The Beethoven Frieze

Gustav Klimt installation view at Tate Liverpool 2008

Gustav Klimt installation view at Tate Liverpool 2008
© Tate

The Beethoven Frieze

The Beethoven Frieze was created by Gustav Klimt for the Fourteenth Exhibition of the Viennese Secession in 1902. The exhibition was devoted to the genius of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and centred around a life-size marble statue of the composer by the German painter and sculptor Max Klinger (1857–1920). The exhibition was a sublime realisation of the Gesamtkunstwerk in which the different arts – architecture, painting, sculpture and music – were united under a common theme.

Klimt’s Frieze was based on Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, celebrating humankind’s ‘struggle on the most magnificent level by the soul striving for joy’, reached in the unification of all arts. The fresco, beginning at the left, forms a cohesive narrative.

On the first wall we encounter the Floating Genii, gliding female figures symbolising ‘Longing for Happiness’. They are followed by Suffering Humanity, a naked kneeling couple and a standing girl. Suffering Humanity offer their pleas to the Knight in Shining Armour, who stands for the external driving forces. The female figures behind him, Compassion and Ambition, represent internal motivation moving him to take up the fight for happiness.

The short end wall is devoted to the Hostile Forces, the giant Typhoeus and his daughters, the three gorgons. Above them are Sickness, Madness and Death. To Typhoeus’ right are Lasciviousness, Wantonness and Intemperance with the cowering Nagging Care beyond. The yearnings and desires of humankind fly past them.

On the final wall the yearning for happiness finds appeasement in Poetry (the figure with lyre). An empty segment in the frieze, where a wall opening revealed a view of Klinger’s statue in the 1902 exhibition, is followed by The Arts: five female figures representing the ‘ideal realm’, a place of ‘pure joy, pure happiness, pure love’. The frieze concludes with a choir of angels ‘singing in paradise’ and the powerful image of a kissing couple.

The reconstruction presented in the exhibition was created using the same techniques Klimt himself used, discovered as the original underwent restoration.

Works on display

  • Gustav Klimt Love Spar – The Beethoven Frieze 1901–2
  • Gustav Klimt 1901-1902 Photographs from the XIV Beethoven Exhibition 1902, Viennese Secession, “Schmuckplatten” 1902
  • Gustav Klimt Study for the Beethoven Frieze: Female Turned to the Right 1901–2
  • Gustav Klimt Study for the group of three Gorgons from The Hostile Powers section of the Beethoven Frieze 1902
  • Gustav Klimt The Beethoven Frieze 1901–2 (copy 1984)
  • Gustav Klimt Two Sketches for the Group of Three Gorgons - The Beethoven Frieze 1901-1902
  • Alfred Roller Die Sinkende Nacht 1902
  • Alfred Roller Poster for the XIV Viennese Secession Exhibition (i.e. Beethoven Exhibition) 1902
  • Max Benirschke Raumgestaltung von Josef Hoffmann in der Ausstellung in Düsseldorf 1902
  • Josef Hoffmann Reconstruction of the Supraporte designed by Josef Hoffman for the Installation of the XIV. Exhibition of the Viennese Secession 1902
  • Gustav Klimt Study for the Figure ‘Nagender Kummer’ - The Beethoven Frieze 1901–2
  • Catalogue for the XIV Viennese Secession Exhibition (i.e. The Beethoven Exhibition) 1902