applied art. Founders included Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner. They had resigned from the city’s Artists’ Association in protest against conservativism and to promote artistic innovation, inspired by Art Noveau. The first architectural project of the group was Joseph Olbrich’s cubic Secession Exhibition Hall built on The Ring.

Gavin Plumley went on to show us many examples of the Secessionists’ art such as Klimt’s designs for Vienna’s University Graduation Hall ceilings, Floge’s Reform fashion designs and The Otto Wagner Spital. If you are unfamiliar with them do investigate this truly fascinating period of art history.

He also explained how Schnitzler’s play La Ronde and Mahler’s symphonies crossed class boundaries, shocking hierarchical Vienna whilst highlighting the social tensions in the city. It was at this time that Freud emerged with his revolutionary views on the human psyche.


1918 saw the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of its 700 year dynasty. In the same year Klimt, Schiele and Otto Wagner died as Spanish Influenza arrived. By 1920 Vienna had lost its cultural crown and its Empire.


To quote one TASA member: ‘From what was an uninspiring title came the most comprehensive, interconnected and encyclopaedic lecture which was delivered in an engaging way that kept my interest up throughout’.


Kate Faulkner


A member of The Arts Society
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