In the summer of 1986, the Museum of Modern Art mounted the Vienna 1900 exhibition and acquired Gustav Klimt’s Hope II (1902), thereby admitting Klimt and his Zeitalter into the official canon of modern art. Despite this belated acknowledgement, and setting aside for a moment his fervent participation in the Wiener Secession (“Der Zeit Ihre Kunst und Der Kunst Ihre Freiheit”), Klimt still looks very much like a late 19th-century artist working in a conservative center at the edges of Europe that valued historicism, eclecticism and high-gloss academic finish. In his early work from the 1890s, he changes styles depending on the job—meticulous, hard-edged idealization for official public commissions like the Kunsthistorisches Museum vestibule murals, to gauzy, soft-focus late Impressionism for portraits and landscapes to murky Symbolist topoi executed in a slick,Jugendstil serpentine manner.
This isn’t quite the eclecticism of the Ringstraße, that schizophrenic collection of revival-styles emblematizing the problem of 19th-century historical self-consciousness in general, which the Secession categorically opposed. Klimt’s eclecticism consists of an ability to inhabit fully and to replicate perfectly a range of styles, each closely associated with other, usually French, painters, without privileging one over the other. This nearly post-modern agnosticism is most visible in Klimt’s landscapes, a genre in which he worked throughout his career. Here, his palette of styles ranges from plein air Impressionism and, more specifically, Monet’s Nymphéas, to the pointillism or Seurat and Pissarro to the expressionism of Van Gogh. It’s not hard to see why Klimt worked this way—each mode has its own gorgeous effects and, is suited to particular landscape sub-genres and his technical mastery of all of them is breathtaking.
The overall application of uniform, atomized, pin-points of pigment to the picture plane in representations of trees—Rose, Birnbaum and, most winningly, in Der Park—is the closest Klimt gets to a modernist concern. This exploration of surface effects on differs considerably from the broadly applied decorative patterning seen in the golden paintings, which in its derivation from Byzantine mosaics, is another example of eclectic historicism. His landscapes are also free of the lurid, psycho-sexual heavy-breathing of the golden paintings and other Symbolist-inflected works, which, ironically, makes them seems more modernist than the works he himself would have considered his most avant garde.