Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

For Gustav Klimt, philosophy, medicine and jurisprudence did not seem to guarantee a happy or fulfilled life for any man, as was made clear in his Faculty paintings for the University. He and his fellow Utopians saw art, and art alone, as having the power to bring salvation, which explains the particular importance that the Secessionists attached to the total work of art.
In this spirit they determined to make their fourteenth exhibition a special event and experience – a total work of art. The exhibition was mounted in 1902, in honour of Max Klinger, whose Beethoven sculpture formed the centrepiece. The whole exhibition became a Beethoven celebration. The composer was something of a cult figure at the time, public enthusiasm having been fired by Franz Liszt’s and Richard Wagner’s reverential admiration of him. At the same time, in France, Bourdelle was making his great Beethoven mask and Romain Rolland writing his “Life of Beethoven”. Klimt and his friends saw in Beethoven the incarnation of genius, and in his work the glorification of love and of the sacrifice that can bring redemption to mankind.
Klinger’s statue is of a heroic Beethoven. There is a sacral quality in it, reminiscent of Phidias’ “Zeus”. The heroically naked stance of the martyr and redeemer, with clenched fist and upward-turning gaze, gives a perfect indication of the Secessionists’ intentions.
Josef Hoffmann was responsible for the interior decoration of the Secession House for the exhibition. He used bare concrete in order to create as neutral a setting as possible. Furthermore, a total synaesthetic experience was planned, which included music: the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was performed, in a new orchestration for woodwind and brass conducted by the Vienna Opera’s then musical director, Gustav Mahler.
Finally, Klimt created his Beethoven Frieze for this exhibition. He intended that it should last only for the duration of the exhibition and therefore applied it directly to the walls, using light materials so that it could easily be taken down again. Fortunately it was preserved, although for decades it was not on show to the public; not until 1986 did it become possible to view it once more. The frieze has therefore remained the least known, and the most mythologised, of Klimt’s works. He himself clearly saw it as a symbolic transposition of Beethoven’s last symphony.
The exhibition catalogue is informative in this respect: “The paintings which extend like a frieze along the upper half of three walls in this room are by Gustav Klimt. Materials: casein paint, stucco, gilt. Decorative principle: consideration of the layout of the room, ornamented plaster surfaces. The three painted walls form a sequence. First long wall, opposite the entrance: the yearning for happiness; the sufferings of weak mankind; their petition to the well-armed strong one, to take up the struggle for happiness, impelled by motives of compassion and ambition. End wall: the hostile forces; Typhoeus the giant, against whom even gods fought in vain; his daughters, the three Gorgons, who symbolise lust and lechery, intemperance and gnawing care. The longings and wishes of mankind fly over their heads. Second long wall: the yearning for happiness is assuaged in poetry. The arts lead us to the ideal realm in which we all can find pure joy, pure happiness, pure love. Choir of angels from Paradise. ‘Joy, lovely spark of heaven’s fire, this embrace for all the world.”