BA Film Studies and History of Art / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Art in Vienna 1880-1938

Course unit fact file
Unit code AHCP24102
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Art History and Cultural Practices
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


As a tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire maintained its decorative façade and high society waltzed on regardless, new impulses were simmering beneath the surface in fin-de-siècle Vienna. And we are not only referring here to Sigmund Freud: from Gustav Klimt’s thinly-veiled symbols of sexual energy and sinewy mortality to the neurotic art of Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele; from the theatrical splendour of institutional architecture to the clean lines of the sanatorium, there is plenty to analyse in the visual culture of early twentieth-century Vienna.

Topics covered in this critical introduction will include the art and architecture of key individuals and collectives: the Vienna Secession; the applied arts of the Viennese Workshops; and social housing projects of ‘Red Vienna’. Attending to wider cultural currents in the famous café circles and important networks of patronage and critics, we shall explore both the multi-cultural heritage and the influence of women - beyond the ‘muse’! What is a Gesamtkunstwerk and could one actually live in one? How far could avant-garde artists and intellectuals foresee the collapse of their small but vibrant artistic universe? All this and more to be discussed in a close encounter with a febrile period of cultural experiment.


  • Explore characteristic features of the art, architecture and applied art of Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century.
  • Assess the influence of Vienna’s imperial traditions on critical tensions between formal beauty and functional purpose.  
  • Observe a new fascination for the instinctual self and for the workings of both mind and body, evident in the birth of psychoanalysis and across the arts of the era.    
  • Examine the reform of urban spaces, public institutions and private dwellings during a period of rapid social and political change.
  • Question the implications of overt prejudices regarding differences in race and gender in an intensive urban centre at the heart of a sprawling empire. 
  • Consider the evidence in visual culture of mounting political pressures on the brink of World War I.
  • Assess the impact of public building projects in the new Republic of Austria after 1918.
  • Encounter the wider context of modernist advances in elements of literature and music.

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to –

  • Identify characteristic features of the art, architecture and applied art in the work of key individuals and design collectives.
  • Evaluate examples of the tensions between modernity and tradition, form function, explaining the influence exerted by structures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  
  • Reflect on the prominence of subjective concerns with sexuality and the psyche.  
  • Evaluate multiple cross currents between painting, architecture and the applied arts. 
  • Think critically about changing attitudes to the role of the artist in society and the effects of building design on states of mind. 
  • Identify opportunities and obstacles for women artists practising during the period.
  • Explain the role of cultural patrons and the prejudice encountered by those of Jewish heritage.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to –

  • Interpret works of art and architecture in light of a shift from tradition to modernity at the end of empire.
  • Analyse the explicit attention to mind and body in painting and in the context of psychological theories. 
  • Discuss the relationship of form to function in architecture and the applied arts, including conflicting attitudes to the role of ornament.
  • Reflect on differing attitudes to women as artists, patrons and as objects of the male gaze. 
  • Read and analyse primary and secondary sources related to Viennese Modernism, its key protagonists and prominent cultural tensions.
  • Write coherently about works of art and architecture, in light of reading and group study.
  • Employ knowledgeably in discussion and in writing some key terms relating to developments in Viennese Modernism (Gesamtkunstwerk, Historicism, Secession, Expressionism, Psychoanalysis, Functionalism, etc).

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to –

  • Identify distinct phases of artistic development across a historical period.
  • Apply knowledge of a specific place and time to prominent themes in art history.
  • Interpret texts and images in their context and from a critical perspective.
  • Engage in debates over significant tensions in art and cultural politics.     

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to –

  • Engage in reading and writing on a regular basis, making use of the bibliography and resources provided.
  • Manage time effectively in order to complete assignments.
  • Contribute to peer learning, raising questions and offering observations in class and in group work.
  • Develop a critical perspective towards written and visual sources.
  • Present coherent arguments in written work.
  • Respond productively to feedback to improve understanding and articulation of the subject area.

Assessment methods

Assessment task Formative or Summative Length Weighting within unit (if summative)
Presentation - Analyse the work of one artist or collaborative group in the context of place and time Summative Equivalent 1500 words (10 mins) 30%
Essay plan  Formative 500 words  
Essay - choice of titles tbc Summative 2500 words 70%

Feedback methods

Feedback method Formative or Summative
Written feedback on essay Summative
Written feedback on presentation task Formative
One-to-one feedback in scheduled office hours or by appointment Formative


Recommended reading

Tag Gronberg, Vienna, City of Modernity 1890-1941, Oxford 2007

Martina Pippal, A Short History of Art in Vienna, Munich 2001

Leslie Topp, Architecture and Truth in fin-de-siecle Vienna, Cambridge 2004

Marie-Amelie zu Salm-Salm (ed.), Klimt, Schiele, Moser, Kokoschka: Vienna 1900, Paris 2005

Carl Schorske, Fin de Siècle Vienna, Politics and Culture, Cambridge 1981

Peter Vergo, Art in Vienna, 1898-1918¿: Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele and Their Contemporaries,  London 1981

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, A Hidden Inheritance, London 2010

Frank Whitford, Klimt, London 1990.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Niccola Shearman Unit coordinator

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