Published  07/07/2008

Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900

Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900

Tate Liverpool is presenting the first, 'comprehensive exhibition of Gustav Klimt ever staged in the UK'

Tate Liverpool
30 May-31 August 2008.

To celebrate 2008 as European Capital of Culture, Tate Liverpool is presenting the first, 'comprehensive exhibition of Gustav Klimt ever staged in the UK'. The exhibition sets out to explore Klimt's role as the founder and leader of the Viennese Succession. Only a small number of paintings are included in the Liverpool show, leaving many visitors feeling somewhat let down. The stated intention of the Liverpool exhibition was, however, to address the relationship of the fine and applied arts, and the architectural and spatial staging of Klimt's paintings. The Vienna Secession embraced not only art but also architecture, fashion and design that included simple furniture and dazzling decorative objects from the Weiner Werkstätte, which in effect, demanded a breakdown in the hierarchy of the arts. The so-called golden paintings by Klimt have been described as having a goldsmith's attention to detail. Skill and design issues were central to the work of the Vienna Secession, and furniture and design objects were included in their original exhibitions around 1900 in Vienna.

The current exhibition, designed to appeal to the widest possible cross-section, has attracted high numbers in terms of attendance, but also significant criticism. The major exhibition 'Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making', at the National Gallery of Canada, prefaced its show with an explanation of Klimt's small oeuvre and the fragility of key works: 'Klimt's magisterial golden portraits are … poorly served by any exhibition outside of Vienna, since the surpassing effigies of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Fritza Riedler are too fragile to travel. Here the preparatory drawings, fascinating though they are, fail to do justice to the brilliance of Klimt's ornamentation and his innovative approach to the most fashionable of genres'.1 In fact, the Liverpool show includes the Bloch-Bauer portrait as its centrepiece. Estée Lauder's son, the former American Ambassador to Austria, bought 'Adele Bloch-Bauer I' two years ago for $135 m (£68 m).

It has been widely claimed, that Gustav Klimt has been so applauded and appraised as the central figure of Viennese culture, his work reproduced to such an extent, that it has become devalued in respect of its artistic significance. In spite of the popularity, the prospect of being able to view works by Klimt in the flesh has prompted a great surge of interest; crowds are making their way to Liverpool this month. The radicalism of Klimt is played down in this exhibition, Klimt initiated a movement that would find its manifestation in the work of the next generation - the ethically based subjectivism of the Expressionists, Schiele, Gerstl and Kokoschka, who 'seized on the overt critique of society as a powerful weapon and adapted to their own needs and desires the role of social outsider forced on them by their conservative opponents'.2

Yet the phenomenon of Klimt cannot go unreported. Tate Liverpool's Director Christoph Grunenberg responded to criticism that the Klimt show was 'a ruthless commercial exploitation', by reminding us of the exhibition's full title, which is, he says, 'A clear indication of its concept. We chose not to present a monographic survey of Klimt as the solitary genius, but to situate the artist within the framework of the period. For Klimt and his fellow founders of the Viennese Secession, the suspension of the separation between so-called high and low art was an essential objective. This striving for gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art - is at the centre of this exhibition. It brings together paintings commissioned or owned by major Klimt collectors with contemporary architecture, furniture and design'.3 The exhibition also pays homage to the British Arts and Crafts Movement, which exerted a significant impact on the Austrian artists, designers and architects of this period. The British work was used as a point of inspiration in Vienna, as a great example of how the disturbing impact of the process of industrialisation was addressed and how the impact of mass production could be overcome. In Vienna, Klimt and his followers sought inspiration from the ideals of William Morris in England. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was invited to participate in the Vienna Secession show of 1900.

The Liverpool exhibition includes a careful reconstruction of Klimt's famous 'Beethoven Frieze', which was exhibited in the Secession show of 1902. Gustav Mahler provided the musical accompaniment for the artist's visual representation of Beethoven's ninth symphony. A monumental work on three walls, the 'Beethoven Frieze' tells of good overcoming evil. Gold leaf, coloured glass, curtain rings and mother-of-pearl as well as paint are used. The original was stored in a shed and restored in the 1970s - it is too cumbersome and fragile to travel - justification for this reproduction, made using Klimt's techniques and materials, says Grunenberg. The Guardian's critic was alarmed that the unique selling point of the exhibition was a mere reconstruction. (June 11, 2008)

In his foreword to 'The Naked Truth' (2005), perhaps the most important exhibition of the work of this period at the Leopold Museum, Vienna, Max Hollein writes about the popularisation of the work of Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka: 'The popularization of their work has focussed above all on its formal features, its perceived decorative character. In the superficial understanding of the non-specialist this has tended to reinforce the conventional notion that 'Vienna around 1900' implies an approach to art that is altogether in keeping with the cosy image of the city made up of pompous 'imperial and royal' edifices, a coffee-house culture complete with Sachertorte, the seductive sparkle of the culture of 'Sissi' (the Empress Elisabeth, consort of Emperor Franz Joseph) and the morbid charm of deceptive Viennese fine talk'.4 The aim of 'The Naked Truth' exhibition (named after one of Klimt's paintings) was to correct what the organisers perceived to be a resistance in the public to grasp the reality of the artistic movement in Austria in the years around 1900, particularly the violent opposition that such radicalism prompted. The controversial exhibition highlighted the scandals aroused by nakedness in painting and graphic art around 1900. The Liverpool exhibition is by contrast less forceful, and less altruistic, as it is organised by project and patron rather than by Klimt's artistic development. Thus, portraits are shown alongside architectural designs by Josef Hoffmann, furniture, pen-wipers, fruit baskets, coal scuttles - all designed by Klimt's friend, Koloman Moser. Klimt's decorative works are those in the show, not his more uncompromising late works, many of which are too fragile to travel.

The art of Gustav Klimt, like that of Schiele and Kokoschka can only be understood against the background of the political and cultural circumstances of Vienna in its former role as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Deeply reactionary views and radically modern views and intellectual activity all existed; groundbreaking ideas in science, psychoanalysis, sexuality, the emergence of political parties appealing to the masses, alongside the emergence of Anti-Semitism, created a highly charged atmosphere. Hollein sums this up well, 'In this melting pot of ideas and ideologies, art proved to be especially suited to serve as a symbolic battlefield, an arena for the confrontation of the most varied points of view. And nowhere was this battle for modernism waged with such ferocity as in Vienna. In all probability, this was even more extreme than it might have been in as far as Viennese artistic radicalism did not, in the last analysis, resort to abstraction but, rather, to a radical form of realism - the demand for an absolute and uncompromising truthfulness'.5

The art of Klimt is paradoxical in many respects. He was trained in academic and classical traditions, and chose to explore the most intimate themes of nudity and sexuality with a directness that bordered on the brazen. He was not, for example, afraid to portray lesbian love or a pregnant woman naked. The heavily pregnant figure, in, 'Hope I' (1903) is alone - portrayed without a 'classical' partner in the manner of Mars and Venus, for example. Without a protector, and standing in profile to accentuate her fullness, the emphasis is on sexuality made flesh. A single female figure in Catholic iconography belongs to the Virgin Mary, but Klimt departs from that tradition with a powerfully sexual image. The drama in erotic terms gives no indication of his working method, which was often painfully slow. He worked on preparatory sketches for works, years in advance. His portraits were very slow to complete and, ironically, he was happy to exhibit unfinished works, but reluctant to allow his patron to take possession of a commissioned work. His private drawings were extremely erotic, yet his portraits presented his female sitters as exemplars of self-confidence. Describing the portrait of Emilie Flöge, Klimt's companion and muse, Wolfgang Fischer describes Klimt's stylistic predilections: 'the general tendencies of Klimt's view of portraiture are present in exemplary fashion - extreme elongation of the figure, ornament spun over surfaces, thin, flat hands which themselves are to an extent another ornament, restriction of body-presence to head, hands and a small décolleté and concealment of the feet. The notion of standing is visually indeterminate, even though Emilie stands or rather hovers before us full size with the body three-quarters turned. It seems as though the actual figure is, as is often the case with Klimt, behind a decorative screen'.6 Fischer points out that in the portrayal of Emilie, Klimt took care not to portray her as a decadent, femme fatale, or as personifying sex as a universal power. Klimt's respect for her as a fashion designer of brilliance, and an independent woman, is paramount. Recent research has shown that the models for the most famous of Klimt's works, The Kiss, were the artist himself and Emilie Flöge.

The naked body is generally acceptable in art in the present day, but in 1900 in Vienna Klimt's erotic drawings overstepped the limits of acceptability. Klimt is well known for the scandal surrounding the exhibition and publication of certain drawings, in particular. On 19 March 1901 the public prosecutor in Vienna issued a formal demand that the most recent issue of Ver Sacrum be seized and destroyed. The magazine served as a platform of the Vienna Secession and had a good reputation. The Vienna Secession had the motto, 'To the Age its Art, To Art its Freedom'. Its members attempted to re-forge the link between art and life, freedom and contemporaneity. The naked body was not seen by the artists to be the only means of achieving such, but it was nakedness that was susceptible to scandal.

Klimt entered the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts in 1876 at the age of 14. His prodigious talents earned him recognition from the artistic establishment as well as the public by his early twenties. In 1887 he was co-founder of the Secession Movement in Vienna, and led a dramatic liberation from 'classical' art, laying the foundations of the modern movement in Vienna. His reputation as a portraitist of great stature - he painted well-known women in Vienna's bourgeois society - lent respectability to the movement. In 1894 Klimt received a prestigious commission for the Assembly Hall of the new building at the University of Vienna, in which he was to paint allegories of three of the four university faculties of that period. The commission lasted ten years, and ended in acrimony. While he had done important public works before, involving impressive history paintings in keeping with the architecture, an ambitious synthesis of the arts, the Assembly commission saw a radical departure from his remit and from his own work to date. Allegory was the established form for public commissions, yet Klimt worked towards a more idiosyncratic style over the period there. Instead of endorsing the university's notion of, 'Improving the physical and spiritual welfare of mankind,' Klimt in fact made a critique of progress. Where the nude was central in the art historical tradition of allegory, Klimt presented the nude as referring to nothing but itself. Sensuality and naked truth replaced classical mythology. Critics saw his work as, 'painted indecency'. Tobias Natter, curator of 'The Naked Truth', and co-curator of the Liverpool show, described what ensued as, 'aesthetic civil war'.

Characteristic of the way in which the scandal developed was the overlapping of positions and interests of the various parties to the dispute, at times beyond recognition. Frightful accusations were hurled back and forth that merged into a vague amalgam in which the anti-liberal consorted with the anti-Semitic and both made common cause with anti-modernism. There was talk of sensation seeking and 'an orgy of mendacity' masquerading as the official art of Austria, and even of 'Jewish impudence', which made a 'principle of talking up all that was lowest and meanest' so as to insinuate its poisin into the minds of the people. Yet the more severe the criticism, the more firmly Klimt stood his ground, his eye trained on naked beauty.7

Like Sigmund Freud in the same city at the same time, Klimt embarked on a similar voyage of discovery.

Both pressed a personal crisis of middle age into the service of a radical reorientation of their professional work. Both decisively rejected the physicalist realism in which they had been reared. Both loosened their chosen fields - psychology and art, respectively - from their biological/anatomical moorings. Seeking a road to the open out of the ruins of a substantialist conception of reality, both plunged into the self and embarked on a voyage intérieur.8

Klimt broke his contract with the university in 1905 and paid back his retainer. He demanded his works back and accused the state of posing as 'patron' but allowing, neither artistic freedom, nor financial support. In 1899 Klimt had answered his ultraconservative critics with the painting 'The Naked Truth', in which a nude woman holds up a mirror to the world. Klimt then worked almost entirely for middle-class patrons; his erotic work became a more private occupation in drawing.

Drawing played an important part in the continuation of Klimt's vision. As an essentially private occupation, and with a more discreet audience, drawing could capture an authenticity as being done in front of the nude. As recently as 1966, in Rome, the erotic work of Klimt and Schiele was formally censored as 'obscene' and 'pornographic'.
He produced several thousand drawings but only some 200 paintings. He would often put an apparently finished painting to one side and then, months or years later resume work on it or practically repaint it. Any exhibition, or study of Klimt therefore tends to focus on a small number of well-known works.

In 1910 when Galerie Miethke exhibited 'Gustav Klimt: Paintings and Drawings of the Last Years', critics denounced them as 'nakedness for its own sake', 'sick art', and 'highly repellent', and as 'the products of an artistic imagination that has gone astray'. It would follow such work, 'that the moral floodgates would open'.9 In a stagnating social order based on a feudal Catholic tradition, showing nakedness for its own sake met with hostile rejection. The work of Gustav Klimt is on one hand over-familiar, for it has been reproduced to an extraordinary extent, and yet the true significance is often overlooked. 'The trivialization of their achievement, a perhaps inevitable concomitant of the euphoria fuelling the widespread interest in fin-de-siècle Vienna, has in turn resulted in a perceived blunting and blurring of the thematic corners and edges of their work, an apparent fading of its erotic explosiveness and the diminishing of its achievement that is encouraged through a loss of historical perspective'.10

The goal of the Liverpool exhibition has been to show outstanding interiors which once belonged to early collectors and patrons of the Weiner Werkstätte, with objects and paintings that have long since been dispersed according to type, and scattered around the world. It achieves its goal if, 'It can convey at least a sense of the Viennese contribution to European modernism that arose from what Klimt himself called the 'community of creators and connoisseurs"'.11

Janet McKenzie

1. in response to Guardian review, ‘Klimt at Tate Liverpool’, 11 June 2008.
2. Max Hollein, ‘Foreword’, The Naked Truth, edited by Tobias Natter and Max Hollein. Schirn Kunstalle, Frankfurt, 28 January-28 April 2005, Leopold Museum, Vienna, 13 May – 22 August 2005, Prestel, Munich, Berlin, London, New York, 2005, p.10.
3. Colin B. Bailey, ‘Prolegomena: A Klimt for the Twenty-First Century’,
in Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making, National Gallery of Canada, 15 June – 16 September, 2001, Harry Abrahams Inc., in Association with the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2001, p.16.
4. Hollein, op.cit p.9.
5. Ibid, p.10.
6. Wolfgang G. Fischer, Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge: An Artist and His Muse, Lund Humphries, London, 1992, p.124.
7. Tobias Natter, ‘On the Limits of the Exhibitable: The Naked Body and Public Space in Viennese Art around 1900’, The Naked Truth, op.cit., p.19.
8. Ibid , p.20 (quoting from Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, 1980).
9. Ibid, p.30.
10. Ibid, p.42.
11. Tobias G. Natter, ‘Gustav Klimt: No More Than a Goldsmith? The Cross-Pollination of Painting, Architecture and the Applied Arts in Vienna around 1900’, Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life, Edited by Tobias G. Natter and Christoph Grunenberg, Tate Liverpool 30 May-31 August 2008, Tate Publishing, London, 2008, p.23.


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