Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Klimt at Tate Liverpool


Okay, the moan over with in the preceding post, what of the Klimt exhibition. It's subtitled 'Painting, design and modern life in Vienna in 1900' and that is important. This isn't just about Klimt and indeed, since most of his most famous works aren't here it expressly isn't about him. But as a record of the times it is fascinating. It's easy to see in retrospect - but only in retrospect - the doomed nature of this art, the fading decadence, the dying glory, the slow, horrible slide into the Reich thirty years later. How these people would have hated that. For that alone, this is a very poignant exhibition.

Klimt an his cohorts founded the Secessionin Vienna in 1897, as a form of protest against the city's establishment and, in particular, the art establishment. There are clear parallels with Impressionism in France, but this was a different movement. They were strongly internationalist, wanting to see closer associations with foreign artists and art. And, importantly, they saw their base as wider than simply Vienna: they wished to reach out to the rest of Austria and, indeed Moravia, Bohemia and Poland. In their work there was an emphasis on unity with architecture and design. And, in so doing, they developed a distinctive Secessionist style. At the heart of this was Klimt.

What of this exhibition. Downstairs is a recreation of the Beethoven frieze which is very striking. I saw it on the Culture Show on BBC last week and wasn't impressed: it looked like an art student copying Klimt and, bizarrely, there was a giant gorilla sandwiched between the archetypal Klimtian women. The gorilla still seems a terrible mistake but the rest of the frieze, partly because of its scale and its fine symmetry, is arresting.

Upstairs, in the exhibition proper, the first three paintings actually tell you pretty much everything you need to know about Klimt. It's one of the most remarkable starts to an exhibition I've come across for a long time. Firstly, there's Nuda Veritas, from 1899, the long, thin painting here. This is pretty much a classic Klimt, if early, without the gold an paraphernalia. Already, it is possible to see his extraordinary style emerging.

Second is an amazing portrait of Joseph Pembauer from rather earlier, 1890. This is Klimt as you don't often see him, hper-realist, with the face simply sizzling out of the canvas at you in three-dimensional and human form. And yet, of course, there are details here which mark it out as no ordinary portrait. Behind him, on a red background with the date in Latin, is a highly decorative pattern, some form of musical instrument to reflect the fact that Pembauer was a painter. And the frame, which is Klimt's also, is covered in Greek classical imagery. In this painting you see the immense skill of Klimt as an artist, but also the beginnings of his own, peculiar style.

The third painting is of Rose von Rosthorn-Friedmann, also from 1900. This is another typical Klimt work, but this time less ornate than the Nuda Veritas. It is a dreamy, elegant, romantic piece where the woman emerges from the canvas. It could almost be impressionist. Actually, what it reminded me of most was Vuillard: he had the same elegant way with women. And yet, here again we see the nascent Klimt style - the glitterin jewels on her dress so striking against the dark background.

In these three paintings we see a great deal of Klimt. Someone wrote recently - I think it may have been Waldemar Januszczak, that Klimt really pinched things from everyone, so you can see a bit of impressionism here, a bit of Van Gogh there, German expressionism and so on. Yes, that's true, but it still, to me, coalesces into a satisfactory Klimt style. It is instructive to see how it developed and changed over the years.

Apparently, there were many darker paintings. Most of these did not survive the Nazi morons, although, I believe, some photographs of them remain. It would have been useful to see more of this in the exhibition. As I said, there is a doleful feel to this, a definite sense of fin de siecle, but it seems that there may be a whole strand of the work which has been overlooked. It starts to come across in the Egon Schiele painting which is included here, The Hermits, a portrait of Schiele and his mentor, Klimt. (Although, I have to be honest, the hanging here did no favours: the painting is covered by perspex and the reflection of the lights and the viewers is such that it is very difficult to make out the detail. I learned more about this painting from studying an online image of it than the actual painting.) But this painting certainly shows a darker side to the movement, and I would have liked more of it.

Finally, Klimt is an extremely good landscapist. This was a major surprise to me. I knew one landscape of his, a dense wood (not in this exhibition, though there is one similar). But there are several others, very, very striking. Again, you might say they are somewhat derivative - impressionist and pointillist - but again I would argue that while there are elements, nonetheless the paintings as a whole are undoubtedly Klimt's and display his own style. The Park, from 1909, for example, could easily be dismissed as a pointillist work, imitative of others. But look at the twist of the trees in the bottom left an right. They are unique. That is Klimt.

The exhibition concludes with a roomful of erotic drawings, some of which are fairly work-a-day stuff, but some are genuinely erotic, even moving. There is a tenderness about them that you don't often get in erotica.

All in all, this is a worthwhile exhibition. It's on until the end of August. Just don't eat in the cafe. And take plenty cash in case they haven't fixed the debit card machines yet.

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