Art Music: Klimt - Music of His Time
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Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Music of His Time
Sumptuous but somehow unsettling, Klimt's images are unique in the history of art. As for ranking them on a scale of greatness, we are no closer to agreement than his contemporaries. Profound or pretentious? The dying spasms of a hedonistic society or the stirrings of a new and liberated consciousness? Is the gorgeous decorativeness of the surface anything more than a dazzling cloak which fails to hide the essential triviality of their content?
The unchallenged centre of the artistic universe at that time was Paris, where the current flowed strongly in the direction of modernism and away from naturalistic representation. Viewed from there, Austrian painting was backward-looking, still trapped by historical narrative and the ideas of symbolism. Worse, the geographical position of Vienna itself was a worry to many critics, for it had always been a natural gateway facing east towards the Slavic peoples, Turkey and beyond. How could any artist preserve his national integrity in the midst of such a racial mix? 'For Europeans, Klimt is an outsider,' wrote one sympathetic observer shortly after the painter's death. 'He is conceivable only in Vienna, better still in Budapest or Constantinople. His spirit is entirely oriental.'
Race and nationalism were the great issues of the day, infecting every kind of judgement. Another obsession was gender. Klimt's fascination with feminine sexuality hinted at a garden of sin where all manner of temptations might flourish - evidence of a degeneration in moral values, or a reversion to primitivism. For the Italian Futurists, this was a particularly Germanic kind of barbarism which required purging; they urged the need for a more virile conception of art, given visible shape in the clean strength of modernism. An alternative argument held that exotic ornamentation and a languid female sexuality were signs of an over-refined and neurotic sensibility, brought about by the overstimulation of modern industrial society.
Amongst the inhabitants of Vienna itself, city of luxury and pleasure, there arose a strong sense that their old world was passing. The sense of decay was almost tangible as a great empire slowly crumbled around them for want of any political determination to save it. But, paradoxically, the underlying mood of quiet despair seemed to act as a powerful stimulus to the intellectual and artistic life of the capital, which witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of creative endeavour. Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Zweig, Mahler, Schoenberg, Kokoshka, Schiele, Loos, Freud, Mach, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: for the space of 20-odd years Vienna turned into a nursery for brilliant writers, musicians, painters, scientists and philosophers.
Despite the controversy that sometimes surrounded his works, Gustav Klimt was never a rebellious figure. A certain coarseness of manner, even boorishness, seems to have been cultivated mostly as a defence against unwanted curiosity rather than any wish to challenge the norms of society. Although he never showed any interest in marrying any of the women (mostly studio models) who allowed him to father upwards of a dozen children, he was otherwise content to follow a perfectly bourgeois routine, working long, regular hours and preferring the familiar comfort of his own hearth to the unpredictable attractions of society or travel. He went to considerable lengths to protect his inner world from any kind of scrutiny. When asked to expand on his aims and ideas, he would insist that he was not an interesting person and had nothing of value to contribute.
The son of a gold engraver, from a lower middle-class background, Klimt was trained at Vienna's School of Applied Arts, whose aims were more practical and broadly based than the grander Academy of Fine Arts. For ten years, with his brother Ernst and their fellow ex-student Fritz Matsch, he worked diligently and profitably on decorative commissions for public buildings, helping to fill large expanses of wall and ceiling with the kind of allegorical and historical paintings that were still in favour, using a style that showed some affinities to pre-Raphaelite painting and the seductively decorative works favoured by the judges of the Paris Salon. A similar kind of commission, in this case from a private patron, lay behind Schubert at the Piano, designed as one of two paintings to fill the panelling above the doors of a music room. Klimt has rejected any idea of accurate reconstruction, choosing instead to clothe the women in contemporary dress; their forms are blurred in the candlelight and only Schubert himself (Klimt's favourite composer) stands out sharply.
In Paris itself, the French Impressionists had initiated a powerful drive to abandon grand historical and mythological themes and concentrate on present-day reality. No such movement had yet arisen in Austria, and in 1894 Klimt, partnered by Matsch, was eager to fulfil a commission from the Ministry of Education which required them to paint a series of allegorical panels in the great hall of the University, illustrating the realms of Philosophy, Medicine, Jurisprudence and Theology. The result was a decade of bureaucratic suspicion and public vilification, arising most immediately from Klimt's inclusion of nudes in a variety of poses that seemed inappropriate for such an august institution. The adverse reaction, repeated each time one of the paintings was first shown in public, left him angered and frustrated, until he eventually withdrew from the commission and bought back the paintings for himself.
The professors of the University had been strongly in favour of canceling the contract (against the wishes of the Ministry of Education, which continued to reaffirm its approval of Klimt's designs). Nor was their attitude a simple product of blind traditionalism. Not only had the two artists diverged stylistically so far that their respective panels were now an incongruous mixture, but Klimt's paintings displayed a fundamental pessimism completely at odds with the ideals of any normal university. Inspired by the beliefs of Schopenhauer, he depicted mankind trapped in a cycle of misery, in bondage to desire, grief and pain. No help comes from the cold, stiff figures of Knowledge, Health and Justice: humanity, as one critic wrote, remains 'no more than a tool in nature's hands, exploited only for her immutable purpose, that of procreation'. Small wonder the professors were not pleased.
To its credit, the imperial bureaucracy took a generally enlightened view of progressive movements in art. After a group calling itself the Secession had formed in 1897, in reaction against the conservative Co-operative Society of Austrian Artists, many of its members were swiftly given key posts in the various academies, the Court Opera and the Arts Council. The Emperor visited the first Secession exhibition and state money was used to buy a number of the exhibits. Klimt, as one of the acknowledged leaders, benefited from this official patronage, and he was also in demand by rich private patrons wanting portraits of their wives. In several instances these pictures di