Art in Europe,  English

Beethoven Frieze: Three Gorgons: Sickness, Madness, and Death

Klimt’s painting cycle Beethoven Frieze was, together with Klinger’s sculpture, a grand homage to the composer who lived and worked in Vienna until his death on 26 March 1827. He had been one of the most celebrated pianists and composers of his time. During the exhibition, the frieze was spread over three different walls and arranged sequentially in the left wing of the Secession-house. The individual paintings are categorised according to their order on the walls. First come Floating Genii, Suffering Humanity, and Knight in Shining Armour. The second wall showed Hostile Forces, The Gorgons, and the giant Typhoeus. The third wall showed Poetry, The Arts, and Choir of Angels.

The Beethoven Frieze at the 14th Secession Exhibition: Klinger, Beethoven.
Gustav Klimt. Photograph, 1902.

The Beethoven Frieze was intended as a backdrop for Max Klinger’s coloured, three-metre high sculpture. Since most of the ceiling frescoes in the University of Vienna were destroyed, the frieze is the most important survivor. The huge and fragile painting – it was painted on plaster – survived miraculously, although it was initially not meant to be a permanent installation. This is a small comfort for the other art losses that the world of art suffered as a consequence of World War II.

With 56,000 visitors and sales amounting to 85,000 Kronen, the Beethoven-exhibition established itself instantly as an influential element in Austria. Even the omnipresent ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kaiser Franz Joseph I, was among the visitors. To honour the success of the exhibition, the emperor bestowed the golden order of merit upon Klimt. The eighth issue of Ver Sacrum published the results of the sales: 218 paintings.

Joseph Maria Olbrich, Poster for the Second Secession Exhibition (detail), 1898.
Lithograph, 86 x 51 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1905, Klimt resigned as director of the Secession after long-running, irreconcilable conflicts with other members of the group. An untraversable chasm had opened between two parties within the association: the artists surrounding Klimt and the artists who wanted to focus solely on painting. The “Klimt Group” wanted to further applied arts like architecture and design while the others wanted to improve the art of painting by making it the sole concern of the Secession. The dream of the Secession, to create harmony between the arts and thus deliver the world through art, had proven itself to be an unattainable Utopia.

How did contemporary witness Hermann Bahr judge the history of the Secession ? He had already voiced his concerns five years earlier:

What is it that the Secession originally wanted? What was its purpose? What did the young artists think when they left the old association? People said that they are against old art and for a new art. They were called all manner of names like symbolists or naturalists. Well, we have left those stupid words behind nowadays. Now we know that it is not about “old” or “new” or a specific school of painting, which they did not want to destroy everything that came before them or even that they wanted to establish a certain technique or way of seeing as scales to measure artists against. There are no old or new artists. There are artists and – let’s say – makers.

Artists are those who possess their own perception of the world, the people and life in general, and have the gift to share these impressions with others. Makers are those who just create without perceiving anything but have considerable talent to imitate the impressions of others. That is at the heart of the argument that has been running for so many years –in literature as well as in art. People argued against the process of just “making”, against the absence of impressions and emotion, against the empty routine […].

This shows that there were imitators who wanted to jump on the sudden success bandwagon and profit from the work of other artists.

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