The Artist Unrevealed

Klimt: Up Close and Personal is a pentimento: His private life painted over by legend

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge’s niece, Gertrude, at Villa Paulick on the Attersee, 1912 | Photo: Leopold Museum

“Gustav Klimt? Cash Cow!” declares a video reporter on the Leopold Museum’s home page for its exhibition Klimt persönlich (Klimt: Up Close and Personal). “Every museum is going to be milking it,” he says, in this 150th birthday year – he only hopes there’ll be something new to discover.

Klimt persönlich supposedly casts “a new light” on the man, the artist, and the link between the two, but visitors expecting revelations will be disappointed. The exhibition’s claim to originality is a series of some 400 postcards sent by Klimt to his muse Emilie Flöge, and it is the first time the cards have been displayed together. They are of course small, but intelligently designed interactive screens allow visitors to view them closely – with English translations, too.

Every one of the postcards has been meticulously reproduced, back and front, in the exhibition catalogue, with slashes in the text to indicate line breaks, as if they were poems. Unfortunately, far from being poetic, few of them are interesting even as prose, and apart from one card dated 1897, soon after the two met, on which Klimt drew a heart and sent a ‘long kiss’ to Emilie, he might just as safely have sent them to his mother.

“Yesterday rained/ whole afternoon and/ night now clearing up/ fine morning.” “Cloudy, cold – boring./ Yesterday very late/ home./ TEN PIN BOWLING./ Afterwards in Hotel/ Bristol. The same/ group till/ four in the morning – really/ stupid! Today a bit/ wasted.”

They are the SMS texts of the early 20th century. This one is printed in enormous letters across one of the gallery walls, with dashes instead of slashes: “Lunchtime, meat with strong horse radish – apple and cabbage strudel – this evening, probably sausages – tomorrow black and white pudding, etc. – madness!” According to a publicity brochure, this is an example of the artist commenting on his work. Perhaps some Ph.D. student will eventually explain the connection.

A 1914 portrait of the artist by Anton Josef Trčka | Photo: Leopold Museum

The paintings themselves, mostly from the museum’s own collection, are beautiful. The three full-size reproductions of the infamous “university paintings” of 1907–09 are wonderful to see, despite being almost totally without colour – the originals were destroyed in 1945; only black and white photographs and one preparatory colour section survive.

What a pity the gorgeous 1899 Schubert at the Piano, also lost, couldn’t have been reproduced here as well. It includes a portrayal of Klimt’s mistress Marie Zimmermann, and the catalogue tells us that an edition of Klimt’s letters to Marie is currently being prepared for publication. One or two might have been included here.

Emilie, twelve years younger than Klimt, was the sister of his brother’s wife. Did the “long kiss” in 1897 mean they were in love? Did Emilie mind that he subsequently had at least six children (possibly as many as 14) with at least three other women, all the while retaining her as his “life’s companion”?

Was he pleased when these children arrived? Was he proud, annoyed, ashamed? There is a painting of one of his sons here: the child is dead. Did Klimt paint any portraits of his children living?

He didn’t send any postcards to his mother, by the way, or if he did, they’re not mentioned. Nor are his relationships to his six siblings, his mistresses, his children, or any of his friends or colleagues.

A 1897 letter from Klimt in Munich to Emilie Flöge in Vienna | Photo: Leopold Museum

Klimt lived through most of The Great War, but to judge by the evidence here, he doesn’t appear to have noticed. Two of his sons were of military age. Did they serve? Was he anxious about them? We hear nothing about it.

Klimt himself wrote, and the curators quote: “There is no self-portrait of me… I am convinced that as a person I am not particularly interesting. There is very little to see in me… Anyone who wants to know anything about me as an artist – and this is the only thing that matters – should look attentively at my pictures and try to discern from them who I am and what I want.”

Emilie’s correspondence has not survived, but surely, in all the extant letters and memoirs from this hothouse period in Viennese artistic life, there must be some that shed a little light on the subject of Klimt persönlich.

Alternatively, the curators might have taken Klimt’s own advice and, instead of purporting to reveal the man behind the art, shown more of his actual work.

If you go to this exhibition, take a few minutes to play with the interactive screens and glance at the (repetitive and largely familiar) photographs before lingering over the marvellous paintings. Then head for the museum café, where they at least deliver what’s on the menu.

 

Klimt Persönlich: Bilder – Briefe – Einblicke
Through 27 Aug 2012
Leopold Museum
7., Museumsplatz 1
(01) 525 700
www.leopoldmuseum.org

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