The Life & Art of Gustav Klimt: A Short Art History Lesson on the Austrian Symbolist Painter and His Work

The Aus­tri­an sym­bol­ist painter, Gus­tav Klimt, a dri­ving force of the Vien­na Seces­sion, has joined the ranks of famous, dead artists being served up as pricey, super-sized, Insta­gram-friend­ly immer­sive expe­ri­ences.

Jane Kallir, author of Gus­tav Klimt: 25 Mas­ter­works and co-founder of the Kallir Research Insti­tute, a foun­da­tion ded­i­cat­ed to fur­ther­ing the study of Aus­tri­an and Ger­man Mod­ernists, is not buy­ing into this approach.

Hav­ing vis­it­ed the Gold in Motion immer­sive Klimt exhib­it at New York City’s recent­ly inau­gu­rat­ed Hall des Lumières with Art­net’s Ben Davis, she def­i­nite­ly has some notes:

They take lib­er­ties with the orig­i­nals. If you know the orig­i­nals well, which I do, it’s some­times hard to fig­ure out what they were work­ing from. The col­or is some­times way off. And some of the images are not by Klimt at all. They seem like pas­tich­es of Klimt or pieces of Klimts that they’ve past­ed togeth­er in dif­fer­ent ways…these images are blown up to a height of, what, 20 feet? It real­ly doesn’t work, aes­thet­i­cal­ly. Klimt’s draw­ings are espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult because they’re so del­i­cate, at times almost invis­i­ble.

But mustn’t some young vis­i­tors, after post­ing the pletho­ra of self­ies that moti­vate many a pil­grim­age to this “mul­ti-sen­so­ry cel­e­bra­tion,” be moved to learn more about the artist it’s cash­ing in on?

That’d be a good thing, right?

Of course it would, and Paul Priest­ley pro­vides a great intro­duc­tion to Klimt’s life and work in the above episode of his Art His­to­ry School web series.

We grant that spend­ing 13 min­utes with a mid­dle-aged arts edu­ca­tor in a fes­tive vest is a less sexy-see­ing prospect than “step(ping) into a won­der­land of mov­ing paint­ings” to be “amazed by the gold­en era of mod­ernism.”

But Priest­ley offers some­thing you can’t real­ly focus on while gawk­ing at enor­mous 360º pro­jec­tions of The Kiss dur­ing a $35 timed entry  — his­tor­i­cal con­text and a gen­er­ous por­tion of art world dish on a “life­long bach­e­lor who had count­less liaisons dur­ing his life­time, usu­al­ly with his mod­els, and is rumored to have fathered more than a dozen chil­dren.”

Priest­ley makes clear how the young Klimt’s career took a fate­ful turn with Phi­los­o­phy (below), part of a mas­sive com­mis­sion for the ceil­ing of Vien­na University’s Great Hall, that was ulti­mate­ly destroyed by the Nazis, but has since been res­ur­rect­ed after a fash­ion using AI, black and white pho­tos, and eye­wit­ness descrip­tions.

When Klimt’s first go at it was dis­played, it was sav­aged by crit­ics as “chaot­ic, non­sen­si­cal and out of keep­ing with the intend­ed set­ting.”

Philosophy’s drub­bing put an end to Klimt’s offi­cial com­mis­sions, but pri­vate ones flour­ished due to the bohemi­an painter’s “beau­ti­ful women in ele­gant­ly lan­guid and flat­ter­ing pos­es.”

Imag­ine how those sta­tus con­scious soci­ety matrons would have react­ed to see­ing their like­ness­es tapped as immer­sive art, which Vice’s Alex Flem­ing-Brown pegs as “the lat­est lazy lovechild of Tik­Tok and enter­pris­ing ware­house land­lords.”

Sure­ly they would have rel­ished the atten­tion!

Well, every­one, that is, except Mar­garet Ston­bor­ough-Wittgen­stein, sis­ter of Lud­wig, who chafed at her appear­ance in Klimt’s 1905 bridal por­trait as  “too inno­cent, timid and girl­ish…” and stuck the pic­ture in the attic.

C’mon, they can’t all be The Kiss.

It’s an aston­ish­ing paint­ing, but there’s so much more to dis­cov­er about Klimt and his four decades worth of work.

But first, with apolo­gies to any read­ers who gen­uine­ly enjoy immer­sive art exhibits — many do — here are Jane Kallir’s not entire­ly con­cil­ia­to­ry thoughts on Beethoven Frieze, Klimt’s volup­tuous vision of lust, love and dis­ease, which was delib­er­ate­ly enhanced by accom­pa­ny­ing sculp­ture and live music when it made its pub­lic debut in 1902, and is cur­rent­ly being parceled out and writ large in dig­i­tal form in the build­ing for­mer­ly known as New York’s Emi­grant Indus­tri­al Sav­ings Bank:

I asked myself whether Klimt would have approved of the Beethoven Frieze pro­jec­tions. I believe most artists embrace cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy, what­ev­er it may be in their day and age. The Beethoven Frieze seg­ment is a Gesamtkunst­werk on a scale that Klimt might have dreamed of—might have. This is the one part of the pre­sen­ta­tion that could be faith­ful to his inten­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

136 Paint­ings by Gus­tav Klimt Now Online (Includ­ing 63 Paint­ings in an Immer­sive Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty Gallery)

Vienna’s Alberti­na Muse­um Puts 150,000 Dig­i­tized Art­works Into the Pub­lic Domain: Klimt, Munch, Dür­er, and More

Gus­tav Klimt’s Mas­ter­pieces Destroyed Dur­ing World War II Get Recre­at­ed with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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