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At Vienna Secession building there is Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze.
The Secession artists decided to do something really radical and design something entirely around a sculpture by Max Klinger of Beethoven and their idea was to make a total work of art involving architecture, sculpture, painting and music. The idea behind the Gesamtkunstwerk, or a total work of art, is to unite the arts and the idea was that that unification of the arts was something that had been lost. The notion of Gesamtkunstwerk had come from Richard Wagner who had conceived of operas that were of course music, speech, but also set design and costume. Something that was a totality of the arts and it was this notion of a kind of lost ideal.
At the opening of this exhibition, Mahlers’ version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was playing and one can almost hear that music in the room. Beethoven was seen as an isolated heroic, misunderstood genius. Someone who the artists of the 19th century could really identify with. Just before painting the Beethoven Frieze, Klimt himself had been terribly persecuted for the frescos he made for the university. So that idea of alienation, of lone genius, these are romantic notions that really must have resonated at this moment. Beethoven Frieze now resides in the basement of the Secession Building in a room thw exactly mirrors that it first occupied.
The Frieze begins on the long wall with a very spare composition. Most of that long wall is empty space, just plaster. But at the top you can see a series of figures in long flowing gowns that seem to float or almost fly softly across the surface. Their eyes are closed. Their bodies are elongated and these are genii, or figures that represent the idea of humanity’s longing. The genii are interrupted on one area of the Frieze which shows first a young girl, a nude and we see her in profile. She’s virtually just an outline. Her hands are clasped, she seems quite timid and seems to be embodying hope. Next to her are two figures on their knees who also are nude. These figures represent suffering humanity, pleading with a knight who’s decked out in a golden armor with two female figures above him, representing ambition and compassion. Ambition holds a laurel wreath as if its egging the knight on. The figure of the Knight has a helmet at its feet and carries enormous sword. There is this notion of seeking a kind of heroic mythic figure that could be a kind of savior. Austria and Germany of course will distort these ideas in terrible ways where people are looking to insane fanatical figures as their savior.
The next wall represents the forces that the Knight is here to save humanity from. These are the forces of darkness. That end wall is painted very darkly and visually functions as an obstacle through which the knight needs to move. He needs to both be able to vanquish and also be able to resist the temptations. On the far left of this end wall we see the three gorgons. Those are mythical Greek monsters. They were three sisters who had snakes for hair, the most famous of which is Medusa. They were lethal but they are also painted in a most seductive way. Above those three gorgons are the figures of sickness, madness and death also represented by women. The figure that takes up the largest portion of the wall, however, is the figure of just pure evil and that is mythic creature of Typhoeus. When you look at Typhoeus you can certainly recognize his ape like head and chest but the entire mass of decorative painting to the right is also Typhoeus. You can make out an enormous bluish eagle wing and below that a kind of infinitely articulated almost serpent – like body. Within that serpent and wing, we see another female figure who represents gnawing grief. Whereas so many of the other figures are rendered in brilliant golds or blues, she is all grey and black. Draped not only with her own hair but in a thin veil. The figures just to the right of Typhoeus represent lasciviousness, wantonness and intemperance. The genii do emerge and the last wall is light again. This wall represents a kind of salvation for mankind in the arts and so we see a figure playing a lyre representing poetry and music. She is just beautifully draped in brilliant gold. There is a heavily ornamented surface that you can see the appliques on her dress are actually built up with gems that reflect light. It is almost like an ancient Greek vase painting in tis linear decorative qualities. In this last portion of the Frieze the genii now emerge vertically. There is a sense of fulfilment that longing has been satisfied. The look like they are enraptured and they seem to be moving almost in a kind of rhythmic response to music. At the end of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven incorporates a poem called the Ode to joy by Schiller which is this triumphant piece of music where an enormous number of voices harmoniously rise to the music and express a kind of inteses fulfilment. One of the lines in Schiller’s Ode to Joy is “a Kiss to the whole world” and in this phallic shape at the very and we see a man and a woman in an embrace, wrapped in a golden decorative cocoon with the sun and the moon on either side. In fact water seems to swirl around them, binding them together and their bodies are so close they seem to almost merge. Neither of their heads are visible so they are, their love, it is this summation of the yearning that this entire Frieze has been about and is seems to be such a perfect visual expression of the way in which Beethoven music comes to a kind of extraordinary crescendo.