Gustav Klimt: Landscapes

by Donald Goddard

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This is one of four exhibitions at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (the others are devoted to the architects Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann and the painter Bernardo Bellotto) that are part of The Vienna Project at eleven institutions in eastern Massachusetts (five for art, three each for music and theater) during the summer and into the fall of 2002.

Farmhouse Birch Trees
Farmhouse with Birch Trees (Young Birches)
, 1900.
Oil on canvas,
31.5" x 31.9".
Private Collection.
In his essay for the Klimt catalogue, Anselm Wagner explores the artist's use of the telescope and its meaning for his art. He concludes that the "telescopic effect serves here to convey a (paradoxical) feeling of transcendence that does not abandon immanence but evokes the sense of an earthly paradise," and finally that "Klimt's art expresses a regressive attitude, a classic middle-class escape mechanism with romantic roots that extends to the television society and cyberworlds of today. The sensitive epicurean Klimt would like to get away: away from the hectic city of Vienna, away from the crumbling Habsburg monarchy, away from the turmoil of World War I. His art seeks that 'elsewhere,' that utopian place where, as he once wrote, 'fate will let us enjoy pleasure.'"

Wagner is moved by Klimt's art and his machinations; and so are we. There is truth in what he says. But there is also, as in other essays in the catalogue, and in any number of essays about other artists, an assumption that artists from the start are several removes from reality and therefore not really to be taken seriously except as a searchers after other worlds. In fact, Klimt was very much of this world, in some ways that might now even seem unacceptable. He was extremely successful right out of art school, painting murals for theaters with his brother Ernst and fellow student Franz Matsch. At 26 or so, in 1888, he was already lionized by the Viennese establishment, right up to Emperor Franz Joseph I, and subsequently he and his company completed a number of important commissions, including murals for the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He was an integral part of the efflorescence of Vienna, a part of the system, but also increasingly aware of the silliness attending it. When he and others rebelled to promote a more serious, sacred, and internationally important art, however, they were still supported by the powers that be, politically liberal as they were. The Vienna Secession (the Society of Austrian Artists), of which Klimt was the first president, was initially meant to remain within the official artists' organization, but soon broke away. Nonetheless, the new group was given land for its building and subsidized by the government, blessed by the attendance of Franz Joseph I at its opening, and heavily supported by rich art patrons.

Then Klimt did break away, perhaps not purposely, but powerfully and definitively. He might have hoped that his three ceiling murals for the philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence faculties of the University of Vienna, commissioned in 1894, would be accepted, but they were not, or only provisionally. After the unfinished paintings were shown in the Secession exhibitions of 1900, 1901, and 1903, and after the tumultuous controversy that ensued, Klimt took matters into his own hands, renouncing the commission in 1904 and buying the paintings back from the Ministry of Education in 1905 (they were destroyed by fire in 1945). The paintings are monumental alright, as suited their time, their setting, and Klimt's talent, but they are concerned with the difficulties as well as the glory of human thought--with anxiety and doubt, sexuality and death. Many of the figures are naked, including a pregnant woman in Medicine and despairing old men in Philosophy and Jurisprudence. Overwrought, certainly, but extraordinary in their critical cosmic ambition and magnificent in their towering structures of interwoven bodies, latter-day variations of the famous overstuffed late-17th-century Pestsäule in Vienna commemorating the tragic plague of 1675. Some aspects of history and art are best not exposed so vividly.

Roses Under Trees
Roses Under Trees, ca. 1905.
Oil on canvas,
43.3" x 43.3".
Paris, Musée d'Orsay.

Klimt was not demur about his position. In an interview for the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung in 1905 (quoted in the catalogue), he said, "I want to liberate myself. I want to break away from all these unpleasant, ridiculous aspects which restrict my work. I refuse all official support, I will do without everything. . . . The main thing is, I want to be in the front position, acting against the way in which the Austrian state, the Ministry of Education, deals with artistic matters. It grasps every opportunity for attacking genuine art and genuine artists. It supports only the weak, only the false. . . ."

At this point, the deeply hurt and disappointed Klimt is generally depicted as having withdrawn from public battles, from the great aesthetic issues of the day, into a world of abstraction and distanced emotion, a private world of elite patrons and summers in the country. And indeed, one would scarcely know from Klimt's art or the scant evidence of his personal life that the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger served at mayor of Vienna from 1895 to 1910 (a shining example for Adolph Hitler, who lived in the city from 1907 to 1913); that the sixtieth anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph's reign was celebrated with overbearing pomp in 1908; that the First World War was fought throughout Europe during the last three-and-a-half years of Klimt's life.

Curiously, what appears to be withdrawal and escape can also be understood as assertion and affirmation in a dysfunctional world. During these later years, Klimt completed several important commissions, including a frieze for the Stoclet Palace in Brussels (1905-11) and numerous portraits of women (many of them Jewish). He was honored with shows and awards in Vienna and throughout Europe. He remained a friend and champion of the avant garde, and particularly of Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. During the war, he continued to spend summers on Lake Atter; he traveled to Brussels and several places in Austria; he showed in major exhibitions in Prague, Rome, Zurich, and Stockholm; he was named a member of the Saxon Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden and an honorary member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna; and he was one of the founders of the Kunsthalle in Vienna, along with Schiele, Arnold Schönberg, Josef Hoffmann, and others.

Most importantly, his art opened up, not least because landscape painting became so important to him from 1898 on (the exhibition covers from 1898 to 1916). He moved toward a vision that was increasingly based on the light, openness, and patterns of nature rather than the formal, especially linear, complications of narrative and mythology. Farmhouse with Birch Trees (Young Birches) of 1900 was created with the understanding that those four almost imperceptibly present and slightly curved vertical tree trunks embraced and organized a space containing an infinite multitude of life and that the brushstrokes the artist used were synonymous with the organisms they represented in their shapes, gestures, and colors. The trunks are no longer pillars as in earlier work, but are now graceful, like women or the beautiful agonized men that Schiele later drew. None of this would be possible without Klimt's knowledge of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism--the breakdown of matter--but it is quite different. Every stroke is something and part of a whole that Klimt once made differently. He seems to literally realize, visually, Arthur Schopenhauer's apprehension in The World as Will and Idea (1819 and 1844, as quoted by curator Stephen Koja in the catalogue) that: "it is an awkward situation for a thinking being to stand in a borderless space, without knowing whence and whither, being only one of countless other similar creatures, who push, drive, and torment, restlessly and rapidly develop, and pass away, in a time without beginning and end: with nothing persistent except matter and the recurrence of the same, differing organic forms, over certain paths and channels which just happen to exist." In a sense, it is not necessary to mythologize, to symbolize, to reach some deeper levels in the human and cosmic stories. It is there already, in nature and in art.

In many works throughout this period, the view is of a field or hedge of flowers, or of the leafy and flowered branches of trees pushing out to the edges of the canvas so that little of the sky appears. The point of vision is intense and uncompromising, forcing the viewer (artist) to hold this incredible abundance in his eye, his brain. In later paintings, from about 1908 on, architecture reenters the scene in views across the lake or in the woods from Klimt's various vacation studios. It is here that Klimt used opera glasses, telescope, and even telephoto camera lenses (Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee of 1916 may be based on a photo taken with one). Gradually, but not always, the multitude of brushstrokes become clustered in shapes with the outlines of flowers, branches, buildings, and even entire trees, as though to provide an answer to Schopenhauer's conundrum, to confront the phenomenon of natural chaos with the will to aesthetic control--something like discovering the structure of cells or atoms. Where outline had once been banished, it now reappears.

Forest on Attersee
Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee, 1916.
Oil on canvas, 43.3" x 43.3". Private Collection.

The landscapes had an enormous effect, I think, on all of Klimt's work, his portraits and mythological figures. His natural sensuality became even more pronounced in paintings like The Kiss, Danae (both of 1907-08) and Death and Life (1916), in which the surfaces are played out not only in curvilinear shapes but in patterns and mosaics of colorful facets that seem to derive both from his nature paintings and from the primal symbolisms that might be associated with them. The women in his portraits, from those of his "golden" period (1901-08) to the later more fluid ones, are figures of extraordinary beauty and sensuality within the context of art and nature. They cannot be separated from their attributes or from their settings, and yet somehow their embodiments of expression and personality are distinctive and irreducible, like Schopenhauer's "thinking being . . . in a borderless space."

Finally, Klimt's late landscapes are not really about "distancing," as Wagner and others have defined it. On the contrary, Klimt used the telescope to collapse the distance, to bring in more of the world. He was able to make what was out of reach part of his own experience, and ours--to go as far as an artist can go.

Donald Goddard © 2002

The exhibition was at the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA.

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