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From Vienna to Rijeka

It sounds incredible, but it’s true: the audience has been waiting 136 years for this event.

The first and to this day the only opportunity to take a closer look at the paintings made by Gustav Klimt, Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch for the Rijeka Theater was in 1885. Whoever missed that opportunity they missed it for the rest of their life, which means forever. It all happened at the Museum of Art and Industry in Vienna, where the paintings were exhibited in March and April of 1885. They were transferred to this institution directly from the workshop of the painting trio as soon as the paint dried, and from there they were shipped to Rijeka. Where they were placed as a decoration on the vault of the auditorium, above the ceremonial lodges and above the stage of the newly built theater building.

Paintings high position was not a friend of the audience. Whoever wanted to see them from below had to twist their necks and leave the details in the pictures to their personal imagination.

Today we have a unique opportunity when everything is different. The exhibition “Unknown Klimt – Love, Death, Ecstasy” of the City Museum of Rijeka at the Sugar Palace brings to the public nine paintings from the Croatian National Theater Ivan pl. Zajc in Rijeka. Three paintings bear the signature of Gustav Klimt, three are by his brother Ernst, and three are painted by their collaborator and friend Matsch.

The paintings arrived in Rijeka thanks to an order from the famous Viennese architectural studio of Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, which specializes in the construction of theaters and concert halls. The works were commissioned directly by Fellner, having good previous experience with three artists on equipping a theater in the Czech city of Liberec. At that time, they were young painters, their careers were just starting, and for easier access to business opportunities, they performed together, as the Art Society (Die Künstler-Compagnie). Gustav Klimt, who will eventually become the biggest name in the art world from the trio, was only 23 at the time and was one of the promising and gifted young people.

Looking at things from today’s perspective, the wise decision to engage him in decorating the Rijeka theater was made not only by Viennese Fellner and Helmer, but also by the mayor of Rijeka Giovanni Ciotta, who called for construction cooperation with their studio, thus indirectly painters Gustav and Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch. There is some deeper fateful logic in this – in the same place in the story we meet a new theater temple, at that time one of the most modern in Europe (which is a construction exclusive), the fact that this temple is the first public building in Rijeka with electric lighting (technical exclusive). ) and the early steps of a person who will become a world-famous artist (artistic exclusive, moreover, that will be recognized as such only in the days to come, in which we recognize some of the rules of an exciting drama).

Painting restoration

As part of the preparations for the exhibition at the City Museum of Rijeka, the paintings were spectacularly removed from their positions in the theater in 2018, and their photographs, high resolutions, were placed in their places. Very thorough conservation and restoration works were then carried out on the paintings.

This is not their first time, the same type of intervention was performed on them in 1978 as part of the renovation of the theater building. At that time, the Regional Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Split restored the desired appearance to the paintings. The tooth of time then once again made its mark, equally sensitive position on the highest interior parts of the building.

Today’s procedure was performed at two locations. At the Rijeka department of the Croatian Restoration Institute, six paintings were restored – three large canvases by Gustav Klimt and three smaller ones by Franz Matsch. Ernst Klimt’s paintings have been restored in the Easel Painting Department of the Croatian Restoration Institute in Zagreb. The delicate work began in August of 2018 with the dismantling of paintings from the original site, and the interventions that followed on them lasted until November of 2020. Restorations were performed by Ana Rušin Bulić and Goran Bulić in Rijeka, and Slobodan Radić in Zagreb. They removed the starch glue and plaster from the back of the paintings, inserted new linen cloth in the places where it was missing, and pasted the pictures on a base of new linen cloth. They repaired the places with crumbled and peeled binder, replaced the fragments of fallen paint and retouched the damage to the painted layer.

After such a thorough renovation, the paintings give the impression that they just arrived, but not from the Rijeka or Zagreb restoration department, but from the Viennese workshop of the painters trio. Because they don’t deserve anything less than that.

Three artistic destinies

What does today's view of them tell us, before the exhibition at the Museum of the City of Rijeka? A view that we can consider an extraordinary privilege that, as we said, has been awaited for an incredible 136 years? Because for so long so many audiences didn't get a chance to watch the works from a viewer's standard, "normal" distance?

First of all, the most important thing is to say: the exhibition “The Unknown Klimt – Love, Death, Ecstasy” represents an early, neglected, for the most part local and international public part of Gustav Klimt’s oeuvre, which according to the Rijeka chapter of his artistic biography will grow into one of the largest names of world painting.

A joint youth performance with his own brother and a friend from school is thus more interesting. Although in the 1880s all three painters were at the beginnings of their personal artistic development and professional rise, it was a period when differences in their manuscripts and stylistic aspirations gradually became more pronounced. An obstacle to this is not a joint, ie coordinated performance, so their work in Rijeka can be read in part as a hint of what will soon follow in their individual work. The three brushes of the Art Society will become three separate cases.

Ernst Klimt will be completely denied in such a development, and in the worst possible way. Fate wanted him to die suddenly in 1892. Consequently, in Rijeka there are three of the relatively small number of works by this prematurely departed artist. These are Allegory of theatrical art, Genius with a trumpet and Genius with a basket of flowers. They recognize the essential features of personal handwriting, above all the tendency to theatrical, as is usually expected of theater in one way or another. His canvases are dedicated to the stage, making him in a way a theater painter in the theater. Whether there would be a change in this, which development line he would take if it had not happened what happened, remains to be seen today.

For Franz Matsch, on the other hand, we know what fate prepared for him – what he has chosen for himself. Observing his Rijeka paintings, the Allegory of Love Poetry, the Allegory of Dance and the Allegory of Comic Opera, it becomes clear that he is a skilled illustrator of classical theatrical themes, on which he will eventually gain his reputation. He is involved in depicting figural compositions that fit into the historicist decoration of the space. Seven years after the Rijeka episode, in 1892, Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch will break up as business partners and friends, after the death of Gustav’s brother Ernst, which is also the end of the Art Society. He decided not to join the Art Nouveau movement, which knocked on the door led by Gustav. Adhering to the expectations of academic painting, he, as an author, will fit into a larger number of more or less solid painters. If this could bring him satisfaction, and in the monarchical milieu it certainly did, in time he would become known as a portraitist of the emperor and the Viennese aristocracy.

Klimt’s case is the opposite. He will be transformed by a radical author’s coup into the leading name of the artistic movement we remember as the Viennese Art Nouveau. And by his actions lead to perhaps the most significant turning point in recent art history.

Paintings by Gustav Klimt

At Rijeka’s theater building, the painting of St. Cecilia, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Orpheus and Eurydice wear Gustav Klimt’s signature.

It is not only the name of the future master of fine arts that is interesting, it is equally interesting how a young painter begins to hint on these canvases at what he will achieve his master status with. Although the order dealt with given themes with allegorical depictions, on them he slowly moves away from the canons established in the 19th century and inspires new, freer contents and interpretations. Rijeka’s paintings are therefore an important testimony to Klimt’s development line. The ancestor of the Viennese secession had to start somewhere, and Rijeka proved to be a welcome starting point.

This is clearly evidenced by the example of the painting of St. Cecilia. To the artist, the female model posed for her – according to the customs of the time, and to the young Gustav Klimt for the first time – first naked and then dressed. The nudity of the woman lying is discreet, perhaps also because of the otherworldliness of her character that invokes the thoughts of angels. Nevertheless, the young Gustav had already announced an avant-garde approach to the act. In order to “catch” the diagonal movement of the female body, which seems to be floating, he innovatively decided to use the entire surface of the canvas, striving for geometry, which will become a feature of his later style. He evoked the sophistication of body volume with precise and at the same time sensitive contour lines. In this situation, he recognizes what will eventually become the backbone of his work – the study of female figures.

Such thematic interests and compositional inclinations are surprisingly well connected by Klimt’s erotic drawings, which he drew twenty years later. Fragile and small pencil drawings found him completely unprepared, more precisely shocked the cultural public of his time, and even today they do not cease to attract attention with their insistence on sensuality and passion. It is known that Klimt in his artistic confrontation with the female body did not stay only in pencil drawings. An insight into Klimt’s artistic evolution therefore confirms – no matter how multiple, enigmatic and elusive a woman’s nature may be, mirroring herself through her own appearance, she is a permanent obsession of both the young and late Gustav Klimt. An obsession to the extent that he does not hesitate to delicately, dangerous artistic adventures at the crossroads of eros and thanatos, in which he plays an important role instinctively and physically.

Love, death, ecstasy? Anyone who comes to the exhibition at the Museum of the City of Rijeka will be convinced that these great words did not find a place in the name of the exhibition by chance.

The exhibition and the catalog

The exhibition at the City Museum of Rijeka opens with an exhibition that exudes a theatrical ambience, with a combination of original paintings and contemporary interactive projections.

One, intended for a slightly younger audience, connects Klimt’s theatrical paintings with Rijeka’s cultural heritage and the wider historical and cultural context, and the other talks about the painter’s later creative phase. The concept of the exhibition is signed by Deborah Pustišek Antić, senior curator of the Museum of the City of Rijeka, while the author of the design of the exhibition is Claudio Cetina, a lecturer in design at the Nuova accademia di Belle Arti in Milan.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog with Croatian-English texts by 15 leading domestic and international connoisseurs of Gustav Klimt’s work, with an emphasis on his earlier artistic phase. Their focus is on Klimt’s painting beginnings and their influence on the author’s coup that followed shortly after the Rijeka episode and is considered one of the most revolutionary in the history of art. The catalog offers a story about Klimt on 235 pages and is richly illustrated with pictorial contributions not only of Rijeka’s paintings but also works that show the influences of predecessors and contemporaries on its stylistic development.

Exhibition duration: April 20, 2021 – March 31, 2022

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