At the Easel With Gustav Klimt

The opening of the artist’s atelier in Hietzing, a.k.a. the ‘Klimt Villa’, caps his 150th anniversary

On The Town | Nicholas K. Smith | December 2012 / January 2013

The restored villa, based on the artist’s own photographs, rounds out Vienna’s Klimt year (Photo: Leopold Museum)

Gustav Klimt had a big year. Nearly a dozen Viennese museums have featured some sort of 150th anniversary exhibit in honour of the artist, whose photographs remind you of Bacchus with a smock and paintbrush.

It’s easy to see why Klimt’s work (especially The Kiss) is so heavily promoted: it’s accessible enough for the average museum-goer, and it looks great on the countless scarves, umbrellas and pretty much anything else with a printable surface, rivalled only perhaps by Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Austria needs him as much as France needs the Mona Lisa.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Secession have had the most impressive Klimt shows in 2012. Each museum built a scaffold to give visitors a closer look at the ceiling murals and the Beethoven Frieze respectively, a feat previously possible only for the farsighted few.

Among other highlights, the Wien Museum displayed the artist’s death mask, the Albertina rolled out hundreds of drawings, and yes, The Kiss has been on display in all its glory at the Belvedere.

But perhaps most fun is the newest add-on to the sesquicentennial festivities – the Klimt Villa in the 13th District, opened in the end of September, which offers a more intimate look at the artist. From 1912 until his death in 1918, Klimt lived and worked at Feldmühlgasse 11 in Hietzing. Exhibition coordinator Baris Alakus was my guide through the artist’s only surviving studio. He basks in the reflected glory.

"I think it’s not necessary to have an anniversary for Klimt; he’s already so popular," Alakus told me.


Observing the artist at work

Even when you’re standing in front of it, the old villa is unrecognisable. The studio space is more accurately a building within a building. A neo-Baroque renovation in the early ‘20s added a second story, two exterior staircases and a shiny copper attic to turn the tiny garden house into a villa that seems out of place among the neighbouring multi-storied apartment buildings.

We met in a narrow hallway just inside the main entrance, actually outside the original wall of the studio preserved, windows and all, inside the larger building. The entire museum is about the size of a large apartment, filling six ground floor rooms.

But it’s the two reconstructed rooms of the atelier that make a visit worthwhile. We first walk into the so-called "Japanese room", featuring a Josef Hoffmann-designed table and chairs and prints of samurai wearing patterned robes suspiciously similar to the ones found in his most famous paintings. Alakus suspects that Klimt’s popularity in the East is owed to a 1913 article written by visiting Japanese artist and journalist Kijiro Ohta. Before heading into the studio, Klimt’s models would change here into costumes, many of which were designed by partner Emilie Flöge in the loose-shouldered, corset-less Reformkleider style.

Re-creating Gustav

In a corner room, a white ceramic sitting tub sits at the feet of a dummy wearing a Flöge bathing costume. What’s the story here? After all, this is a museum where everything else has the air of being fresh out of the box. Alakus explains that the tub, found decades earlier in a nearby garage, had been dated to Klimt’s time and would have been typical; without photographic evidence, however, it’s only conjecture that the Secessionist himself used it. Still, there is an odd fascination in imagining the artist wedging himself in for a bath after a long day in front of the canvas.

But of course, the pièce de résistance is Klimt’s studio. Alakus draws my attention to the black and white Moritz Nähr photograph of the room nearly 100 years ago.

It’s easy to get the sense that Klimt stepped out to the Tivoli Café near Schönbrunn and was due to return any minute to add a few more brushstrokes to The Bride. A pair of smocks lie on the large bed in the corner, paintbrushes rest on a ledge and newspapers lays scattered near the window. Everything has been reassembled, down to two small paint dishes on the easel below Lady with a Fan.

The "museum in progress," as it bills itself, is far from finished. It currently sits on a largely open, but green, lawn with newly planted saplings. In Klimt’s day, the house was surrounded by an impressive garden, something Alakus says will be gradually recreated when funding becomes available. In the coming year, the empty upstairs rooms are intended to host concerts, workshops and lectures.

It was in fact Klimt’s protégé Egon Schiele who had the idea to turn the studio into a museum, though it would take 100 years to happen.

"Nothing should be removed," Schiele wrote in 1918, just months before his own death. "The unfinished pictures, brushes, painter’s work table and palette should not be touched and the studio should be opened as a Klimt Museum for the few who enjoy and love art."

The story of how the Klimt Villa came to be is also the story of why the artist enjoys such popularity today: It was sheer force of will. The building has been renovated a number of times since Klimt’s death, most recently in a 13-month project in preparation for the museum’s opening to return it to its flat-roofed, condition in the early ‘20s.

The war years were not kind to the building. It was "Aryanised" – confiscated from its Jewish owners and given to Nazi loyalists – then sold, neglected and nearly destroyed several times, most recently in 1998. At that time a private citizens group launched a near decade-long battle with the Austrian government to preserve it. At the heart of the fight was whether the house still qualified as historic considering all the renovations. In 2009, after years of fighting off secret demolition plans, the house was granted national monument protection.


Rekindled by scandal

Klimt too, was written off. By the mid-50s, his work had been all but forgotten, Perhaps it was because of the sensual nature of many of his works or because they were too ornate for the modernist tastes that followed. It was only thanks to later shows in New York and London that his star began to rise once again. His renewed popularity reached a peak in 2006, when cosmetics giant Ronald Lauder purchased "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" from its restored owner Marie Altmann for then-record $135 million, calling it "our Mona Lisa".

The merchandise, though, has been perhaps the most telling sign of his resurgence. Prior to the anniversary show, the Wien Museum ran a Facebook contest asking users to send the worst Klimt Kitsch out there. The winner was a plastic music box in the shape of a Fabergé egg with the figures of The Kiss inside.

Those wanting to see this much Klimt-mania again will likely have to wait until 2018, the hundred-year anniversary of the artist’s death, as well as those of his Secession compatriots Schiele, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner – all victims of the Spanish flu.

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