by Roderick Conway Morris

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Klimt's Glittering Return to Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 20 April 2012
Alfred Wiedinger/Belevedere, Vienna
Klimt's 'Judith'



Gustav Klimt produced only a handful of canvases every year. A substantial number were subsequently lost. No fewer than 14 of them - including pivotal pieces originally commissioned for the University of Vienna - were destroyed in a single day in May 1945 by the retreating SS.

But this relatively small oeuvre, and ongoing uncertainty among professional critics as to whether to view Klimt as a major modern artist or merely as a brilliant Art Nouveau decorator, has not prevented his works from becoming among the most instantly recognizable in the world and the stuff of hundreds of thousands of prints, posters, cards and fridge magnets.

Born into a poor goldsmith's family near Vienna in 1862, Klimt won a place at the city's applied arts school in 1876, where he received a rigorous conventional training. Three years later he went into partnership with two fellow students, his brother Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch. The trio were successful over the next decade in gaining commissions for decorative schemes for public buildings, including theaters in Bohemia, Romania, and for the new Burgtheater and Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

If the artist had continued along this path, he would very likely be a mere footnote today. But during the 1890s his art underwent profound changes as he began to forge a distinctive personal style. In 1897 he was one of the founders of the Vienna Secession group of radical artists. In the same year he met the architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, who was to remain the artist's most important collaborator until Klimt's death in 1918.

The 150th anniversary of Klimt's birth is the occasion for a charming exhibition, 'Klimt, Hoffmann and the Secession,' at the Correr Museum in Piazza San Marco. The show opens with the artist's juvenile and youthful pieces; illustrates the transformation his work underwent when he was in his early thirties; and demonstrates his fruitful partnership with Hoffmann during the heyday of the Vienna Secession.

The exhibition is curated by Alfred Weidinger of the Belvedere in Vienna, who also will be presenting a subsequent show there this summer, 'Masterpieces in Focus: 150 Years of Gustav Klimt,' which will not only highlight the canvases in the permanent collection, but also the artist's reception and reputation during and after his lifetime. (The Belvedere show will run from July 12 to Jan. 6.)

Klimt was famously taciturn about his own work, no more inclined to discuss it than he was to paint a picture of himself. In a very rare statement on the subject, entitled 'Commentary on a non-existent self-portrait,' he stepped deftly behind his own canvases, as if taking refuge behind a barricade, declaring: 'Whoever wants to know something about me as an artist - and that's the only thing that matters - must look attentively at my paintings and try to glean from them who I am and what I want.'

With its academic life-class male nudes, still-lifes and portraits by Gustav, his brother Ernst and Matsch, the first room of the exhibition reveals the extraordinarily homogenous style these teenage boys absorbed in their early days at art school, while showing an impressive mastery of painting technique, which was to stand them in good stead when they launched themselves as a team into the commercial world.

In 1892 both Klimt's father and Ernst died, which threw Gustav into a state of mental crisis and may well have been one of the triggers that led him to reconsider his artistic position. In the years that followed he became increasingly involved in the ferment that led to the foundation of the Vienna Secession in May 1897, of which he became the president.

Belgian Symbolists, notably Fernand Khnopff, Jan Toorop and George Minnie, exerted an unmistakable influence on the artist during the 1890s, when the sharp, almost photographic quality of Klimt's canvases gave way to a new, atmospheric blurring of outlines and sfumato gradations of color.

The first Secession exhibition of 1898 included 21 pictures by Khnopff. In the first rooms of the current exhibition, three works by Khnopff feature, and two each by Toorop and Minnie. And the dramatic change in Klimt's style during the last decade of the 19th century is strikingly demonstrated by a series of his portraits spanning these years.

The days of the Secession ushered in the artist's 'Gold Period.' He first experimented with painted gold highlights in his image of the goddess 'Pallas Athene' in 1898 but, as Dr. Weidinger pointed out at the opening of the Correr show, after a visit to Venice in the following spring, gold became a hallmark of Klimt's paintings.

Klimt had gone to Italy in pursuit of Alma Schindler, the young stepdaughter of his friend and promoter Carl Moll. She was later to marry the composer Gustav Mahler and subsequently the architect Walter Gropius and then the writer Franz Werfel. While staying in the lagoon, Klimt visited the Basilica of San Marco with Alma. As she later recorded, this experience made a deep impression on him and seems to have been the primary inspiration behind the sumptuous, mosaic-like gold-leaf surfaces in his own works.

His gorgeously gilded 'Judith' of 1901, one of the most sexually highly-charged of all Klimt's femmes fatales, has been lent by the Belvedere and now appears opposite his 'Judith II' (also known as Salomé) of 1909, which was bought by the Venice Biennale in 1910, when it was shown there along with other works by the artist.

It now forms part of the Biennale collection at Ca' Pesaro, where it is one of the gallery's prime attractions.

Hoffmann joined the Secession in July 1897 and it was above all with this multitalented architect, designer and draftsman that Klimt came closest to realizing his dreams of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or 'total artwork,' integrating architecture with a wide range of arts and crafts.

Hoffmann is represented in the show by more than a score of pieces, from drawings and models of his buildings, to furniture and designs for carpets, tapestries and jewelry.

The Secession's most memorable event was the 1902 'Beethoven' exhibition, designed by Hoffmann and centered around Max Klinger's polychrome statue of the composer.

In all 22 artists contributed and Klimt's 'Beethoven Frieze,' a bold attempt to render the Ninth Symphony in visual form, became a succès de scandale, both praised and attacked as 'the utmost ever achieved in the field of obscene art.' Although conceived as a temporary installation, the Frieze was rescued and put in store when the show was dismantled. Too delicate to travel, the Frieze appears at the Venice show in the form of the Belvedere's meticulously executed copy, made at the time of the fresco's painstaking restoration in the 1980s.

Despite restitutions that have obliged the Belvedere to return 10 canvases to the descendants of the Jewish families from whom they were seized during the Nazi era, the Vienna gallery still has the largest collection of Klimt's works. Numbering 24 in all, two - 'Sunflower, 1907' and 'Family, 1909-10' - were donated from a private collection as recently as March.

'Sunflower,' the last canvas in the Venice exhibition, has an inescapably anthropomorphic form and appears to be a kind of mystical, vegetal portrait of Klimt's adored muse, the dress designer Emilie Flöge.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023