Gustav Klimt, Adolphe Stoclet and… Gentile da Fabriano, or: Some Thoughts on Art-Nouveau and the Middle Ages

As mentioned in my previous post, I spent most of last week at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and, as promised, a proper conference report will appear here soon or at least soonish… Today’s post, however, will be dedicated to something else entirely: You see, after the congress in Leeds I stayed in the UK for a few more days and consequently I was not in town when Vienna was celebrating what would have been the 150th birthday of its most famous art-nouveau painter, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) on July 14. So while every single museum in town is celebrating the birthday boy with some fancy exhibition, here is my own meagre contribution to the festivities…

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, Detail: Knight, 1902, Vienna, Secession (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Now, I’m aware I’m a little late to the party, but then again I’m not that big a fan of Klimt anyway so it’s already something that I join the party at all. Anyway, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the one thing I find the most fascinating about Klimt and his paintings is that some of them actually contain vague references to medieval art. This is particularly the case for the works from his ‘golden phase’ (c. 1900-1910) during which he produced many of his best-known paintings, e.g. the Beethoven Frieze (1902) pictured above. Though Klimt wasn’t too fond of travelling, in 1903 he undertook a trip to Venice and Ravenna with the explicit intention of seeing the high and early medieval mosaics both cities were (and are) famous for.

Noah cultivating wine, 13th century, Venice, San Marco (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

While Klimt’s ‘golden phase’ had already begun before that trip to Italy, it was only after seeing those gold-ground mosaics that he took the whole gold-thing to another level, producing such world-famous masterpieces as the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) and The Kiss (1907-1908):

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908, Vienna, Belvedere (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

While Klimt’s own penchant for the medieval mosaics in Venice and Ravenna is well-known among experts, it seems to me that there also is a larger and, for all I know, so far mostly unwritten (hi)story of relationships between art-nouveau and the art of the Middle Ages. Take for instance one of Klimt’s patron, Belgian banker and entrepreneur Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949). Having spent several years in Vienna, in 1905 Stoclet commissioned Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) with the design of his mansion in Brussels, the now famous Palais Stoclet. The interior furnishings, too, were provided by the Wiener Werkstätte, and the walls of the Palais’ main dining room were decorated with mosaic friezes based on designs by none other than Gustav Klimt:

Gustav Klimt, Preparatory drawing for wall decoration in the Palais Stoclet, 1905, Vienna, Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

However, Adolphe Stoclet was not only a patron of contemporary art, he also built a remarkable private collection of ‘old master paintings’ including a number of works from the Middle Ages, e.g. this fine panel by Umbrian artist Pellegrino di Giovanni:

Pellegrino di Giovanni, The Archangel Michael, c. 1435, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone who commissioned paintings from Klimt during the artist’s ‘golden phase’ should also have liked Pellegrino di Giovanni’s marvellous golden Archangel. And yet I believe that there’s something more to this story… The thing is, Pellegrino’s painting is an (admittedly late) example for what is nowadays known as the International Gothic style. As the name implies, this particular style of painting (and also sculpture) flourished all over Europe, mostly in the years from c. 1400 to c. 1430. It was characterized by a preference for long, elegant lines, elongated figures, rich textures and precious ornamentation. One could say that it found its culmination in the work of the Limbourg Brothers (fl. 1385-1416) and of Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370-1427) whose work, by the way, was one of the main sources of inspiration for the aforementioned Pellegrino di Giovanni.

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi (Detail), 1423, Florence, Uffizi (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

To get to the point: The art of the International Gothic style has a lot in common with art-nouveau, but it is quite opposed to the classicist aesthetics prevalent among both artists and art historians during most of the 19th century. Consequently, the art of the International Gothic was very much ignored, if not despised by critics and scholars alike at the time when art history was becoming established as an academic discipline in the second half of the 19th century. Only at the very end of the century was the International Gothic rediscovered and reevaluated, and one of the key figures in this process was Viennese Julius von Schlosser (1866-1938). Starting in 1893, throughout the 1890s Schlosser published a series of articles dedicated to various aspects of International Gothic art, and it has been suggested (by Renate Wagner-Rieger) that his reappraisal of this hitherto overlooked artistic style was informed by his knowledge of the art-nouveau aesthetics that started to become fashionable in Vienna right around that time.

So it seems that not only was Gustav Klimt to some extent influenced by medieval art, but that the ‘revolutionary’ new aesthetics he and his fellow exponents of art-nouveau introduced to the art world at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century also led to a reevaluation of 15th century painting. But as I said, the story of this reciprocal relationship is by and large an unwritten one, at least as far as I’m aware – but I may be wrong, of course… So, if anyone happens to know more about this or has read about it elsewhere, don’t hesitate to chime in with a comment!

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