The Klimt exhibition captures the essence of his works, but seems to be too commercial
More than an hour. That's how long the guests are told to wait even before they get to see the actual exhibition. Klimt exhibition has truly been a blow in the art industry in Korea this season, attracting more than 100,000 people during the first 35 days and still gaining more popularity as time goes. Until May 15th, when the exhibition is over, it will undoubtedly bring more visitors who will not miss this ‘life-time opportunity.’ Even before the exhibition started, there were murmurings that this kind of exhibition of Klimt would not be shown again in Korea at least during the 21st century - which made people even more crave to go see this exhibition.
The title of the exhibition, "The Golden Secret of Klimt," captures the two important characteristics of both Klimt's artistic works and his personal life: “golden” and “secret.” First, the word “golden” suggests that his uniqueness as an artist comes from a special combination of naturalistic portraiture and stylized decoration. His use of gold leaf is one of the many things that make his works unique from other artists. He dared to use decorative colors to his works, as shown in “Beethoven Frieze” or “Judith and Holofernes.” During his golden phase, he used ornamental techniques, which was a painstaking labor, but added rich aura to his paintings that could never be captured in imitations or photos. Even the same painting could look totally different from one time to the other, depending on the light and position.
What's more intriguing to the audience is the word "secret." Although Klimt gained high reputation as an artist, his life itself was full of scandals, sometimes those that were not strictly related to his artistic works. His scandal with his models, including Emilie Floge and Maria Zimmerman, and his complete silence over this issue drew even more people toward his paintings. As a celebrity who was at the center of attention of the public, he never mentioned enough about his personal life. He has never drawn a single self-portrait in his life, and he explains the reason by stating “whoever wants to know something about me ought to look carefully at my pictures," boldly expressing his belief that everything about himself and his life is poured onto his collection of artistic works.
One of the keyword to understand Klimt is “eroticism.” Klimt tried to reinterpret conventional allegories and symbols by using eroticism openly in his works, which is principally shown in his sketches of female body. In a secular section of the exhibition, where “Parents' Guidance Needed for Young Children” signs are everywhere, his sketches of nude female models are shown. This could be embarrassing for many parents who brought their youngsters, sometimes even toddlers to the gallery, but otherwise, it is a good opportunity to get a glimpse at his perspectives on women and art subjects. Although they look serene and natural, there is erotic atmosphere surrounding the nudity in the sketches. They are the obedient subjects of sexual interest of the male artist. And then the same women are expressed in opposite ways, where they seduce and take advantage of men as femme fatale, such as in “Adam and Eve.” He expressed overtly his sexual interest on his paintings, but associated it with allegories and colored it with decorative methods so that they were not just pornographic as his critics of the time argued. For Klimt, eroticism was the solution to the mortality of human life.
Another interesting theme of the exhibition is “total art” and its possibility in the real world. The subtitle of the exhibition, “Looking for Total Art” expresses this interest as well. In the 19th century, many buildings were being constructed in Vienna, and Klimt also started out first as an architectural painter. In his later career, he became the first president of Vienna Secession, whose goal was to create an art form totally different from historical veins and break itself free from conventions. Their goal was to create total art, associating art with every part of our lives from furniture to fashion. This exhibition features some of the many artifacts made by the Vienna workshop, such as wallets or pottery. The exhibition reaches its peak in “Beethoven Frieze,” which was created to commemorate the artist and the 14th anniversary of Vienna Secession. Although Klimt separated from Vienna Secession later in his life, the purpose and ambition of the movement deeply affected artists of future generation.
In fact, the influence of Klimt on art still lives on in many parts of our lives. It is well known that his appetite for costume inspired many artists in the fashion industry, including John Galliano in his 2008 haute couture collection of Christian Dior. Besides, at the end of the exhibition, the visitors can see many contemporary artists who are inspired by Klimt, including musicians such as “Peterpan complex,” fashion photographers or even Korean traditional embroiderers.
However, the visitors to the exhibition could get a suspicion that the exhibition is placed on the thin line between total 'art' and total 'commercialism.' The exhibition itself is stimulating, showing 110 works regarding Klimt, and could be a good opportunity for any visitor to learn deeply about the artist and his time. This can be shown by the mere crowd of visitors that are lined up just to enter, despite the staggeringly high price of the ticket (\16,000) - reminding of people queued to ride an attraction at the amusement park.
However, for those who have waited for a long time to see one of Klimt’s masterpieces, “The Kiss” or other works from his golden phase, this exhibition could be quite disappointing. Despite the title “Golden Secret,” little of Klimt’s works from his golden phase are shown. Of the 110 paintings displayed, many include rough sketches, letters to the family, works of other artists who had acquaintance with Klimt, and even some oriental paintings that Klimt possessed. A visitor might not feel such presence if he/she expected a full collection solely of Klimt's original paintings. At the end of the exhibition, a variety of artistic works inspired by Klimt are displayed, including jewelry collection of Swarovski. There does not seem to be much relevance, except that Swarovski is the main sponsor for this exhibition.
Although the exhibition does have room for improvement, it is undoubtedly a well-planned event for the public to enjoy the works and life of the virtuoso, and learn about his influence over many areas of our history. By looking at glamorous golden aura of decorative colors, depiction of women sometimes as objects of sexual interest and sometimes as dominant women, belief in pure art by total art in everyday lives, and the intriguing life of the artist himself, the visitors will be drawn to this mysterious and yet eminent artist.
written by: Chung Hyeryung