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Modernist Pioneers exhibition in Vienna

New exhibition in the Lower Belvedere celebrates the 150th anniversary of Klimt’s birth

The year 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt’s birth and his home city of Vienna looks set to make the most of it, with numerous exhibitions of his paintings over the coming months. Inaugurating this jamboree is an engaging show in the palatial Lower Belvedere, which pairs Klimt with architect Josef Hoffmann on the premise that they are ‘pioneers of modernism’.

Nikolaus Pevsner included Hoffmann in his Pioneers of Modern Design (1960), singling out his Purkersdorf Sanatorium and the Palais Stoclet in Brussels: ‘a work of exceedingly spirited composition, its exquisitely spaced openings and light walls are a joy to the eye.’

Although Adolf Loos slighted Hoffmann as ‘a pattern-designer, however gifted’, Le Corbusier was wholehearted in his praise. ‘I always experienced a true artistic pleasure when I saw here and there the architectural work of Prof Hoffmann… And in the history of contemporary architecture, on the way to a timely aesthetic, Prof Hoffmann holds one of the most brilliant places,’ he wrote in Die Wiener Werkstätte (1929).

While Klimt has come to epitomise early 20th-century Vienna, and his works fetch astonishing prices, his position as a proto-Modernist is more contentious than that of Hoffmann. In any Klimt monograph you find an atmospheric haze in some works but a hard-edged geometry in others, the hieratic along with the erotic, and not just sumptuousness but kitsch.

It is a heady mixture that can appear more decadent than cutting-edge, and Klimt tends to be marginalised in standard histories of modern art, which highlight the progression from Manet to Cubism through Cézanne, and the subsequent abstraction of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian.

So you wonder how the show will treat its two protagonists as ‘pioneers’. Will it refine Hoffmann’s position as an embryonic Modernist or simply confirm it, and will it make Klimt appear more central than he has been up to now?

The exhibition concentrates on projects that Hoffmann and Klimt collaborated on, and opens with one of the most notable of them – the 14th exhibition of the Vienna Secession, held in 1902 in Joseph Maria Olbrich’s suave Secession Building, with its gold-leaved cupola. Hoffmann designed the whole show, conceived as a tribute to Beethoven, and in the room to the left of the main hall Klimt created his Beethoven Frieze.

Spanning three walls, it is an allegory of salvation through art, culminating with a chorus of angels in paradise and Klimt’s favourite motif of a couple fused in a kiss. The whole thing is ludicrous but executed with such conviction that you are almost disarmed.

What we see at the Belvedere is a creditable copy of the frieze made in the 1980s, around the time at which Hans Hollein re-installed the original in the Secession Building, in a newly excavated basement. Whereas the 1902 room had openings in its right-hand wall, giving views of Max Klinger’s Beethoven monument in the middle of the main hall, Hollein’s basement is completely enclosed.

By contrast, the current exhibition claims to ‘reconstruct the original spatial effect’, although that is not strictly true: the reconstructed room opens on to a rather dim corridor, not a luminous hall, but a model makes the 1902 situation clear.

Klimt’s frieze has the sinuous lines of quintessential Art Nouveau, but what the exhibition studies next is a move towards a more rectilinear style, especially by Hoffmann, as he develops his signature language of squares and cubes. That tendency is encapsulated here in a set of collapsible library steps from 1905 (like the openwork cubes that artist Sol LeWitt made 60 years later) and in some gorgeous square brooches whose jewels gleam enticingly in a room to themselves.

However, the main focus is on the integration of architecture and art that Hoffmann and Klimt pursued in the public setting of temporary exhibitions (for instance, the Internationale Kunstschau of 1909 in Vienna) and in the homes of well-heeled clients. In tableaux that replicate parts of the Villa Henneberg and the Gallia apartment, we see how deftly Klimt’s paintings were accommodated into the overall scheme of furnishing and decoration, with architect and artist in unusual accord.

The undoubted highpoint of their collaboration came at the Palais Stoclet (1905–11), commissioned by banker and art collector Adolphe Stoclet – a true Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), scrupulous and obsessive. Stoclet was stringent about quality, but relaxed about cash, and spent a fortune as the Wiener Werkstätte craftsmen laboured to realise his vision.

The exhibition includes a full-scale, partial reconstruction of the staircase hall, clad in paonazzo – a restrained off-white marble from Carrara that doesn’t compete with the intricate floor. Of course, living in a Gesamtkunstwerk demands eternal vigilance, and keen to maintain harmony, Suzanne Stoclet ensured that her handkerchiefs matched husband Adolphe’s ties.

Klimt’s contribution was a mosaic frieze in marble, glass and ceramic on three walls of the dining room. Down both the long walls, the Tree of Life proliferates in golden spirals, while on the end wall is the highly stylised Golden Knight – the figure barely discernible amid the patterns and geometry.

It is on this end wall that Klimt comes closest to a genuinely non-objective art, but the show makes surprisingly little of this aspect. Surely it is here, if anywhere, that Klimt might be a ‘pioneer’, but perhaps it wasn’t possible to borrow his preparatory drawings, displayed elsewhere in Vienna at the Museum of Applied Arts.

If the exhibition doesn’t clinch Klimt’s right to a more central place in the history of Modernism, it reinforces the familiar view of Hoffmann. Dominated by the Palais Stoclet, and staged jointly with the Royal Museums in Brussels, the show naturally foregrounds Hoffmann’s contact with such Belgian colleagues as the artist Fernand Khnopff, but in doing so it underplays other influences on his work – for instance, that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Centred on the collaborations with Klimt, it omits altogether the Purkersdorf Sanatorium, which in its stripped cubic forms is a clear precursor of the Palais Stoclet. Also absent is Hoffmann’s later Neoclassicism and what that says about the architect and his times.

The contributions to the excellent catalogue (Prestel Publishing, £35) give a much fuller picture of the various projects than the show itself, but they are essays in search of a synthesis – an overview that situates Hoffmann and Klimt in an international context and really takes their measure.

Nonetheless there is much to enjoy in the exhibition and, installed as it is in the Belvedere, it does not only orientate Hoffmann and Klimt towards the future. Halfway through, you emerge into the double-height Marble Hall that JL von Hildebrandt designed for Prince Eugene of Saxony in 1712 – a lavish Baroque showpiece.

At first, this seems like an interruption but it need not be so, because the hall acquires a new resonance when flanked by the Secession. In terms of patronage and iconography, style and opulence, materiality and illusion, it brings the exhibition into sharper focus, defining not just a rupture with the past but continuity too.

Gustav Klimt/Josef Hoffmann – Pioneers of Modernism

Where: Lower Belvedere, Vienna

When: Until 4 March 2012

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