“There is nothing that special to see when looking at me. I’m a painter who paints day in day out, from morning till evening – figure pictures and landscapes, more rarely portraits.” This cursory description Gustav Klimt once gave of himself would require fleshing out by adding that he was also one of the most forward-thinking, illustrious and scandalous artists of his age. He is also one of Vienna’s most celebrated personalities to this day, with a host of museums putting out the very best of their collections in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
Klimt was born on 14 July 1862, first son and second of six children of an impoverished engraver. Aged 14, he started his studies at the newly founded Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School) from which he promptly established a career as a decorative painter for the numerous public and private buildings being erected in the economically booming capital of the Habsburg Empire. In 1897, Klimt became the president of the Secession, a breakaway group of artists whose aim to break from the mould of tradition was epitomised from the start by the innovative and – at the time – intensely controversial Secession building.
Then started his most productive period – during which iconic works such as the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), The Kiss (1907-8) or the Avenue in Schloss Kammer Park were completed – closing only with his death from a stroke and a lung infection on 6 February 1918.
These few basic facts provide a canvas that exhibitions at some of Vienna’s major museums take turns to fill in in their own way.
The Belvedere owns the world’s largest collection of works by Klimt, and it is his output as a consummate artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is on show in its jubilee exhibition. With some 30 masterpieces including a few large-scale reproductions of works now lost, this is Klimt as he is best remembered. Square landscapes paintings, often the product of summer holidays at Austria’s Lake Attersee, sit alongside portraits of women, some as society figures in furs, others as mythical representations and a few a combination of both, as with the 1901 painting of Judith whose principal character bears a close resemblance to wealthy art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer. A handful of handwritten postcards, a passport, a telescope case, are among the items that put a little flesh on the man, but the exhibition is also a homage to his age with a number of works by Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Matsch and brother Ernst Klimt helping to put Gustav Klimt’s output into perspective.
If the Belvedere’s exhibition is about the finished work, it is at the Wien Museum that the backstage work can be seen: starting with art school sketches and continuing throughout his career, the 400 or so drawings making up the totality of the museum’s collection follow his progress as he shed classical artistic constraints in pursuit of his idiosyncratic style. Details for portraits are lined alongside erotic sheets, occasionally interspersed by the finished product including an allegory of June, delicately traced on paper in black chalk, pencil and gold, or the full size portrait of Emilie Flöge, Klimt’s lifelong muse and companion. The presentation can be bafflingly haphazard but a freely available booklet bridges the gap between preparatory and finished work by providing illustrations of the relevant completed paintings not on show here.
Wien Museum wins the title for most tongue-in-cheek ending to an exhibition with a section devoted to kitsch commercial uses of Klimt’s works and a display of the “worst of Klimt” following a hunt for the most absurd or ghastly Klimt merchandise that revealed toilet lids, coffins, and a musical egg opening onto figurines from The Kiss dancing to the tune of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love”.
For all his artistic and mercantile fame, Klimt was an intensely private person and a man of few words about whose private life little was known even by many of his friends and contemporaries. No consensus has, for instance, emerged as to the nature of his relation with Emilie Flöge, and as to the number of his illegitimate children, estimates run from 3 to 20 with 6 and 14 as the more credible options.
Leopold Museum’s Klimt: Up Close and Personal goes some way towards shedding light on Klimt’s personality and social relations thanks to the display of some 300 postcards sent to Flöge in the course of the 20 years from 1897. The short accounts of travels and of the weather, the offers of theatre tickets and the cancellations of French language lessons, often written in a style worthy of facebook updates and sometimes sent at a rate of 8 a day, serve as the backdrop to a parallel, thematic approach to the artist. Landscape paintings, whose state of completion is sometimes chronicled in the postcards, photographs, period furniture and samples of the African and East Asian art that inspired him dot the rooms, creating as close a snapshot of Klimt’s home life as can be achieved some 150 years on.
Jubilee Exhibition. 150 Years of Gustav Klimt
Runs until 6 January 2013
Open daily 10am-6pm (Wed. till 9pm)
Entrance EUR 11 (adults), EUR 8.50 (seniors, students), free for those under 19
Klimt: The Wien Museum Collection
Runs until 16 September
Open Tues.-Sun. 10am-6pm
Entrance EUR 8 (adult), EUR 6 (seniors, students), free for those under 19
Klimt: Up Close and Personal
Runs until 27 August
Open daily 10am-6pm (Thurs. till 9pm)
Entrance EUR 12 (adults), EUR 9 (seniors), EUR 8 (students), free for under 7s
Further information on Klimt-related exhibitions, tours and events in Vienna at www.klimt2012.info.