By Laura Bramon Good
The Vienna Secession’s new exhibit of Gustav Klimt’s Beethovenfries strikes me as somewhat apt for the artist, a man whose “Self-Portrait as Genitalia” looks at first glance like a cartoonish satyr stuck to the body of a chicken—but, on closer observation, reveals goateed Klimt with a haunch of engorged testicles and the plumage of an erect penis.
Nevertheless, I did not realize what I was up for last week when I asked my husband Ben, whom I met up with in Vienna, Austria for a brief out-of-Africa R&R, if we could see the Klimt at the gold-domed Secession.
As we soon discovered, if you want to see the famed Beethovenfries these days, you have to pass through a basement side-door, kitschy red velvet drapes and a rancid, warm waft of the smell of sex.
After wandering past flickering porn films, plastic beach chairs, and a hot tub/sauna combo pinched from an eighties health club, you will come to a dark, windowless room as a deep and square as an emptied swimming pool.
Navigate carefully among the taxidermied elk, the glowing cola machine, and the floor-set mattresses flanked by tissue boxes and primly placed potted trees, and look up. In the dim, plum-colored light, the Beethovenfries hangs at the ceiling’s high rim, white and gold, gleaming like the underside of water.
The Beethovenfries is an accidental relic, a fin de siècle appliqué of gems, mirrors, and mother-of-pearl, slated for destruction after the Secession artists’ 1902 Fourteenth Exhibition. Centered on Max Klinger’s statue of the feted composer, the exhibit offered a range of then-controversial art—including Klimt’s mythic frieze, in homage to Wagner’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor.
The frieze is a floating drama, its heavy symbols risking schmaltz in Suffering Humanity’s battle against Sickness, Madness, and Death and humanity’s salvation in Art and A Kiss For The Whole World. Of course, in good erotic form, Klimt adds myriad breasts and one tantalizingly obscured vagina.
Fast-forward to the new millennium and enter Christoph Büchel, a Swiss conceptual artist, and Element6, a Viennese sex club, whose aforementioned on-site Swingers’ Club aims to rescue Klimt’s once “pornographic” frieze from the ignominy of coffee cups and pencil boxes. Or, as the local rags proclaimed, In Vienna, It’s Sex at the Museum!
Down in the Secession basement, Ben and I did not know any of this. We craned our necks in the half-light, avoiding the mattresses and the fronds of the potted trees, following the frieze’s panes and the standard-issue gallery pamphlet past the glimmering Floating Genii and the supplication of a gold-clad Knight.
Persistent full-frontal female nudity and the presence of just one limp penis were not lost on me. I thought of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, of Mary Magdalene’s full, naked breasts and Jesus’ prudish crucifixion pose, knees poised to obscure even the intimation of a crotch.
I was circling back to the frieze’s first pane when a gaggle of Italian teenagers arrived with their hollering guide. Ben and I had first seen them as we approached the Secession’s marble staircase, the noisy gang—mostly girls—flirting and laughing in the shadow of the Airwick and toilet paper billboards affixed, oddly, to the museum’s noble flanks.
The kids had followed us to the Secession’s first floor, non-Swinger’s Club “intervention,” bursting in with a sudden blast of cackles as Ben and I mutely circled a stack of posters and a coffin-sized chunk of concrete. We took their deafening arrival as our cue to move on to the Beethovenfries.
Now, trapped together in the windowless ark of the basement, I wondered if they had recognized the smell of sex as the red velvet curtains lifted. I watched them examine the absurd plastic kiddie house wedged between the last mattress and the far wall, just beneath the Gorgons’ howling faces.
The next day I saw the terrible front-page photos in street-side newspapers: a woman bound like a be-ribboned ham, dangling from the ceiling of the Swinger’s Club before a man, stern as a butcher, preparing some S&M “intervention.” The Beethovenfries was not included in the panorama, but I thought of its final pane, in which a muscular male figure embraces and harbors a woman in the Kiss For The Whole World.
If the Secession’s aim is to reveal the irony of modern sex clubs, I think it has succeeded, and well—which is a feat in Vienna, a city whose youth bemoan its mercy on public smokers and take pride in its legalized prostitution. There is something beautiful, I think, in awkward, lonely coupling beneath that frieze—which, perhaps in spite of its creator, remembers the order of love.