In my mid-twenties when I started showing my work in galleries, Gustav Klimt was perhaps my favorite painter and almost certainly my main influence. My introduction to him was Charles Wentinck’s book The Art Treasures of Europe,1 which I received as a gift well over ten years prior. His painting reproduced therein was a revelation to me – at that young age, I was not familiar with the story of Salomé and John the Baptist, nor had I ever seen a painting so sultry, provocative, and unnerving. I’d seen a lot of nudes – there are plenty in Wentinck’s book alone – but Salomé doesn’t depict a woman simply bathing or lounging on a divan; she’s grasping a man’s decapitated head by the hair. Both the image of Salomé and the painting itself are dynamic and aggressive, and played a major role in the development of my painting aesthetic.
Forty-five years later, I’ve seen actual examples of Klimt’s work on only one occasion, at the Klimt & Rodin show at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in early 2018. One of the paintings exhibited was Nuda Veritas (“naked truth”), which depicts a life-size, full-length standing nude. Veritas, the Roman Goddess of Truth, was traditionally portrayed in a classically idealized manner, but Klimt painted her as a contemporary woman. This immediacy prompted many critics to proclaim the piece pornographic, but Klimt had truth on his side.
I would like more opportunities to see Klimt’s work, and want as much of it as possible to be available for viewing by the public now and in the future, so I obviously don’t want anything to befall any more of his paintings.2 Unfortunately, something recently did happen to a Klimt piece – two members of Last Generation, the “environmental protest group,” attacked his Death and Life at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. The painting and the frame are protected by glass, on which Halfwit 1 threw an unidentified black substance and to which Halfwit 2 glued himself. This was not an isolated incident; there have been similar “protests” by other groups in England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Canada. Other artists whose work has been targeted include Raphael, Johannes Vermeer, Francisco Goya, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Emily Carr, and Pablo Picasso. If these “protests” continue, they will almost inevitably escalate, and it’s only a matter of time before a painting is destroyed. If that happens, individuals may be reluctant to lend artwork they own to museums, and institutions may refrain from letting their work out of their possession for extended periods for traveling exhibitions.
I’m all for saving and protecting the environment – I find Greta Thunberg an articulate, inspiring young woman. She knows that intelligent discourse, peaceful protest, and education are the means to get people who may be sympathetic to her cause to think about these issues. She knows the urgency of the environmental crisis the world is in but realizes the situation cannot be rectified overnight. She is a nuanced thinker and knows solutions are not simple. She is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, and she has truth on her side.
On the other hand, I’m not sure which side groups like Last Generation are on, or what they think they’re accomplishing with these acts of vandalism, which often involve the throwing of food; it’s as if John Blutarsky conceives and organizes their demonstrations. Greta Thunberg they are not. Gustav Klimt they are not.
1 Simon & Shuster (1974).
2 Klimt’s “Faculty Paintings,” Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, were destroyed in a fire set by retreating SS cretins in 1945.