Gustav Klimt: Painting Design & Modern Life in Vienna 1900

Liverpool Tate
30th May - 31st August 2008, 10am-5.50pm, £8 (£6)

Reviewed by Alice Lenkiewicz

The Gustav Klimt exhibition at the Liverpool Tate gallery is the first major exhibition of his work ever staged in the UK. When you get a chance, get along to see it. It’s well worth it and has a few interesting surprises.

I was particularly looking forward to seeing this exhibition. Klimt was always one of my artistic heroes in terms of painting and design. He was the one who turned me on to the shade of ‘gold’ and the way metallics could change the mood of a painting or sculpture, in the same way that the artist Louise Nevelson overwhelms the viewer with her assemblages in gold and draws a sense of beauty, power and awe.

Klimt stood out from other artists in terms of allegory, beauty and embellishment. He enjoyed the opulent and the ornate while at the same time his compositions were compact and sensual. I was always fascinated by the mosaic design effects in the costumes of the people he painted in such famous works as ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Judith’, or paintings embossed with jewels and mirror, even curtain rings are sometimes added as in ‘The Beethoven Frieze’ embellished as part of the relief in order to create the effect of jewellery. You can see Klimt really enjoying the playfulness around the design and decoration of his figures. However, you will see something a little different at Tate Liverpool. Prepare yourself to find a few unexpected and innovative ideas along the way. The many associations with the metallic shade of gold can sometimes become associated with ideas concerning religious art or ‘craft’ and quite often Klimt is defined in terms of just his Golden Era and this is where this exhibition becomes challenging.

What you will discover in this exhibition isn’t so much the opulent golden period of Klimt’s work (although there are a few beautiful pieces) but works that counteracted tradition instead, exploring the relationship between Klimt as leader of the Viennese Secession as well as the products and philosophy of the Wiener Werkstate (Viennese Workshop founded by the artists Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser). The Wiener Werkstätte created works of craftsmanship in a very distinctive style, dealing with creating fabrics,jewelry,clothing, ceramics,pottery and furniture, all characterized by simple shapes, minimal decoration and geometric patterning. Hoffman served as architect for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, the high point of the organization, and Klimt and Czeschka (among others) contributed craftwork.

While many Arts and Craft movement era workshops, such as those founded in England, were interested in integrating the craft tradition with mass production techniques for a mass market, the Wiener Werkstätte concentrated on good design for a more select market. Hoffman said, "Since it is not possible to work for the whole market, we will concentrate on those who can afford it."

The workshop also believed that design schools should include practical classes on making art (rather just designing it); fine and decorative art should be seen on equal footing; and fine arts, architectural arts and decorative arts should be unified.This I felt was an important aspect of the exhibition and sheds light on the ongoing argument of those who have often felt that crafts are not included quite in the same calibre as the Fine Arts.

Even so, Klimt’s usual exploration of the cycle of time and the human condition runs through the exhibition, particularly in the ‘Beethoven Frieze’, which was created for the Fourteenth Exhibition of the Viennese Secession in 1902. Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Max Kurzweil, Otto Wagner, as well as other artists who objected to the prevailing conservatism of the Vienna Künstlerhaus with its traditional orientation toward Historicism founded the Viennese Secession in 1897. The Frieze was devoted to the genius of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven as well as Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which celebrates “humankind's ‘struggle’on the most magnificent level by the soul striving for joy and achieved in the unification of all arts”.

The fresco is beautiful. What is appealing is the overall simplicity and sensuality of this piece. Beginning at the left far wall, as you walk into the room this frieze forms a cohesive narrative, beginning with themes revolving around ‘Longing for Happiness’, ‘Suffering Humanity’, then ‘Compassion and Ambition’.The following short wall is devoted to the ‘Hostile Forces’ and the final wall which appealed to me most of all in terms of design and drawing is the ‘Yearning for Happiness’ (figure with lyre), then an empty space indicates a wall opening that ‘revealed Max Kinger’s Beethoven statue in the 1902 exhibition’, followed by the Arts, (five female figures), representing the ‘ideal realm’, a place of ‘pure joy, happiness and love, finally ending with a choir of angels and a painting of a couple embraced in a kiss. My daughter and I were drawn to this beautiful frieze, its decoration and composition.

This collaboration with designers and architects is what gives this exhibition a new slant on Klimt’s work and opens us up to his interests and ideas during this creative period. The exhibition shows Klimt as a man who was fighting against tradition, that he was not only a fine artist but also a craftsman who wanted to change the way society viewed art as a whole. His involvement with many designers such as Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser as well as Klimt’s close friend, Emilie Floge, a talented fashion designer. All of these connections highlight Klimt’s intense engagement with architecture and design.

The interiors designed by Josef Hoffman who supported Klimt’s ideas of a ‘total work of art’ were interesting to see, as they contrasted with Klimt’s ornate work. Hoffman’s furniture design was simple but bold, neo-classical style and surprisingly contemporary, not what I expected, particularly his ‘Armchair and Dining Table’ designed for the Hall of the Gallia Apartment in 1912, created in a rich ebonised wood and other materials. This was a beautiful piece of design. In contrast to Hoffman’s bold neo-classical style, Koloman Moser’s ‘Guest Room of Dr, Hermann’ for Wittgenstein’s Residence, Vienna 1906 was even more minimal and understated and could almost have been part of contemporary Ikea stock. However, in terms of style it would have been quite unusual for its time, grey soft wood consisted of a very basic bed, side table, desk and cabinet.

Continue on through and you will see further paintings by Klimt, such as ‘Judith 11’, the 1909 oil on canvas and ‘The Three Ages of Life’, the 1905 oil on canvas, a particular favourite of mine portraying, child, mother and old age. These subjects reflect Klimt’s ambitious allegorical compositions around the representation of the female figure and celebration of female sexuality.

This exhibition showed a broader side to Klimt’s career. The idea that he was looking for creativity and simplicity in all aspects of design in life I found very civilised but also it seemed to me to be a very holistic way of looking at art overall, that it should become a part of everything we experience. In this way Klimt, I feel was ahead of his time, taking art away from the idea of the gallery wall and into the sitting room, into everything that surrounds us.

This exhibition also highlighted Klimt’s fascination with landscape, such as his early work ‘Calm Pond in the Park of Schloss Kammer’ 1899, oil on canvas and reminded me of some of the beautiful landscape paintings by my father, the artist Robert Lenkiewicz, with their soft understated muted tones and colours but there were also some more decorative and vibrant landscapes that expressed his ‘wider concerns with biological growth and the cycle of life’ whose decorative surfaces align him with modernist tendencies.’

And finally, my daughter, Stazia aged eleven enjoyed this exhibition, particularly ‘The Beethoven Frieze’. Make sure you bring plenty of water or lemonade for a well-earned summer break outside, beside the River Mersey.

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Comment left by Laura Clarke on 4th July, 2008 at 11:24
Myself and three others curated this exhibition and the response we have received has been brilliant. We are hoping to stage another exhibition later in the year in Manchester so if you missed it hopefully you may be able to come see us there! If you would like any other information on the works please contact me on

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