Monday, October 4, 2010

The Beyeler Foundation: Vienna 1900 - Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Their Time

Beyler Foundation (photo: Bijan Sayfour)
 The Beyeler Foundation’s is a magnificent collection of modern, mostly French, art. The collection is exhibited in a building just outside Basel, Switzerland, designed by Renzo Piano, of Centre Pompidou fame. Unlike the iconic building that dominates Paris’ Right Bank, the Beyeler Foundation Museum is characterized by restraint and tranquility. A long, low pavilion, the walls of glazed glass allow the filtered rays of the sun to embrace every room in natural light. A roof canopy of glass extends over a pond, supported by steel pillars encased in red stone. At strategic points from within the museum, clear glass permits a view of the peaceful garden or the surrounding countryside, with woods and hills rolling into Germany. The floors are of polished oak and heating is provided though discrete grills in the floor.

Some years ago one of my daughters, aged eight, dropped a colouring pencil into one of the air vents. She was drawing her interpretation of a Matisse at the time. A guard saw it happen and quickly came over. I thought that perhaps we were in trouble, but the guard was only concerned that my daughter could retrieve her pencil. The guard called on her walkie-talkie, alas, no engineer was available to remove the grill. But ten minutes later the guard reappeared with a new pack of colouring pencils, compliments of the museum. My daughter, in turn, gave the guard her interpretation of the Matisse, duly signed. It was a nice, warm moment.

The guards on duty yesterday seemed less relaxed. Perhaps it was because the exhibition “Vienna: Klimt, Schiele and their Time” contains so many objects of great value, loaned from museums worldwide. After all, a Gustav Klimt painting sold in 2006 for 135 million dollars - a world record. We had only stepped into the first room of the exhibition when a guard asked two of my daughters (now aged 13 and 11), to ‘take it easy’. I enjoyed seeing them so excited, but the guard seemed apprehensive when he saw their fingers a couple of inches from a photograph of the first Viennese Secession Exhibition in 1898. I then stepped into the second room, with the glorious, large canvasses of Klimt. Alas, I stepped too close to one and an alarm rang, which earned me a warning from a guard. I wish they had told me before I paid the 25 dollars entrance fee that I would have to stand so far (I guess it was about a metre) from the paintings. And then, just to add to my disappointment, the reconstructed Viennese Fin-de Siècle café was closed for a special event.

But I am being fascicous. The guards were never anything but friendly and the art, well, what can one say. I know that Klimt is not everyone’s cup of tea, or cup of coffee. His work has grown in popularity, but some will say that this is because of its decorative quality – it makes for nice postcards and posters. I admit, I am a fan. Klimt’s career was a wonderful journey, from acclaimed and respected painter of historical tableaus in the accepted style to an avant-gardist with a style that blended post-impressionism, cubism, Japonism, fauvism and a very personal form of Byzantine revivalism. As he got older he continued to soak up influences that came to him from younger artists, and yet, a Klimt is unmistakably a Klimt.

Gustav Klimt: The Dancer
 A highlight of my visit yesterday was “The Dancer”, painted in the last few months of his life in 1918. The image above doesn't do the original justice. As with most of his portraits, she is looking to the right. She is stiff, like in an ancient Egyptian or Minoan relief. The tyranny of perspective that had dominated western art since the Renaissance has been defied and the surface is flattened. To her right, at shoulder level, we can see a number of oriental figures, Korean or Chinese. Her right hand is raised in a symbolic gesture and flowers burst across the upper corner of the painting in an explosion of colour. The round table with flowers to her lower right and the rug with the zig-zag design have just wandered in from a Matisse painting. Her dress is heavy, like a kimono, and decorated with colourful, geometric forms. Aren’t her shoes simply wonderful?

Gustav Klimt: The Park

“The Park” is entirely different. A word of warning – if you travel to Basel for the exhibition, don’t step too close to “The Park” – you might find set off the alarm and find yourself in trouble. Obviously influenced by post-impressionism here, Klimt has avoided the temptation of using illusionist techniques in order to create perspective. Instead, splashes of paint are piled on splashes of paint rising to the top of the painting (and beyond) to create a real density. Amazingly, the canopy of trees cover almost the entire canvas, with just a tiny sliver in the bottom left which provides the vital open space. It is one of the most unusual pictures I know.

Gustav Klimt: Attersee
“Attersee” is a mesmerizing painting. Again, the surface is knowingly flat, your eyes are led to gradually look upward to meet a vague silhouette of mountains on the left while on the right an out of focus island comes into view – has Klimt been influenced by photography here? (I only ask because most of my photos appear out of focus.) But it is the water that holds one’s attention, and the play of light on its surface. It dominates the bulk of the canvas, becoming almost an entirely abstract painting.
The exhibition runs until January 16th 2011. There is a lot more to enjoy besides the paintings I have discussed. These are simply three of my favourite things.

To watch a documentary on this exhibition, including an interview with the chief curator,click here.


  1. Excellent exhibition... sigh... if only.

    I hope the curators have written some explanatory material on the walls or in printed handouts. It must be quite difficult for modern Swiss viewers, and others, to get into the minds of turn-of-the-century Austrian and German artists.

    I always enjoy some historical context for the works... what was the Secession? What were the Vienna Workshops? Why was the Academy not representative of young and modern artists in 1900?

  2. Yes Hels, for a small fee one can rent a recorded tour with earphones or one can take a free printed handout that has a short introduction and detailed descriptions of a number of specific works, giving the historical background. These are in English, German and French.

  3. Wonderful! I saw the Klimt and Schiele exhibition when I was in Vienna many years ago now. I am a real fan of both of them.

    I like the story of your daughter and her lost pencil!

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. Thanks.

  5. Congratulations! Your post was selected to be included in the November issue of the Art History Carnival.

    Keep up the good work! This was a very fun review. I also liked your images of Klimt's work. I'd never seen The Park before, but I can see how some stylistic choices compare with Klimt's other work. For example, the density of the trees really emphasizes the flatness of the canvas.

    Here is a link to the November carnival:

  6. Thanks M. I look forward to having a read of the Art History Carnaval.

  7. I am pleased that I found this piece on the Internet and I am including Foundation Beyeler and Gustav Klimt, and others, in my novel about an art crime detective who is also a bona fide artist. During an undercover case for Scotland Yard and Interpol he travels to some of the fine galleries and museums in Europe.

    I also have a weblog. About politics, foreign affairs and other topics in a sarcastic yet serious style.

  8. Good luck with the novel. I like art history thrillers, especially the novels of Ian Pears.

  9. Thank you for this. I have never seen Klimpt : The Park. I feel like I can breathe it in.

  10. Hi Nadine. Glad you like it and thank you for your comment.