Austria • 1862−1918

The "Klimt bridge", as in 2012 for the 150th birthday of the painter, has been again installed in the stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. It is almost exactly 100 years since Gustav Klimt died in 1918, but he has remained one of Vienna’s most famous and talked about artists.

To mark the centenary of the death of Gustav Klimt, the museum offers its visitors to take a closer look at his unique paintings, dispayed at a height of 12 meters. At the same time as the Klimt Bridge, Klimt's large-scale painting "Nuda Veritas" is also on display in the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the Museum. It comes from the estate of the critic Hermann Bahr and is being exhibited for the first time in the hall of Doryphoros of the Polykleitos in the context of ancient artworks.
At twelve metres above ground visitors have a direct view of, among others, the picture cycle of 13 paintings designed by Klimt. They form an integral part of the sumptuous décor of the Main Staircase. These so-called spandrel and intercolumnar paintings number among the most important of Gustav Klimt's early Historicist works. Although they do also show a flirtation with the Jugendstil style for which he would later become known.

While these paintings can usually only be seen from a considerable distance, they can currently be viewed up close and personal: the Kunsthistorisches Museum has set up a large staircase and bridge, weighing four tons, that allows visitors a remarkably intimate view of these often-overlooked paintings depicting the important periods of art history.
The Klimt bridge
© KHM-Museumsverband

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (museum of art history) is an icon in the Austrian museum landscape with its permanent collection spanning from classics such as Raphael, Rubens or Caravaggio to ancient Egyptian and Greek art. The museum’s architecture is no less iconic. Opened in 1891 under Emperor Franz-Joseph, the museum houses one of Europe's most important art collections while also showcasing interior design by the cream of Vienna's artists and sculptors.

It's hard to believe, but in 1860 Vienna had to solve "the museum question." The numeros exhibits from the imperial art collections were housed in different buildings. In order to solve this serios inconveniente, the city had to find the architects who would be able to fulfill these tasks.
The most prominent of them, Gottfried Semper, was entrusted by the Emperor Franz Joseph I to reconstruct the imperial residence. The architect added another wing to the building where the museums of art history and natural history were housed.
The Klimt bridge. 

© KHM-Museumsverband
At some point it was decided that the grand entrance hall with the staircase leading up to the galleries would need some decoration. The commission to paint the walls in the hall was initially given to Vienna’s most celebrated painter at the time, Hans Makart. Klimt was said to idolize Makart, and Makart seems to have had a great influence on the young artist’s style. Makart did in fact complete the semi-circular lunette paintings in the entrance hall of the museum, but died shortly thereafter. Two other artists were commissioned to continue on the project before it was given in 1890 to the Künstler Compagnie ("Company of Artists"), an artist’s collective that Klimt had formed with his younger brother Ernst Klimt and school friend Franz Matsch. Klimt was 27 at the time, and getting the opportunity to not only paint the walls of such an iconic building but also the same walls his artistic idol had worked on must have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.

The museum had commissioned a series of forty paintings, featuring different periods of art from Ancient Egypt to the 18th century. But until now the museum's 1.4 million annual visitors could only admire the paintings from afar.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

By 1880 "Company of Artists" had received numerous commissions. Klimt began his professional career painting interior murals and ceilings in large public buildings on the Ringstraße including a successful series of "Allegories and Emblems".

In 1888, Klimt received the Golden order of Merit from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria for his contributions to murals painted in the Burgtheater in Vienna.

Personifications – either male and female, or female only – symbolize different stylistic periods, regions or centers of art. Pose, costume and selected objects perfectly reflect style and artifacts typical of each period.

Gustav Klimt contributed a total of thirteen paintings. All were executed in oil on canvas in the Company of Artists’ communal studio; in 1891, six months before the formal opening of the museum, they were glued to the wall of the main staircase.
The Main Staricase
© KHM-Museumsverband

The North Wall

Paying homage to the Venetian, Roman and Florentine traditions of the Quattrocento, as well as to Egyptian art, the superbly preserved works are testament to the young Klimt's artistic maturity and hint at the future course of the Vienna Secession.

Ancient Egypt I and II. Left spandrel and space on the right between the two columns in the central axis.  There is “Egyptian Art”, depicted as a woman in full nudity. She stands not only for the idea of the afterlife but also for life itself. The female figure clasping the “anch” - the sign of life - in her right hand faces us in pure, bright, frontal nudity, she is the one who brings forth life. But between the columns lurks Death: a somber still-life, rich in content, featuring ancient Egyptian artefacts informed by excavated examples and contemporary research.
Gustav Klimt. Ancient Greece II (Pallas Athena)/ Ancient Egypt I
The north wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
© KHM-Museumsverband
All frescoes made by Klimt were signed “G.K.”, as between the columns on the left, 1890/91. These works have features that would become characteristic of the artist's style: decorativeness, linearity, propensity to ornamentalization. And, of course, Klimt loved women, which was reflected in his work. They say that at first he painted a naked female figure in the picture, and then "dressed" her.

Left: Gustav Klimt. Ancient Greece II (Pallas Athena), 1890/91. © KHM-Museumsverband

Ancient Greece I and II pay tribute to the sculptor Phidias by depicting Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare (on the right). Here, Klimt conflates two seminal large-scale  sculptures by the celebrated ancient Greek sculptor, Phidias, both of which have only come down to us in marble copies: Athena Promachos and Athena Parthenos. The female figure depicted in the space between the columns is the deity’s fascinating counterpart: a haetera, long known as the “girl from Tanagra”, is bending forward, her head turned slightly to the side, to face the viewer with a quizzical yet inviting gaze.
Gustav Klimt. Ancient Greece I
The north wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
1890/91 © KHM-Museumsverband


It's curious that Klimt did not copy artefacts from the rich holdings of the imperial collection of the decorative objects in the background. Instead he used as his model an Athenian blackfigure vase featuring a depiction of Hades, now in the Vatican Museum.

The Roman and Venetian Quattrocento
Klimt stressed Italy’s importance for artistic development with three depictions: the first one is a painting of Ecclesia – the personification of the Catholic Church (below). She refers to Rome by holding the pontifical tiara. The reference to Venice is made by the depiction of a Doge.

Klimt’s Ecclesia is female, young and completely covered but for the chaste purity of her face and her slender hands. Richly embroidered with the scenes from the life of Christ, her cope envelops her completely without even a hint of the contours of her body. Ecclesia’s symbols and attributes are the pope’s threetiered tiara and the pontifical cross.
1.1. Gustav Klimt. Ecclesia/Rome. © KHM-Museumsverband
1.2. Gustav Klimt. Doge/Venice. © KHM-Museumsverband

The Doge was the venerable Serenissima’s highest representative. In analogy to the papal tiara, his insignia was the doge’s cap. His pose and dress are informed by Giovanni Bellini's celebrated portrait of Doge Leonardo Lauredan.
Painting on the north wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 

“Early Italian Painting” comprises Trecento and early Quattrocento art (ie, from the 14th and early 15th century). In the spandrels a male and a female figure face one another, their curved bodies elegantly following the arch of the arcade. They document Klimt’s unrivalled skill that allows his painted figures to dominate threedimensional architecture. 
1.1. Gustav Klimt. Early Italian Painting. Painting in the pendentive on the north wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, 1890/91. © KHM-Museumsverband
1.2. Gustav Klimt. Early Italian Painting. Painting in the pendentive on the north wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, 1890/91. © KHM-Museumsverband

The West Wall

Secondly, Klimt mentioned the period of the 14th and early 15th century in Florence and its surrounding area and, thirdly, the Florentine Quattrocento and Cinquecento (15th and 16th century) – both paying tribute to the importance of Florence as an art centre.
1.1. Gustav Klimt. David. Painting in the pendentive on the west wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, 1890/91. © KHM-Museumsverband
1.2. Gustav Klimt. Venus. Painting in the pendentive on the west wall of the Main Staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, 1890/91. © KHM-Museumsverband

In the spandrels Klimt paraphrases Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Venus as protagonists of Florentine art. The continuous  background and bead moulding allow Klimt to anchor both depictions in the same pictorial space in which man and woman, even if not actually facing each other, are confronted. 

Clearly outlined, David is a strong, self-assured and determined young man; in his left hand he clasps the bloody sword with which he has just beheaded Goliath.
Gustav Klimt. Dante, 1890/1891
The scene literally reaches into the space between the columns on the left where we see the severed head of David’s slain opponent dangling in his outstretched right hand. Looking at it as a separate painting, Goliath’s severed head held up by its hair has turned into a bust. The translation of the Latin inscription that begins on the base and continues in the spandrel reads: “Whom God wants to destroy, he first blinds”

After the successfull design of the museum in 1894, Klimt was commissioned to paint three works for the ceiling of the University of Vienna. That is how "Philosophy", "Medicine" and "Jurisprudence" appeared in 1900. But the society did not accept these works of the artist, considering them too frank, and therefore they were not exposed at the university. This was Klimt's last public order.  

In 1905 Klimt found himself forced to buy back the three canvases from the University of Vienna after the outrage sparked by their "provocative" nature.
Concurrently with the Klimt Bridge, the Kunsthistorisches Museum is showcasing one of Gustav Klimt’s masterpieces: his celebrated Nuda Veritas (1899). The painting comes from the estate of the critic Hermann Bahr, a dedicated friend and defender in print of the Vienna Secessionists. With its first-ever visit to the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities – where it is displayed in the gallery housing Polykleitos’ Doryphoros – the painting creates a novel and fascinating space of aesthetic experience.

Left: Gustav Klimt. Nuda Veritas, 1899. 

The Stairway to Klimt will stay in  the Kunsthistorisches Museum until Sept. 2, 2018.

However, thanks to SWAROVSKI OPTICS, a kind of reprise of the temporary Klimt-bridge erected in 2012,  fans of the Klimt's work always have the opportunity to view the paintings in Museum.  

Based on materials from official site of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.