With old Gustav’s 150th anniversary this year (he was born 1862-1918), it really is hard to escape the near daily headlines concerning Klimt or one of his many beautiful oil paintings. Yes, we know he was a fantastic painter who changed the course of art history. Yes, we know his paintings were erotic to the point that it was banned by the governments of the day. Yes, we know his paintings continue to sell for more money than the 99% of us will ever make in our lives (that last one is certainly comforting). So, it is with some glee that we can report the non-sale of a Klimt painting. Yes, a Klimt painting failed to sell at auction, and as we shall see, it was a little bit on the dull side.
The Klimt painting in questions is known as Seeufer Mit Birken, or Lakeshore with Birches, an oil on canvas work measuring 90 by 90cm and painted in 1901. It failed to sell at Sotheby’s Modern and Impressionist art sale at the start of the month: the auction house estimated it from 6 to 8 million pounds sterling, but the high asking price definitely frightened off some buyers. Why? Well, it certainly isn’t the best in Klimt’s oeuvre (as pictured).
As the auction notes will tell you, the painting is not so much a direct impression of the lakeside by Attersee, but one that was based on an emotional response to it by Klimt. This mirrored the intellectual culture of Europe at the time, which was obsessed with the idea expressed by Marcel Proust in his famous novel, A la recherché du temps perdu, where the narrator describes a new purpose for art: “but I was able to discern from these that the charm of each of them lay in a sort of metamorphosis of the things represented in it, analogous to what in poetry we call metaphor and that, if God the father had created things by naming them, it was by the names which denote things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with itself.”
Proust, by any standards, is heavy stuff, and hence perhaps the less than enthusing response to Klimt’s artwork which sought to capture this idea of spirituality. In fact, the painting, completed in the summer of 1901, was produced at the very peak of Klimt’s powers in modernism, at a time where he was holidaying and very much enjoying himself. It is based in the natural world, yet at the same time avant-garde and symbolic for its time. Now we just need to find someone with about 8 million pound sterling for this and other Klimt paintings.