Magazine article The Spectator

Seduced by Klimt

Magazine article The Spectator

Seduced by Klimt

Article excerpt

Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design & Modern Life in Vienna 1900 Tate Liverpool, until 31 August

Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil as it was called in Germany, came rather late to Austria, where it was sometimes called Sezessionstil. Gustav Klimt was a leading light in the breakaway Austrian Secession movement founded in 1897. Only a fool would deny that he was an exceptionally gifted artist.

He absorbed in turn 19th-century Realism, Symbolism and Impressionism. He drew so beautifully that only prudes will be shocked by his sensuality. (Indeed, it is to be hoped -- or hoffentlich as they say locally -- that his erotic images of ladies pleasuring themselves, rendered in soft and not so soft pencil, may have educated and liberated Freud's neurotically uptight Viennese patients. ) Klimt's landscapes, like his portraits, are individualistic and highly original in conception. Their surfaces are beautifully crafted. His faces are full of life and hold one's attention despite the surrounding sea of decoration and unsparing use of gold.

He can be a seductive artist although not everyone likes being seduced.

More than one critic has poured scorn on various Klimt artefacts in Tate Liverpool's gift shop and on his recent sky-high auction results. Shame on you, colleagues! We should not think less of van Gogh because his sunflower is on a tea towel, or penalise Klimt for past and posthumous commercial success. Please concentrate on reviewing the show itself -- a remarkable one, even though it is by no means a definitive Klimt retrospective. There are technical reasons to do with loans why this would have been impossible. The emphasis, therefore, has shifted towards design, leaving Klimt himself tantalisingly elusive.

'To the Age its Art. To Art its Freedom, ' the Secessionists cried as they broke with the prevailing academic historicism. In 1900, one could be considered dangerously avantgarde in Vienna while lagging miles behind Paris's cutting edge. Klimt was born in 1862, three years after Seurat, a much more radical artist, and 28 years after Whistler, whose Peacock Room anticipated the harmonising of art and design so beloved of Klimt and his colleagues. A hero of this show, unsung in title or subtitle, is the architect Joseph Hofmann, who worked closely with Klimt. …

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