May 15, 2008

Dazzling demons

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Behind the Klimt everyone knows, the opulent artist of desire, stands another Klimt - a painter who was years ahead of Picasso and Matisse, a great destroyer of traditions and a creator of terrifying beauty

The stars of Britain's first major Klimt show will be his glittering portraits. But his darker, lost works - destroyed by the Nazis - started a revolution in 20th-century art, says Jonathan Jones
See our gallery of the exhibition here

Wednesday May 7, 2008
The Guardian

It was all over. The Reich was finished, Hitler dead, his charred jaw bone all Russian pathologists could find of him in the smouldering ruins of Berlin. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austria, an SS unit prepared to stage its own private apocalypse.

On May 7 1945, they arrived at Immendorf Castle in southern Austria. The German soldiers already billeted there were ordered to leave. That morning, German forces in Austria had signed their surrender, to take effect the next day; for these SS men, it was the last night of the warSchloss Immendorf was a beautiful setting for their final night of power and freedom. The castle's massive fortifications were softened with sloping tiled roofs, so that it resembled a Loire chateau, set in spacious parkland, with ivy growing up the walls. A curving staircase led to a grand interior full of art treasures, stored here by the Reich to save them from air raids on Vienna.

Among this store were 13 paintings by Gustav Klimt. It seems that these were on view in the castle apartments: the Nazis, the castle's owner later reported, looked at the paintings with appreciation, and one was heard to say that it would be a "sin" for the Russians to get their hands on them. Klimt's sensual art turned out to be a fitting backdrop for the events of that night: according to a 1946 police report, the SS officers "held orgies all night in the castle apartments". Who knows what this means, but it is a strange and macabre image - the SS holding their orgies as Klimt's maenads and muses looked on.

The next day, the SS unit laid explosives in the castle's four towers and walked out. One man went back and lit a fuse, and a tower burst into flames. As the fire spread, explosives in the other towers detonated. Schloss Immendorf burned for days. Nothing survived of its interior, and the gutted shell was later demolished. According to the eyewitness reports that reached Vienna months later, amid the chaos of defeat, not a single work of art survived.

Klimt's fame has survived this loss, and yet he divides people. For every person who finds his work gorgeous, seductive, sexy, there is a sophisticate who will point out that his art is surely a bit vulgar, with all that gold; a bit slavish in its ostentatious celebration of rich women; and a bit, well, soft-centred. It's a negative view that is an accident of history, of what has survived of his work and what hasn't. Behind the Klimt everyone knows, the opulent artist of desire, stands another Klimt - a painter who was years ahead of Picasso and Matisse, a great destroyer of traditions and a creator of terrifying beauty.

Klimt was born in Vienna in 1862. He was a craftsman's son and trained as a painter, becoming a high-class decorator who painted the walls and ceilings of some of the most opulent public buildings in Vienna. He rapidly became the definitive visual artist of the last years of the Habsburg empire, a star in a culture of great daring: the composer Gustav Mahler, the writers Arthur Schnitzler and Robert Musil, and the architect Adolf Loos were Klimt's contemporaries. But the contemporary he most resembled was Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis. With their unabashed eroticism, Klimt's paintings share a basic belief about human nature with Freud, who shocked the world with his insistence that sexuality is at the centre of everyone's emotional life. You could even compare Freud's sessions, listening to his women patients as they lay on his couch, with Klimt's portrait practice. Klimt was a very private man who never married, but it was said that he slept with most of the women he portrayed: certainly his bold drawings point to an intimacy that goes beyond the polished eroticism of his paintings.

More than 60 years after the end of the second world war, many questions remain about the paintings burned at Schloss Immendorf. How did so much of Klimt's work come to be lost that day? Why was it there? And has this loss deprived us of a proper understanding of Klimt's genius?Read more