Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, room view, Vienna Secession, Photo: Jorit Aust

History of the Beethoven Frieze

Between the sensational first presentation as part of the XIVth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists in 1902 and its permanent installation in the Secession’s basement, Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze had a turbulent history. It was originally intended as an ephemeral work of art; like the other decorative paintings, it was to be removed after the closing of the exhibition. It was only owing to fortunate circumstances that the frieze was not destroyed as planned: the Secession had scheduled a major Klimt retrospective for the following year (XVIIIth exhibition, 1903), and it was decided to leave the work of art in place.

In 1903, the arts patron and collector Carl Reinighaus purchased the frieze, which was cut into eight pieces to be removed from the wall and stored for twelve years in a furniture depot in Vienna until, in 1915, Reinighaus sold the frieze to the industrialist August Lederer. With his wife Serena, Lederer was one of Klimt’s most important supporters and owner of what was probably the most extensive and important private collection of Klimt’s works at the time.

In 1938, the Lederer family, like so many other families of Jewish origin, was expropriated. The Beethoven Frieze was placed in “state custody” and not officially returned to the ownership of August and Serena’s heir Erich Lederer, who had settled in Geneva, until after World War II. The Republic of Austria purchased the work in 1972 after Chancellor Bruno Kreisky personally helped broker an agreement. In 2013, Erich Lederer’s heirs applied for restitution of the work; the Art Restitution Advisory Board carefully examined the case in light of the 2009 Art Restitution Act and, in 2015, issued a recommendation not to restitute the Beethoven Frieze.

After several relocations and many years in storage, the work was in poor condition. Upon acquisition by the Republic of Austria, it was restored in a ten-year effort by a team led by Manfred Koller of the Vienna branch of the Federal Office of Monuments.

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze: detail of Poetry, state before restoration, Photo: Federal Office of Monuments

Finally, as part of the general renovation of the Secession in 1985, a room was created in the basement for the Beethoven Frieze. The dimensions of this room were carefully chosen to allow for the optimum climate conditions required for the frieze’s conservation and make it possible to present the work separately from the Secession’s ongoing exhibition programming.

Excavations for the Klimt Room in the basement of Secession, Photo: Margherita Spiluttini

Since 1986, the wall cycle, on permanent loan to the Secession from the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, has been on public display in the building for which it was originally created.

Contemporary Criticism

While many of Klimt’s fellow artists hailed the Beethoven Frieze with enthusiastic praise, the general public and the contemporary press frequently responded with indignation or even outrage. Klimt’s art, which enjoys such widespread popularity today, was regarded by many of his contemporaries as incomprehensible, scandalous, and “obscene”.

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze: detail: the three Gorgons, in the background Sickness, Madness, and DeathGustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, detail: the three Gorgons, in the background Sickness, Madness, and Death

In the case of the Beethoven Frieze, it was primarily the central wall with the “hostile forces” that elicited outrage: the depictions of Sickness, Madness, Death and the angular expressive figure of Gnawing Grief were decried as “images of madness and fixed ideas”, “pathological scenes”, and “shameless caricatures of the noble human figure”; the lewd eroticism of the Gorgons and the depictions of Lasciviousness and Wantonness was denounced by many as “painted pornography”.

Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries, Detail: Typhoeus, daneben Wollust, Unkeuschheit und UnmäßigkeitGustav Klimt, Beethovenfries, Detail: Typhoeus, daneben Wollust, Unkeuschheit und Unmäßigkeit