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Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, Vienna Secession, 1902 A conversation with Khan Academy's Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

In the News: The heirs of the Austrian Jewish collector who owned this work before World War II recently lost their case to recover it.  Learn more: March 7, 2015 New York Times article

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(Beethoven's 9th Symphony) Steven: Our necks are getting a little tired looking up but it's well worth it. We're in the Vienna Secession building and we're looking at Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze. Beth: The secession artists decided to do something really radical and design something entirely around a sculpture by Max Klinger of Beethoven and their idea was to make a total work of art involving architecture, sculpture, painting and music. And the idea behind the Gesamtkunstwerk, or a total work of art, is to unite the arts and the idea was that that unification of the arts was something that had been lost. Steven: The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk had come from Richard Wagner who had conceived of operas that were, of course, music, speech, but also set design and costume. Something that was a totality of the arts and it was this notion of a kind of lost ideal. Beth: At the opening of this exhibition, Mahler's version of Beethoven's 9th Symphony was playing and one can almost hear that music here. Beethoven was seen as an isolated, heroic, misunderstood genius. Someone who the artists of the 19th century could really identify with. Just before painting the Beethoven Frieze, Klimt himself had been terribly persecuted for the frescos he made for the university. Steven: And so that idea of alienation, of lone genius, these are romantic notions that really must have resonated at this moment. Beth: Beethoven Frieze now resides in the basement of the Secession building in a room that exactly mirrors the room that it first occupied. Steven: The Frieze begins on the long wall with a very spare composition. Most of that long wall is empty space, just plaster. But at the top you see a series of figures in long flowing gowns that seem to float or almost fly softly across the surface. Beth: Their eyes are closed. Their bodies are elongated and these are genii, or figures that represent the idea of humanity's longing. Steven: The genii are interrupted in one area of the Frieze which shows first a young girl, a nude and we see her in profile. She's virtually just an outline. Her hands are clasped, she seems quite timid and seems to be embodying hope. Beth: Next to her are two figures on their knees who also are nude. These figures represent suffering humanity, pleading with a knight who's decked out in golden armor with two female figures above him, representing ambition and compassion. Steven: You can see that ambition holds a laurel wreath as if it's egging the knight on. Beth: The figure of the knight has a helmet at its feet and carries an enormous sword. Steven: There is this notion of seeking a kind of heroic mythic figure that could be a kind of savior. Austria and Germany of course will distort these ideas in terrible ways where people are looking to insane fanatical figures as their savior. Think Hitler and others. Beth: And in fact some of those types of leaders were emerging in Vienna in the 1890's. So let's go on to the next wall which represents the forces that the knight is here to save humanity from. Steven: These are the forces of darkness. That end wall is painted very darkly and visually functions as an obstacle through which the knight needs to move. He needs to both be able to vanquish and also to be able to resist the temptations. Beth: On the far left of this end wall we see the three gorgons. Steven: Those are mythical Greek monsters. They were three sisters who had snakes for hair, the most famous of which of course is Medusa. They were lethal but they're also painted in a most seductive way. Beth: And above those three gorgons are the figures of sickness, madness and death, also represented by women. The figure that takes up the largest portion of the wall, however, is the figure of just pure evil and that's the mythic creature of Typhoeus. Steven: When you look at Typhoeus you can certainly recognize his ape like head and chest but the entire mass of decorative painting to the right is also Typhoeus. You can make out an enormous bluish eagle wing and below that a kind of infinitely articulated almost serpent-like body. Beth: And within that serpent and wing we see another female figure who represents gnawing grief. Steven: Whereas so many of the other figures are rendered in brilliant golds or blues, she is all grey and black. Draped not only with her own hair but in a thin veil. Beth: The figures just to the right of Typhoeus represent lasciviousness, wantonness and intemperance. Steven: The genii do emerge and the last wall is light again. Beth: This wall represents a kind of salvation for mankind in the arts and so we see a figure playing a lyre representing poetry and music. Steven: She's just beautifully draped in brilliant gold. There's a heavily ornamented surface that you can see the appliqué's on her dress are actually built up with gems that reflect the light. Beth: It's almost like an ancient Greek vase painting in its linear and decorative qualities. In this last portion of the Frieze, the genii now emerge vertically. There's a sense of fulfillment, that longing has been satisfied. Steven: They look like they're enraptured and they seem to be moving almost in a kind of rhythmic response to music. At the end of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven incorporates a poem called the Ode to Joy by Schiller which is this triumphant piece of music where an enormous number of voices harmoniously rise to the music and express a kind of intense fulfillment. Beth: One of the lines in Schiller's Ode to Joy is "a kiss to the whole world" and in this phallic shape at the very end we see a man and a woman in an embrace, wrapped in a golden decorative cocoon with the sun and moon on either side. Steven: In fact water seems to swirl around them, binding them together and their bodies are so close they seem to almost merge. Neither of their heads are visible so they are, their love, it is this summation of the yearning that this entire Frieze has been about and it seems to be such a perfect visual expression of the way in which Beethoven's music comes to a kind of extraordinary crescendo. (Beethoven's 9th Symphony)