Oh Vienna! Gustav Klimt And His World At Tate Liverpool

By Kay Carson | 29 May 2008
a painting showing various naked women with thin bodies and long hair and a large gorilla against a shimmering golden background

Gustav Klimt, The Beethoven Frieze (detail), 1901-2 (copy 1984). Belvedere, Vienna

Review - Kay Carson enjoys a rare UK glimpse of Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900, Tate Liverpool until August 31 2008.

The first-ever major UK exhibition of the life and work of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt is being showcased in the European Capital of Culture, Liverpool.

For those who hear the name Klimt and instantly think of lush, glittering images from the artist’s golden phase, Tate Liverpool’s retrospective offers an altogether different perspective: the rare opportunity to not only view a selection of his works, but to learn about the man behind the masterpiece by way of a supporting cast of illuminating characters.

a painting of a dark haired woman in a colourful patchwork dress against a golden background

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi 1913/14. © Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

Tate Liverpool has incorporated into this exhibition the work of Klimt’s fellow founding members of the Viennese Secession – architect Josef Hoffmann, painter Carl Moll and designer Koloman Moser among them – providing a fuller picture of the artist’s life in turn-of-the-century Vienna.

It also allows his work to be viewed in their original context with the inclusion of furniture and other items from the homes of families for whom they were commissioned, including Karl Wittgenstein and Eugenia and Otto Primavesi.

a painting of a baby wrapped in a colourful eiderdown

Gustav Klimt, Baby/ Cradle 1917/1918. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington. © Gift of Otto and Franciska Kallir with the help of the Carol and Edwin Gaines Fullinwider Fund

Interspersed with Klimt’s paintings, sprawling across a dozen themed rooms on two floors, are objects such as Hoffman’s solid oak table from Gustav Klimt’s Studio (1903-4) and the quaint but very stylish tea and coffee service for Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1904) in silver, coral and onyx.

Chairs, tables and architectural models surround the work of the art nouveau icon as though this were a Klimt museum rather than a temporary exhibition. There is even a silver piggy bank on show.

Of the Klimt works themselves, although there are some beautiful pieces from his golden phase, sadly The Kiss isn’t among them as it is too fragile to be transported from Austria.

a photo of a silver coffee set

Josef Hoffmann, tea and coffee set for Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, 1904.Asenbaum Photo Archive

However, shimmering spectacles such as the writhing, sensual Water Serpents I (1904-07) and Baby/Cradle (1917-18) are absolutely fascinating for their full-coloured fluidity, while Judith II/Salome (1909) is the epitome of the femme fatale. The Three Ages of Life (1905) depicts an infant, a girl and an elderly woman, but even the gnarled hand of the old woman is made up of many vibrant colours.

Due in part to the proliferation of furniture and tableware, the balance of the exhibition tips away from Klimt’s penchant for female eroticism, despite the fact he was often denounced as a pornographer, eventually leading to his withdrawal from exhibiting. There is only one small room featuring his pencil studies of semi-nudes in intimate poses.

a long painting of a thin naked woman with golden hair against a sumptous mosaic of black, gold and green

Gustav Klimt, Water Serpents I, 1904-7. Belvedere, Vienna

The commanding, gold-and-scrolled Beethoven Frieze reproduction aside, it is perhaps his decorative, pointillist-influenced landscapes, all strikingly square in shape and as two-dimensional as can be, which are among the most pleasing.

The Park (1909-10) is an exquisite mosaic of purples, yellows and greens, while even in a well-lit gallery space, Pine Forest I (1901) is so dark you must allow your eyes to adjust in order to take in its fine detail.

Most worthwhile of all is the chance to gaze at individual brush strokes of the work which until now has only largely been available in the UK in poster and print form. For a short time, at least, we have the real thing.

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