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Gustav Klimt

Two new catalogues and an exhibition on Klimt

An overview of what's on the world of Klimt

The designer of Klimt should be shot at dawn. There is no need to blindfold the culprit first: she or he cannot see much anyway. It is not so much the extravagant use of gold ink and heavy black rules that betray defective vision. Graver problems stem from the large format of the book—a pronounced vertical, which means you cannot put it into a normal bookcase. Because of this, only a few of Klimt’s paintings fit on a single page whole. Heavily truncated details abound, even of important paintings.

Klimt has many virtues, however, among them reproductions of outstandingly high quality. But it seems that Alfred Weidinger could not make up his mind about what kind of book it was to be. What looks at first sight like a spectacular coffee-table confection, packed with full-colour pictures and evocative documentary photographs, turns out to have a more serious purpose. It is, among other things, a catalogue raisonné of the paintings, 253 of them, some of which are fairly recent discoveries. These are all from Klimt’s early period, when, as a member of a small artists’ co-operative, he was collaborating on decorations in public buildings in Vienna and elsewhere in the Habsburg Empire—in theatres in Karlsbad and Fiume, for instance. If Klimt had not progressed beyond such decorative schemes, most of them creakingly historicist, no one would have today heard of him and we would now not be drowning in Klimt books, many published by Prestel and most written by the same Austrian specialists saying more or less the same things.

It was a decorative scheme for a public building—an ambitious series of allegories intended for the ceiling of the great hall of Vienna University—that turned Klimt from a history painter into a sort of semi-modernist and the hugely popular creator of The Kiss and other images beloved of students from Southsea to San Francisco. Because his plans for Vienna University were rudely rejected by the authorities, he was persuaded that private commissions would be more reliable. By far the most lucrative of these were portraits of society ladies commissioned by their husbands, members of the burgeoning class of industrialists and bankers. They liked Klimt’s ability to make his paintings appear unconventional without being uncomfortably avant-garde. They also appreciated his knack of exploiting decoration to make plain women look glamorous.

In spite of a long waiting list for his portraits, Klimt did not give up allegorical subjects of decorative schemes entirely. He designed a spectacular mosaic frieze for the dining room of the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, for example, greatly enlarged details of which—revealing the beauty of the enamels and inlays of semi-precious stones—are one of the most thrilling features of this book. Klimt also painted a fresco in the Secession building in Vienna, part of a temporary, temple-like environment created to dramatise Max Klinger’s statue of Beethoven, displayed there in 1902. The fresco employed inferior materials and was meant to be broken up after the exhibition closed. Only a miracle saved it from the Viennese rubbish tip, and then only some near-miraculous restoration work lasting a decade saved it for posterity.

Today, preserved in the basement of the Secession building, the frieze is the subject of Gustav Klimt: the Beethoven Frieze and the Controversy over the Freedom of Art, published to accompany an exhibition in Madrid. Furnished with an anthology of documents (very usefully in English) about the hullabaloo caused by the University paintings, this book is more than an introduction to the Beethoven Frieze and its possible meanings, but it still does not tell us much more than we already know.

The visual language employed in the Beethoven Frieze is highly personal. The subject is the vocal climax of the composer’s Ninth Symphony, and Klimt represents it by such disparate images as a knight in golden armour (who looks a bit like Gustav Mahler) and a Disneyesque gorilla with mother-of-pearl eyes and teeth. The work demonstrates the extent to which Klimt’s subjects and methods look chronologically more backwards than forwards. This is also true of his portraits, which, it can be argued, are highly decorative versions of the sort of society portrait that Sargent and Boldini were producing at the same time. Klimt’s Janus-like art-historical position is vividly demonstrated by a comparison between the celebrated portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (the epitome of this “Golden Style”) and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. It comes as something of a shock to realise that both date from the same year (1907). The Klimt is sumptuous and icon-like. It is a technical tour-de-force.

It nevertheless belongs as much to Byzantium as to the 20th century.That painting, known in journo-speak as the “Viennese Mona Lisa”, used to be one of the trademarks of the Austrian capital, endlessly reproduced on tea towels, coffee mugs and chocolate boxes, and it was also one of the main attractions of the Österreichische Galerie in the Upper Belvedere. Some nine years ago it was recognised and claimed as Nazi war loot by its owner, Maria Altmann, a niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Having won possession of it after lengthy court cases in Austria and the US, including a hearing before the Supreme Court, she promptly sold it for $135m to the cosmetics heir and former US ambassador to Austria, Ronald Lauder. He immediately installed it in the New York gallery, the Neue Galerie, which he had founded together with the dealer Serge (Siegfried) Sabarsky.

Gustav Klimt: the Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections accompanies the exhibition (until 30 June) that celebrates the acquisition. It is a handsome book. The essays are generally excellent, as are the illustrations. But with prominent photographs of Ronald Lauder himself, his late mother, Estée, and Barbra Streisand wearing a golden crown apparently inspired by the Bloch-Bauer portrait, one is reminded of a society page in a glossy fashion magazine. There are those, however, who might think that touch of vulgarity entirely appropriate. After all, when the Bloch-Bauer portrait was first shown in public, a critic described it as “mehr Blech als Bloch” (more tin than Bloch).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Neither fish nor fowl—the complications of Klimt…'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 189 March 2008