June 29, 2014

A Klimt tour of Vienna

Gruß Gott from the beautiful city of Vienna where the weather is gorgeous, the museums outstanding and the coffee and cakes are out of this world!  Situated in eastern Austria on the River Danube, Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg dynasty, the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when, at the end of World War I, the Emperor abdicated and Austria became a republic.  Since then Vienna has struggled with political strife, the annexation with Germany in 1938 (the "Anschluss") and post World War II division among the Allies until regaining independence in 1955.

Today's Vienna is a thoroughly modern city enriched by its glorious past.  Stunning public and private buildings and churches reflect the ages from Baroque and Rococo to Biedermeier and Jugendstil and evidence of the imperial past is everywhere.  From the magnificent Hofburg Complex to the elegant Café Sacher, from the world class Staatsoper to the equally impressive MuseumsQuartier, the city is a feast for the eyes, ears and definitely taste buds!

Vienna has been home to many famous citizens including composers Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, and Arnold Schönberg, architects Joseph Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, and Dr. Sigmund Freud who needs no introduction.  But perhaps the most famous of all is the artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) whose celebrity continues to grow as his paintings are more and more sought after.

Where better to explore the work of this wonderful artist than in his native city where examples of his genius are plentiful.  Let's start with some of the earliest examples of his work on view in the Kunsthistorisches Museum where a very young Gustav, his brother Ernst and a friend, were commissioned to decorate a section of wall space as part of a cycle to personify different periods of art.  If you look very carefully (there is a small telescope on site to help) you can see their version of Ancient Egypt between the columns and left and right of the arches above the grand staircase.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum has also recently been gifted with a very early portrait done by Klimt and titled "Portrait of a Lady with a Lilac Scarf" which they are now presenting to the public for the first time.  Not much is known about the sitter or the circumstances, but it is a very rare example of Klimt's work during his "years of crisis" before he went on to found the Secession Movement in 1897.

Klimt's first brush with fame came during his years as President of the Wiener Sezession, the radical group he co-founded with Koloman Moser, Joseph Maria Olbrich and others with the aim of presenting the work of unconventional young artists to the public.  Perhaps their most enduring legacy is the "Secession Building" or "Golden Cabbage" as it is affectionately referred to, which was designed for exhibitions of avant garde art.  Klimt's 1902 "Beethoven Frieze" can still be seen in the basement where it was painted directly onto the walls.

In July of 1905, Klimt resigned from the movement he had helped to found and promote and proceeded to work on his own.  The resulting landscapes in their distinctive square shape and the luminous "Golden Phase" are probably his best known works and some of the greatest examples can be found in the Leopold Museum, a fairly new entry on the Vienna museum scene. Opened in 2001, the Leopold Museum boasts one of the finest collections of works of Art Nouveau, Wiener Werkstätte and Austrian Expressionism, all from the former private collection of Dr. Rudolf Leopold and his wife Elisabeth.  Prominently displayed are masterpieces by Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and the topic of this blog - Gustav Klimt.

Here we can see superb examples of Klimt at his peak, like the mysterious "On Lake Attersee" painted while summering with the Flöge family in 1900, and the haunting "Death and Life", 1910, where a highly decorated Grim Reaper observes a blissfully unaware group of vibrant, living people.

But Klimt's most iconic paintings are, of course, the gold ones, and the mother lode of these magnificent works can be found at our next and final stop - the Belvedere Palace.  Built in the 17th century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Saxony, the Upper Belvedere now houses an unparalleled collection of Austrian Art from the Middles ages to today.  The highlight of a visit to this museum is the Gustav Klimt Collection featuring 24 works including allegorical scenes, portraits, and landscapes like "Avenue to Schloss Kammer", circa 1912.

The star of the show is without a doubt the Klimt work that has been reproduced on everything from college dorm posters to coffee mugs, his exquisitely beautiful masterpiece "The Kiss".  This breathtaking painting, executed in 1907/08, was probably inspired by the golden mosaics Klimt saw on a trip to Venice and Ravenna, but his execution is entirely unique.  In the picture, a couple is tenderly embracing, their bodies wrapped in a cloak elaborately adorned in gold.  The style is part illuminated manuscript, part Byzantine mosaic and the most emblematic work of art of the Viennese Art Nouveau period.

It's been an intensive tour of some very important art and I think it's time for a break.  What could be better than another Viennese masterpiece - a piece of world famous Sachertorte, mit schlag, and a delicious cup of coffee!  Guten apetite!

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