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ESSAYS

Gustav Klimt

Left: Gustav Klimt in his studio garden. Circa 1912-14. Photograph.

Right: Poster for the First Secession Exhibition. 1898. Private collection.

GUSTAV KLIMT

Paintings and Drawings

Of the many Austrian artists represented by the Galerie St. Etienne, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) in some ways best epitomizes the curious downs and ups of our fifty years in the United States. Certainly he is today the most widely known artist of Vienna's fin-de-siècle cultural renaissance--more widely known, even, than Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, his Expressionist followers. Yet for many years it seemed that Klimt would never find international recognition. Though his controversial painting philosophy received the gold medal at the Paris World's Fair in 1900, success abroad--particularly in neighboring Germany--eluded him all his life. After his death, his contributions were superseded by the seemingly more avant-garde Expressionist movement and its various offshoots. Klimt faded quickly into the historical past, and his emergence was in no way encouraged by the rarity of his paintings outside Austria.

 

Whereas the Galerie St. Etienne mounted the first American showings of work by Kokoschka and Schiele soon after its founding in 1939, only in 1959 could it muster enough representative pictures for the first U.S. Klimt exhibition. From then on, however, things began rapidly to improve. Already in 1956, Harvard had acquired its Klimt from the Galerie St. Etienne (the first American museum to do so), and in 1957 the Museum of Modern Art followed suit. The 1965 Gustav Klimt/Egon Schiele exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum was the first to present the artist's work on a large scale, and a subsequent proliferation of Klimt monographs introduced him to an even broader audience. The psychedelic movement of the 1960s, which had a superficial affinity to Klimt's densely packed pictorial surfaces, helped plaster countless college dormitories with poster reproductions of his work. Suddenly, a Klimt "boom" was underway, and his subtle blend of the sinister and the romantic continues to exert a strong emotional pull on many who, knowing little of the artist or his background, are nonetheless seduced by his sumptuous gold and silver canvases.

 

Klimt regained his former position as modern Vienna's leading painter not merely because of a passing compatibility with the contemporary mindset, but because of the enduring validity of his artistic vision. This would-be rebel--founding president of the Vienna Secession in 1897--in fact got his start as a conventional muralist, and his work serves as a major bridge between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Even after he ceased to receive mural commissions, his message, as expressed in countless allegories, remained essentially public. Klimt's lingering desire to comment on the meaning of life, to unmask its morbid and libidinous undercurrents, conflicted with his mid-career association with the Wiener Werkstätte design collective, founded in 1903. The benign decorative concerns of his Werkstätte assignments (and of his contemporaneous "golden" paintings) seemed at odds with his more profound philosophical leanings. A related contradiction developed between the artist's steadfast dependency on realistic subject matter, and a tendency toward abstraction derived from the Werkstätte's influence. Thus it happened that the two dominant threads of the nascent modernist movement--Expressionism and abstraction--became interwoven throughout his oeuvre. Such ambiguity usually implies weakness, but in Klimt's case the result was just the opposite. Rather than succumbing to a single doctrinaire approach, Klimt to the end of his days remained opened to challenge and experimentation, and his work is alive with the energy of suggested possibilities.

 

The present exhibition offers an opportunity to examine, on a scale seldom possible in the United States, many of the phases and byways of Gustav Klimt's complex development. The earliest paintings in the show reveal his conventional academic roots, but at the same time they also demonstrate the concern with two-dimensional pattern that was to form the bulwark of the "golden" period. The famous Pallas Athena--avenging angel and offical protectress of the Secession--is among the highlights of the exhibition, and one of the artist's first "gold" paintings. The concerns of the golden period (or, as Klimt's contemporaries called it, his "mosaic style") are perhaps even more clearly evident in the artist's landscapes, wherein the obsession with juxtaposing little "chips" of color in an edge-to-edge pattern most blatantly verges on pure abstraction. Klimt's radical proclivities are also accentuated in his drawings, which progress from a staid academicism to total freedom and spontaneity.

 

As a supplement to Klimt's artwork, we are delighted to present--for the first time ever outside Austria--a portion of the estate of Emilie Flöge, Klimt's lifelong companion and (according to some) lover. Flöge, a dress designer whose fashionable shop on Vienna's Mariahilferstrasse was designed by the Wiener Werkstätte, very naturally owned an important collection of Werkstätte objects. She also had something of a collaborative relationship with Klimt, who also dabbled in fashion design. Klimt's floor-length caftans are almost legendary, and his spectacular gold-embroidered gown is one of the centerpieces of the Flöge estate.

 

50th Anniversary Committee

 

Dr. Hubert Adolph, DIRECTOR, ÖSTERREICHISCHE GALERIE

 

Leon A. Arkus, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF ART

 

Dr. Robert Bishop, DIRECTOR, MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FOLK ART

 

Dr. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz

 

The Honorable Leopold Bill von Bredow, CONSUL GENERAL OF THE

 

FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY

 

Prof. Alessandra Comini, SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY

 

Dr. Günter Düriegl, DIRECTOR, HISTORISCHES MUSEUM DER STADT WIEN

 

Lillian Gish

 

Paul Gottlieb, PRESIDENT, HARRY N. ABRAMS, INC.

 

His Excellency Friedrich Hoess, AMBASSADOR OF AUSTRIA TO THE U.S.A.

 

Prof. Arne Kollwitz

 

Mr. and Mrs. Leonard A. Lauder

 

Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder

 

Gertrud Mellon

 

Thomas M. Messer, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM

 

Dr. Konrad Oberhuber, DIRECTOR, GRAPHISCHE SAMMLUNG ALBERTINA

 

Mrs. John Alexander Pope

 

Prof. Carl E. Schorske, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY

 

Dr. Richard A. Simms

 

The Honorable Wolfgang Steininger, CONSUL GENERAL OF AUSTRIA

 

Dr. Alice Strobl, VICE DIRECTOR EMERITUS, GRAPHISCHE SAMMLUNG ALBERTINA

 

Dr. Wolfgang Waldner, DIRECTOR, AUSTRIAN INSTITUTE