Beethoven Frieze



XIV. Exhibition, Room with Max Klinger’s Sculpture of Beethoven (1902)Secession

The Beethoven Exhibition
From April 15 through June 27, 1902, the 14th exhibition of the Vienna Secession presented a comprehensive homage to Ludwig van Beethoven. The main attraction of the show was a colored marble sculpture of Beethoven by Max Klinger, which was positioned in the central hall of the Secession.

XVI. Exhibition (1902)Secession

Accompanying this, 20 Secession artists—including Elena Luksch-Makowsky as the only female artist—conceived contributions based on wall friezes and wall reliefs. The overall concept of the production came from Alfred Roller, and the interior designs were by Josef Hoffmann.

Initials of artists in the catalog of the XIV. Exhibition (1902)Secession

Through his policy article, "Painting and Drawing," excerpts of which were published in the exhibition catalog, Max Klinger also provided the idea for a new exhibition concept, which was to be realized in the context of the Beethoven exhibition.
Based on the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk—which the composer Richard Wagner had already attempted to realize in his operas—painting, sculpture, and architecture should work together to create a new kind of temple art, according to Klinger.

XIV. Exhibition, left side halle with Gustav Klimt’s „Beethovenfrieze" (1902)Secession

The Beethoven Frieze Program
Gustav Klimt provided the most significant contribution to the Beethoven exhibition with a wall frieze that was over 112 feet long and extended over three walls of a side hall of the Secession. The frieze depicts a monumental allegory and is considered to be one of Klimt's key works.

The frieze program follows a description of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony which the composer Richard Wagner had published in 1846. In addition, the frieze almost literally illustrates the words of Friedrich Schiller, which Beethoven himself set to music in the final chorus of this symphony.

Beethoven Frieze: "Longing for Happiness" (Panel 2, left side wall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

The frieze begins on the first longitudinal wall showing female figures gliding along horizontally, which is referred to in the Beethoven exhibition catalog as "Die Sehnsucht nach dem Glück" (The Longing for Happiness).

The outstretched arms of the female figures float as if in water along the top edge of the frieze, while the areas below remain completely empty.

Beethoven Frieze - Panel 3 (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

The first group of figures that the floating figures meet are an upright nude woman and a similarly nude kneeling couple. According to the exhibition catalog, these three figures symbolize "Die Leiden der schwachen Menschheit" (The Suffering of Weak Mankind).

The "Suffering of Weak Mankind" group turns pleadingly towards a knight, the "Wohlgerüsteten Starken" (Knight in Shining Armor), who stands before them. He is shown wearing medieval armor and carrying a mighty sword.

Behind the golden knight appear two allegorical female characters, who are referred to in the catalog as "Ehrgeiz" (Ambition)" and "Mitleid" (Compassion). They are meant to act as "inner driving forces" to motivate the knight to "take up the struggle for happiness" in the name of humanity.

The knight's challenging gaze focuses on the subsequent scene, which stretches across the entire end wall where the "hostile forces" are gathered.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Hostile Powers" (Panel 5, short wall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

In the center of the group lurks "the giant Typhoeus," a giant monkey-like monster, which according to mythology is the offspring of the earth goddess, Gaia, and the god of the underworld, Tartaros. To his left side are "his daughters, the three Gorgons: sickness, madness, and death."

Klimt's contemporaries were particularly worked up about the three Gorgons, with their total nudity and lasciviousness, and vehemently protested against them.

Above the Gorgons, the skeletal female figure of death lurks in unmatched dramatism.

"… never has lust been more infamous, madness more appalling, innocence more touching, and sorrow more heartbreaking in its portrayal." Quote from: Hermann Ubell, "Klinger's Beethoven in the Vienna Secession," in: "Die Gegenwart" (The Present) (1902).

On his right side, Typhoeus's other daughters appear: "lust, unchastity and intemperance."

In addition to her bodily abundance, "Intemperance" displays a wealth of sculptural decoration, including glass stones, which were applied directly to the wall.

"… the representation of 'Unchastity' on the end wall of the hall is among the utmost obscene art that has ever been created. These are the Klimt-like paths that should lead us to Beethoven!" Quote from: Dr. Robert Hirschfeld, Frankfurt, April 20, 1902, cited in: Hermann Bahr, "Gegen Klimt" (Against Klimt), Vienna, 1903, p. 68.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Hostile Powers" (Panel 6, short wall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

Away from the crowded figures, in front of the ugly snake body, and the mighty wings of the monster, crouches the "Nagender Kummer" (Gnawing Grief), a meager female figure whose expressiveness is particularly striking.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Longing for Happiness Finds Appeasement in Poetry" (Panel 7, right sidewall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

The "Sehnsüchte und Wünsche der Menschheit" (Longings and Desires of Mankind) return on the connecting longitudinal wall as a horizontal floating procession and move on until they are stopped by the lonely figure of "Poetry."

Here "the longing for happiness finds its end in poetry." Klimt presents the figure of Poetry in a manner inspired by ancient examples. Klimt also draws on the repertoires of ancient, Egyptian, and archaic cultures in many other of the frieze's motifs.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Arts", "Paradise Choir" and "The Embracement" (Panel 9, right sidewall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

A vertical group of crouching women, called "Die Künste" (The Arts), reach from floor to ceiling like a living pillar, leading to the "Chor der Paradiesesengel" (Choir of Angels from Paradise).

The Choir of Angels from Paradise essentially corresponds to Beethoven's closing chorus of Schiller's „Ode an die Freude“ (Ode to Joy). With raised hands and closed eyes, the floating female figures sing the song of joy.
In the exhibition catalog, Klimt's female choir is characterized as follows: "The arts lead us into the ideal kingdom, which is the only place we can find pure joy, pure happiness, and pure love. 'Joy, thy purest spark divine, this kiss to all the world'."

His pictorial representation of the "kiss to all the world" manifests itself in the form of an embracing naked couple, which also signals the climax and finale of the frieze.

Klimt's symbolic union corresponds to Schiller's verse "Joy, thy purest spark divine. This kiss to all the world!" as set to music by Beethoven in the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven Frieze: "Longing for Happiness" (Panel 4, left side wall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

The Artistic Significance of the Beethoven Frieze
The significance of Klimt's artistic work in the Beethoven frieze cannot be overstated. Linearity as an autonomous design element reaches its high point in Klimt's creation.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Arts", "Paradise Choir" and "The Embracement" (Panel 9, right sidewall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

In the Beethoven Frieze, Klimt is also the first to use abstract, decorative elements derived from strict, geometric forms.

Beethoven Frieze - Panel 3 (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

Finally, his application of the color gold and his use of real gold leaf in the Beethoven Frieze reached an unprecedented standard that the artist's subsequent works would then follow. The Beethoven Frieze marks the beginning of Klimt's Golden Period.

XIV. Exhibition, left side halle with Gustav Klimt’s „Beethovenfrieze" (1902)Secession

The Fate of the Beethoven Frieze
The fact that the Beethoven Frieze was not demolished after the end of the exhibition—as the other artists' murals were—is due to the commitment of Klimt's patron, Carl Reininghaus, who acquired the frieze after the end of the exhibition and laboriously removed it from the wall.

In 1913, the frieze was acquired by the Lederer family, which at that time owned the largest collection of paintings by Klimt. The frieze was sold by the family to the Republic of Austria in 1973. After years of restoration, the frieze was finally placed in the basement of the Vienna Secession.

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