How the Avant-Garde Art of Gustav Klimt Got Perversely Appropriated by the Nazis

On paper, the Nazis should­n’t have liked Gus­tav Klimt. As gal­lerist and Youtu­ber James Payne says in his new Great Art Explained video above, their denun­ci­a­to­ry “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937 includ­ed the work of “Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Pablo Picas­so, Marc Cha­gall, and Piet Mon­dri­an, as well as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokosch­ka” — but some­how not Klimt, “who, at one time or anoth­er, had been described as moral­ly ques­tion­able, obscene, or even porno­graph­ic, and was friends with Jew­ish patrons, intel­lec­tu­als, and artists.” And it isn’t as if the Nazis just ignored his work; in fact, they active­ly pressed a few of his paint­ings into the ser­vice of their ide­ol­o­gy.

The search for those paint­ings, and thus an answer to the ques­tion of how they could have been giv­en a pro-Nazi spin, takes Payne to Vien­na (this video being part of his Great Art Cities sub-series). It was there that the 22-year-old Klimt — along with his broth­er Ernst and their friend Franz Mach — received the career-mak­ing com­mis­sion, straight from the emper­or him­self, to paint a series of ten his­tor­i­cal murals on the ceil­ings and walls of the city’s sto­ried Burgth­e­ater. This made pos­si­ble Klimt and Mach’s next major mur­al project for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na, though the for­mer’s con­tri­bu­tions were reject­ed by the offi­cials, and lat­er delib­er­ate­ly destroyed by Ger­man forces retreat­ing at the war’s end.

Hav­ing died in 1918, Klimt nev­er learned of his work’s ulti­mate fate (much less its more recent recon­struc­tion with arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence). Even by the time the Nazis rose to pow­er, he’d been dead long enough for them to appro­pri­ate his art, and even the much more dar­ing art he made after the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na deba­cle. Take his Beethoven Frieze from 1902, a “34-meter-long homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­pho­ny as inter­pret­ed by Richard Wag­n­er: Hitler’s favorite piece of music, often played at Nazi ral­lies, inter­pret­ed by his favorite com­pos­er.” That Klimt “cel­e­brates the tri­umph of ide­al­ism over mate­ri­al­ism” seems to have rep­re­sent­ed enough of a philo­soph­i­cal over­lap to be use­ful to the Third Reich.

“In 1943, in Vien­na, the Nazis even spon­sored the largest-ever ret­ro­spec­tive of Klimt’s art.” Indeed, Payne iden­ti­fies “a Teu­ton­ic qual­i­ty to Klimt’s work that would have appealed to the Nazi aes­thet­ic.” But he could also be por­trayed as “part of the Aus­tri­an folk tra­di­tion” with “Ger­man philo­soph­i­cal roots,” and like con­ven­tion­al Nazi artists, Klimt made much use of clas­si­cal icons and nude bod­ies. Yet there is lit­tle in his life or world­view of which the Nazis could pos­si­bly have approved, and even his work itself sug­gests that he knew full well the dan­gers of pop­u­lar appeal. “If you can­not please every­one with your actions and art, you should sat­is­fy a few,” says the quo­ta­tion from the poet and philoso­pher Friedrich Schiller incor­po­rat­ed into Klimt’s 1899 paint­ing Nuda Ver­i­tas. “To please many is dan­ger­ous.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Gus­tav Klimt’s Icon­ic Paint­ing The Kiss: An Intro­duc­tion to Aus­tri­an Painter’s Gold­en, Erot­ic Mas­ter­piece (1908)

The Nazis’ Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

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

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

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

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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