The Gold Boy Gustav Klimt and Austria’s Sorrow

On July 7, 2006, the queue for the Vienna Belvedere Museum is so long that a long line forms outside the museum. The Austrians then have three days to say goodbye to their Adele, one of the country’s most famous paintings at the time. That Portrait of Adele Bloch-BauerI, also known as the Mona Lisa of Austria, is a work that Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) had created a century earlier by the Jewish-Austrian Bloch-Bauer. In early 2006, the painting, along with five other works by Klimt, was awarded to Bloch-Bauer’s heirs after seven years of legal wrangling. The Vienna Museum Belvedere had bought the portrait from the Nazis in 1941 after they had confiscated it three years earlier. After the war, the museum claimed it was the rightful owner because Adele Bloch-Bauer had requested in a will that the works in its possession be donated to Austrian museums. However, it turned out to be different and the museum was left behind.

Some visitors lay a rose at the ‘farewell’, as if it were a condolence. Attempts have been made for weeks to raise funds to keep the work, but the state and Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, who had brought the case from the US, are unable to resolve it. It’s not even about the money for Altmann. Before the trial, she had already indicated that she would also agree to the return of only Klimt’s landscapes, provided she received recognition from the state for what had been done to her family. However, this recognition did not materialize and in Austria no one wanted to take its relationship seriously. The trial that followed set the tone for how looted art is treated in Austria worldwide (in 2015, the legal battle was the subject of the film Woman in gold starring Helen Mirren).

In Austria itself, there is little understanding of Altmann’s position. Instead of delving into what the Nazis did to Klimt’s paintings – many had Jewish owners – there is anger. Altmann is portrayed by Klimt lovers and in the press as ‘money-hungry Jüdin‘, greedy Jews. The newspaper headline ‘Ade, Adele’ (Farewell, Adele) and posters spread across the city with the same message: ‘Ciao Adele’. The perpetrators portray themselves as victims, and the Austrians’ lack of self-reflection does not help. From autumn 2006, the portrait with ‘the golden lady’ has hung in the Neue Galerie in New York. The second portrait of Adele, a variegated variant, was purchased by Oprah Winfrey (who sold it to an anonymous Chinese buyer in 2015).

Nest fouling

That attitude at Adele’s ‘farewell’ wasn’t really surprising. The Austrians showed little self-criticism about their position under the Third Reich for decades. For a long time, the country saw itself as one of Hitler’s first victims. In literature, ‘Heimat’ writers ruled the literary life until the mid-1960s, only a few artists returned from exile. After Thomas Bernhard’s play, others also dared to deal with ‘nest fouling’, but the convulsive attitude persisted. The restitution of art and property looted by Nazis was first discussed in the late 1990s. In the studio that Klimt entered at Feldmühlgasse 11 in Vienna in 1915 after his mother’s death, and which is now a museum, hangs a list of works confiscated in 1943. The museum’s catalog lists the many Jewish collectors and muses , who did it. did not survive World War II or remained in exile.

The spasm of the Austrians at ‘farewell’ to their ‘Adele’ was not surprising

This spasm of Austrian culture was also present during Klimt’s lifetime. Klimt, born in 1862 as the son of a silver and gold engraver, started at the age of fourteen as a painter at the Academy of Arts and Crafts. This combination is useful because the rich bourgeoisie not only build prestigious buildings and palaces, but also want to see them decorated. Reason enough for Klimt to start a studio, Künstler Compagnie, together with his brother Ernst and their friend Franz Matsch. The orders pour in, and anyone who paints a ceiling or wall in a new house complies as much as possible with the customer’s agreements. Walls and theater backdrops are provided with lavish figures that symbolize everything, or are a tribute to art and history. The ceilings painted by them can still be seen in the Burgtheater. It is also the time when Gustav Klimt made his first portraits, in which The blind old man (1882) strikingly old-fashioned. A portrait of a Woman with purple scarf Although (1880) already has some gold that would later become so characteristic of Klimt’s work, it does not differ much from average 19th century portraits. The first nudes and young girls appeared on the canvas during that period, but when his brother died in 1892, it was a real turning point in Gustav Klimt’s work.

Gustav Klimt, The bride (1917-1918, unfinished). Photo Klimt Foundation, Vienna

From that moment on, he not only takes care of his niece, but also reflects on where he wants to go as an artist. Two years after his brother’s death, he is commissioned to create ceiling paintings for the University of Vienna. Klimt imagines ‘medicine’, ‘philosophy’ and ‘rights’, but his work is rejected. The works are considered too gloomy and an ‘Against Klimt’ riot ensues. Professors are furious because Klimt did not envision science and reason, but had focused on the irrational, the instinct and the inner struggle of every human being.

Writer and polemicist Karl Kraus wonders whether the minister should not be held accountable, because it is tax money that is being wasted. Klimt buys the contract and decides never to work for the state again. The works were bought by two collectors to be confiscated by the Nazis in 1938. They keep them with other works of art in Immendorf Castle, a castle they set on fire in 1945 just before the Red Army entered Vienna. Many works are lost forever, including by Klimt.

“I want to fight against the way art is handled by the Austrian state. The state, the ministry, they attack real art as soon as there is even the slightest provocation in it,’ writes Klimt after the affair and decides to take the fate of his art into his own hands. He has already said goodbye to the traditional artists and is the leader of the avant-garde group Secession, founded in 1897. This group, which opposes the ‘conservative’ artists, is symbolically already censored at the announcement of their first exhibition, when a drawing by Klimt found provocative. For the poster that Klimt makes to promote the group exhibition, he draws Theseus (representing the Secession artists) in battle with the Minotaur (the established order). The naked Theseus has a gender that leaves too little to the imagination, is the general opinion. Before the posters can be distributed, Klimt has to adjust his drawing: Two thin trees are placed in front of Theseus’ lower body.

Gustav KlimtItalian garden view, 1913 Stiftung Sammlung Kamm, Zug

Klimt not only creates the poster for the new group, but also contributes to the magazine Father Sacrum, a magazine that aims to introduce Austria in the modern era, including architecture and design. Klimt’s most important contribution to this group is his Beethoven frieze, a fresco that is part of a Gesamtkunstwerk. For this, 21 artists from the Secession create art associated with Beethoven. The composer was a true cult hero at the time: in his house, some artists commit suicide to be closer to their hero. Klimt’s fantasy of the human condition in Beethoven’s Ninth is now seen as the pinnacle of Art Nouveau. Klimt’s Beethoven frieze was bought after the exhibition by the industrialist August Lederer, but he too lost works to the Nazis in 1938 – they were restored in 1973 and became state property.

The Secession group, now considered the beginning of Austrian modernism, to which artists such as Koloman Moser, Alfred Roller and Carl Moll were associated, and from which Egon Schiele also drew inspiration, also wants to focus more on international art. It is time for the Viennese public to be educated in the power of modern art instead of dwelling on conservative portraits.

The way in which Klimt portrays women, among other things, becomes typical of the movement: detached from the corset of the Viennese elite, he shows women in a mysterious and sensual way. He is not charged with having sex with many of his models and getting them pregnant. Klimt has a total of 16 children, but only three of his models (one of whom was only 15) actually recognize the children. That one of the recognized children became a filmmaker of Nazi propaganda is a bitter detail.

A papal, gold-covered coffin: Klimt’s painting Judith I marks a turning point in Viennese art in 1901. Photo Klimt Foundation, Vienna

The painting Judith I (1901), exhibited in the autumn in the exhibition Golden Boy Gustav Klimt, will be Klimt’s first work with gold leaf and gold dust. The exhibition of this femme fatale is a turning point in Viennese art. Klimt has done nudes before, mainly as sketches, but such a papal woman’s breast largely veiled in gold: it is new. The still-conservative Vienna has a mixed reaction, and angry tongues claim that the topless woman is actually Adele. The kiss – a work that must never leave the Belvedere Museum – Adam and Eve (1917/18) and the unfinished (and even more naked) The bride (1917/18) has not yet arrived.

Van Gogh

Viennese art, which has long focused on decorations and frills, must become familiar with European art. And the world must become acquainted with Viennese art. With that in mind, Klimt travels to a foreign country and is shocked. His country has more or less let the entire Impressionism movement pass by, while artists such as Gauguin, Monet and Van Gogh depict completely new worlds. Klimt immediately begins to paint sunflowers himself. In 1903, in Ravenna and Venice, he was impressed by the mosaics and goldwork, which he developed further in his ‘golden period’.

The use of color outside of Vienna was the reason why Klimt started a new group in 1905, after which he broke through internationally. He becomes a success at the Venice Biennale in 1910 and the following year participates in an international exhibition in Rome, where he shows his famous painting Death and Life (1910/11) shows. This work can subsequently be seen in various European cities, but will not be exhibited in Vienna itself during Klimt’s lifetime.

The last group with which Klimt stands out also falls apart: it is 1914 and Austria is automatically more involved in Europe, it does not need the art for that. Klimt died in 1918 of a stroke followed by pneumonia. His friend and colleague Egon Schiele, who portrays Klimt on his deathbed as a tired man, also dies that year. There are no longer any new groups in Viennese visual art, but for just two decades, Viennese art was briefly freed from the conservative cross.

The exhibition ‘Golden Boy Gustav Klimt. Inspired by Van Gogh, Rodin, Matisse…’ will be at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam from 7/10. Inl: vangoghmuseum.nl

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