Houses at Unterach on the Attersee

Gustave Klimt
Keywords: HousesUnterachAttersee

Work Overview

Houses at Unterach on the Attersee
Gustav Klimt
Date: c.1916
Style: Art Nouveau (Modern)
Period: Late works
Genre: cityscape
Media: oil, canvas
Dimensions: 110 x 110 cm
Location: Private Collection
Estimate: USD 18,000,000 - USD 25,000,000

The extremly narrow Weissenbachtal with the thin lakeshore dictates the choice of view in this painting. Klimt very probably used binoculars standing at the opposite side of the lake.
Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer acquired the painting from the artist.
Unterach is a village in Austria. It is located in the south western part of Upper Austria, on the southern shore of lake Attersee (lake)|Attersee, in the centre of the Salzkammergut region. The name derives from the Austro-Bavarian Untr|aha ~ between|waters based on the geographical location on the shore of lake Mondsee (lake)|Mondsee and lake Attersee.

Klimt cruised his boat to the same spot at which Unterach on Attersee was painted, so the viewer can enjoy a tightly framed shot of the village. Once again this is a world devoid of people and separated by art. There is no evidence of habitation, such as the curtains or flowers, attempted in Villa on Attersee (1914). Instead, the work's key objective is the construction of shapes and forms within the confines of this tight frame. Schiele's more abstract, Cubist landscapes of this period arguably influenced this study of form and pattern. Its geometric exploration has much in common with Fauvism by Matisse, with its child-like simplicity, than with the violent characteristics and complexity of Schiele's Expressionism. 

In Unterach on Attersee, Klimt's Pointillist style has given way to a flatter structure. The solidity of line, heavy black rimming, and loose, free brushstroke rhythm simply defines and enhances the superb color blocks and their resulting schematic tensions. Consequently, the bright orange-red house front, to the right of the composition, sets up a remarkable visual focal point, dynamically polarized by the contrasting green surrounds. This resulting energy forces the eye to travel in a zigzag motion, back and forth across the picture plane to track the color's progression.

Even to this day, the shorefront of Unterach on the Attersee retains much of the appearance captured by Klimt circa 1916--ninety years ago. In Klimt's rendering of the Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, the traditional appearance of the houses is at odds with the intense modernity of their depiction. The interlocking forms in this picture reveal an inner logic, a coherence of appearance that unites the man-made and the natural elements in an almost organic whole. The deliberate avoidance of any sense of depth in this colorful tapestry of forms and planes results in the figurative image of the town verging on the brink of abstraction, Klimt bringing out a hidden beauty, conjuring the appearance of an underlying structure that defines not only the painting, but also reality itself. The geometric forms that comprise this landscape--emphasized by the square format of the canvas that contains them--become a code, a linguistic key to a deeper and more profound understanding of nature and existence themselves-while Houses in Unterach on the Attersee is a bold, modern and vivacious picture, its colors filled with life, it also remains an object of wonder and contemplation.

As an artist, Klimt always kept an eye open to the advances in art that were happening around him. He would allow these to influence him, yet he retained his own idiosyncratic style at the core. He would take the merest shards of the stylistic developments of the artists of the period, turning them to his own purposes. In Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, a thousand influences are blended together, and yet the result is unquestionably a painting that sings with Klimt's unique vision.

One of the most interesting and immediately evident influences in Houses in Unterach on the Attersee is that of Klimt's own protégé, Egon Schiele (Fig. 1). This prodigy of an artist had been largely promoted and protected by Klimt, and had himself absorbed the older artist's influence. Yet as Schiele matured, this became a two-way process, as is evident most of all in his flattened townscapes such as the present work and Church in Unterach on the Attersee of 1916 (Fig. 2). In the deliberately restricted perspective of the scene, the jumbled houses and the textured surface, this picture recalls the landscapes that Schiele had been painting, especially those from the previous half decade. Even the frantic, almost psychotic tension so peculiar to Schiele's paintings haunts this work, not least in its tight and restrictive composition. Although the colors themselves are bright and joyous in Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, the crowded character of this painting reflects a more complex emotional core than the peaceful, earlier landscapes. This picture is tinged with melancholy and anxiety, reflecting the fact that it was completed while the world was at war-- peace, even in a summer resort on the Attersee, was an illusion.

Houses in Unterach on the Attersee reveals other influences alongside that of the young Schiele: the bold fields of textured color with which Klimt has painted the walls of the buildings appear to owe something to the Fauve artists, upon whose progress he had long kept an eye. Yet the Fauve flavor of these intense planes of orange, white and yellow is disrupted by the deliberate contrast between them and the shimmering, intricately painted foliage that surrounds them, as well as the water. The dabbed brushwork that makes up the leaves and grass introduces a range of textures within the painting, each associated with a different surface, an effect that is completed by the Neo-Impressionistic rendering of the water of the lake itself. Although Klimt has deliberately suppressed any sense of pictorial depth in Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, this play of textures means that there is nonetheless a coherent differentiation between water, buildings and greenery.

This use of textures to provide a layer of information about the feel of the portrayed landscape, about its tangible qualities as it comprises water, land and solid structures, hints at the influence of Cézanne, an artist whose works Klimt had repeatedly seen both in Paris and in Vienna. This influence is even more evident in the formal, structured composition of the painting which recalls, especially in its verticality, Cézanne's views of Gardanne (Fig. 3). However, except in textural terms, Klimt has avoided giving the viewer any information about the depicted landscape as a group of three-dimensional objects. Instead, the strange perspectives that are at play within the layout of these houses hint at an exploded Cubism: in Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, it is as though the deliberately sculptural forms--designed to give a two-dimensional impression of the landscape's three-dimensionality, as depicted by Cézanne and at that point filling the works of Braque, Gris and Picasso--have been flattened and spread out on a canvas by Klimt.

Much of modern art owed its break from the perspectives and compositions that had previously been the traditional features and guidelines of painting to the advent of photography. By the time that Houses in Unterach on the Attersee was painted, photography was no longer a novelty, yet its influence on the traditional arts was still controversial. This upstart discipline was seen by many conservative critics and laymen to have little to do with the hallowed realms of art. Like the Impressionists and the Cubists, Klimt's paintings react to the implications of photography of being able to capture a scene with absolute accuracy by introducing a subjective layer to his work. Houses in Unterach on the Attersee presents a view that has been interpreted in a way that no photograph could achieve, with distortions, bold colors and a deeply human content. Klimt's paintings were not in direct opposition to photography, but instead took some of their own cues from it. The composition itself, both here and in his other landscapes, shows his interest in portraying views that, despite their structure, nonetheless retain some of the informality of a snap shot (fig. 4). Such is the case here, where the sky, such a traditional aspect of landscape painting, has been deliberately ignored and kept, as it were, out of the frame. In this manner, Klimt manages to make the painting all the more approachable--it is more democratic.

Rather than find his views through a camera, Klimt had a device of his own that achieved the same effect, as he himself explained: 'With a viewfinder, that is a hole cut into a piece of cardboard, I looked for motifs for landscapes I wanted to paint and found many or--if you prefer--few' (quoted in V. Perlhefter, ''It is such a wonderful feeling to be in the countryside. The Phenomenon of the Austrian Sommerfrische", pp. 16-29, in S. Koja, ed., Gustav Klimt: Landscapes, New York, 2002, p. 28). Later, an admirer gave him a viewfinder made of ivory. Using this, in order to seek the square-format landscape composition that he desired, also resulted in a picture that echoed the informality and immediacy of a photograph.

Where a photograph is marked by different focal points, by blurs in the background and crisp detail in the foreground or vice versa, Klimt's landscapes are marked by a stylized precision that tells of his use of other optical instruments, namely opera glasses and, in the case of the Unterach pictures, a telescope. Although these pictures are believed to have been conceived as early as 1913, it was in the subsequent years that Klimt completed them. Recently, in Stephen Koja's book on Klimt's landscapes, Anselm Wagner convincingly argued that when Klimt began to paint Houses in Unterach on the Attersee and the other works in the series, he did not do so from a boat out on the lake at a small distance from the town, as had previously been supposed, but instead he used a telescope from the other side of the lake (fig. 5). He was painting at a distance of some two miles; it is therefore both as a direct result of Klimt's interest in flatness and as a by-product of his use of visual aids that Houses in Unterach on the Attersee has a suppressed sense of depth.

Judging by the wealth of detail in the painting, some of the finer elements may have been painted from a lesser distance, such as in the red flowers sprinkled through the lower left-hand portion of the shorefront. Other features may also have been completed at the studio as Klimt was a perfectionist, hankering after a finished state that was often elusive and impossible. This desire is clear in the delicate rendering of the various textures in Houses in Unterach on the Attersee--the infinite variety with which he has painted the water, the roofs, the foliage.

This attention to detail is another facet of the same thirst for precision that led to Klimt's use of telescopes and opera glasses. Creating an almost uniform, focused landscape devoid of a horizon or of perspectival depth, Klimt emphasized the flatness not of the represented world, but of the picture itself. It was to the painting itself that he was bringing the viewer's attention. His interest in depicting the material, and in the material qualities of the oil on canvas, are reflected in his avoidance of the sky here, as in so many landscapes. Klimt avoided depicting air or clouds, concentrating instead on solid elements which he captured in solid oils that demand the viewer's attention. Houses in Unterach on the Attersee is not a portal into another world as depicted by an artist, but is instead intended as the object of our contemplation. The wealth of color and of texture that makes up the surface is the focal point for the viewer in its own right. The medium, to paraphrase a later thinker, is as much the message as the content, emphasizing Klimt's claim that his pictures were everything and provided all the information that the viewer needed: "Whoever wants to know something about me--as an artist, the only notable thing--ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do" (quoted in F. Whitford, Klimt, London, 2004, p. 18).

As well as bringing the viewer's attention to the richly-worked picture surface, to the lush oils with which Klimt has depicted the scene, this flatness also emphasizes the unattainable distance at which the Houses in Unterach on the Attersee lie. The optical effect of the flatness insists upon the fact that, like Klimt, we are viewing this world as though through a telescope, at a distance of kilometers. All of Klimt's landscapes reveal the artist's own hunger for solitude and peace, as is evident from the intense stillness of Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, with the characteristic lack of people that marks all of his paintings in this genre. This search for peace was all the more a driving force for Klimt during this period of his life, when the criticism and scandal that some of his earlier works had caused led to his gradual retirement from much of public life (fig. 6). The summer was always a time of retreat for the artist, the landscapes the embodiment of his isolation from the worries of the cosmopolitan world of commissions and critics. This was all the more pertinent during the years of the First World War to which Houses in Unterach on the Attersee dates. Klimt appears to have been seeking peace all the more desperately, as is highlighted by the physical distance that he retained from his motif both while on the other side of the lake and while in his studio. Looking at the jangling texture of the tiles and foliage and the jutting angularity of the houses, one suspects that Klimt was all too anxiously aware that an escape from a conflict on that scale was entirely impossible.