Klimt at Tate Liverpool – Review

Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design & Modern Life in Vienna 1900. Tate Liverpool 30 May to 31 August 2008
Review by Stuart Ian Burns

I finally managed to see the Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool or as they rather poetically describe it, Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design & Modern Life in Vienna 1900 (a title I’ll be returning to shortly). I’d been putting it off despite rave reviews — this has been the gallery’s most successful show, with according to the attendant in the cloak room, fifteen-hundred people a day going through its doors. I hate busy exhibition and museums because you notoriously end up seeing all human life but not the art, yet with this closing in a couple of weeks I knew I had to just grit my teeth. In the end, the show wasn’t too busy, mostly because visitors might have stayed away since Tate Liverpool doesn’t traditionally open on a Monday. Still there were a fair few people trudging across the exhibition’s darkly carpeted floors but for the most part they behaved themselves and I found, at least for the time I was there, a good atmosphere.

Tate Liverpool’s flagship Capital of Culture exhibition might not be the best Klimt exhibition you’ll ever see, simply because that will never exist. His theoretically most famous painting, The Kiss, something which would naturally be the crowning finale of this kind of retrospective, is too expensive and fragile these days to be moved from its usual home of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna (not to mention that museum’s reluctance to loan out its most famous tourist attraction). So despite being the first exhibition to concentrate on the painter in our nation’s history, it’s necessarily incomplete and I wonder how many visitors will have been aware of the reasons (and I’m sure I heard someone in the gift shop, the only place The Kiss is on display, wondering why that painting wasn’t in what they’d seen before).

With that in mind, Tate have repositioned the focus of the show to not simply present a history of a single painter’s technique but also the context within which he was working, the music, architecture, fashion and attitude of Vienna circa 1900. In reality that means lots of furniture and models of buildings, dresses and photography. It’s fascinating stuff; the ambition of the Viennese Secession movement of which Klimt was a part was to create a kind of ‘whole art form’ in which no single media had precedent and all blended into one another, from the painting that hung in the house, through to the cutlery to the house itself. Wagner was the musical proponent — in producing The Ring, he didn’t simply want to compose the score but also design the sets and costume and direct the actors.

Within the exhibition we find a desk in the shape of box with a section that pulls out to become a chair; cutlery which mirrors the detailing of the walls of the house in which they’re used, a tea set with handles that allow for coffee and milk to be poured comfortably and efficiently at the same time. It’s the reason that many of Klimt’s canvases are square, both portraits and landscapes, it’s because they fit better within the overall interior design of a room. I’m reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters when painter Max Von Sydow’s agent brings along some potential clients who want to buy his work. They want it by the yard so that it can fit best within the scheme, an idea Von Sydow’s none to pleased about because it insults his artistic integrity. Klimt on the other hand, understood market forces and created his work to fulfil them, at least initially.

This, then is not an exhibition to visit if you’re looking for wall to wall paintings by a particular artist, or for that matter to see an unbroken sequence of his work so that you can see how aspects of his style changed and developed. If there’s something I still came away not really understanding, it’s how he shifted from the earlier more pre-Raphaelitian courtly style through to the bolder, erotic images which he’s perhaps most famous for. Clearly a decision was made by the curatorial team based on what was thought to be available which is fine but given the name on the poster I simply would have liked a clearer through line (though given that I was very tired when I finally dragged myself through the doors and could well have simply missed it amongst the labels and information boards).

There’s an earlier painting, Fable, which looks like the work of a completely different artist — sight unseen you might guess it was by Collier or one of the British late Victorians. His heart clearly wasn’t in it, but there’s something of leap from that to the Beethoven Frieze with its imagery that crosses a randy Charles Rennie Mackintosh with Maurice Sendak’s picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. That’s probably why I like his work so — other painters often keep the same style but then apply it to different subjects. Klimt kept much the same subject but changed the way he represented it. One constant is hair. He seemed to be obsessed with it. In his early paintings he diligently worked to make sure every strand appeared convincingly, in later paintings the shapes became more abstract but the tresses flowed.

About the only proper connection I can make is that as time went on, Klimt became something of a lathario and the eroticism of the imagery certainly increased in tandem with the number of models which hung around his studio. The finale of the exhibition is series of drawings of ladies in a variety of positions giving themselves and each other pleasure. Despite only being simple line drawings, they were enough to have the painter branded as the pornographer of Vienna (even though the majority only came to light after his death). Other works, such as The Three Ages, alone might mark him as something of a misogynist with their wiry representations and Judith II/Salome (reputed to have ordered the beheading of John The Baptist). But I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, he was an interesting chap but I think he was just interested in showing women, good, or bad, or very, very bad indeed.

What ultimately pulls the exhibition together is the audio guide. A couple of pounds hire provides you with an iPod Touch loaded with a tour, this tour in fact available to download from the Tate website. Often these guides don’t work, either because you have to lug around a cd player dangling around your neck or one of those tall black wands which often crackle and can’t be heard over the din of the other visitors. The Klimt guide almost puts the visitor inside an Andrew Graham Dixon documentary, mixing audio-only explanations of the exhibits with related photographs (showing some of the paintings in their original context), music and video interviews with curators at the gallery of origin or family owners. The text is finely balanced too, intelligent without being sonorous, knowledgeable as well as humorous.

I did like the design of the exhibition too. The walls have been painted submarine grey which has the effect of making the colours within the paintings even more luminous. An earlier work, Two Girls with Oleander, with its golden back drop looked like the artist was achieving in a paint what he’d later do in genuine metal. The whites of Portrait of Marie Henneberg’s dress and Salome’s skin pop out too. If nothing else I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation of just how luminous a painter Klimt was; like medieval artists he understood that it was possible to be subtle even with the boldest of colours and that in the darkened rooms and hallways were some of his paintings would ultimately hang, it’s those qualities which would make them unforgettable.

Along with the nudity and scary eyes.

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