Gustav Klimt Ritratto di Signora, 1916-17 Olio su tela, 68x55 cm Piacenza, Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Klimt. The man, the artist, and his world
On 12 April 2022, Piacenza Contemporanea will open the exhibition about one of the most exciting periods of art history, seen through the life, the creative path, and the collaborations of the father of the Viennese Secession: Gustav Klimt.
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On 12 April 2022, Galleria d'Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi and XNL - Piacenza Contemporanea will open to the public the exhibition Klimt. L’uomo, l’artista, il suo mondo (“Klimt. The man, the artist, and his world”). The show will recount one of the most exciting periods of early-twentieth-century art history, seen through the life, the creative path, and the collaborations of the father of the Viennese Secession: Gustav Klimt.
More than 160 pieces will be on show, including paintings, sculptures, graphic work, and decorative art items, from 20 prestigious collections, public and private, including Vienna’s Belvedere, the Klimt Foundation in Vienna, Venice’s Ca' Pesaro-Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna, the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, Innsbruck’s Tiroler Landesmuseum, the Wien Museum, and many others.
Curated by Gabriella Belli and Elena Pontiggia, with the scientific coordination of Lucia Pini, director of Piacenza’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, and the collaboration of Valerio Terraroli and Alessandra Tiddia, the exhibition aims to celebrate the “homecoming” of Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady (1916-17) – the painting that disappeared from the Ricci Oddi Gallery in 1997, and was luckily rediscovered in 2019.

The exhibition itinerary begins with the climate of European symbolism, where Klimt got his start with etchings and drawings emblematic of Klinger, Redon, Munch, Ensor, Khnopff, von Stuck’s famous Medusa, and sculptures by Minne and Klinger himself, and then introduces the visitor to Klimt’s world, with his first works and first comrades: his brothers Georg and Ernst, and his friend Franz Matsch.
The exhibition then delves into the painter’s history through the Viennese Secession he founded with 17 other artists in 1897 as a sign of protest against official art. Portrait of Joseph Pembaur (1890), Klimt’s masterpiece heralding his “golden age,” leads to such works as Woman with Cape and Hat against Red Background (1897-1898), Lady at the Fireplace (1897-1898), After the Rain (1898), Friends I (The Sisters) from 1907, Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (1913-1917), Portrait of a Lady in White (1917-1918).
An entire section of the exhibition is devoted to the Portrait of a Lady at Piacenza’s Galleria Ricci Oddi, and to recounting its adventurous history.
The world of Wiener Werkstätte, the decorative art workshops founded in Vienna by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser in 1903, is documented through furnishings, silver, glass, and ceramics. Also on show are both posters for the first exhibition of the Secession, including Klimt’s then-scandalous Theseus and the Minotaur (1898) (present in two versions: original and censored), and magazines like Ver Sacrum. A selection of drawings and etchings by Schiele and Kokoschka, including the fairy-tale series The Dreaming Boys (1908-1909), a fundamental work from the master’s youthful season, recalls the younger generation of Austrian artists from whom Klimt got his start.

The itinerary is also enriched with an important section devoted to the Italian artists who took their inspiration from Klimt, with extraordinary works like Dreaming of Pomegranates (1912-1913) by Felice Casorati, on show again after more than thirty years; the marble and gold sculpture Proud Character - Gentle Spirit (1912) by Adolfo Wildt; and Vittorio Zecchin’s alluring cycle Princesses from a Thousand and One Nights (1914).
The exhibition closes with the reconstruction of the monumental Beethoven Frieze (2019 copy of the 1901 original), providing a highly evocative experience for the visitors.
In Piacenza, visitors will have the unique opportunity to admire many loans before they return to Austria: the exhibition marks the last public event in Italy that will display many of the Austrian artist’s “national heritage” masterpieces before they return to their collections where they will long remain at least until 2028.

Klimt. L’uomo, l’artista, il suo mondo is an exhibition promoted by the Municipality of Piacenza and Galleria Ricci Oddi, with the collaboration of the Belvedere, the Klimt Foundation and XNL -Piacenza Contemporanea, and with contributions from the Emilia Romagna Region, Fondazione Piacenza e Vigevano, the Piacenza Chamber of Commerce, Confindustria Piacenza, Crédit Agricole, Generali Valore Cultura, Iren, Fornaroli Polymers and Steriltom with the support of Art Projects.
The exhibition benefits from the work of a scientific committee, composed of Gabriella Belli, Fernando Mazzocca, Lucia Pini, Elena Pontiggia, Franz Smola, Valerio Terraroli, Alessandra Tiddia, and Sandra Tretter.

Exhibition catalogue published by Skira (contributions by Gabriella Belli, Elisabetta Barisoni, Eva Di Stefano, Lucia Pini, Elena Pontiggia, Franz Smola, Valerio Terraroli, Alessandra Tiddia, Sandra Tretter, and Giuseppe Virelli).

Otto Friedrich Elsa Galafrés, 1908 Olio su tela, 100x100 cm Belvedere, Vienna © Belvedere, Vienna


Section 1 – The context. European Symbolism

While the Impressionists painted only what they saw, the Symbolists above all painted what they did not see. In opposition against the evolution-based and positivist conception of civilization, the Symbolists posited a Golden Age that existed before civilization, and whose roots lay in myth. The instant painted by Monet and his companions was replaced by a timeless world. Dream, apparition, and fantasy came before the reality of the impression, and visionariness before vision.

The Belgian Felicien Rops (1833-1898) anticipated the Symbolist climate, blending Eros and mysticism into his works

“My gifts have led me to into the world of dream; I have suffered the torments of the imagination and the surprises which it gave me through my pencil” wrote Odilon Redon (1840-1916), one of the fathers of French Symbolism.

In his Glove series, Max Klinger (1857 - 1920) imagined a glove that, having dropped from a young woman’s hand as she ice skates in Berlin, is picked up by the artist, who has fallen in love with her. This episode initiates an illogical, fleeting narration, similar to recounting dreams.

In Belgium, Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) surrounded his figures with a halo of mystery (White Mask, 1907), while Ensor (1860-1949) represented crowds among visionary apparitions (The Triumph of Death) and the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944) created a world inhabited by spectral ghosts (The Urn) and vices (Vanity).

The German Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), one of the founders of the 1892 Munich Secession, provided a pathos-filled interpretation of ancient myth (Medusa, 1908), while the Tyrolean Leo Putz (1869-1940), another exponent of the Munich Secession, took inspiration in Parsifal from the Wagnerian world, reinterpreted between aestheticism and sensuality.

Section 2 – Youthful works and partnership with his brother Ernst and with Matsch

In 1878-79 Gustav Klimt, who was between 16 and 17 years of age, studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna. This was the period of the figure drawings, the “academies” shown here. Later, between 1882 and 1884, for the Allegorien und Embleme portfolio, he made some etchings in which the classical model is translated into aestheticizing tones.

In 1879, with his brother Ernst and his friend Franz Matsch, Klimt founded the Künstler-Compagnie (“Artists Company”), which over the subsequent decade was to receive a number of commissions for painted decorations. These included the paintings for the ceiling of the municipal Theatre in Rijeka (here we see a delicate study by Ernst); for the curtain of the Karlsbad theatre, on which the three artists worked together; and for the ceilings of the grand staircase of the Burgtheater in Vienna (see Matsch’s sketch).

In his works, Ernst Klimt, Gustav’s younger brother who died prematurely at 28 in 1892, showed a taste that was graceful, analytical in drawing, with symbolic implications. In Still Life with Armour, he places the military helmet and breastplate alongside a laurel branch, symbolizing glory, and a statue of Athena, the warrior goddess.

Franz Matsch (Vienna 1861-1942) showed a Romantic/intimist accent in the youthful portrait of Hermine and Klara, Klimt’s two sisters who would never marry but lived with him – a lifelong bachelor himself in spite of a number of relationships and children – until his death.

Georg Klimt (1867-1931), five years younger than Gustav, instead worked alone, creating decorative artworks and achieving a more marked symbolism (Satyr and Nymph, ca. 1900).

Section 3 – Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession

On 3 April 1897, Gustav Klimt founded the Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs-Secession (Union of Austrian figurative artists – Secession), representing a group of dissidents within Wiener Künstlerhaus, the official association of Viennese artists that held the monopoly on organizing the city’s exhibitions.

The association’s name is borrowed from the Latin term secessio plebis. The magazine created by the group also took its name from Latin: Ver Sacrum (“sacred spring”), offering Austria an innovative springtime in the arts.

In May that same year, no fewer than 13 artists left Wiener Künstlerhaus for good. These included artists more linked to realism and naturalism, like Wilhelm List or Ferdinand Andri, in addition to others, like Carl Moll or Ernst  Stoehr, as  well as Joseph Maria Auchentaller, who were  strongly oriented  towards Jugendstil. Klimt, the artist most representative of this group claiming new exhibition spaces and a new autonomy of expression, served as president during the association’s first year.

In painting above all, the Vienna Secession was not an act of revolt against the art of the past so much as an initiative aimed at creating an art that corresponded to the needs of the time in Austria.

“To every age its art, to every art its freedom”: this is the motto of the secessionist artists on the façade of their exhibition site – the Secession Building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich – with its characteristic dome decorated with gilded laurel leaves, dominating the heart of Vienna.

The Secession’s annual exhibitions welcomed the great masters of European art, from Rodin to Segantini, from Khnopff to Hodler; the major impressionist show of 1903, featuring works by Van Gogh, was legendary. Over the years, the differences between the “naturalists” and those who, like Klimt, were inclined towards greater stylization and synthesis of artistic language, sharpened to the point that in 1905, Klimt and other artists, including Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Carl Moll, left the group to form the Klimt – Gruppe (Klimt Group).

Section 4 – The Wiener Werkstätte

The Vienna Secession was from the very beginning marked by the strong connection between figurative arts, sculpture, architecture, and design. Architects included such names as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, and Joseph Maria Olbrich, men who transformed Vienna into a modern European metropolis. While Alfred Roller renewed the world of theatre and set design, Koloman Moser, with his multidisciplinary works, embodied the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork).

This totalizing idea informed the artistic and didactic conception of the Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshops”) founded in 1903 by the industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer under the leadership of Hoffmann and Moser for the production of artisanal crafts. The model of reference was the British “Arts and Crafts” group.

The firm’s objective was to renew the concept of art in the field of arts and crafts, and to absorb the pupils being trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), where many secessionist artists, including Moser himself, taught.

The output of the Wiener Werkstätte ranged from silver and jewellery to glass and metal vases, as well as furniture and home furnishings, including fabrics and tapestries; there was also a graphic section for posters and postcards.

Section 5 – The Beethoven Frieze

The work is the faithful 2019 reconstruction of the monumental Beethoven Frieze done by Gustav Klimt for the 14th Secession Exhibition of 1902, which was dedicated to the great composer. The work was inspired by the Wagnerian interpretation of the Ninth Symphony.

LONG WALL: The flight of the Sylphides represents the human yearning for happiness. The knight in golden armour, impelled by compassion (the woman with clasped hands) and ambition (the woman holding the laurel wreath) wishes to help the three nude people, symbolizing pain.

SHORT WALL. Hostile forces combat the knight: Typhoeus, with the body of a gorilla and snake; three Gorgons to his right (symbolizing disease, madness and death); and three women to his left (symbolizing lust, lechery, and intemperance).

LONG WALL. The yearning for happiness is assuaged in poetry: The knight has vanquished the hostile forces and the Sylphides have come upon a woman playing a kithara, symbolizing poetry. The maidens representing the Arts lead him to a universe inhabited by a chorus of angels from Paradise and by universal love (the lovers’ embrace). The arts lead us to the ideal realm in which we can find happiness. Beyond its symbology, the Frieze is of extraordinary stylistic importance because the large, empty horizontal walls are an absolute innovation heralding certain outcomes of Suprematism and Minimalism. The Secession Exhibition aimed to take inspiration from total art, and Klimt, too, brought painting, drawing, and decorative art together, introducing unusual materials like mother-of-pearl, semi-precious stones, nails, glass, and pottery fragments into the composition.

Section 6 – Portrait of a Lady at Piacenza’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady was purchased in 1925 by the Piacenza aristocrat Giuseppe Ricci Oddi for his own collection, which was later to be included in the Gallery that bears his name, established by him and open to the public since 1931.

The canvas, which may be dated to 1916-1917, belongs to Klimt’s final phase of activity: his painting becomes less precious and guarded, abandoning itself to almost hurried brushstrokes betraying a more emotional approach open to expressionist atmospheres.

It was a Piacenza secondary-school student – Claudia Maga – who, in 1996, intuited the work’s highly particular genesis, later to be confirmed by the analyses that the canvas underwent: Klimt had painted it over an earlier portrait formerly deemed lost, depicting a young woman identical in face and pose to the one now depicted, but differently dressed and coiffed.

And that was not the last plot twist: on 22 February 1997, Klimt’s canvas was stolen from Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, in a manner that investigations were never able to explain in spite of the plethora of self-proclaimed tipsters, pathological liars, mediums, extortionists, and dubious confessions… It took nearly 23 years for the painting to reappear, and its discovery was even more enigmatic than the theft itself: on 10 December 2019, gardening works were taking place along the Piacenza museum’s outer wall; here, in a small opening behind an unlocked panel, a plastic bag was found, and inside it held a painting – Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady.

Section 7 – Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka

Klimt’s most important “fellow travellers” were Schiele and Kokoschka.

Nearly 30 years Klimt’s junior, Egon Schiele (1890-1918) forced the results of his elder’s paintings towards a nervous drama and an anxious, tortured linearism. His figures are dislocated in unlikely positions halfway between eroticism and despair, between sensuality and suffering. While, during these same years, Freud demonstrated the relationship between neurosis and anxiety, Schiele painted neurosis – and actually revealed neurosis through his twisted figures. Schiele was one of the greatest draughtsmen of his time. Arthur Roessler recounts that once, the young artist, wishing to have Klimt’s drawings, proposed an exchange, but Klimt objected: “Why do you want to exchange with me? You draw better than I do.”

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) initially worked for Wiener Werkstätte, the applied art workshops founded by Waerndorfer, Hoffmann and Moser in Vienna in 1903. He then devoted himself to graphic work; in 1907 the Wiener Werkstätte published his book dedicated to Klimt, The Dreaming Boys, which, with lithographs suspended between a decorative sense and heraldic taste, illustrated grasped memories and reminiscences of popular art, while nature was transformed into an enchanted theatre veined with mysticism. The images’ black outline gave them an almost unreal two-dimensionality, in which the figure at times became a pure, abstract theme. However, in the book’s text, Kokoschka disseminated traces of violence and cruelty, anticipating his future Expressionistic exploration.

Section 8 - Klimt. The figures

In Gustav Klimt’s painting, the real or mythological figure, whether depicted from life or imagined, whether realistic or visionary, plays a central role. The Austrian artist is a painter of faces, of bodies, of female – and, more rarely, of male – images of absolute intensity.

One of modern art’s greatest interpreters of women’s beauty, Klimt also episodically painted old age, disease, and deformity, as in the raw Old Man on his Deathbed, 1899-1900, and in his later drawing Head of an Old Man, 1917-18 at Galleria Ricci Oddi, in which the man’s figure is mercilessly explored in its decay.

Friends I, also known as The Sisters, 1907, a rare vertical piece in a stele composition depicting two female figures alongside the purely decorative motif, deals with the theme of women’s friendship, which has also been interpreted as an allusion to a homosexual bond – a cause for scandal at the time.

Also on display for comparison are three works painted close in time to Ricci Oddi’s Portrait of a Lady, that remained unfinished at the artist’s death: Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1913-1917; Head of a Woman, 1917; Portrait of a Woman in White, 1917-1918. These are portraits set in a colour-space without the least hint of the surrounding environment, and the isolated face becomes even more expressive. Amalie Zuckerkandl, daughter of the Viennese writer and playwright Sigmund Schlesinger and married to the well-to-do and renowned surgeon Otto Zuckerkandl, would die in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942.

In addition to a series of important drawings, the section is completed with contemporary portraits by Otto Friedrich and Josef Maria Auchentaller, exponents of the Vienna Secession, and by Leo Putz, a leader of the Munich Secession and a member of the Vienna Secession starting in 1901.

Section 9 – The Italian followers

Gustav Klimt’s presence at the 1910 Venice Biennale and at the 1911 Rome International Exhibition of Art marked a crucial moment in the history of Italian art. The examples offered by the Austrian master’s refined and “eccentric” paintings encouraged many Italian artists at that time to rethink their work in favour of a more modern and international style.

From the works of the leader of the Wiener Secession, major figures like Galileo Chini and Vittorio Zecchin, for example, as well as lesser-known artists like Emma Bonazzi and Luigi Bonazza, drew the formal and poetic elements they needed to update their language towards an Art Deco-flavoured pictorial decorativism.

Other artists, on the other hand, reacted to the influence exercised by the great Viennese master by revolutionizing it from within, forcing Klimtian figuration into the broad context of Italian Expressionism. These included Adolfo Wildt and Felice Casorati, promoters of an art poised between extreme formal rigour, primitivism, and “savage” figuration.

In both cases, Klimt’s work helped bring fresh air to the national landscape, and to initiate that process of artistic renewal that developed in Italy during the first two decades of the twentieth century.


Vittorio Zecchin’s Princesses from a Thousand and One Nights cycle

In 1914, Murano-born Vittorio Zecchin (1878 – 1947) painted the Princesses from a Thousand and One Nights cycle for the dining room at Hotel Terminus, a Venetian facility no longer in existence.

The paintings are emblematic of the influence Klimt had among Italian artists after his works appeared at the 1910 Venice Biennale and at the Rome International Exhibition of Art the following year.

The son of a Murano glassmaker, Zecchin articulated Klimtian inspiration in a large, emphatically two- dimensional decorative series abounding with gilded details and geometric motifs similar to enlarged murrine. The paintings’ theme is one of the most famous tales in One Thousand and One Nights: the story of Aladdin, who manages to marry the Sultan’s daughter thanks to the incredible riches bestowed upon him by the Genie of the Lamp. The canvases, which depict the sumptuous wedding procession, have the rhythms of tapestry: the princesses laden with gifts parade before the eyes of the warriors, bringing life to a fairy-tale sequence dominated by the mysterious, fabled atmosphere of a stylized East poised between Egypt and Byzantium.

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