As European Capital of Culture 2008, Liverpool is hosting a motley selection of events, ranging from a performance of Chinese reggae music to the British Musical Fireworks Championships and sightings of the celebrity divorcé Sir Paul McCartney. But among all the paste there is at least one real gem: ‘Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900’ (to 31 August) at Tate Liverpool. The gallery is heralding the show as the first comprehensive exhibition of Klimt’s work ever staged in the UK. This is somewhat disingenuous: among the 270 exhibits fewer than a fifth are by him — some 26 paintings and 29 drawings. Nevertheless Klimt is a rare beast on these shores, so such an array represents riches indeed.
Despite its grand temporary title Liverpool has not managed to attract many of the key images — so no The Kiss, for example, and no portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (at $135 million, the world’s most expensive painting) — but it does have pieces from every stage of his career. Perhaps as a result, the curators have had to show some imagination to dress up this Klimtian core into something more substantial. What they have come up with is Klimt’s role at the heart of the Viennese avant-garde and how for periods of his career the traditional designation of painter applied to him less than did the rather more prosaic label of decorator.
This may seem a reductionist approach to such a lauded artist, but it is nevertheless a valid one. Klimt once wrote, “Whoever wants to know something about me ought to look carefully at my pictures and try and see in them what I am.” What you see in his pictures is his provenance: he was the son of a gold and silver engraver and cut his teeth as a mural painter. It was an inheritance that shaped him and one that he never tried to shake off.
He had a magpie eye, and most of his mature work, if shrunk in scale, would work as jewellery designs — the glittering portraits with their gold and mosaic inserts, the colour-infused landscapes, the sinuous line drawings equally. Similarly, the two dimensionality, the lack of psychological nuance and the concern with pattern that characterise his paintings make them ideal elements in decorative room schemes rather than icons to be worshipped in isolation.
Klimt was already 30 before he abandoned the smooth international classicist style — a touch of Alma-Tadema, a dab of Bouguereau — with which he had made his name decorating Vienna’s theatres and museums. An example here is the dreamy Two Girls with an Oleander c.1890, a sentimental and unthreatening confection ideally suited to his bourgeois Ringstrasse clientèle, but a world away from the stylisation and eroticism that was to follow.
Klimt’s artistic radicalism coalesced with the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897. This was the Austro-Hungarian equivalent of the Arts & Crafts movement, formed by progressive artists, architects, designers and craftsmen to distance themselves from the prevailing conservatism. Here Klimt worked alongside designers such as Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser who later founded the Wiener Werkstätte. It is this collaboration, with Hoffmann in particular, that is the focus of the exhibition. So Klimt’s frothy 1904 portrait of Hermine Gallia is shown with the silver objects and furniture Hoffmann designed for the family. And dotted throughout are the high-end, bespoke pieces — cutlery, sweet baskets, coffee sets, belt buckles — made for the same patrons (often Jewish) whose portraits Klimt painted. There are numerous photographs, too, of the pictures in situ in their room settings. The Secessionists saw art and its presentation as indivisible. They sought to fashion not individual items but Raumkunst, a coherent connection between objects and the space around them.
This joint approach was ultimately aimed at creating that most Germanic of things, the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, uniting painting, poetry, music and architecture. The group’s most thoroughgoing attempt was for their Beethoven-themed exhibition of 1902. Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, which was meant to last only for the duration of the 14th Secessionist exhibition but was stored by a patron, is recreated here. A series of panels that covered three walls, it can be read like a strip cartoon revealing the artist’s mishmash of mystical and allegorical ideals and as a chapbook of his painterly motifs. There are floating genii symbolising the yearning for happiness; a kneeling couple signifying suffering humanity; figures of sickness, death, poetry and so on, and a choir of angels singing Schiller’s Ode to Joy. It was the most ambitious scheme Klimt ever attempted.
Most the figures are female for, as he admitted, his real painterly interest was “above all, women”. They were a more visceral interest too. Klimt may have lived with his mother and sisters, and his lifelong companionship with the dress designer Emilie Flöge may not have been physical, but at his death he was facing 14 paternity suits from former models. A look at his Nuda Veritas or Judith II and it is clear that, for this neighbour and exact contemporary of Freud, women — idealised or femmes fatales — were an obsession.
It is, however, his landscapes that are the real delight of the show. He painted them during his regular breaks at Attersee near Salzburg and they show nature rearranged as rhythm and pattern. He cropped his scenes tightly, filling the frame with a mosaic of tree trunks or leaves and often doing without either a horizon or a focal point. What landscapes such as The Park and Fir Forest I show is Klimt clearing his mind of the headiness of Vienna. They will have the same effect on the viewer in culture-laden Liverpool.