Back in January I had the extreme pleasure of seeing the largest ever exhibition of my favorite artist, Gustav Klimt’s artwork on the West Coast at the Legion of Honor Museum. I began appreciating the work of this Art Nouveau master’s work back in college when I was studying abroad in London. I met a woman from Rhode Island School of Design who was studying abroad with us through Syracuse University named Clair. Clair was quiet, petite, dressed all in black, and usually had her headphones on.
One day I asked quiet Clair what she was listening to. “Guns and Roses” she replied, with a small smirk. Right then I knew that I liked Clair. It was Clair that introduced me to the work of Klimt, he was her favorite artist and she had gotten a commission to paint a dining room in his style the summer before we went abroad. Clair showed me photos of her wall murals, I went to the art book section of the library (no, there was NO GOOGLE in those days) looked him up and fell in love with the spirals and concentric circles of Mr. Klimt.
It was true love at first sight.
I have seen Klimt’s work in Vienna, Austria, the city he lived and work in throughout his life. I made my pilgrimage there in 1990, some sixteen years before Maria Altman won her 2006 lawsuit and was awarded six of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere’s 11 original Klimt paintings. Lucky me, I was able to sit with my sketchbook for hours and marvel over 11 originals, including “The Kiss.”
This Legion of Honor exhibition was extra special, as it was a curated collection of work from public and private collections both from the US and Europe. The Österreichische Galerie sent three significant and large landscape pieces all the way from Vienna to San Francisco. Incredible. This exhibition marks the first major survey in California of Klimt’s work.
I have been fortunate enough to see Klimt’s original work in Los Angeles, New York City, and London. Whenever there’s an exhibition opportunity, I’m there. My daughter had a dance competition in Los Angeles several years ago when there was an exhibit of Klimt’s sketches and studies for major works at the J. Paul Getty Museum. While Emilie was in dance class, I got a rental car and snuck away to Brentwood in order to see my muse. I was fortunate enough to take in a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on that same trip.
Forever chasing Klimt.
Emilie and Gustav
You see, I have loved Klimt so much and he’s been such a part of my artistic life, that I named my first child, Emilie. She always has to spell her name, but she appreciates that it’s for a special reason. Sometimes it’s a drag, but most times it’s pretty cool; my Emilie knows that she has a story behind her name.
For years now I have wanted to paint a portrait of Gustav Klimt and Emilie Louise Flöge. I have a book of photos that I covet, and wait for an opportunity to use in order to compose my portrait. My “little” brother bought the book for my birthday, it’s no secret to anyone I know how much I love Klimt. I’m waiting for a chance to make a painting just for me, not to sell, not for licensing, not for anything other than honoring my muse.
Maybe someday I’ll give it to my Emilie. Maybe.
Of course I texted my daughter photos from the Legion of Honor exhibit, and now that she’s a little older she’s pretty proud of her connection to my muse. She texted me back from New York City to San Francisco and said, “That’s me!” A little bit of a different reaction from the days when she complained about having to spell “Emilie” to school teachers and Starbucks employees.
No sympathy from someone who has always had to spell St. Hilaire (say Saint-Hill-air). Just sayin’.
Scale and Brushwork
Some of the things you can never appreciate from a book or an online image is scale and brushwork. The one comment I heard about “The Virgins” from people in the crowd more than any other was “I had no idea this piece was so big!” Even when you read the dimensions in an art book or online, it’s hard to imagine the incredible presence this piece has in a room. The other thing that you can never appreciate more than in you can in person, is the brushwork. You absolutely MUST get up close and personal to appreciate Klimt’s brushwork. And let me tell you from personal experience, the museum staff does NOT want you as close as you (or I) want to be. “18 inches away from the artwork!” I heard this a lot throughout my visit. “But I’m examining the brushwork!” That retort is just never well received.
Take it from me though, find an opportunity to lean in, get close, experience the thick and thin. It will change your life.
“The Virgin” is regarded as on of Klimt’s most significant figural compositions of his later years. This piece was on loan from the Nárondní Galerie in Prague. I just was so impressed that they allowed it to make such a long journey. Amid an intertwined group of female figures, the virgin appears at the center of the composition, half dancing, half hovering, in a state of contemplative dreaminess. Around her, six other forms are sprawled, entwined in the dazzlingly bright ornamental swirl that invokes a flowery meadow. It is indeed the power of ornament that unites the group, and withdraws the figures from the viewer, an apt metaphor for the sweet oblivion of erotic reverie.
The above piece is “Farmhouse in Upper Austria,” 1911. This farmhouse appears as if enveloped in the natural forms that surround it. While the bluish gray of the sun-bleached timber determines the over-all tone of the picture, in the foreground a summer meadow is enlivened with spots of red and yellow flowers. In a manner characteristic of Klimt, nature appears to burst out of the edges of the painting.
Never Too Old to Learn Something New
There were actually a few paintings in this exhibition that I have never seen in person. I guess that’s the benefit of curating from all over the world, including private collections. Klimt’s work was on loan from public and private collections in the United States and Europe, including the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, which holds the world’s largest and finest collection of Klimt paintings anywhere.”Two Girls with an Oleander Bush” was an incredible piece that I have never had the pleasure of seeing. It was on loan from the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art, Hartford.
Two girls, standing close together, focus their attention on the flowers of an oleander bush. Klimt’s model for the girl in the foreground, arranging the flowers, was an Italian Renaissance bust. Klimt’s work was still indebted to the conventional Art of the French Salon which dominated European aesthetics at the time.
On an adjacent wall to the girls was an old favorite of mine, Sonja Knips portrait. This piece was the beginning of a new style for Klimt and a key work in Viennese art at the turn of the twentieth century. Novel for Klimt was the life-size rendering of the sitter and the square orientation of the portrait. Klimt suggested that the image is of a fleeting moment–a “snapshot.” Knips is seated on the front edge of the chair, looking straight out at the viewer. With her left hand, she clasps the arm of her chair, as if she were just about to stand up!
I can’t tell you how many times I have marveled over all THREE portraits of Ria Munk by Klimt. Ria committed suicide in December of 1911 and her parents commissioned Klimt to paint her portrait posthumously with the help of photographs. This is the final painting in a series of three portraits commissioned by the Munk family of their daughter. One of the last and most modern of Klimt’s full-length female portraits, the painting offers a glimpse into the working methods of Klimt as it features unpainted areas, sketched areas, and finished areas. I really marvel at the opportunity to see the steps of his process.
“To every age its art. To ever art its freedom.”
–Motto of the Viennese Seccession (Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.)
for being a part of my