|Secession Building with Klimt's Beethoven Frieze|
Klimt used allegorical figures like Judith and Athena to express the female erotic, but his gold leaf backgrounds, into which these women seemed to be set like precious stones in a necklace, harked back to the Byzantine Empire with its gold icons. Vienna’s fin-de-siecle hothouse of the arts flourished in the midst of an empire. Although it was crumbling, its visual splendor, then as now, is impossible to avoid.
The smallish, walkable city core is full of royal residences and grand public buildings. But what impressed me were the blocks and blocks of l9th century apartment buildings, inhabited and seemingly in good repair. They were built as part of an extensive urban renewal that began in the l860’s. Today, they’re rented by the city at reasonable prices to a half a million lucky inhabitants. Klimt, who began his career as an architectural decorator, helped adorn many of these buildings. He lived in an apartment with his mother and sisters, and never married.
Walking around the trendy district called Spittleberg, I noticed how these elegant, well-kept buildings morph into the present, in the form of ground floor boutiques and restaurants. In a long, narrow restaurant called Schon Schoen I had a ten Euro lunch of artfully prepared cucumber soup and vegetarian cassoulet. The communal table attracts mainly local merchants and artists, and I was probably the only tourist there. In an adjacent, shared space was a dress designer, sitting at her sewing machine beside a rack full of samples. I thought of Klimt’s lifelong friend, the successful dress designer, Emilie Floge, whose boutique he helped design. In turn, she designed the somewhat bizarre caftans he wore, a skirt chaser in skirts.
The Wiener Werkstatte was part of the Secession, a movement led by Klimt, which aimed to leave behind the entrenched styles of the past. The Secession movement had its own building, which served as an architectural manifesto: it aspired to be a simple and elegant sanctuary for the art lover. The building meets its mission. Topped by a cabbage-shaped gold dome, it’s an assemblage of cubes; only the gold lettering suggests the Viennese Art Nouveau. Inside, it’s as stark white as any modern gallery. Pride of place is given to a Klimt frieze, called Beethoven. It was supposed to express the Ode to Joy with nude female allegorical figures. For the exhibit’s opening, guests were led into the building like pilgrims, and composer Mahler played an abbreviated version of the Beethoven piece. How I wish I could have been there. Instead, I crossed the street to the Naschmarkt, the city’s largest and liveliest outdoor food market. In Vienna, there’s always another pleasure.
|Partial view of Klimt's The Kiss|