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Mural paintings by Gustav Klimt: official commissions and modernist manifestos

Mural paintings by Gustav Klimt: official commissions and modernist manifestos

Gustav Klimt is one of Austria's most famous artists and a leading representative of the Art Nouveau style, or Jugendstil as it was called in German-speaking countries. Holding a degree as artist-decorator, Klimt created several monumental works in his native Vienna: panels for the Burgtheater, frescoes in the front hall of the Museum of Art History in Vienna, a series of unfinished paintings for the decoration of the assembly hall of Vienna University, and the famous "Beethoven Frieze". Each of these works is a kind of culmination, capturing the main features of Klimt's paintings during all periods of his artistic biography.

The atmosphere when Gustav Klimt joined the artistic scene in Vienna in 1860-1870-ies, was saturated with the spirit of eclecticism. During these years the capital was being fundamentally restructured. The Ringstrasse appeared - a ring of avenues with pompous tenement houses, the university, parliament and other state institutions.

The building boom would partly explain why Klimt decided to become an architect-decorator - an artist who could give the facade, vestibule or grand staircase the style required: for the opera house - Baroque, for the bank - Renaissance, for the town hall - Gothic, and for parliament - the Greek Revival. It is always important for eclecticism to link the function of the construction and the style, which refers back to an era when a particular type of institution was experiencing a peak of civilisational significance. Within this artistic logic, decorative painting is given a special meaning - it has to fit the place where it is placed, not only stylistically, but also in terms of its programme. Formal and conceptual solutions are to be integrated into a rigorous and organised architecture.

In 1886, a 24-year-old graduate of the School of Arts and Crafts, Gustav Klimt, along with his brother Ernst and his schoolmate Franz von Machem, were commissioned to paint one of the last remaining buildings on the Ringstrasse, which is still a symbol of Vienna - the Burgtheater. The programme of murals depicted the development of the institution of theatre, from Antiquity to the 18th century, glorifying its unity with society. That is why Klimt's scene from Shakespeare's theatre includes an image of the audience hall. In addition to this, the artist also created four panels on an ancient theme, among which the Altar of Dionysus and the Altar of Venus stand out.


"Altar of Dionysus", Gustav Klimt, 1886-1887, Burgtheater in Vienna

In the works for the Burgtheater, there is little of that Klimt which is known throughout the world, the decorative, vivid Klimt of the "golden period". The ancient scenes show a strong influence from English artists - Lawrence Alma Tadema, John William Gordon. Languishing Greece, with its cult of the beautiful nude body, white marble buildings, statue, all of these are like props that brought together a huge number of sought-after artists of the Eclectic era. Burgo, Jerome, Bronnikov, Siemiradzki - all over Europe quite similar works emerged, balancing between academism and "salon" in spirit and style.


Klimt's paintings could be seen in the "good tone" of academic works, but when he received another major commission to design the main entrance hall of the Museum of Art History (from the Ringstrasse in 1891), the artist was no longer satisfied with the rigid requirements of eclecticism and tried to find a new language for modern monumental art. The programme included several images for the archways in the main staircase of the entrance hall, each representing a milestone in the development of European art.

Klimt depicts several eras, all with different aesthetic concepts and notions of beauty. He marks the difference in these perceptions through his delicate approach to specific sources - works from the Museum's collection.

The murals for the Museum are much more innovative than for the Burgtheater, where allegorical plafonds had to masquerade as historical paintings filled with many narrative scenes. Now Klimt turns to allegory itself, without hiding it behind the scenery of the subjects.

The most expressive figures of the murals are the two figures representing Greek and Egyptian art nearby. Klimt's final break with eclecticism becomes evident. The Egyptian foreshadows works from the late 1890s to the 1900s, filled with eroticism and a close attention to plastic beauty. The second imagery - Athena Pallada - would become Klimt's emblem. He would turn to the goddess in 1898, but in fact, he had already used her image the year before to design the poster for the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession - an association founded in 1897 by Austria's most radical artists.


"Ancient Greece and Egypt", Gustav Klimt, 1891, Vienna Museum of Art History

The last commission was in 1894 from the University of Vienna, for which he created three plafonds in the auditorium. Each represented an allegory of the main disciplines of the university: "Philosophy", "Medicine" and "Jurisprudence". Klimt would not present his first painting, “Philosophy” until 1901. Its iconography was inspired by texts by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, as well as by the aesthetic ideas of Wagner. It is worth noting that all three 'faculty paintings' were destroyed at the end of the Second World War; only sketches and black and white photographs have survived.

Humanity: naked women and men, the elderly, children, young men and women in a loving embrace, all is floating in front of the face of the female deity emerging from the darkness. There is a priestess with shining eyes. The restless composition, the deity and his priestess with a terrifyingly tense gaze, apathy to people - the tragic poetics of the painting caused a scandalous protest by eighty teachers against the installation of Klimt's painting.


"Philosophy", Gustav Klimt, 1901

In 1901 "Medicine" was also presented in the new exhibition pavilion, built by Josef Olbrich (1896-1898). It also showed Klimt's pessimistic ideology, which was contrary to the progressive attitudes of the teachers at the University of Vienna. The river of life again moves humanity, among which the figure of a dressed-up pregnant woman stands out. In the middle of the stream is a huge figure of Death, wrapped in a translucent veil. Beneath the river of life is Hygiea, the ancient Greek goddess of medicine.


"Medicine", Gustav Klimt, 1901

One more scandal would follow the presentation of the painting by Klimt. One of the initiators of the commission for the university, Klimt's patron, the Minister of Education Wilhelm von Hartel, would be forced to officially refuse in the state support. Because of this, Klimt lost the opportunity to become a member of the Vienna Academy of Arts, and never again worked with the government.

The third work, Jurisprudence, written at a time of arguments with the Minister of the Education, was a possible response to the conflict surrounding the commission. This is the most radical one. The canvas is divided into two parts. In the upper part there are three self-immersed figures - Truth, Justice and Law. At the centre of the lower world is a male victim, clad in a strange polyp resembling an octopus or a woman's bosom. If the customers expected Jurisprudence to focus on the triumph of law protecting people, Klimt presented them with a work that emphasised the cruelty of punishment, the doom of man and the impassivity of a higher power.


In 1902 Jurisprudence puts an end to Klimt's relationship with the government. His innovative artistic solutions, the eroticism of the bodies he depicts and the tragic and mystical pathos were anathema to the university, which wished to see eclectic allegories like those painted for the same auditorium by von Mach. Klimt finally established himself on the Viennese art scene as a radical innovator. Works were bought by private patrons of the artist, but were lost during the Second World War. Only a few photographs and sketches remain.

After breaking with the state commission, Klimt actively turned to the portrait, in which he cultivated his new style. It was around 1902 when the master began his golden period, creating his most famous works, including the Beethoven Frieze in the Secession building.

The creation of this work was preceded by several events. A statue of Beethoven by Max Klinger, the leading representative of Art Nouveau in Germany, was brought to Vienna. The artists of the Secession, inspired by the masterpiece, decided to hold an exhibition dedicated not so much to Beethoven himself, but to the pathetic image of the genius that Klinger embodied in his interpretation of the composer.

The Beethoven exhibition was some kind of Gesamtkunstwerk - a total work of art, an elaborate transformation of the pavilion's inner space, which, like a symphony was built on the harmonious coherence and unity of the elements. Thus a strange maze of temporary walls was created, an exhibition of sculptures that transformed the pavilion into a real sanctuary of the arts. Klimt decorated the central hall, which contained Klinger's "idol".

The first part, "Longing for Happiness", depicts the "weak", reaching out to the knight-defender. The hero faces a battle with enemies, represented in the second panel. Almost all the images of evil, apart from the winged monster in the centre, are female: three Gorgons representing Madness, Sickness and Death, and three other figures - Unchastity, Lust and Gluttony.

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The battle ends with the victory of the Hero. The final panel, 'Longing for Happiness Finds Repose in Poetry', is inspired by the finale of the Ninth Symphony, 'Ode to Joy'. For this reason, the artist places the Hero and his beloved in the centre. They hug and kiss. This responds to the line from the Ode: "To the world is this kiss". Behind the lovers is a chorus of geniuses.


The Secession frieze opens a new period in the artist's work, marking a renewal of his language and optics. His enthusiasm for new ornamental forms is also evident in the panel for the dining room of the Belgian magnate Stokle, one of the artist's last decorative works.

Klimt's monumental works show how the artist gradually moved away from the pan-European eclecticism of the Burgtheater towards innovative artistic thinking. His paintings for the university were a real breakthrough. Klimt took a radical approach to the traditional format of allegorical panels. "Faculty paintings" were a challenge for conservative Viennese, but they also made Klimt the leader of new Austrian art.

Image sources:

© Georg Soulek / Burgtheater

https://www.secession.at/die-beethoven-ausstellung-1902/ https://www.wien.info/en/sightseeing/sights/art-nouveau/klimt-at-burgtheater-349826 https://www.khm.at/en/visit/exhibitions/2018/stairway-to-klimt/ https://www.khm.at/nocache/en/search/?id=2546&L=1&tx_solr%5Bq%5D=klimt

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