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As Vienna celebrates what would have been the 150th birthday of the artist Gustav Klimt, a major cultural programme of exhibitions across the city is getting under way.


The Kiss (1908)

“It all just came together in Vienna around 1900,” says Kerstin Krenn of the Wien Museum. The assistant to the curator is standing next to Klimt’s 1902 portrait of Emilie Louise Flöge, the fashion boutique owner who became his lifelong companion. “Vienna is still best known for this period in its history, the collision of tradition and modernity, even though the other periods were as important to the life of the city,” she adds.

The museum is hosting Klimt: The Wien Museum Collection from May 15 to September 16, one of ten Klimt-themed exhibitions in Vienna this year. The scale of the programme is testimony to Klimt’s legacy as the defining figure of the era. His face adorns billboards around the city, and images of his best-known works are everywhere from T-shirts to tea towels. For someone born in 1862, he appears very much alive.

He is also omnipresent through physical manifestations of his work. A walking tour of Vienna’s central First and arty Sixth districts takes in a slew of buildings touched by Klimt’s hand. It is an ideal way to soak up the atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vienna and appreciate Klimt’s developing style from his youthful irreverence to the mature, gold-leaf ornamentation of works that now command huge prices at international auction.

Portrait of a young man

In 1886 Klimt, then aged just 24, received one of his first major commissions, working along with his young brother Ernst and contemporary Franz Matsch, to paint frescoes over the twin stairways of the Burgtheater. The pictures were to depict the history of European theatre, and the trio of young artists created a series of huge ceiling images, including the death of Romeo and a scene from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Klimt even included his only self-portrait in the latter, a tongue-in-cheek image of the young man in an Elizabethan ruff collar.

Workers renovating the museum in the late 1990s subsequently uncovered rare sketches by Klimt for these ceiling paintings. These conceptual drawings are now on display in a dedicated Klimt room, a visit to which is included in the guided tour of the theatre.

Nearby is another example of the young artist’s early works: the 1890 commission for the stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The spread of paintings, adorning the narrow sections of wall between the arches and columns, hint at Klimt’s future artistic direction with their more ornamental style. In particular, the image of a nude Egyptian queen raised eyebrows at the time. The museum hosts Klimt at Kunsthistorisches Museum, an exhibition of works from Klimt’s middle period, until May 6.

Tree of Life (1909)

Courting controversy

By the early 1890s Klimt’s style as an artist was evolving. He wasn’t afraid to court controversy as an artist, and his rebellion against the forms of classical art forced him to renounce a major commission for the University of Vienna in 1894. Instead of retreating, however, he went on to become a founding member of the Secession, a co-operative of young artists opposed to the stuffy art establishment, in 1897.

The Secession building, one of the best-known examples of Viennese art nouveau, remains an independent exhibition space for new art movements with its white façade and gold-crowned dome. Klimt submitted two designs for the building in 1897, and the slogan above the main entrance reads: ‘To every age its art, to art its freedom’.

Klimt’s 1902 Beethoven Frieze, a sprawling work dedicated to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, remains on display in the basement gallery. The eight-panel piece depicts humankind’s search for happiness, culminating with an embracing couple in front of a choir of angels. “Vienna’s art establishment had a love-hate relationship with Klimt. Nobody was indifferent to him,” says Beate Murr, of the MAK Collection of Contemporary Art, who curates the exhibition Gustav Klimt: Expectation and Fulfillment (until July 15). The exhibition displays Klimt’s designs for the mosaic frieze to be displayed in the dining room of Stoclet House in Brussels. “Klimt is a bit overexposed at times but, when I look at the butterflies in the Stoclet Frieze, the precise quality of his work is the mark of a truly great artist.”

This quality is most readily identified in The Kiss (1908). Klimt was fascinated with sensuality, and his depiction of Adam and Eve, adorned with woven patterns of gold, floral motifs, and kaleidoscopic colours, is said to be an attempt by Klimt to express the intensity of his feelings of love towards Emilie Flöge.

The work takes pride of place today at the Upper Belvedere, surrounded by the largest collection of Klimt paintings in the world – 22 of his works, including many from his so-called ‘golden period’. The museum hosts the exhibition 150 Years of Gustav Klimt from July 12 to January 6, 2013. The Kiss, displayed on a blood-red background in the centre of the Klimt room, attracts the quiet reverence of a place of worship, while visitors talk about having an ongoing dialogue with the painting, the changing light throughout the day constantly reveals new details amid the swirling gold leaf.

A lasting legacy

Klimt died in February 1918 following a stroke. His friend and contemporary Egon Schiele, who would die the same year, aged only 28, sketched Klimt’s face in the mortuary, an image currently on display in the Leopold Museum as part of the exhibition Klimt: Up Close and Personal (until August 27). “The young will go their own way. Perhaps they will disregard me,” wrote Klimt.

They didn’t. Stately Vienna still revels in its Belle Époque heyday, and Klimt’s legacy at the vanguard of the movement is more alive than ever.

Vienna, Austria
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