The eroticism of Gustav Klimt’s painting is obvious to anyone who has enjoyed his art. A new exhibition at the Secession in Vienna, Austria will make that eroticism obvious to the rest of the world. Outside of the area in which Gustav Klimt’s Beethovenfrieze appears, a sexually explicit “swingers” club hopes to bring sexy back to Klimt’s art in a big way. If nothing else, it may get people talking about Klimt in the same way his contemporaries did.
Klimt created his Beethovenfrieze as part of a 1902 exhibition at the Vienna Secession to honor the legacy of Romantic composer and Germanic icon Ludwig von Beethoven. Although originally intended to exist only for the duration of the exhibition, Klimt’s murals were deemed too valuable to allow to fade away. The nude figures and undulating rhythms of the poses mimicked the sensuality of Beethoven’s music in an unmistakable way. Klimt’s personal reputation as a ladies’ man who frequently bedded his models, including society ladies who wanted more than just a good likeness for their portrait, preceded him and only added to the sexiness of the Beethovenfrieze.
The Secession looks to recover that sexiness of the Beethovenfrieze by allowing a “swingers” club called Element 6 to set up temporarily outside the permanent display. During the day, patrons will walk past an unpeopled area filled with only the paraphernalia of an erotic shop. During the evenings, however, things will be in full swing, as it were. “Our participation in the project at the Secession aims to give as many people as possible the opportunity to overcome their inhibitions,” explains the Element 6 founders, “and simply take a look at this swinger club.” Like Klimt, they simply ask you to check your inhibitions at the door.
Among the services offered are striptease, bondage, S&M, body painting, and dance performances, all set to a DJ’s beat. Element 6 wishes to “create an atmosphere that is conducive to pleasure, and a space where the results can be experienced.” As a life-long American, I find it hard to imagine such a scene in an art museum, but I can appreciate the more European approach to eroticism. Klimt in America has been sanitized into the Valentine’s Day posters of The Kiss. Hard-core Klimt, which, sadly, rarely leaves the confines of Austria, where his works are considered a national treasure, presents a much more difficult message sexually for Americans to ponder.
I’d almost enjoy the theater of seeing American politicians stumble over one another trying to be the first to decry such an exhibition on U.S. soil in hopes of pandering to some puritanical voter base that rarely, if ever, frequents cultural institutions, but always wants to dictate what happens inside them. I give the Secession credit for having the courage, even in Europe, to honor the spirit of Klimt’s work by exploring human sexuality in a contemporary way. On this side of the Atlantic, such courage seems as titanic as Beethoven’s genius itself.
[Image: Installation view of Club Element 6 at the Secession outside Gustav Klimt’s Beethovenfrieze.]
[Many thanks to the Secession for providing me with the image above and press materials for Club Element 6 and the Beethovenfrieze.]