When we think of Gustav Klimt we see beautiful women portraits, sensual and dangerous compositions, gold and decorative motifs.
But if you have ever been to the famous building of Vienna Secession building (which is now a gallery of contemporary art) you can also think of a huge gorilla in a turban.
The gorilla is not an animal – it is a mythological giant, Typhoeus. He is a part of a large frieze, called the Beethoven Frieze. It was painted in 1902 for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition in celebration of the composer, and featured a monumental polychrome sculpture by Max Klinger. Based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it marks the beginning of Klimt’s “golden period”. Meant for the exhibition only, the frieze was painted directly on the walls with light materials. It’s large, standing at 7 feet high with a width of 112 feet. The entire work weighs four tons.
The exhibition was a sublime realisation of the Gesamtkunstwerk in which the different arts – architecture, painting, sculpture and music – were united under a common theme.
After the exhibition the painting was preserved, and in 1915 it was sold to a Jewish industrialist, August Lederer. In 1938, much of Mr. Lederer’s art collection, including the frieze, was seized by the Nazis but it came back to it’s place in 1986. In this horrible times it was a stroke of luck that it survived. Look how the Secession building looked like in 1945:
But coming back to the Frieze.
What is it about? Of course, it’s about music. It illustrates the human desire for happiness in a suffering and tempestuous world in which one contends not only with external evil forces but also with internal weaknesses. The viewer follows this journey of discovery in a stunning visual and linear fashion. It begins gently with the floating female Genii searching the Earth
but soon follows the dark, sinister-looking storm-wind giant, Typhoeus, his three Gorgon daughters and images representing sickness, madness, death, lust and wantonness above and to the right.
Thence appears the knight in shining armour who offers hope due to his own ambition and sympathy for the pleading, suffering humans. The journey ends in the discovery of joy by means of the arts and contentment is represented in the close embrace of a kiss.
Thus, the frieze expounds psychological human yearning, ultimately satisfied through individual and communal searching and the beauty of the arts coupled with love and companionship.