What’s Causing the Klimt Craze?

Beyond the commercialism lies an aesthetic innovator ripe for the digital age

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein portait

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein is the director of Vienna's Museum für angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Arts)

In an anniversary year like 2012 when the whole world is celebrating Gustav Klimt, one might easily get annoyed with the over-exposure. Many of his works are susceptible to commercial re-packaging, and the artist’s personality is no less prone to kitsch: Klimt worked for an affluent bourgeoisie whose women he fascinated. Klimt too was inspired by his female clients, but nonetheless lived with his mother. All of the painter’s children were born out of wedlock, while his life-long relationship with Emilie Flöge, his closest confidante, seems to have remained platonic.

While these facts may make a gripping novel, they are superficial and should not distract us from the essential. There are many reasons to honour Klimt as an outstanding visual and applied artist of his time, and a trail-blazer for subsequent generations.

Klimt was – and always remained – an applied artist among painters. Trained at the School of Applied Arts of the Museum of Art and Industry (today’s MAK, Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts), he went on to found a company of artists (Künstler-Compagnie) providing services in painting for interior design with his brother Ernst and their friend Franz Matsch. Gustav’s role as an “interior decorator” harnessing the means of painting was the starting point for a rapid artistic development. His interest in decorative architecture and, inversely, ornamented surfaces can be traced through his career like a red (or, indeed, golden) thread. Especially in relation to the applied arts, Klimt saw new possibilities for painting, which he brought to impressive fruition in his most famous works such as Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and The Kiss (1907/08). But also his landscape paintings derive their distinctiveness from their decorative surfaces, tending to the abstract. Especially in his later landscapes, Klimt drew heavily on architecture for his compositions.

Yet Klimt went decisively further in his mosaic frieze for the dining room of the Stoclet House in Brussels. Designed by Josef Hoffmann, the House is viewed with justification as one of the world’s most important realisations of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. Nowhere is the genius of the collaboration between Hoffmann and Klimt, the senior of the two by eight years, clearer than in the Stoclet dining room: Spread over three walls, the mosaic frieze is woven seamlessly into the room’s architecture.

While Klimt did not execute the mosaic frieze himself, he drew the cartoons for the frieze with his own hand. The nine cartoons are now once again on display at the MAK after a two-year restoration, and give an overwhelming impression of the master’s artistic vision, and the refinement of its realisation. The cartoons show a young girl’s sense of expectation, exuding at once grace and youthful eroticism, a tree of life pregnant with symbolism, and the all-gratifying human embrace. The central, protective figure – a “knight” dissolved in abstraction – can be read as a symbol for the artist as holistic creator of total works of art.

Klimt himself was an inter-creative artist of the first order, both in his own work and his collaborations. While this inter-disciplinary approach led him into a dead end of increasing aesthetic refinement (which reached a historical impasse with the beginning of World War I, shortly after the Stoclet House was completed), this should not distract us from Klimt’s outstanding role as an artistic door-opener for his contemporaries and successors.

It was Gustav Klimt who led the struggle to overcome Historicism: As the first president of the Vienna Secession he represented the rallying cry for a new form of art that was both free and appropriate for the modern age, rather than bound to imitating earlier periods of art history.

It was Klimt who exploded the conventional limits on public commissions with his proposed faculty paintings for the University of Vienna, and he did so in the spotlight of public attention.

It was Klimt who placed women and the erotic magnetism of the female body at the centre of his entire oeuvre, especially in his masterful drawings. Together with the younger Schiele, he helped lift the sexual taboos that still defined the visual arts in Schnitzler’s and Freud’s Vienna.

It was Klimt who painted landscapes like sensuous female portraits, thereby opening new vistas for the genre.

And it was finally Klimt whose artistic work probed the boundaries between life and death in a way that gave mortality a conciliatory, almost unquestioned, presence.

The transformations unleashed by the industrial revolution in Vienna around 1900 find their equivalent in the consequences of the digital revolution today. Once again, the relationship between humans and art is at stake. Perhaps today’s burgeoning interest in Viennese Modernism is linked to the comparable situations then and now: Having overcome postmodernism, we too are looking for ways into a new era. Here, Klimt clearly hits a nerve.

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