Gold for Paradise - Gustav Klimt’s gilding technique for the Beethoven Frieze by Alexandra Matzner

User menu

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze: Knight, 1901-2, Casein, gold and aluminium foil, cut opaline glass buttons, chalk, graphite, Secession, Vienna, Photo: Austrian Federal Monuments Office.

Among the most famous works of Gustav Klimt’s (1862-1918) “Golden Period” is doubtlessly his Beethoven Frieze. The mural was created as a temporary decorative painting for the 14th Vienna Secession exhibition, which was on display from 15th April to 27th June 1902. The exhibition room housing Max Klinger’s Beethoven statue was designed by 20 Secession artists as well as one female artist. Following the end of the presentation, the frieze was meant to be demolished like all of the other temporary artworks.
However, this was prevented by the favourable opinion Klimt’s colleagues had of the frieze. They decided to keep the work until the planned Klimt retrospective (November to December 1903; 18th Secession exhibition). Thus, the Beethoven Frieze remained in its place – possibly covered – during the intervening three Secession exhibitions. The collector Carl Reininghaus acquired the work after the Klimt exhibition on the condition that any damage incurred when the work was taken down would be repaired by Klimt himself. On 6th December 1907 Gustav Klimt confirmed his earlier verbal assurance in a letter: “… that I am prepared at any time to undertake repairs free of charge which might prove necessary for the final placement of the work.” This would not be necessary, however, as Reininghaus sold the work in 1913 to the Lederer family before having it built in.
Measuring slightly over 34 metres long and 2.17 metres high, the Viennese painter captured man’s longing for happiness in his mural. It depicts a knight clad in a golden armour and driven by pity and ambition fighting for a poor and weak family against “evil forces”. But is his sword really capable of combating disease, death and insanity, the three Gorgons, the monster Typhon, lust, unchastity, intemperance and a gnawing sense of anguish? Only poetry combined with music is able to educe happiness, the arts leading man into an “ideal realm” in which he is able to find “pure joy, pure happiness and pure love”.

Complex mix of materials

The Beethoven Frieze is among Klimt’s most complex works in terms of the materials he used. In the catalogue accompanying the 1902 exhibition, an unknown author noted that Klimt had worked with “casein paint, applied stucco and gilding” . But this short list by no means encompasses all the substances Klimt employed in response to Max Klinger’s Beethoven statue, which also featured a complex mix of materials. Also deserving a mention are the cut opaline glass buttons, the cut, transparent stained glass set into metal, the small mirrored plates, the mother-of-pearl buttons and the hollow brass rings used as applications. Additionally, Klimt used casein paint on dried plaster. Once dry, the colours look matt, increasing the brilliant effect and radiance of the gold and silver. The “golden Klimt” wanted to achieve as planar an effect as possible with the precious metal he used in his murals.

Flatness vs. three-dimensionality

Klimt’s use of fresco-secco is unusual, as it was common during the Ringstrasse era for ceiling and wall decorations to be created using oil paintings on canvas that were then pasted onto the walls using the marouflage technique. Parallel to the Beethoven Frieze, Klimt executed his last public commission, the Faculty Paintings “Philosophy”, “Medicine” and “Jurisprudence”, as oils for the University of Vienna. In 1900 and 1901 he presented the first two paintings to the public. In the depiction of “Medicine” especially, Klimt had used gilding to emphasise important parts of the rendering. Seeing as the paintings were lost in a fire in 1945, we can only refer to photographs to give us a sense of the increasing importance gold had in Klimt’s oeuvre at the time. The extant Faculty Painting “Theology”, which was executed by Klimt’s colleague Franz von Matsch, shows that he increased the three-dimensional effect of the gilded materials haptically, suggesting that he used the technique of mordant gilding.

Gilding and restoration

Unlike Matsch, however, Klimt was primarily interested in achieving a planar effect with the gold, which is why he chose the technique of oil gilding for his frieze. This process saw Klimt isolate the subsurface with a primer, probably shellac tinted with red poliment. To create the three-dimensional effect, he used a stucco layer, i.e. a chalk base , which he applied either with a brush (e.g. the spirals above the lovers) or a spatula (e.g. the bands in the hair ornaments). He also pasted the applications using the chalk base reinforced with animal glue. Klimt created the adhesive for the gold from egg yolk. For the restoration work carried out in the early 1980s, the base was created from a blend of egg yolk with water and a few drops of glycerol, mixed with sand. After applying a coat of adhesive and allowing it to dry, the gold leaf, Ducat Double Gold, was layered on. Klimt probably chose double gilding for reasons of colour conservation only. According to an analysis, the original gold had a copper content of 5% and is no longer commercially available. The restorers varnished the newly gilded areas with mastic which they tinted with burnt umber and Verona Green Earth in order to match the new golden areas to the original shade of gold. Interestingly, Klimt used aluminium foil for the knight’s sword. Finally, the artist drew over the gildings with a pencil or applied a coloured varnish.
Along with the design drawings for the Stoclet Frieze at the MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, the Beethoven Frieze is among the most researched and documented works by Gustav Klimt in terms of the materials he employed. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the Austrian Federal Monuments Office, especially to Dr Bernd Euler-Rolle and Mag. Markus Santner from the department of conservation and restoration, for their generous help with this article.

Alexandra Metzer studied art history, history, and Romance studies in Vienna and Rome. A curator and editor-in-chief of www.textezukunst.com, she has published numerous catalogue essays and publications on 19th to 21st century photography and visual arts. She lives and works as a freelance writer in Vienna.