Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 16, 2008


Filed under: art — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

At the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, I have to confess that I had more interest in Gustav Klimt as a mover and shaker in fin-de-siècle Vienna than as an artist. When I received a DVD of the 2006 movie “Klimt” from Koch-Lorber, it sat on my desk for a month or two. I finally decided to take a look at it when I discovered that the Neue Galerie, a nearby museum specializing in German and Austrian art, was running a show devoted to the artist. After watching the movie, attending the show this weekend and reading the chapter on Klimt in Carl E. Schorske’s “Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture,” I am now ready to say a few words about a very interesting artist who lived in a very interesting period with some strong similarities to our own.

While there is no denying the power and beauty of Klimt’s paintings, some people might have the same reaction that I do to them. They strike me as somewhat kitschy, especially since they frequently adorn the windows of those tacky poster and reproduction shops that you find in cities everywhere. They usually can be found next to a picture of Al Pacino or a New Yorker cartoon. One of the most famous–“The Kiss”–adorned the cover of a Danielle Steele novel (shown above to the left).

But in his time, Klimt was anything but kitschy. He defied conventional attitudes about what constituted art and became an early martyr in the kind of culture wars that have embroiled Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and Chris Ofili’s dung Madonna in recent years.

Gustav Klimt started off as a traditional figurative artist. Many of his early works can be seen at the Neue Galerie and are nearly photographic in their realism and detail. Even early in his career, Klimt was fixated on nude bodies and was not shy about depicting female genitalia in a fairly openly erotic manner.

Although Klimt led a rather conventional existence as an artist (he never married and lived with his mother and sisters as an adult), he also had a ravenous sexual appetite and fathered 30 out-of-wedlock children by some accounts. As a typical fin-de-siecle figure, he shared Freud’s belief in the need to combat sexual repression by any means necessary. He wore flowing smocks in his studio with nothing on underneath (one was on display at the Neue Galerie) in the belief that clothing inhibited his artistic and psychological creativity.

A seed of rebelliousness that was always present came to full fruition in 1897 when Klimt and like-minded artists (including Egon Schiele, who is a character in the biopic) launched the Vienna Secession Movement, a bid to break with the academy that forced artists to work in the sterile “historicism” vein, which involved painting pictures of Greek or Roman gods, the Saints, etc. in a dated style.

The Vienna Secession was part and parcel of a cultural trend in pre-WWI Vienna that posed some of the basic issues associated with modernism. In music, Schoenberg was a prototypical figure as was Karl Kraus in belles-lettres. The artist, writer and philosopher of this period was conscious of imperial decline, but lacked the class insights to conceive of an alternative. Liberation was seen not so much in terms of breaking with the bourgeoisie, but carving out a space in society so as to allow the beautiful soul and his or her follower to breathe free.

One of the more interesting figures in this general current was the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach whose Cartesian-like belief in the power of subjectivity was greeted with open arms by Gustav Klimt. He interpreted Mach’s philosophy as legitimating his own rather fantastic visions of people and the world. (As some of you might now, Mach was a bête noir for Lenin who regarded his influence on the Bolshevik party as a threat to Marxism.)

Friedrich Jodl: Klimt’s nemesis at the U. of Vienna

At the pinnacle of his prestige in 1894, Klimt was commissioned to paint murals for the Law, Medical and Philosophy departments of the University of Vienna, which were so out of whack with the prevailing tastes of the professorate that a petition drive was organized to remove them from the premises. However, Friedrich Jodl, the petition drive organizer, was not the typical yahoo of today like Rudolph Giuliani who used “Piss Christ” as a rallying cry for New York City reactionaries. Jodl was a highly respected progressive who founded the Vienna Ethical Culture movement in the spirit of the American Ethical Culture society in order to promote a scientific morality freed from religious dogma. According to Schorske, Jodl championed woman’s emancipation, civil liberties and an adult education program that was meant to reduce class inequalities.

One might understand how Jodl’s very rationalism mitigated against his ability to appreciate Klimt’s murals since they were drenched in obscure, sexually explicit and somewhat confrontational imagery that hearkened back to Bosch and Breughel. Jodl told a liberal newspaper that it is “not against nude art, nor against free art that we struggle, but against ugly art.”

If his critics were not exactly true to form reactionaries, neither were his defenders particularly the kind of people you would find on the barricades. Indeed, the Austrian state looked to the Secessionist movement as a battering ram against the resentful nationalist movements that felt oppressed by the Empire, even as it was now devoted to Enlightenment values. The ruling class of Austria considered economics and culture two highly strategic areas to consolidate its power. On the economics front, the symbol of this struggle was Minister of Finance Eugen Boehm-Bawerk who was charged with developing a progressive taxation structure. Some of you might know Boehm-Bawerk as one of the earliest critics of the Marxist theory of value. He was one of the first to address what is called the “transformation problem”, which revolves around the alleged failure of prices to map to the labor time required in commodity production. In this instance, the “transformation problem” was clearly understood by Boehm-Bawerk as a way to undermine the revolutionary appeal of Marxism. What he failed to understand is that exploitation is felt deeply by workers, whatever theories are deployed to explain it away.

On the cultural front, the work of Gustav Klimt and his associates was understood as a means of “defending a purely Austrian culture” in the words of a woman in the Secessionist movement. In taking this approach, the Austrian state clearly saw their work as performing the kind of function that the State Department and the CIA reserved for the Abstract Expressionists, who were trotted out as proof of the kind of freedom that the American Empire could only guarantee. Schorske writes:

Within this framework of supra-national policy, state encouragement of the Secessionist movement made complete sense. Its artists were as truly cosmopolitan in spirit as the bureaucracy and the Viennese upper middle class. At a time when nationalist groups were developing separate ethnic arts, the Secession had taken the opposite road. Deliberately opening Austria to European currents, it had reaffirmed in a modern spirit the traditional universalism of the Empire. A Secession spokesperson had explained her commitment to the movement as “a question of defending a purely Austrian culture, a form of art that would weld together all the characteristics of our multitude of constituent peoples into a new and proud unity,” what, in another place, she called a “Kunstvolk” (an art people). The Minister of Culture, even before the formation of the Koerber ministry, revealed in strikingly similar terms the assumptions of the state in creating an Arts Council in 1899 as a body to represent its interest. He singled out the potential of the arts for transcending nationality conflict: “Although every development is rooted in national soil, yet works of art speak a common language, and, entering into noble competition, lead to mutual understanding and reciprocal respect.” Even while proclaiming that the state would favor no particular tendency and that art must develop free of regimentation, according to its own laws, the minister showed special solicitude for modern art. He urged the new Council “to sustain . . . the fresh breeze that is blowing in domestic art, and to bring new resources to it.” Thus it came about that, while other European governments still shied away from modern art, the ancient Habsburg monarchy actively fostered it.

Klimt’s run-in with the University of Vienna faculty left him bitter and convinced him to give up making universal statements about the human condition that would be similarly misunderstood. From around 1905 until his death in 1918, Klimt focused more on landscapes and portraits commissioned by the Viennese bourgeoisie, particularly the Jews who tended to be more open-minded. One of his patrons was Karl Wittgenstein, who had made a fortune in the mining industry and who was the father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ludwig Wittgenstein, along with Ernst Mach, was largely responsible for the positivist turn in modern philosophy. Although Lenin would have been just as hostile to Wittgenstein as he was to Mach, he certainly would have appreciated Wittgenstein’s professed sympathies for the USSR. One of Klimt’s most famous paintings from this period is a portrait of Ludwig’s sister, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein.

Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein

Although Klimt would have come to mind as the prototypical “decadent” artist for the Nazis, Hitler’s Gauleiter in Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, organized a Klimt show in Vienna in 1943 that was far more ambitious than the one at the Neue Galerie. In keeping with Nazi standards, however, the displayed art had largely been looted from a leading Jewish family, Serena and August Lederer. In an article on the Neue Galerie show, the New York Jewish Forward reported on November 7th that the Lederers had taken possession of the murals spurned by the U. of Vienna. Shortly after the 1943 show, the Nazis prepared for “total war” with the USSR that led to the destruction of these paintings as the Forward reported:

Von Schirach’s Klimt retrospective ended up being the last hurrah of his ambitious Austrian cultural program. The war’s turning point had come just a few days before the exhibition opened with the surrender of the Germans at Stalingrad. By March 1943, the entire Third Reich had been mobilized for “total war,” and, as the threat posed by air raids became increasingly real, it was determined that the Klimts would be better off in storage. Soon after the exhibition closed, more than 10 paintings from the Lederer collection, including the three faculty pictures — along with a number of other Klimt canvases — were hidden in a castle in Immendorf, a hamlet in lower Austria not far from the Czech border. (The Beethoven Frieze was stored elsewhere.) In May 1945, as the Russians came over that border, the German unit that had been garrisoned in the castle retreated, but not before laying explosives. Between May 8 and May 11, the building and its contents burned to the ground.

I want to conclude with some brief remarks about the Klimt biopic, which I would have probably appreciated more–but not much more–if I were more familiar with the artist’s life beforehand. Directed by Raoul Ruiz, the 66 year old Chilean who fled the country in 1973, it is a surrealist exercise that is far less interested in the facts of Klimt’s life than it is in creating vivid, dream-like images that actually have more to do with the surrealist tradition than Klimt’s own. It is arguably not even a true biopic, but a film that is only “inspired” by Klimt’s life.

One of the more egregious liberties taken with Klimt’s biography is to represent him as psychotic in the style of Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”. Throughout the film, John Malkovich as Klimt has extended conversations with a character that nobody else can see or hear. While this might have some value dramatically (provided that it is done well as it is in “A Beautiful Mind”), it has never had anything to do with medical science. Schizophrenia does not involve visual hallucinations of this sort. It is mostly a disease of the emotions that is typified by auditory hallucinations, which involve humiliating and shameful accusations against the sufferer. One might hope that screenwriters might find a way to put this cliché to rest, but I don’t hold out much hope.

Ronald Lauder: barbarian at the gate

One final word on Ronald Lauder, the Jewish billionaire who launched the Neue Galerie in 2001. Heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, he is reportedly worth $3 billion. He is a leading figure in the Republican Party and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy under Reagan. In 1989 Lauder vied with Rudolph Giuliani to become Mayor of New York, spending an obscene $20 million in the failed venture. Politically, he staked out the same ground (pro-death penalty, etc.) but lost out to the more “appealing” Giuliani.

When he is not dabbling in politics, Lauder has taken up the cause of Jewish families like the Lederers whose art was looted by the Nazis. His performance in this area leaves something to be desired, according to the wiki article on the rightwing billionaire:

Lauder has been instrumental in some cases of recovering “lost” art from the Nazi period. However, he has been broadly criticized for failing to step forward and resolve a case involving the Museum of Modern Art, which in 1997 exhibited some paintings owned by Rudolph Leopold, a Viennese doctor. An investigative article in the New York Times on Dec. 24, 1997 — “A Singular Passion for Amassing Art, One Way or Another” — outlined a case involving Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele, which was in the MoMA exhibition but was obtained by Leopold soon after the Nazi era. The Manhattan DA stepped in to help restore the piece to descendants of its owner, but ownership of the painting is still in contention, nearly 10 years later. Lauder did nothing on the case, despite being MoMA chairman at the time.

How did Buñuel put it? The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie?


  1. Thanks for the interesting review.

    I took German in High School and ended up recruiting my teacher and class to go to the new MOMA exhibit back around 1986. He really loved it, as did the class. Klimt was relatively unknown then in the U.S., and my class and I found his paintings really appealing- the eroticism (esp being teenagers), the Austrian cosmopolitan sophistication, the mixture of oriental and european themes, etc.

    The secessionist movement did really fit in with the 80s and the U.S. empire as you have written about- my mom reminded me recently that I originally wanted to study Russian, as my father’s family came from that area and for the interest in the rebel culture of his family in their support for the SU. However, the second cold war was on, Russian wasn’t offered at my school, etc.

    It seemed at that time, that outside of Black and punk culture, everything in the culture that was accessible to a suburban teenager at that time was oriented towards reaction, including the high art. No wonder it took me ’til my twenties to join the Left.

    Comment by Alex Briscoe — January 16, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  2. Louis,

    Slightly off topic but are you familiar with the work of Max Beckmann? I was living in Brooklyn and had a chance to see an exhibit of his at the Queens MOMA in 2003. He was the first or one of the first German artists to have his art condemned by the Nazi party in 1933 as a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ and fired from his professorship from the State Art Univ. in Frankfort although I can’t find any mention of his political views or affiliations. In 1937 over 500 of his paintings were confiscated from German museams and many displayed in the Degenerate Art exhibition. He was a painter, sculptor, art critic, and teacher, lived in Amsterdam and died in NYC in 1950.

    Comment by m.c. — January 17, 2008 @ 3:43 am

  3. They strike me as somewhat kitschy and he bears a somewhat disturbing resemblance to gianni verscace…

    Comment by richard — January 17, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

  4. […] and other wealthy American Jews (including the equally disgusting Ronald Perlman who I reported on here) flout Israeli laws in order to fund their favorite rightwing […]

    Pingback by Captalist pig of the month « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 31, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  5. kitschy isn’t the word to describe Klimt’s art, I have to argue; I would without a doubt argue that he works are one of the most passionate and invigorating out of any artist I’ve seen.

    Comment by Hayley — April 28, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  6. Vienna from the late 19th century to the time of the Austrian Anschluss experienced a good deal of cultural and intellectual ferment. In fact many of the cultural, intellectual, and political movements that flourished in Vienna continue to influence our own culture down to the present day, As Lou points out many of those movements overlapped with each other. Ernst Mach, as Lou points out, was a central figure in the development of positivist philosophy and he was also tied with some of the other cultural movements that flourished at that time. Mach was politically a socialist but not a Marxist. But he had many Marxist admirers in Austria at the time, for example the economist, philosopher, and graphics designer Otto Neurath. And as Lenin was well aware of, Mach also had many admirers among the Russian Marxists (i.e. Aleksander Bogdanov and Anatoli Lunacharsky). There were also interesting developments going on within Austrian economics during this time period as well, both among bourgeois economists (i.e. Eugen Boehm-Bawerk, Carl Menger, Joseph Schumpeter, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek) and socialists (i.e. Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Neurath).

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — November 27, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

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