Austrian & German Expressionism

"High" and "Low" in Imperial Vienna: Gustav Klimt & the Applied Arts

By Jane Kallir [published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2001]

Gustav Klimt is often hailed as the greatest Art-Nouveau painter in all of Europe. One might even say that he was the only great Art-Nouveau painter, for Art Nouveau was a movement focused largely on the applied arts. Klimt, however, while maintaining a primary commitment to the realm of conventional “high” art, melded the decorative innovations of Art-Nouveau craftsmen with the Symbolist tendencies exemplified by contemporary painters. At a time when the boundaries between art and craft were being challenged, yet nonetheless remained very much intact, Klimt was one of the few artists who was equally inventive in both areas. He created grand allegorical canvases in the old manner, as well as posters, illustrations and elaborate applied wall decorations according to the new style. Whether one believes, as did Klimt and his colleagues at the Secession and later the Wiener Werkstätte, that this merging of high and low elevated craft, or feels, as did the polemical architect Adolf Loos, that it debased art, is a matter of personal opinion. What seems clear from our perspective, some one hundred years after the fact, is that Klimt was uniquely suited to assimilating the conflicting aesthetic demands of his particular time and place.


Setting the Stage: Training and Early Career


Klimt himself personified a strange combination of “high” and “low” elements. Given the heights to which he would rise in the Viennese art world, his beginnings were hardly auspicious. The son of a poor Bohemian goldsmith, Klimt grew up with his brothers, Ernst and Georg, and sisters, Klara, Hermine and Johanna, in the tenements of what is today Vienna’s 14th District. (A fourth sister, Anna, died at the age of five when Gustav was twelve.) By the time Gustav reached adolescence, his family’s always precarious financial situation had worsened, and it was clear that he and his two younger brothers would have to support the others. Gustav, whose artistic talent was already evident, therefore applied not to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, where the leading artists and architects taught and studied, but to the more commercially oriented Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts).


When Klimt entered the Kunstgewerbeschule in 1876, he was fourteen and the school itself only eight years old. The Kunstgewerbeschule had been founded as an adjunct to the Österreichische Museum für Kunst und Industrie (Austrian Museum for Art and Industry) in order to bolster Austria’s competitive position in the newly industrialized international economy. It was felt that industrialization had undermined the apprenticeship system that previously constituted the basis of a craftsman’s education. The Kunstgewerbeschule prepared its students to either design for industry or to teach. Klimt’s plan was to become a drawing instructor.


However, the Kunstgewerbeschule was no ordinary vocational school. Rudolf von Eitelberger, who as Director of the Museum für Kunst und Industrie was instrumental in establishing the school, believed that crafts could not and should not be separated from the “high” arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. “The crafts are nothing other than the application of these three art forms to the requirements of daily life,” he proclaimed. Accordingly, the Kunstgewerbeschule was divided into departments of architecture, figural drawing and painting, decorative drawing and painting, and sculpture. Eitelberger was an avid admirer of English innovations in industrial design (his museum cum school was in fact modeled on London’s South Kensington School and Museum, today the Victoria and Albert), and his ideas about the integration of the “high” and “low” arts had precedents in the British Arts and Crafts movement and among the French and Belgian Symbolists. The desire to grant equality to all art forms and to unite them in a comprehensive Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) would become one of the central tenets of international Art Nouveau.


After Gustav Klimt had completed the introductory coursework at the Kunstgewerbeschule and stood ready to take the qualifying exam to become a teacher, no less a personage than Eitelberger intervened and decreed that he instead join the department of figural drawing and painting, then headed by Ferdinand Laufberger. The normal program of study at the Kunstgewerbeschule comprised two to three years, or perhaps a little longer if the preparatory curriculum was counted. Klimt, however, remained there an astonishing seven years. Following Laufberger’s death in 1881, he enrolled for an additional two years with Laufberger’s successor, Julius Victor Berger.


One reason for Klimt’s extended tenure at the Kunstgewerbeschule was undoubtedly that it afforded invaluable professional contacts, and in fact Klimt began earning a living as an artist years before he left the school. As early as 1879, he started collaborating with his younger brother Ernst (who had entered the Kunstgewerbeschule two years after he did) and another fellow student, Franz Matsch. The trio eventually established a formal workshop, which they dubbed the Künstler-Compagnie der Gebrüder Klimt und Matsch (Artists’ Company, Klimt Brothers and Matsch). The school put a separate studio at the group’s disposal and paid them a stipend of 20 Gulden each per month.


At the time, the Austrian government, bolstered by a protracted economic boom, was sponsoring new public works all over the Empire. This building program--crowned by an arc of grand edifices along Vienna’s central Ringstrasse--generated a wealth of commissions for artists. Through the Kunstgewerbeschule, the Künstler-Compagnie gained entrée into that lucrative realm. It was probably Laufberger who introduced the young painters to the renowned architectural firm of Fellner and Helmer, which hired them to design curtains and murals for a number of provincial theaters. Later, through their teacher Berger, the trio grew closer to the studio of Hans Makart, Vienna’s reigning art star. A favorite of the Imperial court, Makart was not only a sought-after society portraitist, but also a popular sensation, whose monumental canvases drew thousands of viewers and who was frequently called upon to create elaborate wall decorations for the new Ringstrasse buildings. Shortly before Makart's death in 1884, the Künstler-Compagnie was invited to help complete one of his last, unfinished projects: the murals for the quarters of the Empress Elizabeth at the Hermesvilla in the Lainzer Tiergarten.


The Hermesvilla murals proved decisive for the Künstler-Compagnie. Not only was this their first significant Imperial commission, but it brought them to the attention of the Emperor’s favorite architect, Karl von Hasenauer. Hasenauer was responsible for the Künstler-Compagnie’s first major Viennese assignment, a cycle of paintings for the new Burgtheater. Klimt received the Emperor’s Golden Order of Merit for his contributions to this project in 1888, and a second prestigious commission in the Imperial capital followed soon thereafter. In 1890 the Künstler-Compagnie was asked to complete the staircase decorations for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, another of Makart’s unfinished assignments. In scarcely ten years, the Künstler-Compagnie had made it from the provinces to the Ringstrasse. Blessed with Imperial patronage and, symbolically, with the mantel of the revered Makart, the members of the Künstler-Compagnie seemed poised to become the darlings of the Austrian establishment.


As it transpired, however, this honor was accorded to only one of the three: Franz Matsch, who developed a sizable following among the aristocracy and was himself ennobled in 1912. By this time, Ernst Klimt was long dead, and Gustav’s career had taken a very different turn. Stunned by Ernst’s death from pericarditis in 1892, Gustav entered a period of artistic withdrawal that strained his relationship with Franz more or less to the breaking point. With the Künstler-Compagnie in shambles, Klimt nevertheless agreed in 1893 to share one final assignment with Matsch, a series of murals for the University of Vienna.


The University project decisively confirmed Klimt’s break with the conventional scene represented by Matsch and the Künstler-Compagnie. The commission entailed the production of a series of canvases, depicting various of the University faculties, which were to be installed on the ceiling of the school's auditorium. Working independently from Matsch on his three given subjects, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, Klimt produced a group of images that precipitated a scandal unlike anything ever before experienced in the staid Imperial capital. University professors and art critics alike were befuddled by the paintings' absence of mollifying historical or literary references, and appalled by the nudity and in some cases blatant ugliness of the figures. After enduring years of protracted protests, Klimt finally renounced the commission in 1905.


Klimt’s changing allegiances were further evidenced by his roles in the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897, and the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903. Though both organizations encompassed a variety of stylistic viewpoints, they were united in their opposition to the Historicism that had dominated the work of Hans Makart and his Ringstrasse-era contemporaries. Rather than aping past styles, the emerging Viennese avant garde sought to create a new, modern art. After breaking with their predecessor, the Künstlerhaus (Artists' House), the artists of the Secession built their own exhibition hall, to which they brought work by foreign modernists, heretofore unknown in Vienna. The intimate allegories painted by such Symbolists as Edvard Munch, Jan Toorop and Fernand Khnopff had a dramatic influence on Klimt. Also key to the development of the Viennese avant garde was the Secession's attempt to integrate the fine and applied arts. This approach found its ultimate flowering in the Wiener Werkstätte, a design collective established by the designers Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, and the financier Fritz Wärndorfer.



The Legacy of the Ringstrasse Period


In the context of his later career, Klimt’s collaboration with the Künstler-Compagnie may seem anomalous, but these early years were in many respects paradigmatic for the artist. Conceptually, this period offered a promise of cooperation, patronage and mutual good will that, though repeatedly broken, never lost its seductive allure. The exceptional kindness which Klimt later bestowed upon his colleagues, particularly those who were just starting out, mirrored the support he received at the outset from his partners, teachers and better established professionals. Though permanently embittered by the University scandal, Klimt remained committed to the ideal of official patronage. He was still mourning its loss as late as 1908 when, on the occasion of a round-up of contemporary art called the "Kunstschau" (Art Show), he characterized such exhibitions as a second-rate alternative to public commissions. The goal of the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte was to provide a forum in which artists could create, unhampered by the banality of official taste and supported by a cadre of like-minded patrons. In joining forces with these organizations, Klimt had not so much altered his way of working as found more hospitable venues for the expression of his ideals.


Stylistically, too, Klimt’s years with the Künstler-Compagnie presaged aspects of his subsequent work. Historicism was so furiously denounced by the ideologues of the fin-de-siècle avant garde that the connections between the Ringstrasse period and Austrian Art Nouveau have until recently been largely ignored. In fact, throughout Europe, Art-Nouveau artists and artisans did not so much abandon historical styles as sever them from their original historical contexts. The past thus became a grab-bag of motifs from which artists could pick and choose at whim, recombining disparate images much as postmodern artists today mine art-historical and popular iconography, with similarly disconcerting results. It was the ad-hoc nature of the Art-Nouveau artist’s use of historical sources that made the new art an art “for its age” (to paraphrase the Secession’s famous motto), and it was the dismembering of the original context that the general public found so disrespectful and alienating.


Historicism influenced Klimt’s mature work in several key ways. Through his early training, he had become extremely adept at assimilating historical material, and his later compositions are interlarded with elements drawn from such disparate sources as the Imperial armor collection, antique statuary, Greek vases, Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints and Chinese screens. Another legacy which Klimt retained from Historicism was a reverence for allegory, though like his Symbolist predecessors, he tried to reach beyond stale iconographic traditions to present universalized statements about the human condition. And, last but not least, Historicism, as practiced by Makart and his less illustrious contemporaries, offered a decisive model for Klimt in the manner whereby it combined painting with architecture.


The Gesamtkunstwerk may have reached its apogee in the fin-de-siècle Art-Nouveau era, but the origins of the concept can be traced back to the turn of the prior century. The revival of classical fresco technique and the reunification of painting with architecture were among the ideals espoused by the Romantic movement, which sought to reinvest art with the spiritual integrity ascribed to Medieval and Renaissance churches. Although the Romantics were not initially well received in Austria, in the second half of the 19th century their vision of a monumental fresco revival found a belated, albeit secular, incarnation in the Ringstrasse building program.


Not only was the Künstler-Compagnie's erstwhile role model, Hans Makart, the undisputed master of the Ringstrasse mural, he was also a quintessential “lifestyle” artist in a manner that strangely anticipated the later dictates of the Wiener Werkstätte. There were Makart hats and Makart bouquets and, for an added touch of theatricality, a massive “Festival Parade,” orchestrated by Makart in 1879 on the occasion of the Emperor’s 25th wedding anniversary. Long before the Wiener Werkstätte was founded, Makart breezed easily from the "high" arts to the "low." One has only to look at Rudolf von Alt’s famous watercolor of Makart’s studio to get the impression of an all-encompassing environment that is in its own way as oppressive as Josef Hoffmann’s Gesamtkunstwerk interiors. Whereas the German composer Richard Wagner saw opera--with its unique combination of musical, literary, dramatic and visual arts--as the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk, the Austrians would remove the concept from the stage and bring it into the home.


Implicit in the Austrian Gesamtkunstwerk was a blurring of the boundaries between art and life. Klimt, during his years as a muralist-for-hire, learned through practical experience to deal with the aesthetic problems posed by this mandate. The architectural settings in which he worked were real, yet their forms were abstract; his paintings, on the other hand, were only pictures, yet they had a realistic appearance. The attempt to resolve this paradox, to reconcile reality and illusion, lies at the heart of all Klimt’s subsequent work. It is one of the things that suited him so well to collaborations within the realm of the applied arts.


Klimt was acutely aware not only of the distinction between a picture and its setting but of the inherent tension, within the picture, between the three-dimensional figure and its two-dimensional ground. His earliest independent commission, a series of drawings for Allegorien und Embleme (Allegories and Emblems; published by Martin Gerlach between 1882 and 1884), already shows a characteristic preoccupation with framing and abstract form. Sometimes Klimt placed extra emphasis on his frames (on occasion designed by himself or his brother Georg), thereby accentuating the boundary between the artificial image and its environment. On the other hand, Klimt might incorporate geometric forms echoing the frame or architectural surround within the image itself, thus minimizing the aesthetic distance between the two. Recognizing that a blank canvas is an essentially artificial device, Klimt in his mature compositions preserved the integrity of the picture plane by filling his backgrounds with two-dimensional geometric or painterly ornaments. The faces and flesh of his human subjects, however, remained realistically rounded and shaded.


Klimt was never entirely able to eliminate the inherent conflict between figure and ground. He came closest, perhaps, in his landscapes, because these subjects could most readily and completely be reduced to abstract form. However, just as Klimt could never revert to the sham of illusionistic verisimilitude, he could not embrace full abstraction. His one purely abstract work--the rear panel for the dining room of the Palais Stoclet--invites comparison with the relief that Hoffmann designed for the Secession’s Beethoven exhibition. Both were, so to speak, accidental works of abstract art, their aesthetic conviction undermined by their obvious function as applied wall decoration. Klimt’s figural works, on the other hand, teetered precariously between realism and abstraction. While making concessions to the representational mandate of “high” art, the artist simultaneously flirted with the geometric formal devices that at the time were the province of the “low.”



Art and Craft: Embracing the Gesamtkunstwerk


Gustav Klimt’s affinity to the applied arts manifested itself in innumerable ways throughout his life and art. His background as a goldsmith’s son and his training at the Kunstgewerbeschule oriented him to the crafts early on. By the 1890s, Klimt’s destiny had become intertwined with the family of Hermann August Flöge, an artisan originally from Hanover who had made good in the Austrian capital as a manufacturer of meerschaum pipes. Ernst Klimt married Helene Flöge in 1891, and soon thereafter, his brother Gustav began a long-term liaison with Helene’s sister Emilie. In 1904, Helene, Emilie and their older sibling Pauline opened the fashion salon Schwestern Flöge, an enterprise with which Klimt was intimately connected. Not only did Gustav design dresses for Emilie, but it is likely that her collection of folk textiles influenced the colorful abstract patterns in his paintings. Klimt’s multifaceted skills as a designer made him an ideal propagandist for the Secession. He created advertising posters for its exhibitions, illustrations for the house organ Ver Sacrum, and it has been said that he even contributed to Josef Maria Olbrich’s concept for the Secession’s building.


At the Secession, Klimt associated less with his fellow painters than with the faction that came to be known as the “Stylists”: those, like Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, whose primary interest was the applied arts and who were firmly committed to the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The idea of the Secession as a temple to art (again harking back to the Romantics in a way now quasi-spiritual, quasi-secular) manifested itself in specialized installations intended to coordinate the architectural setting with the works on display. Whereas Klimt had once been compelled to conform to the dictates of Ringstrasse architecture, henceforth he and the architects would willingly engage in mutual collaboration. The communal labors of the defunct Künstler-Compagnie would be superceded by a new community of artists and artisans.


The fact that the Secession included architects and artisans, as well as fine artists, and on occasion exhibited crafts, constituted a highly unusual mingling of the “high” and the “low.” There were, granted, precedents for this in Vienna--not only in the aforementioned curriculum of the Kunstgewerbeschule, but before that, in the combined fine art and crafts orientation of the Biedermeier style that dominated Austrian culture during the early to mid 19th century. Nevertheless, the marriage of “high” and low” within the Secession did not prove altogether happy. The conflict between the Stylists and the “Naturalists” (as the opponents to Klimt’s clique came to be called) mirrored a broader conflict within international Art Nouveau, in which those favoring realistic ornamentation faced off against a younger contingent who preferred stylized abstractions of natural forms. In Vienna, however, this aesthetic disagreement was manifested not so much within the applied arts as between conventional easel painters and Gesamtkunstwerk polymaths. Financial considerations further augmented the split over aesthetics and mediums. The founding of the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903 had broadened the economic base of the Stylists, and their association, through the Secession artist Carl Moll, with the commercial Galerie Miethke was seen by the Naturalists as an unacceptable conflict of interest. This caused the so-called Klimt-Gruppe to sever its ties with the Secession in 1905.


After the Secession split, Klimt’s sole significant organizational affiliation was with the Wiener Werkstätte. The Werkstätte’s goal was to aestheticize every aspect of daily life, and Klimt complied, not just as a collaborator, but as a customer. Both his studio and the Flöge fashion salon were designed by Josef Hoffmann. Klimt purchased Wiener Werkstätte jewelry as gifts for Emilie, wrote to her on Wiener Werkstätte postcards, and framed his paintings in slender black Hoffmann frames. With a comprehensive repertoire of such utilitarian objects, the Wiener Werkstätte completed and celebrated the domestication of the Gesamtkunstwerk. And a stage in Klimt’s development was likewise completed through his association with Hoffmann and company.



Art and Architecture: Creating the Gesamtkunstwerk


The context of Klimt’s work--for which he created and into which his paintings were received--may be delineated by three principal phases. As a commissioned muralist, he had initially produced paintings for vast public spaces and been dependent on public patronage. The founding of the Secession, however, freed Klimt from the conservatism of official taste, for the private collectors who supported the Secession had far more progressive sensibilities than did Habsburg bureaucrats. Nevertheless, the Secession was still a public building, its potential and intended audience the broad mass of citizens whose tastes the Secessionists hoped to educate and elevate. Although the Wiener Werkstätte assimilated the Secession’s educational mission, it soon became evident that only the well-to-do could afford the Werkstätte’s standards of taste, workmanship and materials. A Wiener Werkstätte handkerchief, at 9.2 Kronen, cost as much as a trained tailor earned in one week, and by 1916, a Klimt portrait commanded a whopping 20,000 Kronen! As a result, in the final phase of Klimt’s career, not just the source of his revenue but his audience became a largely private one.


The three stages of Klimt’s career are, as it happens, conveniently illustrated by his three most important architectural commissions: the University paintings, the Beethoven frieze and the Stoclet frieze, designed, respectively, for the Austrian Ministry of Education, the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte. Even the materials selected for these three projects demonstrate the artist’s shift in values. The University pictures were painted, conventionally, in oil on canvas. The Beethoven frieze was essentially a fresco secco (casein on dry plaster) augmented with gold and inlaid stones, while the Stoclet frieze was a true mosaic, executed by the workshop of Leopold Forstner after large cartoons on paper by Klimt.


The University paintings were Klimt’s last official commission, and their style was very different from that of the comparatively bland allegories that had accounted for his prior success in that realm. As allegories go, the artist’s depictions of the faculties of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence are admittedly a bit obscure. The paintings contain few of the historical or literary references that traditionally served as guideposts for interpreting such lofty themes. Klimt’s interpretations are instead entirely personal, and in each case extraordinarily pessimistic. Humankind is a mass of suffering bodies whose plight cannot be ameliorated by the mortal disciplines taught by any of the three faculties in question. No wonder University professors were up in arms in opposition to these images!


The argument that the University paintings, in addition to being disturbingly sexual, were inappropriate for the purpose at hand is to some extent supported by the compositions themselves. Stylistically, Klimt's work was no longer compatible with that of his collaborator and former partner, Franz Matsch. And only Klimt's first canvas, Philosophy, made much concession to the fact that the works were intended to be mounted on the ceiling. Medicine and Jurisprudence were clearly best viewed head on, and indeed it is possible that Klimt already knew, after the uproar that greeted Philosophy upon its first public showing in 1900, that none of these works would ever be installed on the University’s ceiling. Jurisprudence, the last of the cycle, was substantially reworked after Klimt renounced the commission in 1905.


Even if the University debacle had not effectively ended Klimt’s career as a public muralist, the era of official patronage was fast winding down. Faced with embattled nationalities and social classes as well as the incipient fragmentation of its Empire, the Austrian regime had little incentive to support the arts, much less to back a scandal-prone painter. The implicit alliance between artists and the Imperial court, which had been manifested not only along the Ringstrasse but also at the more progressive Museum für Kunst und Industrie and Kunstgewerbeschule, was being undermined by the comparatively egalitarian demands of parliamentary democracy. Whatever their personal politics, Klimt and his cohorts at the Secession were no fans of artistic democracy. They rather favored a sort of benign cultural despotism, in which a talented elite would gently but firmly take the public in hand and lead them down the road to good taste.


The Beethoven frieze was Klimt’s ode to the artist as persecuted redeemer, just as the Beethoven exhibition (which housed the frieze) was the Secession’s most comprehensive realization of the Gesamtkunstwerk as artistic temple. The 1902 exhibition was intended to enshrine the German artist Max Klinger’s sculpture of Beethoven, who himself personified a kind of ideal artist-saint (fig. 20). The installation was designed by Hoffmann and included, in addition to Klinger’s statue and Klimt’s frieze, art by various other members of the Secession. The approach differed from that of all prior Secession exhibitions in that the design of the space, rather than accommodating pre-existing art works, in most cases preceded their creation. With the exception of the Klinger, the paintings and sculpture were intended to “conform to the concept of the room.” As noted in the catalogue, “The idea is to subordinate the parts of the conception to the whole through prescribed relationships and narrowly defined boundaries.”


The Beethoven exhibition included murals by a number of artists, but for the most part these did not breach the parameters of beautiful (albeit elaborate) wall decoration. Klimt’s frieze, on the other hand, managed both to meet the decorative requirements of the assignment and to deliver a statement of compelling artistic complexity and profundity. It is significant that the Expressionist artist Egon Schiele considered this to be Klimt’s greatest work. Although the raw abrasiveness of Schiele’s approach was diametrically opposed to the soothing sumptuousness of Klimt’s style, both artists believed that the purpose of art was to explore the essence of human existence. In its alleogrical orientation, as well as in its hodgepodge of classical borrowings, the Beethoven frieze kept faith with the University paintings and all the Historicist works that had preceded them.


Lest the viewer be in doubt as to the Beethoven frieze’s meaning (as were the professors when confronted with the University cycle), the exhibition catalogue provided a programmatic explanation. The work occupied three walls of its own oblong room, and the three panels were meant to be “read” in sequence. The first panel juxtaposes The Longing for Happiness with The Suffering of Weak Mankind, and concludes with a plea to a literal “knight in shining armor” (said to resemble the controversial composer and director of the Vienna Opera, Gustav Mahler). The second panel, occupying the short end wall, depicts The Forces of Evil, including “Disease, Madness, Death, Desire and Lewdness, Licentiousness and Nagging Grief.” In the final long panel, all ends well: “The longing for happiness finds appeasement in Poetry.” A chorus of angels rejoices, and humankind is saved by the concluding “Kiss for the Whole World” (illustrating a verse from the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven set to music in his Ninth Symphony).


Yet, despite the ambitious allegorical content of the Beethoven frieze, Klimt took great pains to subordinate the form of his composition to the architectural requirements of the assignment. Recalling the raised frieze that the Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh had created for the Secession’s eighth exhibition, Klimt’s mural ran along the top of the walls, above eye level. The porosity of the plaster surface caused the casein pigment to sink into the ground, so that the painting almost literally became one with the wall. The stylized flatness of the figures further accentuated this effect. On the other hand, the genuine jewels and gold insets seemed to sit above the plaster surface, their palpable bulk both echoing and contrasting with the duller painted ornamentation. It is almost as though Klimt were deliberately teasing his audience, asking them to discern what was real and what was not. Klimt’s double-edged approach to illusion and reality was perhaps never more effectively deployed than in this allegory about art and life. Form and content were here perfectly matched.


If Klimt’s enshrinement of the artist-hero was intended as a response to the University scandal (which was then in full flower), the Beethoven frieze certainly did not win him any converts from among the already disaffected conservatives. As with the University canvases, the public’s main objections revolved around the blatant sexuality of some of the female figures and the perceived ugliness of others. “Klimt has once again produced a work of art that calls for a doctor and two keepers,” wrote one typical critic. “His frescoes would fit well in a [psychiatric] institute....The representation of 'Lewdness' on the back wall is the last word in obscenity. And to think that this is Klimt’s path to Beethoven!”


Unlike the younger artists of the Expressionist generation, such as Schiele and, in particular, Oskar Kokoschka, Klimt was an unwitting Bürgerschreck (scourge of the bourgeoisie). He did not mean to offend, and the continuing controversy surrounding his work wounded him to the core. His unhappiness was exacerbated by the Secession split, which demonstrated that the Klimt-Gruppe could not even count on support from their fellow artists. On every level, however, the Wiener Werkstätte promised to address and redress these issues. Here at last would be created a true Künstlergemeinschaft (artistic community), an entity that would unite likeminded artists and patrons, and exclude all the rest. Private patronage would guarantee artistic freedom, though it would also largely confine the artists’ reach to the private sphere.


Vienna’s fin-de-siècle avant garde depended on direct relationships with patrons, because Austria had not yet developed a viable network of commercial galleries to mediate between artists and the larger public. The overlap between Klimt’s key patrons and those of the Wiener Werkstätte was virtually total. These included two of the organization’s principal backers, Fritz Wärndorfer and Otto Primavesi, as well as the collectors Friederike Maria Beer, Sonja Knips, August and Serena Lederer, Karl Wittgenstein and the Zuckerkandl family. That Klimt’s patrons decorated their homes according Wiener Werkstätte precepts facilitated the assimilation of the artist’s canvases into the all-encompassing lifestyle that was, after all, the goal of the Gesamtkunstwerk.


Klimt’s Stoclet frieze reflected perfectly, in form, content and circumstances, the retreat of the Austrian avant garde into the private sphere. Still smarting from the earlier attacks on his work, Klimt did not even allow the mural to be publicly exhibited in Vienna. Those in the know--presumably comprising only friendly parties--could visit the frieze at the mosaic workshop of Leopold Forstner before it was shipped to its intended site, the Brussels mansion of the industrialist Adolf Stoclet. Here Klimt’s frieze would virtually disappear from view.


Whereas the Beethoven exhibition had been the Secession’s most complete realization of the Gesamtkunstwerk as art temple, the Palais Stoclet was the Wiener Werkstätte’s most successful interpretation of the Gesamtkunstwerk as domestic environment. In Adolf Stoclet, Josef Hoffmann found a client who was both willing and financially able to conform to the architect’s every dictate, and he proceeded to mastermind a totally coordinated environment. Between 1905 and 1911, an enormous team of Wiener Werkstätte artists and artisans created everything from carpets to coffee spoons. Not a single aspect of the wall ornamentation, furnishings or fixtures escaped Hoffmann’s attention. It is even said that the Wiener Werkstätte established its fashion department because Mme. Stoclet’s clothing clashed with the mansion’s interior.


Klimt had bowed to Hoffmann’s architectural conception when he designed the Beethoven frieze, but the creations of both the painter and the architect had been subordinated to the higher goal of “Art.” By comparison, Klimt’s Stoclet frieze was destined for the dining room of a Belgian mansion, which had no more lofty purpose than the comfort of its owner and his guests. If the Stoclet frieze was not exactly upstaged by the dining room’s ancillary accoutrements (which naturally were more numerous than had been the case with the Beethoven installation), it nevertheless blended harmoniously with the interior decor. The mosaic stones and tiles were conceptually of a piece with Hoffmann’s marble walls. The Stoclet frieze was clearly part of the decorative reality of the room it inhabited, rather than evoking the parallel world of artistic illusion which had formerly given depth to Klimt’s allegorical visions.


The Stoclet frieze had an allegorical program, but it was far simpler than that of the Beethoven frieze. The composition centers on two primary vignettes, Expectation and Fulfillment (the latter reprising the Kiss for the Whole World, which had, in the meantime, also been essayed in what is today’s Klimt’s most famous canvas, The Kiss). Expectation and Fulfillment are entwined in the Tree of Life, whose spiraling golden branches give decorative unity to the whole. The dark and ugly forces of the Beethoven frieze are wholly absent here. Expectation gives way to Fulfillment with nary a struggle. Nothing untoward disturbs the Stoclet family’s dinner guests.


The bland form and content of the Stoclet frieze, as well as its complete reliance on materials that are more often associated with the “low” than with the “high” arts, would seem to substantiate Adolf Loos’s complaints against the Wiener Werkstätte. In his view, the Gesamtkunstwerk concept granted neither art nor craft its proper place. "The work of art," Loos wrote, "wants to shake people out of their comfortableness. The house must serve comfort." Klimt himself had trouble with the dining-room commission, presumably because his tempera and metallic leaf designs had to anticipate and make concessions to the much harsher medium of mosaic. "Stoclet is growing like an abscess on my neck," he wrote Emilie Flöge in July 1910. After finally completing the full-scale cartoons (which, in frustration, he let Emilie touch up), Klimt worked closely with Forstner's workshop on the interpretation of his designs. In the end, nevertheless, Klimt was not entirely satisfied with the result. Offered another similar commission by the Wiener Werkstätte, he turned it down. The Stoclet frieze was the artist's final large-scale mural.



Conclusion: On the Road to Modernism


Seen as a group, the University paintings, Beethoven frieze and Stoclet frieze illustrate the potential and perils of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Of the three commissions, the Beethoven frieze is probably the most successful. The University paintings take too little account of their architectural setting, the Stoclet frieze, arguably, too much. The Beethoven frescoes, on the other hand, achieve just the right balance between art and architecture--proving that it is, indeed, possible to create an art work that is fully one with its space, yet nevertheless as complex, profound and moving as any more conventional easel painting.


The Beethoven frieze may, to some extent, be seen as a forerunner of the installation art that would flourish toward the end of the 20th century. Like these later works of art, the Beethoven installation was clearly intended as an aesthetic experience; it did not pretend to serve a utilitarian function. Whether or not Klimt consciously rejected the Gesamtkunstwerk model put forth by the Wiener Werkstätte after completing the Stoclet commission, there must be some significance to the fact that thereafter he retreated to the more conventional world of paint and canvas. Implicitly if not explicitly, the artist's subsequent paintings acknowledge the fact that art, to be art, must occupy its own separate realm, apart from the every-day and practical.


Klimt's later paintings, however, continued to be informed by his earlier architectural sensibilities: to balance two dimensional considerations against three dimensional ones. Gradually, he developed a more painterly approach. His portrait subjects now rested in nests of lush flowers and impastoed swirls, instead of the flat geometric planes of former years. Nevertheless, the contrast between realistically rendered flesh and a more abstract, ornamental surround remained as pronounced as before.


Negotiating trade-offs between illusion and reality was, in a sense, the fine-art equivalent of the form-versus-function dichotomy that was played out in the fin-de-siècle Gesamtkunstwerk. But whereas the applied-art incarnation of the Gesamtkunstwerk ultimately proved as problematical as Loos had predicted, its fine-art counterpart provided an endless source of inspiration for Klimt. The fact that he could never resolve the conflict between illusion and reality in his work was not a weakness, but rather the source of the artist’s enduring strength. It is, finally, Klimt’s duality--his effective bridging of the moribund world of academic realism and the coming world of abstraction--that accounts for his greatness.