Gustav Klimt's Vienna
THERE is a saying in bureaucratic Vienna: ``Warum einfach machen, wenn's kompliziert geht...,'' which means ``Why do something the easy way when it can be made complicated?'' Surely Gustav Klimt's manner of painting the two landscapes shown here, ``Island in the Attersee'' and ``Pear Tree,'' reveals the exquisite complexity of nature that other painters prefer to ``make easy.''
Side by side, they represent two of the best examples of the work of Klimt as an abstractionist, and yet they remain firmly fixed - or perhaps more accurately, fixated - upon reality.
They dilate the small view into a grand vista, and as with a kaleidoscope, their vision is a function of light-manipulated color.
Each painting is nearly 39 inches square. Klimt painted them at the turn of the century, when he was deeply involved with the Secession, a renegade group of Vienna's young artists who broke from the highbrow tradition of the Academy of Fine Arts.
Klimt's association with the group dated back to 1897, when he had been named its first president. From then on, his personal life and his work became more eccentric and more interesting. He later dressed in monklike, loosely flowing robes, and spent his days in his overgrown garden-studio.
This retreat may be explained by the puzzling combination of adoration and rejection with which the Viennese greeted his work.
When, for example, he won aproval to paint a series of murals at the University of Vienna, he withdrew his name after an ensuing controversy over some of the unclad figures in his proposal. Klimt had little use for this kind of Philistine moralizing - but if it eventually bullied him into seclusion, there is no question that within his studio he was master.
Art historian Johannes Dobai has said: ``...with the Viennese, ... anxiety, ... the fruit of an overripe culture, ... reveals itself in an erotic frenzy springing from a feeling of emptiness. ... Wanting to fill this emptiness, Klimt filled his bare canvases with his Art Nouveau experiments.''
Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne, and author of a book on Klimt and Egon Schiele, picks up on that point: ``Klimt's horror vacui was assuaged by the interpretation of nature as unbroken pattern. In ... `Pear Tree,' and `Island in the Attersee' ... the entire space has been filled with an all-encompassing design. Jewel-like foliage and shimmering water overwhelm these canvases, subordinating representational content to the general flow.''
Taken together, the two paintings have a serene and balanced completeness: the first ``filled'' with the Art Nouveau pattern of the leaves, horizontally bordered at the bottom by a thick strip of hedge, the second ``filled'' with the abstract movement of light playing off the water, horizontally bordered at the top by the distant shore and island.
Klimt painted most of his landscapes from scenes around the Attersee, a long, narrow lake in Upper Austria, near Salzburg.
It's a lovely place - gently sloping, bright green meadows full of wildflowers retreat from the water's edge and soon give way to dark blue mountains. The small cottages that dot the shore are covered with vines. Everything announces peacefulness.
Remarkably, however, the landscapes are only a footnote to the oeuvre of one who is far more famous for society portraits of fashionable women and their children: Fritza Riedler, M"ada Primavesi, and others.
But one of the women who appears again and again in Klimt's work, Emilie Fl"oge, was to become his longtime companion. And it was while visiting her family's summer home on the Attersee over the course of many years that Klimt, who listened so attentively to nature, focused on the water, the leaves, and the flowers.
Instead of idly gazing at them during the long afternoons, Klimt stared at the leaves with an active obsession. The landscapes that resulted are the compositions of his concentration.
What makes the grandeur of these intensely focused views so grand is exactly what makes every sincere introspection unique and exciting: the unexpected lurking under the surface. In the water of the Attersee - glowing lilac and yellow ovals. In the foliage of the pear tree - the background of blue that forms the cement for a mosaic of color. It is a lake where reflections seem more real than the body of water that mirrors them. It is a pear tree in which the leaves look as delicious as the fruit.
The breath of the painter is very evident in these paintings. Their vibrations hide and reveal, hide and reveal. It's like putting a shell to your ear and hearing the ocean; look into the foliage, observe the water, and see a sparkling sky.