Copyright © 2001 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. All rights reserved.
Between Modernism and Tradition:
The Importance of Klimt's Murals and Figure Paintings
Hanna Egger (1942-2000) in memoriam
Measured against the huge corpus of his severalthousand known drawings, Klimt's output as apainter was not large. The standard oeuvre-catalogueby Fritz Novotny and Johannes Dobai documentsjust over two hundred works in oil which, averagedout over the whole of the artist's working life, comes to nomore than five or six pictures per year. His method of paintingwas slow and laborious. He was given to retouching oreven completely repainting canvases that were, in name atleast, already finished. Or he would lay aside a picture thatwas half completed, resuming work on it only after an intervalof months or sometimes years had elapsed. Given thefact that a not insignificant fraction of his oeuvre is knownto have perished, the chances of uncovering an unknownpainting, or of retrieving some lost work are, it has to besaid, not high. For all of these reasons, any exhibition, anymonograph or article devoted to his career will necessarilytend to revolve around the same limited number of paintings,some of whichespecially The Kiss and other worksof Klimt's "golden period" have become so popular inrecent years that by now they have been reproduced manydozens of times: in books, in articles, on calendars, even ontins of Viennese coffee. It is difficult to decide which ismore frustrating: to find oneself confronted by ever-growingnumbers of illustrations of the same few golden paintings,of which no more than a handful survive (or indeedwere ever painted), or by the same old poor-quality black-and-whitephotographs of pictures long since destroyed; forexample, Klimt's celebrated but controversial canvasesdone for Vienna University, or a work such as Music II,painted for the music-salon of Nikolaus von Dumba, one ofhis earliest Viennese patronspaintings familiar to us onlythrough inadequate reproductions.
Under these circumstances, it might appear somewhatperverse to have decided to concentrate in this essay uponjust a few of the most important, and most popular, ofKlimt's figure paintings, especially since, as a consequence,these works which have already been so often discussedand so frequently reproduced are, inevitably, illustratedonce again here. It also scorned preferable to reiterate,even if only briefly, some well-known facts and a few frequentlyrepeated anecdotes rather than send the reader,via the intermediary of footnotes, scurrying to ascertainthe essentials of history and chronology from some othersecondary source. But I have also tried to set these famousworks against a somewhat broader background, and inparticular to explore in more detail their intellectual context:a topic that has often been dismissed as potentiallyunrewarding, given Klimt's seemingly limited educationand his notorious reluctance to say anything in the leastilluminating either about himself or about his art. I havealso tried to shed some light on his working method, toexplain why it seems to me appropriate to regard particularpaintings, or more accurately groups of paintings, asoccupying an especially important place within his work asa whole. I stress the phrase "groups of paintings," becausean examination of Klimt's total oeuvre quickly reveals onesignificant characteristic of his figure compositions thataffords a particular insight into not only his manner of proceedingbut also his whole approach to his art. On closerscrutiny, we find that as a rule he seems not to have thoughtso much in terms of individual pictures, but instead tendedto carry forward ideas and motifs from one work to another,sometimes continuing this process over a period of manyyears. With respect to the motifs or compositional ideason which they are based, particular paintings might bethought of as standing in relation to one another like linksin a clearly envisaged chain of development; while certain"key" works occupy, as it were, a kind of nodal positioninasmuch as they refer to or provide a summation of othergroups of paintings related by theme or motif.
This manner of working was, as far as the early yearsof the twentieth century are concerned, characteristic notonly of Klimt but of a number of other leading modernistpainters. The Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, for example,would use and re-use particular motifs over a considerableperiod, creating works that shared a given thematiccontent not merely with one another but also with othergroups of paintings and drawings having at first sight noobvious resemblance as regards their subject or purpose. Itis almost as if, given the decline in importance of traditionalsources of patronage such as the aristocracy or thecourt, and the increasingly questionable significance ofconventional subject matter in painting, artists began tosee their works as primarily self-referential, dependinglargely upon a kind of private repertoire of subjects andmotifs, linked with one another not externally but by ashared inner content. For Klimt, however, the traditionalstuff of allegory and classical legend, of biblical narrativeand amorous exploit, was not yet entirely outworn. By theearly 1900s, such subjects were increasingly seen as partand parcel of the nineteenth century, of the Symbolist heritage;but for him, they could still have on occasion a profoundintellectual and philosophical significance. As anintroduction to the National Gallery of Canada's uniquesurvey of Klimt's work, this essay sets out to explore thatsignificance by analysing the nature of the subject matterhe deployed in so many of his figure paintings, and toexamine the tensions between these in many respects stilltraditional subjects and the highly idiosyncratic andincreasingly innovative manner of working characteristicof his later career.
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To scrutinize an artist's origins and upbringing in search ofclues that might help to account for the twists and turns of hislater development, or some of the more peculiar characteristicsof his art, has become something resembling a commonplaceof art-historical method. Yet in truth, there is littleenough about Klimt's background or education that mightforetell the modernist, the revolutionary, the butt of scandalthat he was later to become. Like his brothers Ernst andGeorg, Gustav Klimt was trained not at the Academy of FineArts in Vienna but at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School ofApplied Arts), which offered in some respects a broaderand more liberal education. His younger brother Georgembarked on a career as a metalworker; once established asan artist, Gustav was instrumental in steering a number ofimportant commissions in Georg's direction, including thatfor the decoration of the great bronze doors that adornedVienna's Secession building. The later collaboration betweenthe two brothers may have deepened Klimt's interest in thepossibility of incorporating into his painting the techniquesof decorative art, one of several preoccupations that came todominate his years of maturity as an artist. Whether the educationhe received at the School of Applied Arts influencedhis thinking about his own future career is impossible to saywith confidence: not much that is revealing has survivedfrom this early period by way of documents, letters, or reminiscences.What is certain is that, even before graduatingfrom the School, he and his other brother Ernst teamed upwith a fellow student, Franz Matsch, to form a kind of workshopor co-operative called the Künstlerkompanie (Artists'Company), which was remarkably successful in obtainingcommissions for the decoration of public buildings.
This was a growth industry at the time, not just inVienna but in many of the major provincial cities of theDanube Monarchy, such as Karlsbad or Reichenberg,where the late-nineteenth-century building boom meantthat there existed any number of new opera houses andtheatres and museums just waiting to be artistically deckedout. Klimt and his associates spent the best part of a decade,from 1882 to 1891, on such projects, which included curtainsand proscenium arches and ceiling frescoes The culminationof this highly productive period was marked bytwo prestigious undertakings in Vienna itself: the decorationof the Burgtheater (Imperial Court Theatre, 1886-88)and of the staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (ArtHistory Museum, 1890-91). In the latter instance, the historicaland allegorical figures that Klimt supplied for thelunettes and spandrels above the main staircase can still beseen and enjoyed today: evidence of a precocious talent,and of his undoubted accomplishment in this particularfield of artistic endeavour.
Klimt never wrote anything of any significance abouthimself, or about his ambitions as an artist. He was probablybehind some of the statements published in the earlyissues of the Secession's magazine, Ver Sacrum, and mayhave been largely responsible for the published descriptionsof his Beethoven Frieze of 1902 (see pp. 28ff), and ofhis other paintings shown in the Klimt retrospective atthe Secession the following year. But he never attemptedto formulate any proper artistic manifesto, nor did hedescribe, save in the vaguest terms, his own personalityand outlook on the world. His surviving letters and postcardsare, moreover, largely unrevealing. Thus, we do notreally know whether his preoccupation with monumentaldecorative art during the 1880s was part of a deliberatestrategy, or whether he fell into this line of work more orless as a result of fortunate coincidence. In any case, howmany people are sagacious enough to see their future livesmapped out before them, and to know what will be importantto them in years to come?
But whether by accident or design, Klimt soon beganto enjoy a growing reputation as a decorative painter,together with the attendant financial rewards. By the1890s, as Gerbert Frodl observes, his work in collaborationwith the Künstlerkompanie had established his reputationas heir to Hans Makart's tradition. In 1890, he was the firstartist to win the newly established "Kaiserpreis" (ImperialPrize). The following year, he was accorded the "imperialapprobation" of Emperor Franz Joseph himself on theoccasion of the official opening of the recently completedKunsthistorisches Museum, and the public unveiling ofKlimt's frescoes. These early successes were, as it turnedout, to be of inestimable significance for his future career.On the one hand, the creation of monumental works, ofcycles or thematically related groups of narrative compositionswas significantly to influence his whole conception ofhis task as an artist, becoming a major preoccupation of hislater years. On the other, this preoccupation provides a keyto the understanding of his working methods, helping toilluminate the content and meaning of some of the mostimportant of his subsequent figure paintings.
The attention Klimt gave to monumental decorativeart marks him out as very much a child of his time. He hadbeen born into an age in which the creation of cycles ofnarrative paintings was a well-defined strand of artisticendeavour, of some importance for an artist anxious togain wider public recognition. But it was not just academicpainters or officially sanctioned artists who devoted themselvesto such tasks. Younger and more avant-garde painters,too, seem to have regarded it as entirely natural to createseries or cycles of thematically related works, often overtlynarrative or allegorical in intent. The Norwegian painterEdvard Munch, Klimt's almost exact contemporary, spentthe greater part of his career painting and repainting thecanvases that together constituted what he called his Friezeof Life, which, like much of Klimt's work, revolved aroundthe traditional themes of love and death. Indeed, there aremany points of resemblance between the two artists,although for the most part these are more likely to havebeen parallels or affinities rather than instances of directinfluenceeven allowing for the showing of importantworks by Munch at several of the later exhibitions of theVienna Secession. Munch's Frieze of Life was not, however,intended for any particular location, the building it mightmost fittingly have decorated being, as the artist ruefullyadmitted, a "castle in the air." Klimt's monumental works,by comparison, were invariably conceived with a specificsetting in mind, their content being determined to a largeextent by the physical or architectural context for whichthey were painted. That content remained, nonetheless,resolutely narrative or allegorical, or both, as was also thecase with the majority of Munch's figure paintings.
Contemporary graphic art, too, could boast its narrativeor allegorical cycles, drawing on a long tradition goingback at least as far as Gova and Hogarth in the eighteenthcentury, of which we might single out Max Klinger's EineLiebe of 1887 as a "modern" example. Klinger was a "correspondingmember" of the Secession, and was greatlyadmired in Vienna at this time. Tangible evidence of thatadmiration was offered by the association's fourteenthexhibition (1902), conceived as an act of homage to theLeipzig artist and to his massive polychrome statue ofBeethoven that formed the centrepiece of the show. It wasfor this exhibition that Klimt created his Beethoven Frieze(discussed below), the largest and in many respects mostambitious of all his decorative cycles. Klimt, however,despite the esteem in which he evidently held Klinger,seems never to have interested himself in making originalprints, his graphic art consisting solely of drawings(including drawings for subsequently published emblemsand vignettes), done for the most part in traditional mediasuch as pencil, crayon, or black and coloured chalks.
His paintings, too, were essentially traditional in bothsubject and technique. Apart from his narrative and allegoricalfigure compositions, he concentrated almost exclusivelyon portraiture and landscapein other words, onwell-established genres of painting. He made no abstractexperiments (with one possible exception), no assemblagesof "found" materials that might be compared with Picasso'srelief-constructions of 1913-14. Klimt never flirted withmixed media (unless the Beethoven Frieze, with its somewhatpeculiar combination of medium and support, or his occasionaluse of gold or of costume jewellery might arguablybe considered as such). Nor did he attempt to liberate himselffrom the confines of painting in order to experimentwith other vehicles of artistic expression such as poetry ordrama, as did his younger compatriot Kokoschka. Rather,he seems to have shouldered willingly and without questionthe conventional tasks of painting, merely clothing itstraditional content in modernist garb, just as in his portraiturehe clothed his sitters in a dazzling array of ornamental,quasi-abstract patterns, while still representing theirphysiognomy and physical characteristics with the utmostnaturalism. At various stages throughout his work, thesetwo tendencies seem to exist side by side, in a sometimesuneasy juxtaposition, as if the conventional elements ofnarrative or of allegory, and of naturalistic depiction, wereat odds with more abstract tendencies pulling his art moreemphatically in the direction of the modern, the expressionof psychological states by purely decorative means.
Nowhere is the tension between tradition and modernityin Klimt's work more clearly seen than in the paintingshe created for the ceiling of the aula, the great hall, ofVienna University. After initial hesitation, the commissionfor the decoration of the University ceiling had beenawarded to Klimt and Franz Matsch jointlyno doubt onthe strength of their earlier collaboration, for example,over the Burgtheater frescoesand specified, in additionto sixteen smaller lunettes, four large paintings that weremeant to apostrophize the four faculties of a traditionalGerman university (Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, andJurisprudence), plus an allegorical centrepiece representingthe Victory of Light over Darkness. The division oflabour was, however, an uneven one: Matsch was to beresponsible for the central painting and for that representingTheology, while Klimt undertook to depict the threeremaining facultiesPhilosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence.(Matsch later recalled that he and Klimt had "asusual" drawn lots over who was to execute which picture,but it is not certain how much credence should be attachedto his reminiscences.) As I pointed out in my book Art inVienna, with this division the seeds of future disaster weresown, since even at this early date a growing divergencebetween the styles of the two artists was becoming obvious.At a joint sitting of the artistic commission of theUniversity and the fine arts commission of the Ministry ofEducation that took place in May 1898, they were bothforced to declare themselves ready "within the limits ofartistic freedom" to undertake such alterations as might benecessary to ensure the stylistic unity of their respectivecontributions. Klimt, however, finally became so discouragedby the public and critical hostility which greeted hiswork that, despite the fact that his three paintings for theUniversity ceiling were actually approved by the Ministryin 1903, he repaid the advance of 30,000 crowns he hadreceived for the pictures, declaring himself incapable of"bringing this task, which is already so far advanced, tocompletion as long as, under present circumstances, I amobliged to continue to regard it as a state commission."
Excerpted from Gustav Klimt by . Copyright © 2001 by National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.