Museums of the World – Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Posted May 8th, 2013 under Austria, Ikono, Museums

Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
ikono is proud to present the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna as part of our series Museums of the World. Notable highlights of the collection are the artists of the Viennese Modern Age – among them Gustav Klimt, whose most famous masterpieces The Kiss and Judith are being highlighted by ikono this month.

Accomodated within the palaces of the Belvedere built in the early 18th century by the outstanding Baroque architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, the gallery represents the most important collection of Austrian art from medieval times until today.

Masterpieces from the Late Gothic Michael Pacher (around 1435 – 1498) to romanticists such as Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), from Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s (1736-1783) grotesque Character Heads (after 1770) to the light-flooded landscapes of Claude Monet (1840-1926) are presented within the impressive architecture of the Belvedere’s palaces, the Upper and Lower Belvedere. Built in the early 18th century by Johann Lucas Hildebrandt, one of the most significant Baroque architects, and surrounded by a representative garden, the palaces have been serving as the summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), in due course an important general and influential patron for the arts.

To pay tribute to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere as one of the most important Museums of the World, ikono dedicates two productions to a milestone of the Belvedere’s collection: As main representative of the Viennese Modern Age, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) had an inimitable influence on the art of the Austrian fin de siècle. The Belvedere owns the major part of Klimt’s Oeuvre, which doubtlessly finds its highlights in his most famous paintings, Kiss and Judith, to be presented by ikono during the upcoming weeks.

Please find below the Belvedere’s detailed introduction into Klimt’s masterpieces:

Gustav Klimt: Judith (1901)

Gustav Klimt: Judith
The title Judith for this portrait of a young, seductive beauty – adorned with golden jewellery, her breast half exposed – has nothing in common with the traditional image of the heroine from the Old Testament. In the 19th century the image of Judith as the chaste woman, serving her people, was transformed into a man-eating, self-gratifying, and emancipated symbolic figure. Gustav Klimt is clearly adhering to this interpretation and showing that he is familiar with the current discussion about the new role of woman and the relationship between the sexes. It therefore comes as no surprise that even contemporary critics called this painting ‘Salome’ as well, and that the head of Holofernes is like the face of a saint. In this context, the gold background adds a touch of confusion, as in both Gothic painting and in Ancient Egyptian civilization this was regarded as the epitome of the divine. Here Klimt seems to be paying tribute to a new religion – to Eros. This can be read from the encoded decoration, which can be interpreted in different ways. The apples, for example, suspended from the background trees that look like five fingers, recall the traditional symbol of temptation, and the abstract scales call to mind the snake in paradise.

Yet ultimately it is the painting, dissolved into small brushstrokes, seen in combination with the beguiling gleam of the gold that conveys the seductive sensuality of the woman. This would still be the case even without all the decoration and its potential symbolism.

Gustav Klimt: Kiss (1908)

Gustav Klimt: Judith
The Kiss, probably the most popular work by Gustav Klimt, was first exhibited in 1908 at the Kunstschau art exhibition on the site of today’s Konzerthaus in Vienna. The Ministry bought it from there for the sum of 25,000 Kronen, and thus secured for the state one of the icons of Viennese Jugendstil and indeed of European modern art.

It undoubtedly represents the culmination of the phase known as the ‘Golden Epoch’. In this decade, the artist created a puzzling, ornamental encoded programme that revolved around the mystery of existence, love and fulfilment through art. Klimt gained initial inspiration for this in 1903 on a journey to Ravenna to see the Byzantine mosaics. In addition, the painting contains a myriad of motifs from various cultural epochs, above all from Ancient Egyptian mythology. Most recent research has, however, revealed that it is not enough to read the ornaments in the picture just as symbols rooted in tradition aiming to convey a timelessly valid message. They reveal more, such as references to Klimt’s love for Emilie Flöge and the artist’s exploration of the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s art.

The couple is on a base formed by a narrow strip of a flowery meadow set against an abyss suffused with golden dust. The woman in a magnificent floral dress is being tenderly embraced by the man, whose body is entirely concealed by a golden robe. In blissful rapture she turns her head towards the viewer; their hands touch with sensual tenderness.

The gold of the background is primarily interpreted as an ancient symbol of the divine or the sun, that becomes united with the flowery meadow, symbol of the earth. The rectangles on the robe are synonymous with the male principle; the oval-shaped flowers with the female. On the other hand, comparison with the Stoclet Frieze (pron: Stoclettfries) of the same time, could suggest that the glittering gold background represents a metaphysically exalted idea of Lake Attersee and the narrow meadow the lake shore. Based on this location, the couple must be Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge.

One source of confusion is the kneeling pose of the woman and the fact that her face turns away from the kiss. Does this show a love that was never fulfilled and never expressly declared between the couple? Or does this show the ambivalence between submission and rejection between the sexes? Love as the cosmic law for the life-giving union between man and woman or the document of a love that perhaps experienced its most wondrous time at Lake Attersee?