Klimt’s Vienna

This article originally appeared on March 2, 2009 in MacLean’s Magazine. Click here to see the original version

Gustav Klimt The KissVienna is known for its ornate palaces, for Mozart for pastries – Sachertorte lives here. Yet strolling the streets of Vienna, for centuries the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, I wasn’t captivated by fantasies of the glittering l8th century, but by the Viennese fin de siecle. What a time: Freud was charting the psyche, composers like Mahler were astonishing audiences with their bittersweet music and art was moving into modernity. My choice of inner guide to Vienna during the turn of the last century? The painter, Gustav Klimt.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) has long been famous for posters of his masterpiece, The Kiss, taped onto too many student walls. I wanted to see the original, and so I visited the Austrian Gallery housed in the Belvedere, a baroque palace built in the early l700’s. The grandiose buildings are imposing, and it was pleasant to stroll around the formal French gardens. Entering the gallery I felt like I was trespassing on the private collection of Queen Maria Theresa, or Archduke Ferdinand, just two of the past royal occupants of the palace.

First I saw Klimt’s landscapes, delicate impressionistic paintings of birch and apple trees. Then an accomplished early portrait in an academic style. And then The Kiss – larger than any poster, more opulent, more erotic, more inscrutable. Is the woman consenting to the man’s embrace? They are swathed in the same luxuriant gold cape, but the decorations – black rectangles for him, gold circles for her – indicate they can never be as one. The woman, not a helpless maiden being forced by the man, seems to gaze out in ambivalence. This is a psychological painting, a decorative painting, and there’s even a section of wildflowers at the bottom. It’s a painting that’s as up-to-date as today, and I will never forget seeing it. Or the painting of Judith, the Biblical heroine who in Klimt’s painting embodies the dangerous femme fatale of the time. She, too, is dressed, or rather half-dressed, in gold. But like most of Klimt’s women, she is alone, and her half-closed eyes indicate erotic satiation. Women were Klimt’s preoccupation and main subject, in art and in life. He is said to have slept with most of his models, from the wives whose affluent husbands paid for his portraits to the women who posed for his frankly erotic drawings.

Klimt used allegorical figures like Judith and Athena to express the female erotic, but his gold leaf backgrounds, into which these women seemed to be set like precious stones in a necklace, harked back to the Byzantine Empire with its gold icons. Vienna’s fin-de-siecle hothouse of the arts flourished in the midst of an empire. Although it was crumbling, its visual splendor, then as now, is impossible to avoid.

The smallish, walkable city core is dotted with royal residences and grand public buildings.

But what impressed me were the blocks and blocks of l9th century apartment buildings, inhabited and seemingly in good repair. They were built as part of an extensive urban renewal that began in the l860’s. Today, they’re rented by the city at reasonable prices to a half a million lucky inhabitants. Klimt, who began his career as an architectural decorator, helped adorn many of these buildings. He lived in an apartment with his mother and sisters, and never married.

Walking around the trendy district called Spittleberg, I noticed how these elegant, well-kept buildings morph into the present, in the form of ground floor boutiques and restaurants. In a long, narrow restaurant called Schon Schoen I had a ten Euro lunch of artfully prepared cucumber soup and vegetarian cassoulet. The communal table attracts mainly local merchants and artists, and I was probably the only tourist there. In an adjacent, shared space was a dress designer, sitting at her sewing machine beside a rack full of samples. I thought of Klimt’s lifelong friend, the successful dress designer, Emilie Floge, whose boutique he helped design. In turn, she designed the somewhat bizarre caftans he wore, a skirt chaser in skirts.

In Vienna, I came to expect to be surprised. Sometimes it was an edgy store like the Art Supermarket, complete with aisles, which tries to make the novice collector feel comfortable. Other times it was the continuation of the old. The grand cafes, for instance, look the same as they did a century ago. Café Sperl is typical: built in l880, it has high ceilings, plush upholstery and brass fittings. Just like a century ago, a variety of newspapers are available on sticks, and I brought my self up to the present with a glance at the Herald Tribune. But the menu was traditional. When it comes to coffee, Vienna has long been known for its high standards and wide array of choices. I ordered a mélange, a version of café latte, and wondered how I could ever return to my usual morning brew. For dessert I chose monschitte, a poppyseed cake. The cluster of dark seeds resting on a dense pastry seemed to me the dessert version of caviar. Was I experiencing a poppy high?

I strolled over to one of the most interesting museums in Vienna, The Museum of Applied Arts, called the MAK. It’s a large, decorative arts museum modeled after the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For me, the main attraction was the furniture, glassware and other objects made by the Wiener Werkstatte, an association of craftsmen known for their Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs. Curved coloured glass vases, narrow cabinets made of inlaid wood .imagine a life surrounded by only these objects.

The Wiener Werkstatte was part of the Secession, a movement led by Klimt, which aimed to leave behind the entrenched styles of the past. The Secession movement had its own building, which served as an architectural manifesto: it aspired to be a simple and elegant sanctuary for the art lover. The building meets its mission. Topped by a cabbage-shaped gold dome, it’s an assemblage of cubes; only the gold lettering suggests the Viennese Art Nouveau. Inside, it’s as stark white as any modern gallery. Pride of place is given to a Klimt frieze, called Beethoven. It was supposed to express the Ode to Joy with nude female allegorical figures. For the exhibit’s opening, guests were led into the building like pilgrims, and composer Mahler played an abbreviated version of the Beethoven piece. How I wish I could have been there. Instead, I crossed the street to the Naschmarkt, the city’s largest and liveliest outdoor food market. In Vienna, there’s always another pleasure.

Check out:

Austrian Gallery housed in the Belvedere

Schon Schoen

Art Supermarket

Café Sperl

The Museum of Applied Arts

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