It is undeniable to assert that an attitude of what Morgan stated, the ‘optimistic rationalism’, still dominated the majority of the 19th century European. It was an extended traditional European thought since the Renaissance. This optimistic tradition, however, based on an unshakable belief in human achievement and the steady progress of civilization, had been reflected before 1914, the World War I, in a series of remarkable scientific discoveries and successful revolutions which seemed to foretell a future where all material needs would be overcome. As for the European rationalism, unquestionably, was rooted in the Newtonian concept, in which it is believed that the universe was stable. The ‘Natural’ laws reflected the rationalism of the nature. External reality was knowable and even controllable. Mankind, therefore, could successfully search and attain personal happiness, as well as solve the problem of the society and even between nations through rationalistic process.
To the majority of Viennese, like the other Europeans, were no exception indulging in the illusive prosperity, wealth, glory, and the political as well as the economical stability under the reign of Habsburg Family. The arts reflected this optimistic and rationalistic reality in certain degrees. The paintings and sculpture faithfully and objectively depicted the surrounding world through a realistic way, or in the other words, a rational process. This is a ‘mirror of the nature’. However, this sense of permanence, or rationalism, had one disadvantage. Just as the writer Hermann Bahr claimed, ‘ Nothing happens here, absolutely nothing.’ Bahr had for some time been pessimistic about the state of painting and sculpture throughout the Hasburg Empire and especially in its capital. He rightly believed that the visual arts in Vienna were narrowly provincial, unoriginal and dull. They had followed the same narrow course, always looking inwards rather than towards the broad horizon, and the organization from whom younger artists might have expected a lead did not provide one. That organization was the Kumstlerhaus, the co-operative Society of Artists, which was the leading one of its kind in Vienna. During the last decade of the 19th Century, the visual arts in Vienna were dominated by two principal bodies: the Academy of Fine Arts and the other one was Kunstlerhaus. The Kunstlerhaus was in a position to influence not only government policy with regards to arts, but also the formation of public taste, by means of its annual exhibitions. Therefore, it was, like the Academy, predominantly conservative in orientation reflecting the common ‘optimistic rationalism’ of the European thought.
However, modern art had to start somewhere. In Austria this starting-point is synonymous with Gustav Klimt. His pictures are as persistent as they are profound, captivating and powerful. Klimt is also the central figure of the Secession. On 25 May 1987, nineteen artists around Gustav Klimt split off from the Kunstlerhaus. They searched for new style and new way to express their subjective emotion through their artworks. The ‘Mirror of the nature’ began to give way to a more subjective view of art as an expression of individual emotion or an evocation of momentary effect. This tendency towards a more personal and idiosyncratic depiction of reality found expression, for example, in the works of the post-impressionists like Cezanne and other painters, notably Van Gogh and Kandinsky. They distorted objects to project them in terms of their own subjective, emotional responses rather than as independent entities separable from personal experience. Klimt, obviously, was deeply affected by this irrational process in creating his works such as the Beethoven Frieze in 1902, the Hope I & II in 1903-1908, the Three Ages of Woman in 1905 and the Danae in 1907. Notably, all these artworks were finished before the WWI where a period that the recognition of the orthodox state of ‘irrationalism’ was taken place.
Although the idea of ‘rationalism’, reflected through various kinds of art, was the mainstream of the European’s arts before 1914, Klimt of Vienna, like his many contemporaries, had already participated into the area of the sub-conscious, or irrational creation before the WWI. His artworks foresaw the ‘irrationalism of the modern art, which finally became orthodox European thought after the two World Wars. In my opinion, the secession movement in Vienna leading by Klimt, although experienced a dramatic triumph in the first few exhibitions, was gradually a failure. The changing conditions had first been hinted at in the acerbic debate over Klimt’s university paintings, which were greeted by a chorus of disapproval from the academic establishment. The matter became a political embarrassment even for a non-representative administration, and Klimt, sensing this, finally succeeded in repurchasing the three completed paintings in 1905 and withdrew into an increasingly private artistic world. However, through Klimt’s paintings, it was proved that he actually was a pioneer of the modern art without regarding the mega trend, ‘optimistic rationalism’, of the Continent. Furthermore, he was also one of the real forerunners of the ‘European irrationalism’. This artistic ‘irrational thought’ eventually not only influenced the aesthetic criteria of appreciating the art of Vienna or the entire Europe or the other parts of the world, but also became a social and political thinking that dominated the European, or even all the other nations, after the World Wars up to the present day.
David Leung (theorydavid)
 Robert, Morgan, The Modern Age, pp 4-5.
 Robert, Morgan, The Modern Age, p6
 Peter, Vergo, Art in Vienna, 3rd ed., Phaidon Press Ltd., Singpore, 1993, p.11
 Whitford, Frank, Gustav Klimt, Collins & Brown, Hong Kong, 1993, p.43
 Peter, Vergo, p.18.
 Iaroslave Boubnova, H. Christoph, R. Fleck, et al., Vienna Secession 1898-1998, Prestel, New York, p.9.
 Robert, Morgan, The Modern Age, p.4
 Robert, Morgan, The Modern Age, p.1
 Paul Banks, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Modernism, pp382-383.