As we approach the opening of the “Unknown Klimt – Love, Death, Ecstasy” exhibition at the end of April in the Rijeka City Museum, the paintings envisaged for exhibition are ready for visitors’ eyes. It is about oils on canvas that have decorated the interior of the present Croatian National Theatre „Ivan pl. Zajc“ in Rijeka since 1885, when they arrived from the Viennese art workshop to the local theatre building. Three paintings bear the signature of Gustav Klimt (St. Cecilia, Antony and Cleopatra, and Orpheus and Eurydice), another three of his brothers Ernst Klimt (Allegory of Theatre Art, Genius with a Trumpet and Genius with a Basket of Flowers), and yet another three of their associate and friend Frantz Matsch (Allegory of Love Poetry, Allegory of Dance and Allegory of Comedy Opera). As part of the preparations for the exhibition, conservation and restoration work was carried out on all the paintings. This is not their first time, they had been submitted to the same type of operation in 1978 as part of the then renovation of the theatre building in Rijeka. The Regional Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Split had then restored the desired appearance to the paintings.
However, the time took its toll once again, combined with the sensitive position on the highest interior parts of the building. The paintings were exposed to the impact of water that leaked through the roof and left dark spots, as well as to the high temperatures of the reflectors for illuminating the scene, and deposits of atmospheric dust and greasy soot particles. In addition, the increasingly darker retouching spots made during the previous restoration work have become visible as well. The situation was even worsenned by the fact that all nine paintings had nail holes on the edges caused by their nailing to the ceiling of the auditorium. Such damages had been first caused already during the installation of the paintings in 1885, when they were delivered to Rijeka, cut to the appropriate format and mounted in the interior. The same was done in 1978, when the paintings were attached to their original places again by driving nails and creating additional damage.
Gustav Klimt’s painting St. Cecilia was the most damaged of all due to such operation. It differs from the others in its finer canvas, and consequently a finer and more sensitive texture of the oil surface.
Today’s operation was carried out in the Rijeka department of the Croatian Restoration Institute, where six paintings were restored – three by Gustav Klimt and three by Franz Matsch. Ernst Klimt’s paintings were restored in the Easel Painting Department of the Croatian Restoration Institute in Zagreb, where delicate work began in August 2018 by removing the paintings from their original places on the ceiling above the auditorium, around the opulent chandelier, and from the proscenium and adjacent boxes. The paintings were then replaced by photographs. The restoration procedures that followed lasted until November 2020. They were carried out by Ana Rušin Bulić and Goran Bulić in Rijeka, and Slobodan Radić in Zagreb.
The paintings are currently in the restoration departments at both locations, where they are waiting to be transferred to the gallery section on the first floor of the Sugar Palace, where the exhibition will open. All the paintings underwent a truly comprehensive procedure. This meant removing the glue-starch glue and plaster from the back of the works, inserting new linen cloth in places where it was missing, and pasting the paintings onto a new linen cloth base. Places with crumbled and peeling binder were repaired, fragments of fallen oil paint were replaced and damage to the painted layer was retouched.
After such a thorough restoration, the paintings leave an impression as if they had just arrived, but not from the restoration department in Rijeka or Zagreb, but from the Viennese workshop of the trio of painters.