Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Searching for Klimt in Vienna with The Inconstant Traveler

This week (July 14, 2012, to be exact) is the 150th anniversary of the birth of hometown boy Gustav Klimt, and the museums in Vienna are hosting special Klimt events all year. I love Klimt, leader of the Secession Movement at the turn of the last century that broke away from traditional, conservative classicism to pioneer a new sensual, decorative, and expressionistic painting style.  We couldn't wait to get to Vienna last month to see the Klimts.

But like the waters in Casablanca, I found I was misinformed. It's not that there aren't any Klimts in Vienna, I just didn't always know the right places to look.

The Leopold Museum, in the Museum Quartier (a modern courtyard just south of the Innere Stadt on the edge of the surrounding Ringstrasse) has the most comprehensive exhibit: an entire floor devoted to Klimt's paintings (including this masterful Tod und Leben (Death and Life)), sketches and landscapes. There are partial recreations of lost work and a series of display boxes snaking throughout the entire exhibit space containing Klimt's lifelong correspondence with friend and patron Emilie Floge. (The Klimt exhibit runs through August 27.)

Another entire floor is devoted to the permanent exhibit, Vienna, 1900, featuring the art, graphics, furniture and objects of the Wiener Werkstatte (Vienna Workshop),  the Viennese version of the Arts and Crafts Movement that looks as stunningly modern today as ever. And yet another floor is filled with a special exhibit on Rudolf Kalvach and the next generation of graphic artists inspired by Klimt and the Wiener Werkstatte style. And as if all this wasn't enough, the Leopold also houses the largest collection of Egon Schiele's dark hypnotic, expressionist paintings in the world (and yes, that's another floor).

We all loved the Leopold, but we didn't get there until 2 pm and it closes at 6. If you go, get there early and plan to spend the whole day.

The Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, just across the Ringstrasse from the MQ, heavily promotes its participation in the Klimt festivities. The museum has erected a pedestrian bridge over the staircase in the main rotunda from which to view a series of paintings between columns and over archways executed by the young Klimt as part of the interiors designed by Klimt's colleague Franz Matsch.

These depict the female spirits of Greek and Egyptian Arts in their wonderfully decorated alcoves (gazing out with their impassive, insouciant turn-of-the-century faces), a meditative Dante regarding a wistful angel in a gorgeously patterned gown, and a few other vignettes. They are fabulous, but, sadly, they are the only Klimts in the entire museum.

We were similarly—well, I wouldn't say disappointed, exactly, but surprised—by the Secession Museum, in the Opera district. Designed in 1898 to exhibit the new wave of art, the temple-like building itself is magnificent under its "onion dome" of gilded wrought iron leaves. But our mistaken expectations were disappointed in that we went in expecting the Secession museum to house art of the Secessionists.

Not so. Except for Klimt's marvelous Beethoven Frieze in the basement, the Secession remains stubbornly true to its original design as a showcase for the new and avant-garde—which in this day and age, means mostly (yawn) video installations and the like. History repeats itself; now we Klimt-lovers are the Philistines, longing for the painterly values represented by the (now old-school) Secession artists.

However, the Beethoven Frieze is well worth the price of admission. Painted in 1902 to adorn the walls high above a Secession exhibit devoted to the composer, the piece was never intended to outlive the original exhibition. But some canny collector bought and preserved it, and today the entire restored fresco is on permanent display in the climate-controlled Secession basement—where another handy bridge boosts viewers up to eye-level with Klimt's extraordinary work.
 Detail from the Stoclet House frieze

Inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (which includes the "Ode To Joy"), the frieze depicts humankind's search for happiness and meaning through arts and poetry. The journey includes an allegorical questing knight all in gold (who bears a not coincidental resemblance to Beethoven himself), who acts as guide through the various sins and horrors that plague humankind, leading at last to a chorus of inspirational angels—all culminating in a "kiss" of connection to the universe and the natural world.

(Here's a look at the Frieze in situ from the Secession website.)

(I saw a very similar allegory in an ancient, peeling 15th Century fresco painted on a wall inside St. Michael's Church a few winding side-streets away in Vienna. Only in that image, it was the Angel Michael leading humble humanity away from the Devil toward the Madonna and Christ Child. Exactly the same allegory; only the savior and the nature of salvation had evolved.)

The kiss is important to Klimt. It's the subject and title of his most famous painting, and embracing couples also figure prominently in the Beethoven Frieze and in  another larger-than-life-size mosaic frieze Klimt designed for the dining room at Stoclet House in Brussels, the private home of a wealthy patron. The enormous full-color sketch "cartoons" of this project are on view at another Vienna museum, the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts), and they're pretty spectacular. They're on the top floor, and it gets a bit stuffy in the MAK, so make sure you start there and work your way down. (And don't miss the Wiener Werkstatte artifacts in the adjoining room.)

Back home again, I found out that five of Klimt's major paintings—including The Kiss—are on view at the Belvedere, a garden palace-turned-museum far to the southeast of the Innere Stadt, and it kills me that I missed them.  My advice is, if you go to Vienna to see the Klimts, start with the Belvedere. Give yourself a whole day to soak them in. Then devote the rest of your time to the museums around the Ringstrasse—the Leopold (plan to spend the entire day!), the MAK, the Kunsthistoriches, the Wien (for the famous Portrait of Emilie Floge, which I also missed) and the Secession.

If anything, I guess I was slightly disappointed that it wasn't still 1900 in Vienna, with Klimt swanning around in his blue robe, his women/models posing in their radical, unstructured "reform" gowns, and Secession art and objets in every storefront gallery. But until they invent time travel, the Klimt anniversary celebrations in Vienna are the next best thing.

(This museum pass will get you in at a discounted rate at every Klimt exhibit in Vienna—if you can find them.)


  1. I didn't know that Klimt almost shared a birthday with me!


  2. Also Bastille Day, not to mention the ever-popular St. Swithin's Day! So, yes, it's a pretty happening date.

    PS: Happy (almost) Birthday!