Gustav Klimt – The Unifying Power of Art & Culture @ Vienna


Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1908-1909, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Vienna in Austria is a wonderfully accessible city, with art infusing every aspect of its society.

Strolling its myriad of city streets you come quite unexpectedly across buildings that are like a mini snapshot of a time when, with an act of youthful idealism, a spirit of sacrifice and a willingness to work hard, a group of youthful artists and artisans plunged Vienna into the age of modernity.

They were led by painter Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), whose brilliant individualism would dominate the era. At Vienna in 2012 they are celebrating the life and times of Gustav Klimt, whose painting genius is today recognised as having been integral to the birth of modernism in Europe in the late nineteenth century.

The Belvedere Palace and Museum in Vienna owns the world’s largest collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt, including his world-famous painting “The Kiss”.

Secession Building Vienna

‘To every age its art, to art its freedom’*

It was in 1897 that Gustav Klimt decided to lead a group of primarily young Viennese artists, painters, sculptors and architects as they seceded from the prestigious Kunsterhaus (Artists House) to set up a Society of Austrian Artists  – the Vienna Secession.

They staged their first exhibition in March 1898. Their aims were purely aesthetic and founded in coffeehouse culture.

The decorative arts magazine The Studio, which was devoured in all the capital’s most stylish cafes as well as their own magazine Ver Sacrum, which featured the highly decorative works of the period, inspired their work.

While tradition is all-pervasive in Vienna, so is the air of promise.

Dressed with a great sense of style its citizens busily embrace change, while celebrating the integration of art in every day life and their continuing love of café society.

Visiting its many museums and galleries, listening to Strauss waltzes in the park and eating Sacher Torte are activities most tourists embrace at some time. However it is the hidden Vienna, where you can suddenly come across buildings in the Jugendstil (Young Style), with their combination of straight geometry and carefully controlled organic curves, that is very exciting.


Detail of roofline of the Palais Stoclet, Vienna

There are also the stunning decorative and fine artworks of the Vienna Secessionists, who in their day went against the status quo.

The Secession Building is today affectionately known as “the cabbage head’ because of the big ball of gilded laurel leaves that surmounts the structure, snugly fitting into what has now become an architectural icon.

It was designed for the young idealists by Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867 – 1908) during what was a brief life and brilliant career.

He left this elegant city with this simply splendid structure, which he called ‘a cathedral for art’.

Olbrich was apprenticed to another architectural and urban planning genius of the time Otto Wagner (1841- 1918), whose career had a lasting impact on Vienna, transforming its appearance and infrastructures. Architect Josef Hoffman made up a trio of fine visionaries.

In 1905-11 he designed the Palais Stoclet in Brussels for Belgian industrialist Alfred Stoclet. This was a Villa built for a private financier who ‘wanted a large house, he loved the arts and gave us an entirely free hand’ Hoffman noted.

The Villa Stoclet has since been described as a universal, complete, flawless masterpiece of a thousand years of architectural history.

Dining Room Palais Stoclet Vienna, with murals painted by Gustav Klimt

At the Villa Stoclet the Dining Room contained murals by Gustav Klimt and furniture by Hoffman.

Harmony governed every facet of this total work of art and it became the extreme statement of Viennese avant-garde design.

It was ambitious, an accomplished achievement of the Wiener Werkstatte, (Vienna Workshops) also founded by Hoffman in 1903.

A strange astonishing edifice it might have come from another planet, it was in fact transposed far from the city of its conception to a setting, which is still alien to it.

It exemplified in embryo the major features of the coming Art Deco movement of which it was one of the great founding monuments.

As a way of contrast the stunning Belvedere palaces in Vienna with their extensive gardens are also amazing landmarks.

The two magnificent palaces, the Upper and Lower Belvedere were built during the 18th century at Vienna as the summer residence of general Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736).

Upper & Lower BelvedereHe chose architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745) to complete the work in what we now know as the classic Baroque style. They are important buildings on the landscape of modern Vienna.


Belvedere, Vienna

Great events in the cities history have taken place in the Upper Belvedere’s Marble Hall, which has a spectacular view of this truly wonderful city.

The Prince Eugene of Savoy engaged in successful military and diplomatic activities during the reign of three Hapsburg emperors of Austria. They also allowed him to become a great patron of the arts, which he was passionate about.

All of this was far removed from his role as military commanders in Austria, especially as he had been born a Frenchman and was often called on to fight his own countrymen.

Gustav Klimt, Mother and Child 1905

Detail: Secession Building, Vienna

Times were different and perhaps The Belvedere website explains it the best when it notes that ‘one can observe him (the Prince of Savoy) as an innovative and successful manager who was aware of the positive and unifying power of art and culture’.

Following Napoleon’s rout of Europe and his exile to the island of St Helena a meeting of the victorious allied powers Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain and France took place at the Congress of Vienna to establish a new order in Europe.

The aim was to provide a foundation for peace, which continued more or less, with minor interruptions until 1914.  As a result, a sense of hope was reborn among the mercantile class in Germany and Austria and the growth of the bourgeoisie created a demand for housing, furniture and decorative items.

Vienna, struggling to leave behind the conservatism of the past, eagerly embraced contemporary ideas and change under the influence and leadership of its artists, intellectuals and scientists.

They were helping to imagine a very different future one where art and industry could come together.

Gustav Klimt, Judith 1, 1901

From 1865 the Emperor Franz-Joseph I, who had ascended to power in a period of political turmoil, commenced a campaign of modernisation that saw the city’s medieval ramparts levelled and the great encircling triumph the Ringstrasse carved out.

Detail of the ceramic tiled Majolikhaus building designed by Otto Wagner, Vienna

Not unlike the modernisation in Paris under Haussmann that had commended in 1853, which saw the creation of wide boulevards, the Austrian Emperor’s campaign recast Vienna in the light of a formative modernity of electricity, efficiency and function, while providing a new stage for an emerging haute-bourgeoisie to display their bourgeoning wealth and influence.

Vienna was at the time a world centre of power, science and culture.

Born near Vienna Gustav Klimt was the second of seven children. Awarded a scholarship in 1876 to attend the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule).

He was there until 1883 and was part of a team of students who helped their teacher paint murals on the staircase wall in the Kunsthistorisches Museum at Vienna. He commenced his own career painting murals on walls and ceilings on commission.

In 1888 he received a Golden Order of Merit from the Emperor, Franz Josef for his work at the Burgtheater.

His closest brother Ernst and his father both died in the same year, 1892. This was a setback both for Klimt’s artistry and future as he became responsible for his brother’s children, his siblings, let alone the 14 children he fathered during his lifetime.

Gustav Klimt, Murals Interior Secession building at Vienna

Interestingly Klimt did not indulge in café society or mix with other artists socially, only professionally. As a committed champion of the modern movement at Vienna, he was the first president of the Vienna Secession, dedicating himself and his work to help furthering the avant-garde.

Klimt painted (as a temporary work with no intent for long term conservation) the much copied and simply splendid ‘Beethoven Frieze’ in the Vienna Secession building.

Perhaps more than any other artist of his period he traversed the old and the new patronage structures very well. He enjoyed Imperial favour while growing independently wealthy from the commissions of a taste-setting elite in the upper strata of bourgeoisie Viennese Society.

Vienna’s art world at the time accepted the vision and work of English designers such as Arts and Crafts guru William Morris and Scottish designer Charles Rennie Macintosh in their fight to combat goods produced by the Industrial Revolution.

Mackintosh trained in the tradition of the English Arts and Crafts movement, cultivating a rigorous formal economy of design that especially appealed to the members of the Viennese Secession.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907, Neue Galerie, New York City

In 1900, Secession leaders Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman and Josef Maria Olbrich invited Mackintosh to exhibit with them at the 8th Vienna Secession exhibition and they received much critical acclaim.

On 14 June 1905 Gustav Klimt and other artists left the Vienna Secession due to differences of opinion over artistic concepts.

Quietly eccentric in advancing years, Klimt experienced great success, despite having so many people dependent on his achievements. As his fame grew he could choose to be selective in accepting commissions.

His ‘golden phase’ when he used a great deal of gold leaf in his work (c1898 – 1908) was clearly affected by his travels to Ravenna, where he encountered Roman mosaics and the splendour of the ‘golden’ interior of St Mark’s cathedral at Venice.

The Kiss, and possibly his most famous work, his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer** comes from this period.

In Klimt, a work by Frank Whitford, Gustav Klimt is accredited with saying

‘I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night…Who ever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my pictures’.

Sketch of Gustav Klimt by Egon Schiele

At the World Exhibitions held at Rome in 1911 Klimt received first prize for his painting Death and Life. He died at Vienna in 1918 leaving some of his works unfinished.

His paintings have since brought some of the highest prices ever received, his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II gaining the third highest price paid ever for a work of art at auction selling in 2006 for $88,000,000.00

Vienna, and the world at large celebrated the life and art works of one of Austria’s favourite sons Gustav Klimt in 2012.

Over the course of 150 years since his birth Gustav Klimt has become a phenomenon in terms of the evolution of art and science, as well as the history of the world.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012-2014

* Above the entrance to the Secession Building was placed the phrase “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom.”)

** The paintings initially belonged to the Bloch-Bauer couple. It was confiscated by the Nazis, and bought by the Moderne Gallerie (now Österreichische Galerie), Vienna in 1941. In 2006, a court decision attributed the ownership of the painting to Maria Altmann, the niece of the Bloch-Bauers. She sold the painting for 135 million dollars to Ronald Lauder, who then transferred it to the Neue Gallery in New York City.

Website: Vienna


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