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Klimt in his setting: Martin Bailey visits a bold attempt to evoke Vienna's most influential group exhibition of the early 20th century.

Vienna's Belvedere Gallery has marked the centenary of Austria's most important group exhibition, the 'Kunstscbau' (Art Show) of 1908, with a partial reconstruction that aims to capture the flavour of this audaciously ambitious venture, masterminded by Gustav Klimt.

The Kunstschau was housed in a series of elegant temporary wooden buildings, containing 54 rooms and covering 6,500 square metres (half buildings and half gardens). Its designer, the architect Josef Hoffmann, intended it to be a Gesamtkunstwerk--a total work of art. Paintings, works on paper, sculptures and decorative art were presented in an environment that was a harmonious whole. It covered life from the cradle to the grave, with one room devoted to art for children (with imaginative toys) and a courtyard serving as a conceptual cemetery (with sculpted tombs, but without bodies). 176 artists and designers were represented. In terms of visitor numbers it was not a success--40,000 people came in the five-month run--but it was crucially important in showcasing avant-garde art.

Despite its significance, the Kunstschau has been the subject of little detailed research. Until recently, only around 120 of the 2,000 works in the exhibition had been identified. The Belvedere curator Alfred Weidinger and his colleagues have therefore made a major contribution by identifying nearly three quarters of the exhibits. Transforming the research into a visually exciting reconstruction proved a challenge. The 2008 exhibition presents 300 objects, of which 250 were shown in 1908 (the other 50 are mainly similar items, although this is not usually clear from the captions). Inevitably their quality varies: a room of paintings of interiors and gardens by Karl Moll is a highlight, but some pictures seem dull to today's eyes.


The exhibition attempts more literal reconstructions of three of the galleries from 1908. The Wiener Werkstatte Room of decorative art has wall decorations and a carpet to imitate the original, with similar vitrines. Painstaking research eventually identified most of the objects listed in the 1908 catalogue, but many have disappeared (in addition, the Osterreichisches Museum fur angewandte Kunst in Vienna felt unable to lend around 15 key pieces from their permanent display). This means that many of the items in the vitrines are not exactly those in the original show. The Kunstschau also had a room of posters, evidence that they were regarded as art, not as mere ephemera. A few of the originals are exhibited, but most were printed in editions of two or three (those on show were glued to the walls) and are now lost. They are represented here by photographic reproductions, lessening their impact.


The most exciting part of the exhibition is the reconstruction of the large Klimt Room, in which 16 of his recent paintings were hung (Fig. 1). Eight originals are now on display, four owned by the Belvedere (Fig. 2) and four on loan. The remaining eight could not be borrowed, so they have been replaced by black-and-white photographs. They include two Belvedere pictures that were restituted to the Bloch-Bauer descendants in 2006 and were not available for loan--the magnificent Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Neue Galerie, New York) and Birch Forest (owned by an unknown Russian collector). At the far end of the reconstructed room hangs The Kiss, which was bought by the Austrian state in 1908. The price was 25,000 crowns (around 7175,000 [euro] today), a very substantial sum.

What is most astonishing about the reconstruction of the Klimt Room is the faithful representation of the original wall decoration by the designer Koloman Moser. These are a regular series of periodic motifs, comprising grey squares with black decorated corners, set against a white background. Moser's original watercolour design, recently discovered in a private collection, is the basis for the reconstruction, together with 1908 photographs of the room. The visual impact is so powerful that it distracts from the paintings. However, Klimt approved it, so he must have been pleased with the result. Dr Weidinger says that the effect is 'to create rhythmic intervals between the paintings and to establish a low-key frame around each individual picture'.

Following the 1908 show, Hoffmann's building was used for just one further exhibition, the 'Internationale Kunstschau' in the following summer, after which the complex, which had cost 150,000 crowns (around 1m [euro]), was demolished. The site, only 500 metres from the Belvedere, was used for building Vienna's Concert Hall.

The exhibition's extremely detailed catalogue of 560 pages is a vital reference work. However, its design and presentation are complicated, making it difficult to use, particularly for those with limited German. A condensed version in English, with some additional research, is due to be published in February. The Belvedere has also just produced a facsimile of the original 142-page catalogue for the 1908 Kunstschau.


'Gustav Klimt und die Kunstschau 1908', Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1 October 2008-18 January (+43 [01] 795570). Catalogue by Agnes Husslein-Acro and Alfred Weidinger, ISBN 9783791342252 (cloth), 38 [euro] (Belvedere).

Martin Bailey is a correspondent for The Art Newspaper.
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS; Vienna, Austria; Gustav Klimt
Author:Bailey, Martin
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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