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Gustav Klimt prompts are everywhere in Vienna, in this the 150th anniversary of his birth. Naked Klimt women gaze out from hoardings, shops sell jewellery and clothes based on his gold-leaf extravaganzas and nine museums are displaying his canvases in the city he made his home. So I was sorry to find no plaque marking 21 Josefstadterstrasse, where Klimt had his studio in the garden.
I was sadder still, a few blocks downhill, to find that the university for which Klimt painted three faculty panels (1900-07) has only black and white photos of these remarkable paintings. The originals were destroyed at the end of World War I.
Better to start, then, at the Burgtheater on Dr-Karl-Lueger-Ring. This sturdy but rather dull replacement for the theatre where Mozart premiered The Marriage of Figaro was completed in 1888.
Unfortunately for him, the artist commissioned to decorate the ceilings over the theatre’s two monumental staircases died before completion so Gustav, his brother Ernst and brother-in-law Franz Matsch successfully bid to paint the 10 panels. Klimt, aged 24, contributed an idealised image of Shakespeare’s Globe during a performance of Romeo and Juliet.
He pictured himself in Elizabethan garb, in the audience, a rare self-portrait. Upstairs, in the Klimtraum, you can see Klimt’s life-size preparatory sketch, which was only recently discovered in the theatre.
The theatre itself was bombed in 1945, which was bad enough, but the 1950s rebuild was worse. Fortunately, sandbagging saved these two grandiose Hapsburg staircases and their precious souvenirs of early Klimt from the RAF.
Continue south along Burgring, part of the circular Ringstrasse that surrounds the Innere Stadt, to arrive at the Kunsthistorisches Museum which has a lovely restaurant on the main floor or “piano nobile”. To get to it, you climb another massive marble staircase over which a temporary platform has been built so that visitors can get up close and personal with one of Klimt’s first public nudes. This Egyptian figure is one of several commissioned to fit into spandrels and intercolumniations when Klimt, Ernst and Franz Matsch took on this staircase in 1890.
Now cross Museumplatz to the former imperial stables where the city has created a multi-venue arts complex, which includes the Leopold Museum. Klimt painted no ceilings here, but there are some jolly photos of him and his muse, Emilie Floge, in an exhibition about the artist’s travels (until August 27). There are also hundreds of his postcards to Emilie, many of which read like contemporary texting.
“Katzenjammer heftig”, he writes about his ferocious hangover after arriving in London in 1905. Monochrome images of Klimt and Emilie having fun on the Attersee belie the erotically tortured work he was creating at the time. His famous Life and Death (1910-15) hangs in a room nearby.
Emilie may well have been the woman disappearing into the painter’s embrace in Klimt’s iconic The Kiss (1907-08). What is less well known about her is that she ran a successful couturier’s business in Mariahilferstrasse, the street next to the Leopold Museum. Walk as far as number 1b and there’s a plaque commemorating her on the outside of what is now the Humanic shoe shop.
Returning to Museumplatz, it’s already possible to see the Secession Building at the end of Getreidemarkt. Given its cupola of golden laurels, this iconic white cube could have been designed by Klimt – but it wasn’t. Klimt was, however, the first president of the Secessionist movement from 1897 to 1905, after he and a number of colleagues broke away from the Association of Austrian Artists. Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze (1902) is now housed in the basement. By this time he had embraced a two-dimensional symbolism of feverish naked women, eunuchs, madames and monsters.
If you cross Operngasse to Café Museum at number 7, you’re back in Viennese café society. This unremarkable corner building was originally decorated in contrasting reds and greens by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. It was Klimt’s local for many years.
There’s even more Klimt at the Belvedere and MAK. But I’d say linger over your lunch – there’s only so much Klimt you can do in one day. – The Independent