The expression Wiener Moderne seems to appear all over the place in Vienna, particularly in museums. But what does it refer to?
- Short cultural era around the turn of the 19th <-> 20th centuries
- Period of astonishing creativity in art, design, architecture and other fields
- Brought forth names like Klimt, Schiele, Wagner, Hoffmann and many more
- The practitioners and period feature regularly in exhibitions across the city
- See also:
(The Leopold Museum, home to a permanent exhibition covering the Wiener Moderne; © Leopold Museum, Vienna; photo: Ouriel Morgensztern)
The period between 1890 and 1910 (and often a few years either side) fall under the cultural term Wiener Moderne.
As you wander through Vienna’s historical and contemporary attractions, you may see the era referred to by a range of other names: Vienna around 1900, Viennese modernism, the Viennese modern age, or similar. The Leopold Museum’s permanent exhibition on those times, for example, bears the title Wien 1900 / Vienna 1900.
The Moderne even has its own stop on the Time Travel VR tour (where, for example, you can pop into the studios of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele).
But why is this relatively short period of time so important for a city with such a long and rich history? Here’s a brief overview of what you need to know…
(Poster designed by Gustav Klimt for an 1898 art exhibition; Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 129001/2; reproduced with permission under the terms of the CC0 licence)
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Vienna had various qualities that encouraged the blossoming of new ideas and creativity.
The city stood at the centre of a huge empire that spanned much of central Europe: Vienna had around two million people back then (a size only reached post-empire in late 2023), all drawn from a range of cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs.
This reserve of potential creative talent lived in a period of transition and contrast, where different philosophies and circumstances rubbed up against each other.
On the one hand, for example, you had a centuries-old monarchy and wealthy aristocracy steeped in tradition.
The elderly emperor had just presided over the construction of numerous prestigious building projects in the style of historicism (celebrating previous historical styles rather than trying out anything new).
(The neogothic Rathaus went up just before the Wiener Moderne; photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)
On the other hand, for example, you had growing nationalism, working class poverty, political movements like Marxism, industrialisation, inquiring minds looking to the future (rather than the past), and greater international travel and communication that allowed new ideas and influences to spread faster than ever before.
And you had coffee houses, where all those inquiring minds could meet.
Such a melting pot produced an environment where the likes of Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schoenberg, and Gustav Mahler could blossom.
Consider, then, the Wiener Moderne a golden age that led to numerous bursts of innovative intellectual creativity.
Why is the Wiener Moderne important?
The period left its mark in all sorts of fields, from literature to philosophy and psychology.
For visitors to Vienna, the period’s importance comes from its association with some world-famous names and works in, for example, architecture, art, and design.
(A station pavilion designed by Otto Wagner in 1898)
In architecture, you had a drift away from buildings attempting to emulate the past to Art Nouveau (in the form of Jugendstil) and then more utilitarian designs.
Important names here are, for example, Otto Wagner (1841 – 1918) and Adolf Loos (1870 – 1933), both considered major global influences on modern architecture.
In art, you had groups such as the Secession moving away from traditional approaches.
(The Secession building and home of the same-named breakaway group of artists)
In design, you had, for example, the Wiener Werkstätte, an artisan workshop considered a pioneer of modern design across numerous categories (furniture, ceramics, etc.). This was the era of such geniuses as Josef Hoffmann (1870 – 1956) and Koloman Moser (1868 – 1918).
Many of the individuals who flourished during the Wiener Moderne worked in other disciplines beyond those for which they became famous.
Otto Wagner also designed furniture, for example. Hoffman also designed houses. Schoenberg also painted. Koloman Moser did pretty much everything and anything (as far as I can tell).
Where to learn more
(The entrance to the MAK museum)
The works, people, and places of the Wiener Moderne pop up all over the city, but here five useful tips for those with a special interest:
- Leopold Museum: the Vienna 1900 permanent exhibition mentioned earlier occupies three floors and introduces you to the works of various key personalities (and includes the world’s most prestigious Schiele collection)
- MAK Museum: the MAK’s own Vienna 1900 permanent exhibition travels a little further along the course of history (through to 1938) and focuses on the output of artisans and designers. One gallery features a special exhibition on the Wiener Werkstätte
- Wien Museum Karlsplatz: the permanent exhibition on the social, cultural and chronological history of Vienna has a considerable Fin-de-siècle section. Its “Beauty on the Edge of the Abyss” title feels rather apt, given the imminent arrival of WWI. Find creations by Wagner, Klimt and Schiele there, for example
- Belvedere Museum: the permanent exhibition at Upper Belvedere features the works of some of the prominent artists of the Wiener Moderne. The museum has the world’s most important Klimt collection and, of course, The Kiss (probably Austria’s most valuable painting and perhaps on the global all-time Top 10)
- Möbelmuseum Wien: the Vienna Furniture Museum has a Wiener Moderne collection with various works by Loos, Hoffmann, Wagner and others on display.