Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale
Exhibition: Sotheby’s, London, UK. 2nd – 8th February, 2012
Sale: Sotheby’s, London, UK. 8th & 9th February, 2012
It’s often argued that modernism began some time in the 1860s and ended in the 1970s, roughly spanning the period from the beginning of Monet’s painting career to Picasso’s death, and therefore including impressionism and cubism and a long and very diverse list of other ‘isms. Living and working within the prescribed time scale but not usually considered to fit comfortably into any particular ‘ism, it’s interesting that Sotheby’s should include a painting by Gustav Klimt in this sale of impressionist and modern works.
The first paintings recognised as impressionist were produced in the 1870s. Claude Monet was already 22 years old when Klimt (1862-1918) was born and, dying in 1926, outlived him. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso gave birth to cubism in 1907, initiating the movement when they followed the advice of Paul Cézanne, who in 1904 had said artists should treat nature ‘in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone.’ Picasso, born in 1881, 19 years Klimt’s junior, had an extraordinarily-long and prolific working life that finally ended in his ninety-second year, 1973.
Starting out as classically-trained artist with tremendous draughtsmanship skills, Klimt eschewed the formulaic work that was acceptable in Vienna and threw all he had into symbolism often with quite shocking results that rocked the establishment. But the landscape paintings he produced on his regular summer retreats in the latter part of his working life, harped back to earlier 19th century Viennese and Central European picturesque art that aimed to capture and glorify nature – then, only recently discovered by middle and upper class townspeople, jaded by their everyday, urban lives, seeking some form of escape – largely due to the invention and proliferation of the railways, and by the access to the countryside this new mode of transport afforded. In the latter decades of the century, however, the goal of Austrian painters like Emil Jakob Schindler and Eugen Jettel was to evoke the atmosphere of the rural world, often through paintings of otherwise banal countryside scenes, subject to adverse weather and light conditions. No-one could argue that Farmhouse with Birch Trees (Lakeshore with Birches) below, the painting coming up for auction at Sotheby’s is the most exciting of Klimt’s landscapes but it is a good example of his own obsession with nature and his absorption and blending of the many influences he gathered up and played around with.
For his portraits, Klimt drew heavily on his study of the same Japanese prints the impressionists had looked at before him; in his less familiar landscape work, he sketched and painted directly from nature and experimented with the brush techniques that the impressionists had invented, but very often finished the paintings in his studio. As in the portraits, the composition and framing of his landscape paintings was influenced by the typical cropping seen in early scenic photography. In many, the foreground is little more than a very prominent textured surface, as in Attersee 1, 1900, with landscape details and a thin sliver of sky squashed up at the top of the canvas; typical of the effect of looking at a scene through a wide-angle lens. There is evidence that Klimt used a telescope to flatten his townscapes, the buildings in which however, remained true rather than abstracted as in cubist treatments of similar subject matter. He looked closely at Van Gogh’s outlining and colouring; Klimt’s Avenue in Schloss Kammer Park, 1912, could easily be taken for a Van Gogh. He studied Seuerat’s pointilist system, adapting it to create depth in paintings that were essentially two-dimensional so that each remained one of what Renaissence polymath Leon Battista Alberti christened ‘Windows through which we look out into a section of the visible world.’
Ever curious, Klimt was an avid experimenter, but I think it’s safe to say that he was neither a cubist nor an impressionist.
Klimt certainly consorted with individuals who, evidently, had modern ideas; Otto Koloman Wagner (1841-1918) – Austrian architect and urban planner – among other contemporary mainland Europeans, is said to have become a proponent of Architectural Realism, and, mitigating the reliance on historical forms in the Jugenstil – an Austrian version of Art Nouveau – buildings he began to design in the 1890s, opened the door for what became modern architecture. And if I seem to be going off at a tangent: Wagner was one of the group of Austrian artists, sculptors and architects who resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, the Künstlerhaus – similar to the Paris Salon – along with Klimt, Joseph Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Joseph Maria Olbrich, nineteen in all, to form the Vienna Secession in 1897, asserting their right to be able to create what they wanted to create rather than having to adhere to strict, official guidelines. Gustav Klimt was the group’s first president. Interestingly, Moravian-born, Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who objected to the amount of surface decoration on Jugenstil buildings, didn’t join. Klimt’s poster for the First Exhibition of the Society of Pictorial Artists in Austria – the Secession, in 1898 in which he chose a classical Greek theme – Theseus about to liberate the youth of Athens from the tyranny of the Minotaur – is a tense stark, asymmetric, linear composition in black, red and gold on a yellow ground, strongly reminiscent of the painting style Mondrian was to adopt some 20 years later. In 1903 Hoffmann and Moser left to found the Wiener Werkstätte, a fine-arts society with the goal of reforming the applied arts that could be described as being a prelude to Germany’s seminal Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919.
But, was Klimt’s painting ‘modern’? His roots firmly in the 19th century, could he have ever felt at ease in the 20th. Had he lived longer and had more of his work survived – many paintings were confiscated from their Austrian Jewish owners and destroyed by the Nazis in 1938, while a great number of other works had been moved in 1943 to the ’safety’ of Schloß Immendorf in lower Austria, only to be destroyed when retreating SS troops set fire to the castle to prevent it falling into enemy hands – the problem of classification might have been somewhat simpler. I don’t know and it’s possible that Sotheby’s aren’t sure either.
Paintings from top:
Pablo Picasso, Buste d’homme, 1969
Claude Monet, Berges de la Seine près de Vétheuil, 1881
Gustav Klimt, Seeufer mit Birken (Lakeshore with birches), 1901
Private European collection
Middle, top: Gustav Klimt, c.1909. Detail of original photograph by Pauline Hamilton.
Taken from Gustav Klimt, Landscapes. Edited by Stephen Koja. Published by Prestel, 2006
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