Klimt and the Golden Art of Vienna

The golden art of Gustav Klimt 09:10

Gustav Klimt is one of the giants of modern art. His portraits, both romantic and erotic, captured the golden age of Vienna at the turn of the century.60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer visits the Neue Galerie, where a new show of the artist's work is on view.

"A Nervous Splendor," the writer Frederic Morton called it - Vienna at the turn of the 19th century, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

No one captured that moment of opulent decadence the way Gustav Klimt did. He was the most celebrated portrait painter of his day, a notorious ladies man, obsessed with women, pale beauties dressed in extravagant gowns ... or nothing at all.

Almost a century after his death in 1918 at the age of 55, his work still mesmerizes. Last year, the film "Klimt" opened in New York, starring John Malkovich.

"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" (1907) by Gistav Klimt. Neue Galerie

In 2006, the cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder paid a reported $135 million for Klimt's luminous portrait of Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the highest prices ever for a work sold at auction. It is the centerpiece of a new show at New York's Neue Galerie, the first major Klimt retrospective in this country, featuring more than 120 drawings and paintings; photographs and handwritten letters; his last sketchbook; his favorite tie pin; his grandiose painting smock; and a re-construction of the ante-room of his studio where he both painted and seduced many of his models.

Safer spoke with Renee Price, director of the museum and curator of the exhibition.

"What might be regarded as the great essence of human nature is captured in his work," Safer suggested. "Love, lust..."

"It's extremely sensuous," Price agreed, "and the themes of life and death are really, you can see this in his work, are very much there."

Klimt was born in 1862 on the outskirts of Vienna. His circumstances were humble, his talent prodigious. In 1876, at only 14, he was accepted by Vienna's School of Applied Art.

Price and Safer discussed some of his early works, completed when he was only 17.

"Yes," Price commented, "these are student works. And you can really see how talented he was already then. I mean, they are masterfully drawn. They almost look like photographs."

In 1883 Klimt, his brother Ernst and their friend Franz Matsch formed the Artists' Company. They decorated theaters and painted murals. It was commercial art on the grandest scale. In 1892, Klimt went off on his own. It was the beginning of a revolution.

"He was instrumental in founding the secession," said Safer, "Vienna's secession. What exactly were these artists seceding from?"

"Well, I would say it's the old order," answered Price, "which was really represented by the Kunstlerhaus, which was an artist organization where they could exhibit. And it turned out that most of the paintings that were exhibited there were very commercial, very much stuck in the 19th century mode. And finally these artists rebelled."

It was 1897. Klimt was 35 and a huge success in Vienna, a city in the last years of its golden age - a remarkable time in art, science and politics. Sigmund Freud was practicing psychoanalysis. Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin were there, plotting. Gustav Mahler was conducting the city's orchestra.

Safer asked Price about the so-called zeitgeist, the spirit of the time and whether she felt it was captured in the drawings and paintings.

"Yes," she agreed. "Klimt starts off in a very traditional, academic way, and in the late work, the line almost dissolves. And it's, in a way, very symbolic for what was happening, this sort of unraveling at that time."

The "unraveling" was from the ornate age of the 19th century.

"It's going from a 19th century pomp and artificiality and looking for a new direction, a modernity," Price said. "Looking for truth in art and rejecting the traditional and moving onto something new."

It began with Klimt's hundred foot-long homage to Beethoven, a monumental work covering three walls. It is reborn in New York with his original sketches of man's struggle to attain happiness, ending with paradise and a visual representation of the "Ode to Joy."

A living work of art, Renee Price calls it, that was celebrated by some, condemned by others. But it was Klimt's Faculty Paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna that created an outrage.

"This was a huge public commission that became the biggest art scandal in Vienna," Price explained, "and Klimt endured for many years this harsh criticism."

"It was the content," Price said, that so upset the university. "Klimt was assigned three of the faculties: law, philosophy and medicine. He produced sketches. And they were approved. And ultimately 87 professors signed a petition when he exhibited the first faculty, which was philosophy, that this was not representative of the university."

Klimt withdrew from the project in 1905 and returned his advance, worth roughly $200,000 today. It was his last public commission.

He broke with the Secession and retreated to his studio, painting portraits for a different clientele: women.

"He was clearly in love with, or obsessed with, women," suggested Safer.

"Klimt loved women," Price nodded, "and he must have been extremely charming. There are several reports that he was very charismatic. He was a womanizer. And then of course we have these cliches of what happens in an artist's studio."

"Other than painting, you mean," Safer asked.

"Yes," Price said with a smile, "he did have nude models there who were available at his beck and call, so-to-speak."

Klimt never married but is said to have fathered more than a dozen children. His one constant companion was Emilie Floge, a dress designer. They spent summers together on the Attersee. Here, he painted his only landscapes.

But his abiding subject was women: beautiful women, wealthy women like Adele Bloch Bauer, a Viennese patron and socialite. Klimt produced over 100 sketches of her in numerous sittings that culminated in the portrait completed in 1907.

She is the star of the show and the centerpiece of the collection. After a six-year restitution battle, the Austrian government returned the painting to the remnants of the family in 2006. It is now owned by the museum.

"It's really the quintessence of Klimt's golden style," said Price. "You have this very refined woman looking out. And you have this interplay between the softness of her flesh and then all the ornament which is abstract and she is surrounded by a halo and all these swirls and scrolls. And of course the gold and you can see her initials embedded throughout as sort of a secret or semi-secret symbol."

It is Klimt's most formidable painting, next to "The Kiss," his most famous, which is not in the show. Some say that painting is a portrait of Klimt and his beloved companion, Emilie Floge.

Safer asked Price if the work caused a sensation at the time.

"'The Kiss' was endorsed by the state because as soon as it was exhibited it was acquired by the museum in Vienna," she said.

"So somebody was paying attention," remarked Safer.

"Yes," Price agreed. "And 'The Kiss' of course passed the censors because those two are cloaked and so it was just a highly decorated, romantic vision."

But it's his drawings that are the most literally revealing.

Safer and Price looked at the drawings in one gallery that especially gave a sense of Klimt's obsession or love for the female form, many of which can't be shown on camera.

"They're beautiful, sinuous, erotic drawings," the curator observed. "And they're all very clean, like in their features. They're slender and elegant creatures."

"Who happen to have no clothes on," noted Safer.

"Just an accident!" laughed Price.

Klimt produced hundreds of sketches of women not meant for the public: young, old, pregnant, dressed and naked, alone, asleep, lost in thought. It is a private glimpse of a master at work.

"One critic that was a friend of his, Berta Zuckerkandl said, 'It was like a virtuoso practicing scales,'" said Price. "He would just keep drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing, throwing them on the floor. They were piled up several feet high."

"What's interesting about so many of the drawings," Safer observed, "whether they're gorgeous young women or very important patrons or dare I say it, old hags, there is a real affection in those drawings for the subject, yes?"

"Yes," said Price, "and I think he conveyed that very well."

In 1908, Klimt exhibited "The Kiss" and his portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer at the Kunstschau - an art show in Vienna, but by 1910, his golden gilded age was over. He continued to paint, but in seclusion.

Essentially the last part of the show is a series of studies of a baby.

Safer asked Price why she made that choice.

"Well, it's a symbol of renewal. It's also of course a study for the painting 'Baby Cradle' which is from 1917, and I actually paired it with the portrait of Charlotte Pulitzer from about 1915 - I love to pair this as sort of, you know, like for Klimt, he was always reminded of mortality and renewal."

The year he died, 1918, mortality seemed the rule, with little hope of renewal. Fifteen million died in the slaughter of World War One, and Klimt's beloved empire died with it. But his art and the humanity it embodies lives on. It is, really, one man's immortality - and for the rest of us, a constant renewal.