Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil as it was called in Germany, came rather late to Austria, where it was sometimes called Sezessionstil. Gustav Klimt was a leading light in the breakaway Austrian Secession movement founded in 1897. Only a fool would deny that he was an exceptionally gifted artist.
He absorbed in turn 19th-century Realism, Symbolism and Impressionism. He drew so beautifully that only prudes will be shocked by his sensuality. (Indeed, it is to be hoped — or hoffentlich as they say locally — that his erotic images of ladies pleasuring themselves, rendered in soft and not so soft pencil, may have educated and liberated Freud’s neurotically uptight Viennese patients.) Klimt’s landscapes, like his portraits, are individualistic and highly original in conception. Their surfaces are beautifully crafted. His faces are full of life and hold one’s attention despite the surrounding sea of decoration and unsparing use of gold. He can be a seductive artist although not everyone likes being seduced.
More than one critic has poured scorn on various Klimt artefacts in Tate Liverpool’s gift shop and on his recent sky-high auction results. Shame on you, colleagues! We should not think less of van Gogh because his sunflower is on a tea towel, or penalise Klimt for past and posthumous commercial success. Please concentrate on reviewing the show itself — a remarkable one, even though it is by no means a definitive Klimt retrospective. There are technical reasons to do with loans why this would have been impossible. The emphasis, therefore, has shifted towards design, leaving Klimt himself tantalisingly elusive.
‘To the Age its Art. To Art its Freedom,’ the Secessionists cried as they broke with the prevailing academic historicism. In 1900, one could be considered dangerously avant-garde in Vienna while lagging miles behind Paris’s cutting edge. Klimt was born in 1862, three years after Seurat, a much more radical artist, and 28 years after Whistler, whose Peacock Room anticipated the harmonising of art and design so beloved of Klimt and his colleagues. A hero of this show, unsung in title or subtitle, is the architect Joseph Hofmann, who worked closely with Klimt. The Secessionists (unlike your reviewer) were also drawn to Wagner’s notion of the all embracing Gestamtkunstwerk.
Furthermore, the Wiener Werkstätte, which figures prominently in the show, took its cue from the English Arts and Crafts movement. In this glimpse into a Viennese flowering of visual art, the evident influence of William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Charles Annesley Voysey and others may induce a smidgin of patriotic British pride. However, the main point to note is that Austrian taste of the time, created by artists, architects and designers, acting closely with wealthy and empathetic patrons such as the Wittgenstein family, has cooked up its own fascinating flavour.
There’s a buzz of popular excitement in Tate Liverpool right now and in the entertaining second room of the exhibition I was surprised to bump into an old friend, an explorer of South America. ‘By the way, what’s that gorilla doing in there?’ he asked, while indicating a mysterious creature in Klimt’s ‘Beethoven Frieze’ originally painted for the Fourteenth Exhibition of the Viennese Secession in 1902. I can now reveal that this hirsute giant with bad teeth is Typhoeus, one of the Hostile Forces. He stands next to his daughters, the three Gorgons, looking rather ridiculous but not as ridiculous as the hero of the frieze, a very stiff looking Knight in Shining Armour. Oh dear! The whole mural has been recreated for this show — but out of architectural context. You have to look at photographs nearby to imagine what it looked like originally.
Klimt was part of a revolt against stuffy traditionalism, but he was a big enough artist and man to tolerate and even encourage the next generation of Viennese revolutionaries such as Schiele and Kokoschka. Kokoschka’s main patron was the radical architect Adolph Loos. Loos disliked Hofmann and thought that a true artist should pursue lofty aims far above interior decoration and furniture design. He was fundamentally right in the latter case but this does not mean that it was a bad idea to mount this show. It’s a show which brilliantly animates an engaging, extravagant and occasionally dotty slice of cultural history. It captures a world about to vanish — but not without trace.