Journal: Klimt's Enchanted Garden

A Homage to the World Artist Gustav Klimt

Klimt's The Tree of Life frieze in the dining hall of the Stoclet Palace in Brussels is a seminal work from his “Golden Period” and is still considered the high point of his artistic development. For this monumental frieze he produced equally impressive full-scale preliminary drawings. Revised several times, the drawings even contain Klimt’s own handwritten notes. Totally unique, they are now considered works of comparable artistic merit to the frieze itself, and are on permanent display at the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna. Klimt’s frieze symbolizes the cycle of life, and how all forms of matter interrelate and influence one another.


Adolphe and Suzanne Stoclet were wealthy Belgian art patrons, who resided in Vienna from 1903-1904. They soon became acquainted with the most exciting artists of the time, such as Gustav Klimt and the architect Josef Hoffmann. They eventually commissioned Hoffmann and his Wiener Werkstätten to build and furnish a palatial residence in Brussels. 

Hoffmann designed a strikingly modern city mansion with the all comforts and amenities of a country house. It was intended to not only house the Stoclets' extensive art collection, but to serve as a physical representation of it. Gustav Klimt was commissioned to decorate the walls of the dining room. In 1908 Klimt had curated an art exhibition at which works from Leopold Forstner's Viennese mosaic workshop were shown. It is presumably here that the Stoclet’s conceived the idea of translating Klimt’s designs for the walls into mosaic form – a form whose light-reflecting properties had already been used for centuries, from ancient Egypt to Byzantium and the early Christian church.

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Handwritten Notes and Fingerprints

Klimt's fundamental concept for the work is clearly evident in his initial sketches and studies. From his time as a mural painter, he had mastered the technique of preliminary drawing with a square grid on paper. For the Stoclet dining hall, the dimensions of the paper corresponded exactly to the dimensions of the mosaic. For these full-scale drawings, Klimt chose tracing paper, presumably because he initially planned to trace the images directly by turning the paper over. However, while completing his designs with water-based gouache paint, the paper warped and buckled, thereby altering its dimensions. To compensate for this, the paper was laminated onto correctly-sized canvas. This in turn resulted in wrinkling, and various cuts and interruptions to the design itself. Despite these efforts, the moist paint meant the paper would continuously lift from the canvas. Klimt would repeatedly press the paper back onto the canvas, leaving his fingerprints in the liquid paint.He developed his initial chalk sketches with the use of pencils and graphite, occasionally with the aid of a curved ruler. After applying paint, he would retrace the outlines. Klimt revised his drawings over and over. To make corrections he would use white paint and paint over areas already drawn or developed. Either that, or he would simply cross the affected areas out. In addition to gold, silver and bronze, Klimt also used platinum in metal leaf form – which was even then considerably more expensive than gold. 

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The preliminary drawings also served as instructions for the development of the mosaic. Klimt noted his exact ideas concerning materials and execution directly onto the corresponding areas of the drawings: "The areas marked with light silver are to be completed (most probably) in mother-of-pearl". 

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The preliminary drawings laminated onto canvas could be easily rolled up, and were sent back and forth several times between the various arts and crafts workshops and Klimt's own studios in Vienna and on Lake Attersee, to impart and exchange information. Original samples of the various mosaic pieces were in turn delivered to Klimt for inspection. They did not always meet with his approval however, as can be seen from his notes on the drawings: "The flower sample sent is not good, I imagined the gold areas to made of a more finely-hammered metal.... the samples of enamel flowers for the ground are even worse.... the colours should be far more beautiful".


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The Enchanted Garden – a Masterpiece of Applied Art

Klimt conceived the Tree of Life frieze as a series of three related panels. Consisting of a total of 15 marble panels – each a metre wide and two metres high – each frieze is adorned with inlaid mosaic pieces (known as tesserae) in stone, glass and ceramic, as well as embossed metals, enamel, pearl and other semi-precious jewels and stones. They are considered masterpieces of early 20th Century applied art. The Tree of Life – which unites everything – is at the very center of Klimt's work. 

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The sweeping trees of gold-coloured tesserae curl and stretch along the two 14-metre-long sides of the dining room rising out of a meadow of intricately colourful flowers. Black Horus falcons perch on its branches and butterflies throng the rose bushes, creating an enchanted garden, like a representation of eternal spring or the Garden of Eden. A young woman, in the frieze known as "Expectation" on the eastern wall, wears magnificent robes and the finest jewellery. Opposite her on the western side – in the frieze known as "Fulfillment" or "The Embrace" – a pair of lovers cling together. The abstract "Knight" is located at the north end of the room, as a protective figure who "watches over the bright glow that makes everything more beautiful and better".

The Combining of the Arts and Technical Perfection

Shortly before delivery to Brussels, Klimt’s Tree of Life frieze was presented to a select audience in Vienna. Contemporary art critic Berta Zuckerkandl wrote in the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, 23 October 1911: "He (Klimt) demanded the utmost from his employees in terms of technical perfection, and the knowledge and skills to achieve this. The fulfillment is all the more impressive because no comparable work has ever been created. There is no example of, no reference point for, inlay work with marble in the past. Such an experiment to conjure up a wall of unparalleled shimmer and radiance of colour, with a treasure trove of stones, enamel, gold work, and even real pearl inlay, was never before attempted.”

Klimt's Tree of Life clearly demonstrates his impressive drawing and painting skills. He also determinedly
  implements his creative understanding of the unification and equality of diverse art forms. This work truly encapsulates how much his spirit was imbued with the guiding principle of "unity in diversity".

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Stoclet Palace - A Total Work of Art

The unique confluence of Klimt's frieze, Hoffmann's architecture and the furniture of the Wiener Werkstätten have made this dining room one of the most famous interiors of the 20th century. Even at the time, it was conceived as the artistic highlight of the many grand reception rooms. The interaction of the various art forms reinforce and multiply their effects on the viewer. Each piece has been carefully considered and relates to each other, culminating in an impressive overall composition, permeating the senses: from the wall design with the frieze, to the furniture, cutlery and crockery, and the mighty candelabras, whose light brings the many reflective surfaces sparkling to life. The philosophy of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" was implemented to the smallest detail. The converse relation of the house and its interior to the gardens was also mainly the work of Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätten. The house remains the only such residence to have been preserved exactly as presented to the Stoclet family in 1911. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2009, the Stoclet Palace is still privately owned and has never been open to the public. This has undoubtedly lent Klimt’s preliminary drawings an even greater importance.

Unique Witness of Time

Over the decades light and water damage had adversely affected Klimt’s preliminary drawings. Whole patches of paint were dangerously loose, cracks and holes had appeared, and other damage such as worm corrosion and rust staining had occurred. The colors had partly lost their intensity and the irreversible yellowing of the paper had resulted in a strong contrast to the white over-painting. 

To mark the occasion of Gustav Klimt's 150th birthday, an extensive restoration was carried out. Since completion, the preliminary drawings have been one of the highlights of the collection at the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna. Safely guarded in an air-conditioned display case over eleven meters long, they are now permanently accessible to the public. This fascinating work impressively illustrates the creative process and, with its handwritten notes and fingerprints, is a unique, and uniquely personal, contemporary witness to the artist Gustav Klimt.


The Bösendorfer Tree of Life Grand Piano

With the Tree of Life Grand Piano from our Artist Series, we honor Gustav Klimt not only as one of the most important Austrian painters. With his interdisciplinary works and their ancient oriental, early Christian and East Asian influences, Klimt was already in his own lifetime an artist of world renown.

Connected to heaven, earth and the underworld, the Tree of Life represents the cycle of life, of growth, strength and health. The Bösendorfer Tree of Life Grand in size 214VC Vienna Concert is Austrian culture on all levels – artistically, technically, musically.