The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Gustav Klimt/Joseph Hoffmann: Pioneers of Modernism

Exhibition at the Belvedere Museum, Vienna

Reviewed by Henrietta Billings

Klimt, like Picasso, is an instantly recognisable artist. His signature pieces have been reproduced across the globe on everything from postcards to fridge magnets. In 2006 his 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch Baur sold at auction for £70 million, making it to date the fourth most expensive artwork in the world. For some people, the idea that his work would be seen today as the precursor to modernism comes as a surprise. This major exhibition earlier this year focused on Gustav Klimt’s considerable achievements in applied as well as fine art, in collaboration with the Austrian architect and designer Joseph Hoffmann.

Klimt and Hoffmann began working together on grand scale projects as founding members of the Wiener Werkstätte, established in 1903. Many of the best-known artists and architects of this period created worked for the it, including Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. The collective developed a distinctive style philosophy which moved away from initial influences of Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, towards simple and geometrical abstract forms, widely recognised as a precursor to twentieth century European modernism.

The highlight of Klimt and Hoffman’s creative partnership was the Palais Stoclet, a private residence built in the suburbs of Brussels in 1911. Adolphe Stoclet, a wealthy Belgian businessman and art lover, commissioned Hoffmann to build him a family residence that would also serve as an appropriate setting for the family’s large art collection. No expense was to be spared.

Hoffmann drew up plans for the rigorously geometric exterior clad in white marble, complete with a stylised cupola adorned with four giant bronze statues by the sculptor Franz Metzner. The interior was decorated by a number of other Werkstätte members including the artist Koloman Moser and the ceramicist Michael Powolny. The designers specified every detail in the house, including artworks, furniture, and even the glasses and cutlery.

For the dining room and centrepiece of the house, Klimt crafted a vast marble frieze for each wall, embellished with gold leaf, enamel, mother of pearl and semi-precious stones. One frieze, Dancer, depicts a 16 year old girl adorned in jewels and a long dress decorated in geometric patterns, next to an enormous tree with branches covered in intricate blossom and butterflies.  The panels encircle a table with 24 reindeer skin-covered chairs and ebony sideboards.

The exhibition featured original plans, drawings and photographs of the house taken shortly after it was built, some not seen before on public display. A marble staircase and hallway was also reproduced in one room, hinting at the richness of the interiors that still survive today. Astonishingly, though, there were no recent photographs of the interiors: although they are believed to be largely intact along with much of the original furniture, few people have been able to access the house in recent years to catalogue the contents. According to the New York Times, thousands of photographs were taken by the organisers in preparation for the exhibition, but the owners, who guard their privacy fiercely, would not allow them to be published. The only interior images on view and in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition were black and white prints taken shortly after it built.

Adolphe Stoclet and his wife died in 1949, leaving the house to their children. Since the owner’s daughter-in-law Annie died in 2002, the house has been locked up and closed to visitors; two caretakers are its only inhabitants. Meanwhile, the building’s owners (Annie Stoclet’s four daughters, all in their 60s and 70s) have been fighting each other in the Brussels courts over its fate. In 2011 Aude Stoclet and her son  succeeded in their bid to keep the house and contents together. The house was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, hailed as ‘a veritable icon of the birth of modernism’ and ‘a remarkably well conserved symbol of constructive and aesthetic modernity in the west at the start of the 20th century’. Today, architects and artists alike are hoping that the next generation of owners – seven great grandchildren – will allow greater access to this international treasure.

Published May 2012