Exhibit of an extraordinary career

Fascinating Jewish connections of famous fin-de-siecle painter Gustav Klimt.

Gustav Klimt (photo credit: Gustav Klimt)
Gustav Klimt
(photo credit: Gustav Klimt)
It is 150 years since the birth of Gustav Klimt, one of Vienna’s favorite sons, and the city is exploiting this event by organizing several comprehensive exhibits in some of its major museums.
In 1886, at the age of 24, Klimt, together with his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch, was invited to design paintings for the stairwells of Vienna’s famous Burgtheater.
Amongst his contributions, Klimt depicted the ancient theater of Taormina in Sicily, as well as the final scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and included his self-portrait as well as that of his coworkers.
This was the only occasion that Klimt painted a self-portrait and was a subtle form of self-advertisement.
All who entered the theater looked up and could recognize the artists.
The style of these paintings is strongly influenced by the pre-Raphaelites and art-nouveau symbolism. Preparatory paper cartoons of these paintings were discovered in the theater in the late 1990s and are now on display.
The paintings by these three artists were well received and many commissions came their way. In 1890 the group began working on the unfinished narrow sections of wall between arches and columns of the main stairwells of the Museum of Fine Arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum). A total of 13 oil paintings by Klimt depict the history of art and applied art from their ancient Egyptian beginnings to the modern age. A temporary bridge has been erected spanning the main staircase of the museum to enable visitors to closely inspect these pictures.
In 1891, Klimt joined the Künstlerhaus, an influential artists association, and three years later was commissioned by the University of Vienna to portray faculty paintings on philosophy, medicine and jurisprudence for its Great Hall. The paintings were violently rejected by the establishment and came under tremendous criticism.
They were regarded as radical, obscene and pornographic. Klimt was accused of breaking cultural taboos. The conservative right-wing newspaper Deutsches Volksblatt wrote that the paintings were amoral and it was for this reason that “the Jews approved of them so much.”
Klimt resigned his commission, the last public assignment that he accepted. He repaid his advance with the support of the Jewish industrialist August Lederer, who was Klimt’s friend and one of his major patrons. These faculty paintings together with several others were destroyed by the retreating German SS at the end of World War II. Only preparatory sketches and a few photographs remain.
Klimt later painted portraits of Lederer’s wife, Serena, as well her mother and daughter, Elisabeth. To avoid deportation at the hands of the Nazis, Elisabeth claimed she was the illegitimate daughter of Klimt. This assertion was supported by the authorities and she escaped the fate of the majority of Austrian Jews. Serena’s two sisters also commissioned portraits of their daughters from Klimt.
The critic Hermann Bahr responded to the controversy surrounding Klimt’s faculty pictures with his book Against Klimt.
Much of his correspondence together with Klimt’s painting Nuda Veritas (The Naked Truth) with the famous Friedrich Schiller quotation “If you cannot please everyone with your art, please a few. To please many is bad,” is currently on view at the Austrian Theater Museum. Nuda Veritas was Klimt’s bid to shake up the establishment and depicts a naked red-headed woman holding the “mirror of truth.” This painting was owned by Bahr.
In 1897, Klimt left the Künstlerhaus and together with designer Kolman Moser, architects Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Olbrich and several other artists, founded a breakaway movement known as the Vienna Secession. This was conceived as an independent association that offered an alternative to the official exhibitions mounted by the Künstlerhaus.
Klimt became its first president and remained a member until 1905. The idea of this new movement was first discussed in the salon of Berta Zuckerkandl, who was from a prominent Jewish aristocratic Viennese family. Klimt painted portraits of Berta Zuckerkandl’s sister-in-law, Amelia, who was subsequently murdered in 1942 in a concentration camp.
Joseph Olbrich designed the movement’s exhibition building, the famous Secession Hall, which is a key work of Viennese art nouveau. For his Beethoven Frieze, Klimt took his theme from the composer’s Ninth Symphony. This masterpiece is permanently displayed at the Vienna Secession. Because of its eroticism and graphic descriptions, this frieze provoked criticism but also garnered much praise. In honor of the Klimt anniversary, the artist Gerwald Rockenschaub has built a platform to enable the visitor to view the Beethoven Frieze at eye-level.
THE WIEN MUSEUM has the world’s largest collection of Klimt works comprising approximately 400 drawings, including preparatory sketches for his best-known masterpieces. All are currently on display in the museum, arranged by subject matter. This includes Pallas Athene of 1898, which was the first painting in which Klimt incorporated gold.
This trend received considerable impetus after his visits to Venice (in the company of Alma Schindler-Mahler-Gropius-Werfel) and Ravenna. The portrait of Emilie Flöge, his life-long companion, which was one of his first paintings to feature ornamental detailing in the foreground, is also on display.
Other interesting items on show at the Wien Museum include Klimt’s artist’s smock, his death mask and Egon Schiele’s drawing of the deceased artist. Klimt has become so popular that an element of kitsch – or even “Klimtomania” – has evolved. For its current exhibit, the Wien Museum recruited suggestions for the Worst of Klimt from Facebook, and these are also on show.
Klimt’s 1898 portrait of Sonja Knips in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace Museum marks a turning point in his oeuvre since it is the first of his series of portraits showing prominent women from Viennese society.
Over the next few years, Klimt was commissioned to paint portraits of 21 women.
Of these, 12 were from the Jewish aristocracy, one from a family who had left their Jewish faith and converted to Christianity, and another portrait of a woman who married into a Jewish family. This is remarkable considering the fact that Jews accounted for only 8 percent of the population of Vienna.
Probably the most well-known is his first portrait of Adele Block-Bauer, which had been confiscated by the Nazis after the Anschluss, and until recently was displayed at the Belvedere. The Block-Bauers were wealthy Jewish patrons of Klimt.
After a lengthy legal battle, this painting, together with several others, was repatriated to the descendants of their original owners and the portrait was subsequently purchased for the Neue Galerie in New York for the sum of $135 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for a work of art. Klimt painted another portrait of Adele. It is of interest that she was the only woman to have been portrayed twice by the artist.
The Belvedere possesses the world’s largest collection of paintings by Klimt, including the famous Kiss.
The exhibition, entitled “Masterpieces in Focus: 150 years of Gustav Klimt in the Belvedere,” presents the museum’s entire stock of Klimt’s paintings and attempts an analysis of what these paintings convey to the observer. Also on exhibit are two recently acquired Klimt masterpieces Sunflower and Family.
Throughout his life, Klimt maintained a close relationship with Emilie Flöge, who became his muse.
Klimt’s brother was in fact married to Emilie’s sister, Helene. It has been rumored that the couple depicted in Kiss are the artist and Emilie. To this day, it remains uncertain if their relationship was sexual or platonic.
They were certainly kindred spirits. Klimt wrote over 400 postcards and notes to her over the course of their 27-year relationship. In only one postcard, discovered in 2000, did the subject of love come up.
Klimt drew a heart and wrote “and now my beautiful dear Miderel [Emilie], look at this long kiss and farewell again.”
Klimt had at least six children from three women, but he certainly fathered many more. Despite this, it was always Emilie who appeared with him in public functions. “Send for Emilie” were the first words he uttered after suffering a stroke in January 1918. He died three weeks later.
In 1904 Emilie Flöge and her sister Helene opened a couture salon in Vienna where they sold clothes based on designs of the Secession. Since a large percentage of the customers were from the Viennese- Jewish aristocracy, the salon was forced to close in 1938 with the Anschluss. Some of the embroideries and fabrics with art nouveau ornamentation designed by Flöge are currently on view at the Austrian Folklore Museum.
As an artist, Klimt earned a considerable amount of money. With the sale of the portrait of Emily Flöge, he was paid 10 times more than the total annual salary of a primary school teacher. Despite this, he lived his whole life with his mother and unmarried sisters.
Vienna’s Leopold Museum owns several of Klimt’s key paintings as well as over 100 drawings. Its current exhibition focuses on its main Klimt holdings, supplemented by international loans. Included in the exhibition are numerous historic photographs, which show Klimt in a relaxed atmosphere in his private life and in his typical artist’s smock. There is also a reconstruction of one of his studios.
All the postcards and letters which Klimt wrote to Flöge are on view in a series of display cabinets. There are also a number of landscapes of Lake Attersee and its vicinity, which Klimt painted privately for himself and not as commissions. One of his landscapes was recently auctioned for $43m. Klimt spent every summer from 1900 until 1916 at different locations on Lake Attersee, in the company of the Flöge sisters and their families.
In 1918, Klimt, his protégé Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Kolman Moser all died. Klimt and Moser had already left the Secession 13 years previously because of artistic differences, but with their death, the final curtain descended on this movement. The brilliant flowering of the Secession was short-lived and did not have any real successor.
Klimt once said: “I’m sure that I am not particularly interesting as a person. There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning till night.” Whether there is some truth to this assertion is debatable but his popularity has grown steadily by leaps and bounds and the Secession movement has proven to be one of the most successful epochs in art history.
Today, Klimt’s paintings are instantly recognizable and Vienna is certainly capitalizing on this anniversary year. There will no doubt be many more Klimt exhibitions in another six years, the centennial of his death. Several of the remarkable exhibits mentioned above will remain on show for the duration of the Klimt anniversary year.
I am very grateful to Sophie Lillie, art historian, Vienna for her helpful comments. ■
The author, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). Additional pictures from other trips can be seen at www.pbase.com/irvspitz. Irving Spitz blogs at www.educationupdate.com/irvingspitz.