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  • The Female Secession: Art and the Decorative at the Viennese Women's Academy by Megan Brandow-Faller
  • Jennifer L. Good
Megan Brandow-Faller, The Female Secession: Art and the Decorative at the Viennese Women's Academy. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2020. 260 pp.

Megan Brandow-Faller's The Female Secession: Art and the Decorative at the Viennese Women's Academy situates the secessionist women's art movement in Vienna within larger questions of female artists, their educational opportunities, and the context of their contested spaces and experiences as artists. Building on the work of Sabine Plakohm-Forsthuber, Julie Johnson, and Rebecca Houze, the author draws particularly on Houze's assertion that modernism's focus on "fine art" does not sufficiently accommodate the craft-oriented female artists. Within these pages, Brandow-Faller offers the readers two different lenses through which to consider this discussion: Part 1 profiles the educational and philosophical drivers of the movement while Part 2 focuses on three critical moments of growth and disruption. In addition, the book provides a rich portrayal of both the diversity and the fusion of art, craft, and decoration through the inclusion of twenty-seven color plates of artworks and extensive archival material, such as photographs of exhibits and of women artists in their workspaces.

Part 1 of The Female Secession focuses on the creativity and the hierarchy of educational options open to women artists beginning in 1897. The three chapters address the pedagogies and innovations of the Viennese Women's Academy in the early years, the role of decoration and handcrafts in the [End Page 119] Böhm School, and academic accreditation and the developing discussion of a female aesthetic at the Academy. The education that women found at the Academy included a radical shift away from traditional prescriptive technical instruction to the privileging of an individualized instructional model that "cultivated an all-around versatility […] and the inclusion of decorative art and handcraft under the rubric of academic studies" (25). While Academy faculty represented competing aesthetic values, the pedagogical design gave students permission to follow their own paths rather than imitate their teachers. Chapter 2 chronicles the act of "unlearning" informed by progressive early education research that focused on an "awakened awareness of material and technique through experimental self-activity" (47). The secessionist's interest in "primitive" forms was, however, contradicted by the act of studying them and combining them with modernist principles. In Chapter 3, the author delivers a systematic and integrated analysis of institutional history from the Viennese Women's Academy recognition in 1908 through the perils of the political winds of the 1930s. Detailed and well documented are the Academy's rise to state-accreditation status, supervised and financed by the Ministry of Education, and its newfound stature as it was given equal status to other state art academies and allowed to offer both the decorative arts and handcraft and traditional academic painting and sculpture, enhancing Vienna's reputation through "its public educational mission in women's art education, especially in the fields suited to women" (73). Brandow-Faller's clear explanations bring the challenges of the Academy into sharp relief, navigating changes in leadership while balancing its prestige with the contested ideal that handcraft was art and not mere decoration.

Part 2 of The Female Secession presents three critical moments of growth and disruption, where secessionist philosophies are in dialogue with the decorative arts and seeking expression. In these chapters, the author's two central narrative threads are strongly evident: first, the relationship of female artist-designers to child art primitivism, and second, the ways in which the "decorative women of the female Secession played on naturalized assumptions of Women's connection to (self) decoration, ornament, and handcraft" (9). Brandow-Faller's extensive study of this period, and particularly her work on artistic toys (Chapter 4) and "feminine vessels" (Chapter 5) bring these periods of female artists' work to life. In "Kinderkunst and Frauenkunst at the 1908 Kunstschau," the author shows how a "serious interest in art for and by children" (101) opened up a unique space for women artists. In vivid [End Page 120] descriptions of multiple rooms of the 1908 Kunstschau, the author...


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pp. 119-121
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