Published on August 9th, 2015 | by Lucie Pierron0
In the days of Gustav Klimt – Secession in Vienna
“To every age its art. To art its freedom “
Motto of the Secession.
The Kiss is probably Gustav Klimt’s best known work. Everyone can picture this couple embracing, nested between geometric forms, sparsely decorated with gold leaf.
The Pinacoteca of Paris gives a retrospective not of the Viennese painter but of a group of artists with whom he evolved. Struggle, and redefining painting where misunderstood innovation is poorly received, are the keywords of this art which tends to give birth in pain.
The group’s own designation is striking: they called themselves Secession. Secession is a political act aiming to separate oneself, formally and voluntarily, from the rest of the state or federation to which one previously belonged. The use of this term in wartime increases its significance. This separation, this fight, is very important because it will mark the identity of these new painters. Through their art, they will make their own way, amid institutionalized art.
Let us therefore discover this little-known, yet rich and exciting, art.
1. The defense of a total and interdisciplinary work.
What strikes the viewer at first in this exhibition is the concept of “Gesamkunswerk,” or the total work, developed in the nineteenth century by the composer Richard Wagner. For the artist, the painter, the musician or the writer, the work is global, total. It is easy enough to understand this principle if we think of the Symphony No. 1 by Wagner for example and the importance of the work in its entirety. To isolate the bass solo from the 2nd Movement would make little sense. The solo asserts itself precisely because it belongs to the symphony.
To stay in the musical metaphor, let’s consider the beautiful Beethoven Frieze on display at the heart of the exhibition. This frieze, 34 meters wide by 2 meters high, was designed for the Secession exhibition in 1902. This is the first time that this monumental work has been reconstructed in France. It depicts some characters hugging and connected to each other, each person is partly decorated with gold leaf.
Apart from the figures, the painting on a white background is stark. Klimt painted it the way a craftsman would paint the walls of a house under construction, reinforcing again the contrast between heroism and pragmatism. It is therefore the work as a whole which takes precedence over the rest. The work is therefore just as innovative in its production as in its design.
This fresco is of crucial importance in the work and in the evolution of the painter. In 1902, this is the first time that Klimt uses gold leaf as an ornament.
This technique has two consequences. First, it gives an exotic side to the characters represented. We detect Persian or Middle Eastern influences when we contemplate these paintings. The faces are enhanced by the gold, which brings them a touch of heroism and wraps them in an aura of invulnerability. This technique would nevertheless be greatly criticized by opponents of Klimt, considered inappropriate and arrogant. According to a classical way of thinking, the painting serves nature, created by God, and is not intended to achieve the divine. This is what will be criticized in the use of gold leaf, as a desire to go beyond the work created by God and to proclaim oneself the creator, divine.
Secondly, such a decoration gives pictorial creations a rustic quality they did not have at all before.
The Beethoven Fresco therefore contains the keys to a new conception of painting: an innovative size, a different technique and of course a confusing subject, the portrayal of men hugging.
Let’s take a closer look at these new works of art.
2. Innovative works deemed disturbing.
The second feature of the Vienna Secession movement is its innovative character. We praise the first painting by Klimt displayed in the pictorial tradition of his masters we exclude the later ones.
Why such a turning point? Klimt’s work undergoes a profound change because of an unfortunate circumstance. Klimt loses his little brother and his father after an accident. This event marks a turning point in his relationship with Art. He no longer hesitates to assert his ideas, to stray from the path set by his masters.
Thus, at a time when Neo-Impressionism and the Nabis reign in France, people did not grasp the works of Klimt and his contemporaries.
Yet, they are very complex. Seizing the biblical story, Klimt uses the mythical female figures as the model for his works. Thus Judith, the Jewish heroine who beheads her enemy Holofernes to save her people from an Assyrian invasion, becomes a painting subject for Klimt. We find all the elements of the story; Judith’s determination and relief, the walleye fish that propels her to the rank of heroine savior of her people and the Head of Holofernes taking shape between gold patterns.
This attention to biblical female figures can be found in other paintings by Gustav Klimt but also in the works of his contemporaries such as the beautiful text of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. These artists reinvented the representation of powerful women in power. But such an approach bothered Viennese society and the genius of Klimt would not be recognized by the general public until much later. So it’s a real pictorial identity that was forged in Vienna at that time, stirring all the arts by defining a new trend: Expressionism.
This article is quite analytical, which is not like me. Nevertheless, the Pinacoteca exhibition is constructed in this direction and encourages the audience to focus more on the analysis of a painting and and its place within a movement. I invite you to take an interest in the art of Gustav Klimt, but perhaps in a more didactic approach than the Pinacoteca, handling varied and interactive media… Enjoy!
Heading photo: The kiss via wikipedia