The Belvedere Museum is synonymous with Gustav Klimt, and for good reason. The Austrian artist’s masterpiece “The Kiss” lives here in one of the most romantic and idealized settings imaginable. If ever a painting, it’s subject matter, and it’s surroundings were perfectly aligned this must be the painting and the place.
The museum itself is actually a massive, generations-old and picturesque castle, situated about a quarter mile from the street on the grounds of an immaculate and beautifully kept garden. The walk, which leads up a gradual incline as you progress toward the castle, is lined with sculpted bushes, trees and classical statues of nymphs playing various musical instruments. In any direction you’re confronted by scenic views of the mountain ranges which stretch beyond the city; or else the castle itself; or the village below… and as you continue up the carriage-path to the castle, it truly does feel like you're walking into a Disney Princess film.
The castle's beauty makes it an appropriate setting for so many Klimts. Klimt was in the habit of stylizing and idealizing the figureS and faces he painted. Across his oeuvre – whether portrait paintings, history paintings or fantasies from imagination – his figures appear impossibly beautified, often with ivory skin sub-lit by prismic swarms of rainbow colors. His figures luxuriate and radiate swarms of rich, beautiful, color... and inevitably brocade temselves in large swaths of gold… Klimt's paintings drip and glisten with his golden touch.
So what I’m saying is: it's pretty.
The museum houses a fantastic collection of Austrian art from the 18th through 20th centuries. When I was viewing the collection chronologically I got the sense of a nation searching for a distinctive visual identity; you get the feeling THEY got the feeling they should have something to say. Something uniquely Austrian. Some of them try with landscapes, some with figure studies... but all of them seem to be striving toward an ideal. When they finally find their own vision, it’s pretty staggeringly beautiful.
But as they progress toward the first and second world wars, their artwork becomes less beautiful; it becomes shaky - and then is lost in a quicksand of ugliness as the Nazi’s rise to power and the Austrians back Hitler and his genocidal state. The artwork becomes paranoid and nightmarish. In just a few years we go from the gorgeous fields of gold and lush visions of feminine beauty propagated by Klimt; to the skeletal and animalistic sexuality and ruddy gouache-dappled complexions ushered in by Kilimt's student, Schiele, and his shellshocked contemporaries.
When we think of 'nazis and artwork' we often think about their focus on acquiring all the Old Master treasures of Europe. After all, Hitler was famously obsessed with building a museum that would rival the Louvre (a collection which, ironically, was amassed by Napoleon when he did exactly the same thing Hitler was doing: sweeping across Europe mercilessly defeating anyone who stood in his way and then removing their most prized cultural and artistic masterpieces for his own private museum; inside of which he incidentally lived). Often we think of the flip-side of that Old Master fascination, if we consider a flip-side at all, as their hatred, persecution and destruction of Impressionist artworks as immoral or ugly. But another facet of this pettiness was their blind adoration of Germanic art.
Not surprisingly many of Hitler’s favorite artists were German and Austrian and many are represented at The Belvedere. Like Hans Makart – the history painter whose vision influenced Klimt and subsequent generations of Austrian artists, and whose painting “The Falconer” was gifted to Hermann Goring on his birthday by Adolph Hitler, personally. One cannot help but wonder, while looking at the idealized history paintings of Hitler’s preferred artists, if he wasn’t attempting to idealize reality itself - create impossibly beautiful people just like the ones in his favorite Makart paintings - with which to people his third reich. He was, to use the only term that fits, a sick-fuck. But also a failed artist; and it's difficult to say, sitting in the gallery and contemplating these works, where one ends and the other begins.
At any rate the Belvedere is well worth a visit. Klimt’s work (especially The Kiss, which is much larger than I expected) really is the highlight. And there’s a great breadth and variety to Austrian art over the past several centuries which really becomes evident when you see so much of it side by side. Definitely check it out if you get the chance.