Klimt up close | Arts | DW | 11.04.2012
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Klimt up close

Paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt are among the most expensive in the world, up there with Picasso and co. During the 150th anniversary of his birth, admirers get a close-up view of his famous Beethoven Frieze.

Vienna's Secession, the name of Gustav Klimt's breakaway art movement and the building where his Beethoven Frieze was created in 1902, is a focal point of the anniversary year. A platform has been erected to elevate visitors to eye - and genitalia level - with the artist's arresting and mostly naked figures.

Austrian artist Gerwald Rockenschaub was specially commissioned to create a "sculptural intervention" in the room where the Frieze is on permanent display. The result, called "Plattform," is a yellow maze-like structure.

"For the artists association of the Vienna Secession it was important to address the Klimt year from a contemporary perspective," said Sylvie Liska, president of the Friends of Secession foundation. "This yellow box first bars our view on the Klimt and then it only allows us to see the work up close after you have entered a piece of contemporary art."

The birth of the modern

The Beethoven Frieze was initially part of a 1902 exhibition honoring the great composer, who spent a significant part of his life in Vienna. Klimt painted it to pay tribute to another work in that exhibition, Max Klinger's sculpture of Beethoven. Klinger had worked for 20 years on the piece, which is now on display in Leipzig's Museum of Visual Arts.

"So it's in this context that the Beethoven Frieze has to be seen," added Sylvie. "It's not an iconic Klimt image, it is a site-specific tribute to a central sculpture."

When Klimt was working on the Frieze, Vienna was a city in artistic uproar. Mahler was conducting controversies at the State Opera, Alfred Loos was doing away with decoration in architecture, and Gustav Klimt was brushing off critics and creating paintings of subversive beauty.

"The Jewish world that had been built in Vienna before the First World War was something spectacular," said Edward Serotta from Centropa, an organization which documents post-Holocaust Jewish life in Central Europe. "This was the world that gave us names like Freud and Schnitzler; it gave us Mahler and so many others. People have said - historians and others - that the birth of the modern came from Vienna at the turn of the last century."

The Vienna Secession

The Vienna Secession was built in 1897 for art exhibition

Fake restitution

The golden age was short lived. Klimt would die just 18 years into the century - two decades before the Holocaust, the destruction of his society, and the looting of his art by the Nazis.

The Beethoven Frieze was confiscated from its Jewish owners, the Lederer family, in 1938. They fled to Geneva and at the end of the war Austria returned the now badly damaged art work to them. But as Sylvie Liske points out, the Frieze was to stay firmly in the hands of the Austrian state.

"The restitution was a fake restitution because obviously all the Jews were forced to leave the country. They were not really invited to come back and settle in Austria, they didn't get their citizenship restituted - but their possessions were national heritage," she said, referring to the fact that Austria would not allow the work to leave the country. "This is ironic."

It was 1973 before Austria finally paid up and a long restoration of the then much damaged work could begin. In 1986, the Frieze came back to its birthplace: Secession.

Denounced by some critics as pornographic in 1902, it is now a major cultural attraction in a city where important artworks are in very good supply. Talking to DW in the President's Room at Secession, the room once occupied by Klimt, Slyvie Liska reflected on the traumatic history of the Frieze.

Rockenschaub's 'Plattform' offers a new perspective on Klimt's Beethoven Frieze

Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Fries

"You could see it metaphorically for the history of Austria - also the people who collected Klimt and sponsored Klimt - who were they? They were the wealthy Jews, they were not the Habsburgs and they were not the aristocrats," explained Liska. "They were the new arrivals in Vienna and by collecting and supporting the art they were also supporting their own identity, an identity which they had to give up."

A different perspective

There are now four major Klimt exhibitions running simultaneously in Vienna this spring with more to come later in the year but Secession's platform will put you closer to his art than any other.

"Only 40 people can actually get on to the platform at one time," explained Tamara Schwarzmayr from Secession. She added that guests are "amazed" when they emerge onto Gerwald Rockenschaub's stage. "They can see it from a different perspective and they are very close."

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony plays in the background as visitors observe Klimt's floating female figures symbolizing a yearning for happiness, images of hostile forces, and salvation, which Klimt believed could only come through art.

"Paradise is one of the most important motifs we have in the Beethoven Frieze. You are very close to heaven here," said Schwarzmayr.

Author: Kerry Skyring
Editor: Kate Bowen

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