Matriarchies, Symbolism & Sass: a Millennial Look at 8 Treasures from Austria’s National Gallery

We give some of the Viennese museum's most famous works the millennial treatment.

At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna was home to an exceptional array of artists. Certainly, the most famous among them is Gustav Klimt, whose painting The Kiss everybody has seen, if only on a tasteless scarf your aunt brought back from a trip to the Austrian capital. The Belvedere Musuem, Austria’s national gallery, houses many of Klimt’s and his contemporaries’ masterpieces. Often associated with the Vienna Secession movement, these artists sought to represent emotion, introspective meanderings and the human body in an innovative way. They remain current in their subtle yet unapologetic exploration of the human soul. And so, in times where questioning established canons is becoming more and more urgent, why wouldn’t we give some of these works the millennial treatment? That’s exactly what we at SLEEK aim to do here: interpreting these wonderful works with the tools of the digital native, who might know who Alessandro Michele is, but who doesn’t necessarily find the meaning of classical iconography particularly current.

Without further ado, here are eight fresh takes on some of the Belvedere’s most enticing pieces.

Giovanni Segantini, The Evil Mothers, 1894

Based on this painting, Segantini was a guy who vowed to punish bad moms — whatever that means — with snow-and-altitude-related torments. There must be some particularly grimy Oedipus complex in the works here. However, he’s created something visually quite appealing: the lines and colours in this painting are as dramatic as they’re subtle, as is his treatment of perspective and light. This is actually not a painting about women treating their children badly, but a still from an upcoming Björk video, looking at motherhood through a goth-meets-Icelandic-saga lens. With the sun fading away and the women so sinuously caught in the branches of the trees, it could also be a slightly over-the-top illustration for a PSA about post-partum depression.

Oskar Kokoschka, Still Life with Mutton and Hyacinth, 1910

Kokoshka was kind of a weirdo. Among other eccentricities, he owned a life-size puppet of his lover Alma Mahler, which he’d also spend his nights with. This still life certainly illustrates a psychological confusion to say the least. But it is also possessed of all the elements of a first semester UdK student’s tumblr: an albino animal, flesh, an axolotl, a glass receptacle, a flower. Oddness, slickness, vulnerability: it’s all in there really. In fact, this could be the illustration of an art student’s essay, titled something like “Drip. Ooze. Implode. How I turned the pain resulting from my mother’s Ralph Lauren addiction into a fluid digital exhibition format.”

Gustav Klimt, Marie Kerner von Marilaun als Braut im Jahr 1862, 1891/92

No doubt here: this is the lead visual for Gucci’s next ad campaign.

Gustav Klimt, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901

The story of Judith resonates with many of us, because she beheaded King Holofernes in what seems to be Western history’s first account of a woman radically challenging the patriarchy. Klimt has chosen to paint her as an almost ethereal seductress, tightly framed by rivers of gold and nonchalantly holding her victim’s severed head. She’s showing one of her breasts, the other barely covered in an expensive, translucent robe: this is basically a reinterpretation of that Sex and the City scene in which Miranda partially shows a neighbour her bosom through the bedroom window. Only in this case, Miranda gets the guy to come over, seduces him with her superior intellect and starts a sex-positive, orientalist matriarchal cult eventually supplanting SoulCycle as New York City’s #1 hobby for privileged white women. 

Gustav Klimt, Mother With Two Children (Family), 1909/10

What’s striking in this painting is how Klimt makes his subjects’ bodies disappear, concentrating the viewer’s attention on their dewy faces. One can only imagine the reactions such a disdain for formal representation must have caused back in the day, and it remains a very progressive painting. The title refers to these beings as mother and children, but are their age and gender clear? Is the central character truly a mother, or a twink who just escaped a Ukrainian street casting agency? If someone ever thinks of launching a luxury line of Italian cashmere snuggies for all genders and age groups, this should certainly serve as an inspiration.

Richard Gerstl, Die Schwestern Karoline und Pauline Fey, 1905

Gerstl numbers among the most talented artists of his generation. Unfortunately, rejection by his peers and his wife’s early death led him to commit suicide at only 25. By then, he’d already perfected an incredible talent for capturing his subjects’ psyche through brutal brushwork. This portrait of two sisters, skittishly looking back at the viewer, reminds us how visually efficient outfit coordination can be. There’s also an extremely contemporary air of sassiness emanating from their expression. They’re like a happy version of the Olsen twins, minus the annoying penchant for oversized coffee cups, and with cooler hairdos.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, 1918

Bodies intertwining, lush fabrics lying around, post-coital bliss: if you’d transpose this scene to 2018 Berlin, it would take place in an S-Bahn Neukölln-adjacent apartment 72 hours after the beginning of some too-cool-for-school party like Cocktail d’Amore. At least one person would be Georgian — because that’s currently the coolest nationality to have; another would be recovering from one too many lines of ketamine, and the rest would be posing for some guy dabbling in homoerotic photography, who’d then post it on his hedonism-meets-bleakness-themed Instagram feed. Yes, that’s a very authentic description, and you know it has happened multiple times this month already.

Helene Funke, Akt in den Spiegel blickend, 1908/10

This small, exquisite self-portrait goes beyond the obvious idea of introspection thanks to an array of neat details. First, Helene Funke must have been a confident and easygoing woman — I don’t know about you, but I don’t LOVE to look at myself in the mirror naked, especially not when seated. Second, she owned one of those oriental poufs, which means she was probably really good at cooking flavourful vegetarian dishes and always had good weed stashed somewhere. Third, the electric blue, chunky necklace is something Eckhaus Latta can only wish to have designed, and suits basically every skin tone. On a very small surface and over 100 years ago, a woman managed to address body positivity, fashion and self-consideration all at once: eat your heart out, Kim K.

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