The master of bling

By Anthea Gerrie, June 6, 2008

As the UK’s first Klimt retrospective opens, we examine the artist’s appeal for his Jewish patrons

Was it the sensual curves of his zaftig subjects, the fact that he was a bit of a rebel, or simply his unabashed love of “bling” which so endeared Gustav Klimt to the aspirational Jews of Vienna?

Whatever the attraction, without his wealthy Jewish patrons, the world would not have the spectacular body of work which forms the basis of what is the great Austrian painter’s first-ever British retrospective.

“Patronage was vital in 1900 Vienna, which was so old-fashioned there was no art market — not even a single dealer,” explains Tobias Natter, co-curator of the new show at Tate Liverpool, one of the city’s events marking its status as European City of Culture.

Natter believes it was the outrageousness of Klimt, who became one of the most important members of the Austrian art scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which appealed to the mostly nouveaux-riches Jews seeking a new liberal identity in a city where another, thoroughly new-fangled Jew, Sigmund Freud, was in the ascendancy.

“They didn’t want to copy the aristocracy; they were more interested in associating themselves with the avant-garde,” he says.

Those Jewish patrons are largely responsible for the iconic images, many of which have just gone on show in Liverpool. They include several masterpieces, even though the absence of Klimt’s two great golden blockbusters is bound to disappoint.

The Kiss was bought, straight off, by the Austrian state in 1908. It has become an emblem of Vienna itself, and the city’s greatest source of merchandising — no wonder the city’s Belvedere Palace would not part, for even a summer, with its greatest draw.

However, if they still held the equally gilded Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, they might just have allowed that to travel and become the star of the Liverpool show. But even as the exhibition was in planning two years ago, the painting of one of Klimt’s most loyal patrons was winging its way back to Jewish ownership, 70 years after being looted by the Nazis.

“Restitution has made getting in great works like this very, very difficult,” says Tate Liverpool director Christoph Grunenberg of the portrait which was returned to the Bloch-Bauer family after the Austrian government was sued for its return.

The heirs promptly sold the painting for £73 million to Ronald Lauder, the great American collector of Austrian art and billionaire businessman, breaking all world records. Lauder has made it the star of his summer Klimt exhibition at his own Neue Galerie in New York, thus keeping it too away from Liverpool.

Still, Klimt’s depiction of Judith, the biblical Jewish murderess, has made it to Liverpool, and is surrounded at the Tate by a handful of Adele Bloch Bauer’s Jewish contemporaries. Their husbands commissioned the most fashionable artist of the day to paint their wives, in part, no doubt, to show that they were above sexual jealousy. Klimt, who painted wearing a robe with nothing underneath, was rumoured to have slept with many of his models. Gossips, tickled by Freud’s new theories, even suggested that couples commissioned the portraits to add an extra frisson to their sex lives.

“It was fancy and excitingly fashionable that the lady of the house had been painted during a modelling session with the maestro in his atelier,” says Herbert Lachmayer, director of Vienna’s Da Ponte Institute and professor of art at the University of Linz.

While the Viennese Establishment had become horrified by Klimt’s overt sexuality (his explicit nudes were considered pornographic) and the gaudy excesses of his materials, the wealthy Jews of fin-de-siecle Vienna thumbed their noses at what was a highly conservative, Catholic society by embracing him — rather as Charles Saatchi made the market for Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers and other controversial Young British Artists in the 1990s.

The gilded, bejewelled home-decor panels that Klimt created for wealthy patrons are every bit as impressive as his voluptuous portraits. A Jewish couple is to be thanked for the survival of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, an exact facsimile of which is the highlight of the Liverpool show. Only ever intended to be a temporary exhibit at the Secession Building, where Vienna’s new avant-garde displayed their work, the frieze is based on the theme of man overcoming sin and adversity in the pursuit of happiness, as outlined in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Serena Lederer, wife of prominent industrialist August, bought the original panels and became one of the artist’s staunchest supporters.

One of the most poignant portraits in the Tate show is of Ria Munk, Serena’s 24-year-old niece. She committed suicide after an unhappy love affair, and her aunt thought it fitting to have the young woman’s beauty captured as she lay on her deathbed.

Among Klimt’s most important Jewish patrons were industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer and his wife Lili, who set up the artist’s friends, furniture designers Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser, in the Wiener Werkstatte — the famous Vienna workshop.

The Werkstatte’s clients “were primarily young, progressive and Jewish”, according to Beatriz Colomina, professor of architecture at Princeton University. The objects made for the Waerndorfers, the Gallias and other Jewish families are as much stars of the Tate show as the Klimt paintings. Sent to Britain to study textiles, Waerndorfer instead became fascinated by the work of Glasgow-based designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and the idea of fostering an arts-and-crafts movement in Vienna.

He became the Werkstatte’s principal patron, commissioning everything from a set of cutlery to a silver toilet-roll-holder for the family mansion. Here Klimt’s great gilded work, Hope, was kept in a specially made cabinet created by the Werkstatte as a kind of shrine.

Lili would occasionally display the painting, with all the ceremony accorded to a Torah scroll, and only to those guests deemed capable of grasping the “sacred” nature of the image.

Other important Jewish patrons included the Wittgenstein and Gallia families, which scattered in the 1930s, vulnerable to Nazi scrutiny despite their recent conversions to Christianity. Gallia-commissioned items which are included in the Liverpool show include exquisite fruit baskets, cigarette boxes and other silver items as well as a portrait of Hermine Gallia.

A pleasant surprise in Liverpool is the re-issue of several Wiener Werkstatte designs, including a chair and nest of tables. But showier yet is the glass jewellery with gilt suspended within — of which Klimt would have thoroughly approved.

Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900 runs at Tate Liverpool until August 31. Tel: 0151 702 7400

Last updated: 4:37pm, June 6 2008