Article: Gustav Klimt An Evolutionary
Gustav Klimt, An Evolutionary
Gustav Klimt fronted the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2011 Winter Masterpieces exhibition, as one of the four artists in Vienna Art and Design. His works remain some of the most popular in the world, demonstrated by the 180,000 visitors who view, ‘The Kiss’, each year. Viennese co-curator of the Winter Masterpieces, Dr Christian Witt-Dörring, attributes this, sincerely, to the gold used in Gustav Klimt’s work, which audiences “love”.1 As advisor to the NGV’s curator, Paul Asenbaum, Witt-Dörring strangely enough is a little at odds with the framework in which Klimt is being presented to Australian audiences. Asenbaum declares Klimt a “king”, and expounds his revolutionary status in his period, proclaiming the Secession Movement and the show’s other focus, artist Egon Schiele, and architects Joseph Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, as avant garde figures pioneering new ideas and design in the decadent, turbulent and fast growing modern metropolis of fin-de-siècle Vienna. While Witt-Dorring does not denote Klimt as revolutionary, but instead sees him more as evolutionary, he nevertheless agrees with Asenbaum that he was a man of Modernity.2 Similarly the director of the Belvedere in Vienna, a key lender to the exhibition, Ms Husslein-Arco, argues that Klimt was “not a revolutionary like Picasso and his pioneering cubism”, but rather “sensitive” and “symbolic” which allowed for wide interpretation.3
Unfortunately, Klimt’s symbolism is all too often and too readily misinterpreted. This aptitude for a broad understanding of his oeuvre has led to his work being encompassed in frameworks of avant-garde cultural and social revolution, and pioneering discourse, namely feminism, Darwinism and psycho-analysis. Vienna Art and Design exhibits a range of Klimt’s work from three erotic drawings, an early depiction of the Interior View of the Old Hofburg Theatre, famous portraits of Emilie Flöge and Fritza Riedler, to his ultimate work, the Beethoven Frieze, in itself an iconographic index of Klimt’s oeuvre, agenda and specific genre.4 While Klimt did indeed explore new ideas of women and modern science, the exhibition’s under-critical portrayal of his work, misinterprets his stance. The exhibition is set up to review the accomplishments of leading artists, Loos, Hoffmann, Schiele and Klimt but as tensions of the period are hardly addressed, these artists are simply revered for their advances. Within such an optimistic display, Klimt’s work subsequently appears pro-feminist and pro-modernity. To the NGV audience, Klimt’s instantly recognizable geometric patterns of organisms and spiritually infused gold become glorified depictions of females and the inner psyche.
Emilie Flöge, whose portrait hangs in all its splendour, at the entrance to one of the five exhibition rooms, is described in the placard as a close companion of Klimt. This suggests equality in their partnership. Klimt may indeed be crediting Flöge for her creativity and sensibility, her aura, awash with hues of blues and purples circling around her as if emanating from her thoughts. Yet all too simply, according to Vienna Art and Design, this denotes Klimt as pro-feminist and avant-garde in his equal respect for a woman, when in fact the whole picture is more complex than this supposed pioneering notion.
Similarly, an overly basic analysis of his erotic drawing aligns his work too closely with early psychoanalysis. Klimt did indeed explore modern science through conceiving of the world of the inner psyche and its place amidst the new Darwinian biological determined order. Klimt’s depictions form part of the period’s complex grappling with the conservative, Catholic, Austro-Hungary, and its belief in divine creation. When we look upon the three erotic drawings, grouped with Schiele’s later expressionist work, along with the information provided, we read these works as simply explorations of inner thoughts and outward sensuality, addressing the period’s innovative discourse on sexuality. Yet Vienna, Art and Design does not address the plethora of conflicts within the crumbling Empire, which led to, or may even have been instigated by Klimt’s illustrative anarchy. Although the socio-political changes of the era are explained, no reference is made to the particularly powerful institutional, religious and philosophical re-structuring, making for a somewhat sketchy presentation of Klimt.
A close and critical examination of The Beethoven Frieze alone can illicit a more nuanced view. A copy of this work illuminates a temple-like sanctum within the exhibition, standing in masterful glory, thirty four metres long, two metres high, and a metre or so above the viewers’ heads.5 This work exposes both Klimt’s contextual inspiration and his own influential ideas, demonstrating that he is as much a product as produced, only as avant-garde as his time.
Though classical in its frieze-like form and its two-dimensionality, the Beethoven Frieze reveals Klimt as inarguably a pioneer in many respects. Once the Frieze narrative is understood, Klimt looks to be pre-empting Freud’s conceptualization of the ‘inner psyche’ and the ‘turmoil’ of human ‘interiority’. Leading scholars and curators, such as those involved in the Winter Masterpieces, and the great ‘father of fin-de-siècle Viennese history’, Carl E. Schorske, unite in the belief that Klimt was a product of his context.6 However, the NGV’s intent on presenting him as revolutionary is not unfounded. Recent scholarship by Emily Braun perpetuates this trend, as she declares Klimt a pro-Darwinian and pro-essentialist feminist due to his biological rather than sentimental rendering of science and women, reflecting revolutionary notions.7 Previously, Klimt was interpreted as a misogynist painter of femmes fatales, elevating women in hedonistic colour and form only to invoke fear of rising feminism. While Braun’s perspective, which acknowledges the pro-essentialist feminists’ biological validation of women’s prominent role in the life cycle may be closer to a more comprehensive reading of Klimt’s paintings than the previous myth, nevertheless it is still an over-blown reading of Klimt’s intention and oeuvre. Hence to impute him a singularly revolutionary status is no less an over-simplification.
The Frieze shows Klimt to be innovative in his replacement of divine creation with biological determinism. The narrative plays out Beethoven’s ninth symphony through symbolist imagery. Significantly, the work simultaneously depicts the struggle for happiness in evolutionary terms. The hostile forces of humanity are overcome by its virtues, leading to a kingdom, or ‘Reich’, of joy, happiness and love. The first panel of the three-part masterpiece depicts a knight as the embodiment of the external forces of humanity, physical strength and sympathy. Three women personify humanity’s internal forces: longing for happiness, compassion and ambition. The second panel becomes grotesque as perversely erotic female gorgons, representing afflictions of the body (to the left) and degradations of the soul (to the right) climb and leer, against the tremendous figure of Typhon. Typhon, an ape, represents our irrational and animalistic inner nature.8 These hostile forces, squirm in a grave-like hole where overgrown black tresses and hollow eyes conjure images of decay.
This anamorphic adaptation is a particular nod to Darwin tracing moral degradation back to our animal descent. Typhon’s exaggerated facial features signify man’s previous form. His snarling grimace mimicked by the females affirms this lineage. Klimt portrays culturally acquired emotions, while simultaneously highlighting the single stock parentry of humans. Darwin’s writing distinguishes savage and civilized societies according to this grasp of emotion.9 Delineating this link with animals, Klimt is purposefully undermining humanity’s belief in its civility. Yet at the same time, in the third and final panel, The Beethoven Frieze, depicts the knight as overcoming this plight, driven by ambition and sympathy. This becomes a Darwinian progression from pre-creation to procreation, with the inevitability of death triumphed over by the life cycle, and civilized humanity. Klimt has removed divine intervention, basing the power of creation and regeneration in humanity itself. This is consistent with wider philosophical ideas being addressed in Germanic nations. Darwin’s ideas followed and consolidated a trajectory which included the philosopher’s Schopenhauer, Wagner and Nietzsche. Though Braun, along with other current scholarship, reinforces depictions of Klimt as revolutionary, this sort of undermining of traditional institutional and religious power is part of broader trends. The Beethoven Frieze finds a place amid these ideas, which gives weight to the conception of Klimt as a pioneer, but a pioneer among many.
Darwin’s influence in the period extended beyond his co-philosophers and Klimt. His biological determinism had a strong base in Vienna’s nineteenth century’s scientific and medical knowledge, but made equal headway in the arts. Darwinism was a new framework through which to explore concepts of humanity, death, primal urge and social struggles. Fears of biological degeneration and extinction were dealt with by such artists as Odilon Redon. Max Klinger and Arnold Bocklin, depicted primal urges through images of marine ancestry, to convey a purposefully pessimistic view of the state of the world and nations. But Darwinian ideas were not all negative. Alfred Kubin saw the beauty in co-adaption of all organic beings. Humans were understood to have come from a single cell-organism, which was regarded positively as nature’s equalizer. This brings us back to Klimt who also drew on this affinity and equality.10 In one painting Klimt would incorporate serpent and ova, from lowest to the highest in animal development. In the case of The Beethoven Frieze this is demonstrated in his use of animals bearing human traits and humans mimicking the muscular emotional reactions of animals. Hence Darwinism had a significant role in Klimt’s biological and scientific ideas of society, civilization and sexuality, along with other artists, thinkers and social commentators of the époque revealing Klimt as less a pioneer and more an explorer.
This is not purely a posthumous correlation between Darwin and Klimt. Klimt’s contemporary, salon hostess and main public advocate, art critic Berta Zuckerkandl, glorified Klimt’s use of biologically determined shapes and design. Zuckerkandl’s husband, Professor Emile Zuckerkandl, a biology lecturer in the pre-eminent Vienna Medical School, co-ordinated with Klimt to impart these new ideas to Vienna’s contemporary artists, writers and musicians. Lectures were held which explained chromosomal patterns through projected images of organisms, fantastic and full of vibrant colour.11 Zuckerkandl’s determination to see Klimt in such a way has parallels in Braun’s contemporary understanding. These readings however, skew Klimt’s own contention for the sake of either current belief in Western science or Zuckerkandl’s personal agenda, infused with admiration for her husband’s work. What is significant about The Beethoven Frieze is that it depicts wider influences and concerns of the period and highlights not only Darwin’s ideas of evolution but the corresponding evolution of science and art which was to initiate new conceptions of history, equality and humanity. While Klimt illustrates this eloquently, he is not the first to appropriate new knowledge from outside disciplines into art. Undeniably his work is indeed prominent, most probably due to its beauty. Klimt etches humanity into these statuesque reliefs creating a beautified and thus accessible rendering of new ideas.
The Beethoven Frieze may well owe much to the ubiquitous Darwin but this did not inhibit the controversy surrounding the painting. The mural narrates the privileged position of humanity in the universe, rather than a divine force. Klimt’s Frieze entwines new ideas of historical progression with ideas of the life cycle. As gender replaces divine intervention, woman becomes the embodiment of human vices and virtues. From the golden hair of the women of ‘rejoicing humanity’ to the black tresses of the gorgons, and their gender baring hips, these women illustrate biologically determined femininity, emphasizing woman’s role in the life cycle, and the power of science, not god. Darwinian influence was wide spread but in Catholic Vienna Klimt’s rejection of traditional Christian ideas of heaven and hell, offended his Viennese audience. Vienna, 1900 was a city on its way to being a modern metropolis but its conservative, centralized bureaucracy defined what cultural ideas and expressions would be produced and exposed. The Frieze’s female figures- whether women of vice or virtue- are all depicted, not as the sentimental, angelic creatures of academic, neo-classical art but as a recognized power in humanity. Further, these women are no longer ordained with virginity and virtues by God, instead their nakedness is emblematic of their place in the reproductive cycle. This sexual symbolism brought accusations of pornography: Catholic Vienna, specifically 87 Professors at the University of Vienna, protested against Klimt’s work, attacking his professorship at the Academy of Art and his commission to paint the Ministry of Culture’s great hall.12
While Braun’s pro-essentialist feminist understanding of Klimt’s ‘women’ goes too far, Klimt does indeed incorporate new ideas of women’s power. Vienna Art and Design presents a more balanced exploration of Klimt’s use of ‘women’ and ‘sexuality’. The audience is expected to forgive any objectification of women and Klimt’s affront on fin-de-siècle society, and instead is encouraged to focus on ‘women’ representing new scientific and psychological thought. Yet in this regard, women still remain a vehicle rather than an autonomous being. Braun would have us believe that Klimt valorizes women for this new-found role. She sees this continuously symbolized in images which associate power with embryonic and single cell organisms.13 However, although Klimt’s exploration of new modes of thought invites the label of ‘pioneer’ or enthusiast of Modernity, traditional ideas of women as objects in and of art remain visible. Klimt’s antagonistic work demonstrated his effective pioneering effort, not because his ideas were necessarily avant-garde rather, Klimt’s evolutionary subject matter caused a stir for being in itself evolutionary.
Gustav Klimt should be revered for his indexical quality, which makes him a symbol of his epoch. His illustration of the early stages of our modern conceptions of biology and sexuality, illuminated in his famous gold paint and geometric patterns, demonstrates an ongoing poignancy, validated by our continued exploration of his work today. Though the Winter Masterpieces Exhibition 2011 has now drawn to a close, Klimt’s ideas and legacy live on in the constantly evolving conversation between art and new paradigms of humanity.