Going for the Gold

The arts and crafts of precious metal: A Klimt Year compendium at the Lower Belvedere

On The Town | Ellen Kryger | April 2012

The exhibition "Gold" at Vienna's Lower Belvedere (Photos: Belvedere)

The price of gold was relatively low on 14 Mar., which may account for the crowd at the coat check as the exhibition Gold opened at the Lower Belvedere. It was indeed seductive: Rooms and walls shined, sparkled, and glimmered with (often confusing) golden works of art, coming close to sensory overload. But maybe that’s the idea.

Guest-curated by art historian Thomas Zaunschirm, the international exhibition is devoted to the use of gold in 200 works by more than 120 mostly contemporary artists. Unconstrained in the use of gold, the pieces range from realistic to abstract, and sacred to profane.

That the exhibition is overpowering, is hardly surprising, given Zaunschrim’s expansive vision. According to several of the artists in the show, Zaunschirm already knew what he wanted to achieve when he contacted them two years ago. For painters Fred Wessel, Peter Murphy, and Yoko Grandsagne, a call from the Belvedere seemed too good to be true. As well as the chance to exhibit alongside Gustav Klimt, the son of a goldsmith who dominated fin de siècle Austria art and became the driving force behind the Wiener Secession, during the celebrations in honour of his sesquicentennial (150th) year.

Mounting the exhibition was an enormous undertaking, with themed rooms in a dizzying array of styles and forms including "Forms of the Sacred", "Landscapes", "Still Life", "Frames", "Realism", and "Abstraction".

The spectacular variety is revealed from the first in "Forms of the Sacred", where one wall carries a stunning winged altarpiece designed by Secessionist Rudolf Bacher, shown publicly for the first time in 100 years. Depicting stories from the life of Christ in classic medieval style, the piece includes on the back panel the image of Saint Clemens Maria Hofbauer, patron saint of Vienna. In jarring contrast, on an adjacent wall hangs a vivid tangerine and yellow life-sized portrait of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti holding his crotch with a cigarette in his hand, a flaming blood-red heart surrounded by a crown of thorns on his chest, and a golden halo in the medieval style over his head. On the floor, as if thrown before him in adoration, is a glittering pile of women’s sequined heels. (Barkley Hendricks, Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen). 

Between the sacred and the profane are the paintings of Peter Murphy, an iconographer who often uses traditional painting techniques in egg tempera and gold leaf for religious panels. In this show, however, the selections are icons of a different sort: ornate gold and jewelled depictions of Murphy’s musical heroes Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. For Kurt Cobain Nirvanamind, he chose Hindu images of Kali, with Cobain holding symbols of creation and destruction in his hands: a guitar and a rifle. Jimi Hendrix, Murphy explained, is modelled after the Archangel Michael in the Byzantine Museum in Athens, with stylised calligraphy evocative of the Secession use of lettering as art.

Moving from room to room, it’s important to pay close attention, as little treasures like Andy Warhol’s Still Life and William Blake’s King Sebert can easily get lost. On through the gift shop, down a white hallway, to the Orangerie, artists use gold in myriad ways: as simply a colour (Tom Sachs, Bubble Fox); as enhancement of everyday objects (Sylvie Fleury, Golden Ladder and Robin Rhode, Spade); as decoration (Rudolf Eisenmenger, Design for Safety Curtain Staatsoper). The lighting, particularly for sculptures such as Bruno Gironcoli’s Leaf Ear and Malgorzata Chodakowska’s Prophetess, is perfect.

Fred Wessel’s luminous realistic portrait of a young woman in a nightgown is spectacular, with an intricate gilded 18th-century star chart in the background, Becca (Telescope), as are his still lifes, like little golden jewels. Even after two nights, Wessel remained stunned by the sheer size of the show, calling the exhibition "overwhelming".

Sadly, the magnitude of the show is at times a problem in itself, with some pieces re-legated to the hallways where they are easily missed – like Yoko Grandsagne’s towering three-panel painting Zen Garden. The shimmering centre panel of crumpled gold leaf is framed left and right with a deeper gold, with the red base peeking out and calligraphic dark blue sweeps of colour punctuating the outer panels. But this is only the setting: There is no space for the gold Buddha who should be sitting in front, the artist explained, nor for the distance that allows the full meditative effect. Because of the unfortunate placement, Grandsagne will be providing another for a different room.

It may be a coincidence, but the price of gold has risen since the exhibit opened. Who says art can’t make a difference? The Belvedere’s Gold is breath-taking and vast, challenging the viewer to take in the complexity of the individual pieces. It also takes time. Still, all in all, it’s hard not to be seduced.


Gold, through 17 Jun.

Lower Belvedere

3., Rennweg 6


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