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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Hans Makart

The overblown profusion of Hans Makart.
Hans Makart Self-portrait, 1878
It's no secret that tastes change. That's what keeps the fashion industry, in business, not to mention the auto industry, jewelry, furniture, and dozens of other items where design tends to dominate usefulness and changes (often for the sake of change) are needed to promote sales. Sometimes designers drive these changes, sometimes they are driven by change. In the area of art, painting, home furnishing, interior design, and architecture all fall into this category. It's difficult to assign cause and effect to these changes, but there are definite correlations. Going back in time, the paintings of 150 years ago, what we've come to term the Victorian Era, today seem hopelessly dated, amusing, pretentious, sometimes even offensive to our modern tastes. When we think of Victorian painters, usually French or English artists come to mind. However on the other side of Europe, the art from this period was centered around Vienna, Austria, and there the Victorian period had a healthy (some would say unhealthy) dose of Romanticism and Rococo stirred into the mix. One of the artists stirring most vigorously was Hans Makart.
Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Gustav Klimt.
Portrait of Dora Fournier-Gabillon,
1879-80 Makart
Today, Makart is a curiosity, principally recalled (if at all) as having been an important influence and favorite of the Austrian painting legend, Gustav Klimt. Unlike Makart, Klimt is far from a mere curiosity. One of his paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (above) from around 1907, sold ninety-nine years later for a record $135-million (surpassing Picasso's Boy with a Pipe, $104-million). Compare it to Makart's Portrait of Dora Fournier-Gabillon (left) from 1879-80. The connection is obvious. Hans Makart was born in 1840, Klimt, in 1862, about the time Makart was completing his somewhat limited training. He started first at the Vienna Academy of Art, where he was found to be "devoid of talent" and kicked out after just one year. Undeterred, Makart went to Munich where he studied for four years under Karl Theodor von Piloty. Makart, all his career, was criticized for his poor draughtsmanship and praised for his vibrant use of color. To our eyes today, "vibrant" might be putting it mildly.

The Plague in Florence, 1868, Hans Makart.

Romeo and Juliet Balcony Scene,
ca, 1869, Hans Makart.
While still studying under Piloty, Makart painted a couple preliminary works, (Lavoisier in Prison and The Knight and the Water Nymphs) before his first full-scale, major work, The Plague in Florence (above) around 1868. (I could make a wisecrack about Makart bringing the plague to Vienna, but I won't.) In any case, about the same time, the Austrian emperor purchased his Romeo and Juliet (left), which brought him to the forefront of the wild and wonderful Vienna art world of the 1870s, winning him a place amongst the Vienna aristocracy. Prince Von Hohenlohe set Makart up with a studio in an old foundry, which Makart gradually turned into a highly cluttered, over decorated "high class" salon. The semi-public Makart atelier became the scene of a recurring rendezvous between the artist and his public, a socially ambiguous realm in which nobility and middle-class could rub shoulders one with the other in mutual veneration of the master.

The Abundance--the Gifts of the Earth (upper image)
The Abundance--the Gifts of the Sea (lower image), 1870, Hans Makart
The Five Senses series, 1892-79, Hans Makart.
In the years that followed, Makart produced such grandiose pieces as the two "Abundance" paintings (above) as well as his Five Senses paintings (left) from, 1872-79 depicting a nude nymph demonstrating for an ogling male following how such things worked. Makart's "bit on the tit" depiction of The Death of Cleopatra (below) is from the same era of barely concealed eroticism. Who would have thought suicide would be so sexy?

Death of Cleopatra, 1875, Hans Makart
Academy of History of Austria, 1870-72,
ceiling painting, Hans Makart
Today, the best we can say about Makart's painting is that it's "pretty," meaning highly decorative, but largely devoid of anything more than superficial meaning. It's sensual, and most of all, colorful, as was the artist, living out in real life the image Vienna society had created of him. In fact, it might well be said that Makart's greatest work was not a painting at all, but a parade. In 1879, Makart was asked to design a fete celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the wedding of the emperor Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth of Bavaria. Apparently money was no object, which is always a bad sign, especially in the hands of a megalomaniac like Makart. He single-handedly designed all the costumes, the scenic setting, and triumphal cars (basically, what we'd call floats). It was really something of a Makart-parade", but it gave the people of Vienna the chance to dress up in historical costumes and be transported back into the past for a few hours. Leading the parade was a float for artists featuring Makart on a white horse. The people of Vienna decided this festival was so much fun, it became a yearly even lasting up until the 1960s. In the same year as the first parade Makart got his revenge on the Vienna Academy. He became a Professor.
The Anniversary Trains, Feast Wagon of the Hunting, 1879, Hans Makart
The Gothic Cemetery, St. Michaels side view,
(unfinished) 1883, Hans Makart
In 1882, the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria went so far as to order an small palace to be built (the Villa Hermes) just outside Vienna as a gift to his wife and also to house the bedroom decorations of Hans Makart based upon the theme of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Unfortunately, Makart died in 1884 before he could begin. He was forty-four. He left behind a collection of over a thousand antiques and the unfinished painting of The Gothic Cemetery, St. Michaels side view (left), dating from 1883. It was another Franz Joseph design project, for which Makart was highly unqualified. Even his impressively colorful paintings, especially the larger ones such as the massive The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp, (below) from 1878, have not stood the test of time very well. Makart's heavy layers of oil paints and habit of mixing bitumen (tar) into his paints have caused them to change color and the paint to crack, sometimes literally falling off the canvas. Makart's early death (from syphilis) marked the end of an era. Not withstanding Klimt's admiration for his work, critics and historians since his death have vacillated back and forth as to his worth as an artist. It should be noted that the great art critic, Adolph Hitler, counted Makart as one of his favorite artists.

The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp, 1878, Hans Makart.
Only in seeing Makart's major paintings in person can one judge their immensity. 
(Notice all the nude virgins accompanying the monarch's procession.)


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