Klimt’s Atelier Closes for Renovations

A major museum restoration of the artist’s villa has stirred opposition among devotees

On The Town | Patricia Roman | September 2007

The Villa as it looked in the Klimt’s lifetime (Photo: Belvedere)

There is a unique aura, a sense of mystery perhaps, to the place where an artist has spent the hours of his creative life, putting his soul on canvas. The dedication, the passion still linger, long after the artist is gone. Or so it seems.

So the invitation to the farewell celebration was hard to resist; curious and excited, I decided to pay a visit to his studio on Feldmühlgasse – the last chance to see it before renovations begin in October. How much of the "real" Gustav Klimt was still there for a modern loyalist?

The Klimt Villa is very well hidden – it took some time to find it among the tiny back streets, the old neo-Baroque houses among newer apartment complexes. But on entering the garden, the years melted away. Surrounded by boxwood and oleander, and broad shade trees that might have been there since the beginning of time, amid climbing roses, daisies and tulips, Klimt is revived in the people.

Sixty-some admirers sat about on benches, sipping wine and listening intently as novelist, actor and self-described "cultural activist" Gerhard Totschinger told funny stories about Klimt, his life and of course his art.

Totschinger told how Klimt was commissioned to do a couple of paintings for the Austrian state, but it was asked that he tastefully cover the women present in his paintings. He did not agree and said that he would not change anything. When people came to pick up the three pieces from his studio, he wouldn’t hand them over. He locked himself in his studio and refused to come out or acknowledge the agreement and threatened he would shoot anybody who tried to take the paintings.

The idyllic location, filled with fresh flowers in bloom, the discreet sounds of birds singing lets the mind drift. In this atmosphere the artist created works like Fruit Garden With Roses, Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer, The Dancer, The Two Friends and more.

The monumental staircase seemed to embrace the professor as he spoke, flaunting its ornamental iron work like a French madam. Although showing damage from the years, the brick villa still looks imposing and the balcony inviting, as if awaiting a party. Inside, the tall windows let light flood into the house, making it feel alive.

In October, work will begin on the renovation of the atelier, under the direction of the Museum Schloss Belvedere. According to museum director Agnes Husslein-Arco, the Klimt Villa will be modified to return to its original structure. Klimt spent the last six years of his life in this studio, when there was no second story. It was not until five years after his death, in 1923 that the upper floor and the front staircase were added. It is the pending loss of these additions that Klimt lovers find the hardest to accept.

The talk was followed by a short play, staged in the old studio, giving a glimpse of Klimt’s ideas about life, the creative process and himself. I was standing at the back looking at slides, when suddenly the handle moved, and "Klimt" came through the door.

He had tufts of gray hair on his head, a grey beard and mustache and wore the long, grey-blue painter’s smock so familiar from the photographs. Mingling with the assembled group, he asked us to follow him. In the garden, he looked around: He found the place that was the inspiration for Fruit garden with Roses, but the only thing remaining was a small and feeble rosebush, but overgrown with weed.

"Who wants to know more about me, should look at my paintings, to know what I want, and what I am," our guide said. It was surprisingly effective, almost as if giving the impression that the real Klimt was leading us around the back to the entrance to his old studio..  Through a round-arched Jugendstil door, paneled in glass, with a flower weaving up the iron gate.

Then he reenacted the moment when he painted Frederike Maria Beer, fascinating the public with his energy and charisma. Then he bowed, and the illusion was over. The performance ended with a sense of loss.

Inside, the studio was beautifully kept, with an easel holding his unfinished painting of The Bride. Next on the left side lay a sketch book and some wax crayons, a pallet and squashed oil tubes.

To the right was the bed, and next to it a canvas with his last finished work, Lady with a Fan. You could smell the paint in the studio and every object is as if untouched, as if Klimt would return any minute now and get back to work.

It seems a little hard to understand why a complete renovation is needed. Suddenly, the worries of some members of the Klimt Verein became real – that in trying to restore the outside structure, that the mood of this quite magical place will somehow be lost.

It’s hard to know what’s right; the only evidence of how the house looked in Klimt’s day is an old photo and some very vague plans. People fear that the results will not be what planners expect. They also argue that the project goes against the last request of Klimt’s protégé Egon Schile’s request that has for both parties a different meaning.

"Nothing should be removed," Schiele said after Klimt died and a short time before his own death, "because everything connected to Klimt’s house is a whole and is itself a work of art, which must not be destroyed."

Gustav Klimt’s Atelier (re-opens 30 Sept. 2012)

13., Feldmühlgasse 11 & 15a 

Unter St. Veit

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