From the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897, graphic design played a pivotal role in introducing and sustaining the concept of modernism in Austria. The genre's melding of the fine and applied arts was ideally suited to the Austrian temperament, which preferred creature comforts to the more sublime demands of painting and sculpture. Particularly in the seminal years of the early twentieth century, almost every major Austrian artist (including Carl Otto Czeschka, Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Berthold Löffler, Koloman Moser, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Dagobert Peche, Alfred Roller, Egon Schiele and Eduard Wimmer) contributed to the graphic arts, which formed an aesthetic glue uniting a multitude of disciplines. The impact of graphic design was further heightened by its populist nature: a Klimt poster was likely to be viewed by many more people than a Klimt painting, and numerous smaller objects (broadsheets, postcards, books, journals and fashion prints) were intentionally disseminated as visual propaganda, to raise the general level of Austrian taste.
The Secession's proclivity for the applied arts--reflected both in the contents of its exhibitions and its elaborate installations--naturally created friction between the conventional easel painters and the more progressive "Stylists" (who included Klimt in addition to the architect Hoffmann and the designer Moser). When, in 1905, these tensions led to a permanent split between Klimt's group and the others, the Wiener Werkstätte--a design collective founded by Hoffmann and Moser in 1903--became the principal headquarters of the Viennese avant-garde. Through its multitudinous contacts with collectors, industry and the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art)--where most of its leaders both studied and taught--the Wiener Werkstätte commanded a wide sphere of influence. Its conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) as a unified architectural environment encompassing both the fine and the applied arts made the Werkstätte an important patron of painters as well as designers and craftsmen. The most important Viennese art exhibitions between 1905 and the outbreak of World War I were the Kunstschauen of 1908 and 1909, both orchestrated by the Wiener Werkstätte and its cohorts.
Neither the Secession nor the Wiener Werkstätte espoused a set style, and their graphics thus spontaneously reflected the rapidly changing aesthetics of modernism. At the turn of the century, French Art Nouveau and its German offshoot, Jugendstil, were the dominant influences in Austria. However, perhaps because cross-fertilization amongst disparate art forms was more rampant in Vienna than elsewhere, Art Nouveau inspired a broader variety of interpretations. In the hands of Hoffmann and Moser the style, tempered by a quest for structural integrity and the legacy of the British Arts & Crafts movement, veered sharply in the direction of pure abstraction. On the other hand Klimt, welding these same abstract tendencies to Symbolist subject matter, reinterpreted age-old allegorical themes in a shockingly contemporary vein. The typographer Rudolf von Larisch encouraged the equal treatment of negative and positive space, an innovative approach that could be applied to images as well as to lettering. If Art Nouveau in its original incarnation tended to affix organic decoration (leaves, tendrils, flowers and such) to utilitarian objects, Austrian designers had a tendency to invert the formula, reinterpreting representational subject matter in terms of decorative geometry.
The collaboration between Hoffmann and Moser that was central to the early "purist" phase of the Wiener Werkstätte began to break down after a few years, due in part to personal differences and in part to the influence of other colleagues. Two of the most important of these were Carl Otto Czeschka and Berthold Löffler, both of whom taught at the Kunstgewerbeschule and had a strongly figurative bent. Löffler, who was also a partner in Michael Powolny's Wiener Keramik (a ceramics workshop closely allied with the Wiener Werkstätte), was particularly influential in his use of bold colors and playful graphics. This is most evident in the early work of Oskar Kokoschka, who studied with Czeschka and Löffler and who initially seemed destined for a Wiener Werkstätte career.
Kokoschka's poster for the 1908 Kunstschau and his famous "adult fairy tale," Die träumenden Knaben (published by the Wiener Werkstätte at around the same time), both employ the bright hues and decorative stylization then flourishing at the Kunstgwerbeschule. However, the preliminary drawings for Die träumenden Knaben (and other similar drawings from this period) reveal a tense angularity and conflicted sexuality completely at odds with the harmonious requirements of interior decoration. It was this quality that the architect Adolf Loos--Hoffmann's iconoclastic rival--recognized when he literally plucked Kokoschka from the clutches of the Wiener Werkstätte by promising to set him up as a painter. Kokoschka, who by his own account had never visited a museum and knew little of painting, invented a primitive, scraped style that was partly self-generated and in all probability partly influenced by his colleague Max Oppenheimer (Mopp). Having thus broken decisively with the Wiener Werkstätte, Kokoschka never looked back, but it is nonetheless true that he owed the foundations of his career, both artistically and professionally, to that organization's support.
By 1910, when Egon Schiele first emerged as an Expressionist, the somber, scraped portraits of Kokoschka and Mopp were already fairly well known in Vienna, but although Schiele momentarily adopted a similar style, his essential path to Expressionism was different. A precocious talent, he had as a schoolboy already mastered the stylized flatness typical of contemporary graphic design and made a stab at creating illustrations in the manner of the popular German journal Jugend. Yet he also had a flair for classical draughtsmanship, and when, at the tender age of sixteen, he applied for admission to the Kunstgewerbeschule, he was referred to the more prestigious Academy of Fine Art, which immediately accepted him. (Later on, the Wiener Werkstätte would reject Schiele's submissions for betraying a similar underlying seriousness.)
Nonetheless, Schiele found no congenial home at the ultra-conservative Academy, for his flawless draughtsmanship was inextricably linked to the graphic sensibilities of the applied arts. From decorative stylization to Expressionist exaggeration was but a short leap. Schiele's confrontation with the existential void owed a direct debt to Klimt's horror vacui and the conscious interweaving of positive and negative space pioneered by Larisch's disciples. Unlike Kokoschka, who eventually evolved a painterly approach that implicitly repudiated the graphic legacy of the Wiener Werkstätte, Schiele never relinquished the primacy of line. Even his relatively rare landscape drawings reveal an architectonic crispness worthy of Josef Hoffmann.
In a certain sense, the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte ceded their moral force to the younger generation of Expressionists. For whereas initially the Werkstätte had sought to meld form and function, its later efforts degenerated into a kind of cutesy folkishness and a superficial ornamentalism. Kunstgwerbeschule students were encouraged to produce stock patterns that could be applied to a multitude of objects, from wallpaper to glassware, rather than being thoroughly schooled in the technical requirements of their craft. The original grandiose scheme of merging art and artifact in a single Gesamtkunstwerk was undermined by the inherent conflict between pure aesthetics and utility. That is perhaps why the most substantive contributions of fin-de-Siècle Viennese graphic design are to be found not in the applied, but in the fine arts.