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Detail: The Kiss (Lovers),1907-1908 by Gustav Klimt: © Belvedere, Wien

Gustav Klimt and the dawn of Modernism in Vienna

In 2012, one of Austria’s greatest painters would have celebrated his 150th birthday: Gustav Klimt (1862– 1918). His paintings, in particular The Kiss – one of the world’s best-known images – are rightly seen as epitomizing the spirit of optimism that heralded the dawn of the Modernist era.   High culture of all genres gravitated towards Vienna at around 1900. Exciting and pioneering discoveries were being made in the world of literature, visual arts, architecture and music with an intensity hardly seen elsewhere. In 1910, Vienna had a population of two million, making it the world’s fifth largest city and the uncontested cultural capital of Central Europe.

Gustav Klimt’s works reflect the artistic and scientific discoveries and developments that shaped the period. His oeuvre charts the course from the Ringstrasse era to the early days of abstraction: Influenced by Hans Makart, the defining Viennese painter of the late 19th century, Klimt, his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch accepted a number of commissions to decorate buildings on Vienna’s showpiece Ringstrasse Boulevard. The staircases of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Burgtheater are two outstanding examples of their work. Klimt’s creative output and the style he developed in later years paved the way for his younger contemporaries Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.

The legacy of Klimt’s and his fellow artists’ 1897 protest against outdated concepts of art, a move that culminated with the foundation of the Secession movement, can be seen to this day: Created by Joseph Maria Olbrich, a colleague of Otto Wagner, the new Secession Building exhibition hall bears the prescient motto of “To every age its art, to art its freedom”.

Klimt contributed the Beethoven Frieze for the building. Architect Josef Hoffmann was one of the co-founders of the Secession movement.    Together they worked on the Palais Stoclet in Brussels to create the world’s definitive monument to art nouveau. Klimt also had a major impact on the Wiener Werkstätte (est.) 1903 by Hoffmann and Kolo Moser), a company that would change the course of design forever. Works by these artists and their contemporaries are not confined to Vienna’s museums and exhibition halls; they actually enhance the Vienna cityscape.

Society too underwent dramatic changes at the turn of the century. Klimt’s portraits of females give an indication of the emergence of an increasingly confident middle class. His 1898 portrait of Sonja Knips elevated him to the role of portraitist of a prosperous Viennese bourgeoisie. His likenesses of Fritza Riedler and Adele Bloch-Bauer (one of the most expensive paintings in the world) have lost nothing of their appeal to this day. Likewise that of his companion until the end of his life, Emilie Flöge, who was an emancipated, modern woman.

With 22 pieces by the artist, Vienna’s Belvedere is home to the world’s largest  collection of works by Gustav Klimt. There are also major works on display at the Leopold Museum, the Wien Museum and the Albertina. Contemporary documents and other exhibits at the MAK and the Austrian National Library reveal yet more about Klimt and his life.   During 2012, Klimt’s anniversary year, visitors to Vienna can experience how the artist and his Wiener Moderne contemporaries still shape our thoughts and lives to this day, and discover why this era has lost nothing of its allure over time.


Visitors to the Austrian capital find evidence of the turning artistic tide in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Vienna everywhere they look.  Architecture in the city was shaped by the nascent Jugendstil (art nouveau) as well as the Secessionist style.   The Secession building, completed in 1898 by Joseph Maria Olbrich, is one of the best known examples of Viennese art nouveau. This pioneering building near the Naschmarkt was the first exhibition hall in Central Europe to be dedicated exclusively to modern art, and is widely credited as being one of Europe's most original art nouveau constructions. Gustav Klimt submitted two designs for the building in 1897, which was commissioned as an alternative to the Künstlerhaus.

Postsparkasse Savings Bank (Otto Wagner)

 Art nouveau building on the Wienzeile


 Church am Steinhof (Otto Wagner)

 Adolf Loos building

All images © Vienna Tourismus

Other than the Secession building, which provided exhibition premises for Klimt and his younger contemporaries, Vienna is packed with thought-provoking architecture that bears witness to the progressive spirit of Klimt's day. Architects Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann shaped the Austrian capital like no others, accounting for a large slice of the city's art nouveau building stock. The stations, viaducts and decoration of the former Stadtbahn (urban railway), the Majolikahaus and Musenhaus on the Wienzeile, Europe's first modernist church (St. Leopold am Steinhof) and the Postsparkasse Savings Bank on the Ringstrasse were all designed by Otto Wagner. There is a permanent exhibition dedicated to Wagner's oeuvre at the Postsparkasse (please follow this link for further information online: www.ottowagner.com.

Josef Hoffmann's villas in the 19th district are well worth a look. Two more of Wagner's students, Josef Plečnik and Max Fabiani, came up with the design for the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Artaria House and the Urania building. Another landmark building in the history of modern architecture in Vienna has lost none of its appeal to this day - but when it first appeared the Adolf Loos building on Michaelerplatz was reviled by Emperor Franz Joseph and a population more at home with historicist architecture.

All of these buildings, and countless more art nouveau gems throughout the city, have a timeless appeal.  Visitors can discover them at their leisure or one of the countless art nouveau tours, conducted by government-approved tour guides.

Editor's note:  We acknowledge the expertise of Vienna Tourism on the topic of Gustav Klimt and extend our gratitude for allowing us to publish these materials.  Furthermore, we encourage you to utilize the following links for further information.

•  For visitor information on Vienna please follow this link . . . .

•  Additional information on visiting Austria is available by following this link . . . .

© Belvedere, Wien