The Glint of Klimt in Vienna

ArtSmart Travels/ Vienna Jugendstil  by Barbara Rizza Mellin

The Glint of Klimt in Vienna

There they were before me: the young couple kissing, her head tilted back with eyes closed, his head bend over hers, their hands and arms wrapped around one another. Together they formed one unified shape. A golden glow seemed to envelope them. 

I was standing in front of Gustav Klimt’s nearly life-sized painting, The Kiss in Vienna, Austria. I had spend the morning at Schönbrunn, the Versailles of Vienna, and I would go on to view some of this city’s 160 museums in the next few days, from the Kunsthistorisches (Art History Museum), where I’d see old world masterpieces by Vermeer and Velázquez to the Natural History Museum, especially to view the “Venus” of Willendorf, a statue dating to around 25,000 B.C. to the Albertina, where I’d study drawings and prints by Dürer and Michelangelo. But this afternoon, I was in the Belvedere, the beautiful Baroque summer residence of Prinz Eugen of Savory (1663-1736.) Since 1780, when Emperor Joseph II, first opened part of the palace to the public, the Belvedere’s art collection, ranging from Medieval to Modern, has been a major draw of visitors. 

So many times, I’ve said that viewing a picture in a book is not the same as seeing it in real life, but more than ever, on this day, I was believing my own words. The Kiss has been reproduced so often—in textbooks, on candy tins, neckties and stationery—that it had appeared almost trite and childish. However, seeing the original, now, I could grasp the power of the painting. This is one of Klimt’s gilded works, which means the gold truly does glow and the reference to a religious icon is not lost. The couple is kneeling on a field of flowers that seems to grow, organically forming the woman’s dress, linking her to all of nature. In contrast, the man encompasses her in a golden cloak with bold, black-accented rectangles interspersed with Art Nouveau swirls. The painting projects universality and individualism, innocence and eroticism.

Klimt was the founder and first President of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, a group of academic artists who broke with tradition in a Freud-influenced era. While not focused on one particular style, they were largely responsible for the spread of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil (as it is called in German-speaking countries.) Within two years, the association built their own Exhibition Hall engraved with their motto: “To every Age its Art; to Art its Freedom.” The Secession Building, nicknamed the Golden Cabbage because of its gold filigree dome, was designed by Joseph Marie Olbrich and is simultaneously sleek and ornate. Today, its basement houses Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, on long-term loan from the Belvedere, in a room specifically built for that purpose. Dating from 1902, the frieze is a 34-meter-long mural based on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

I observed examples of Jugendstil throughout Vienna. Directly opposite the Nascthmarkt (a wonderful open-air food market,) I found two apartment buildings by Secession architect Otto Wagner. One is decorated with gilt medallions designed by Kolo Moser, while the other is covered in a majolica tile façade featuring climbing pink flowers. Wagner was also the architect of Karlesplatz Pavillion, which once marked the turn-of-the-century underground transportation system. Golden sunflowers and vining tendrils embellish the buildings that today house a café and exhibits. On the opposite side of the city, I stood in Hoher Markt to watch historical figures move across the face of Anker Clock designed by Franz Matsch in 1911. Klimt’s 1886-8 ceiling fresco Der Thespiskarren, illustrating the history of the theater, remains in place at the Burgtheater, and his decorations with an Egyptian nude at the Kunsthistorisches Museum can, likewise, be viewed in situ.   

Klimt, the company and the Secessionist artists contributed a distinctively recognizable character to the fabric of Vienna. The tapestry of grand buildings and magnificent squares of this former capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire is woven throughout with a fine gold thread that embellishes its Gothic, Rococo and Neo-Classic splendor with an glittering, curvilinear flourish. 

The Secession Building
Building by  Otto Wagner (photos by Bruce A Mellin)

The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin