‘When you work as a specialist at Christie’s, you don’t really get to choose what comes in through the door,’ observes Ottavia Marchitelli, Head of Works on Paper in the Impressionist and Modern Art department. ‘But if you had asked me six months ago what I would love to fall on my desk, it would have been this.’
The picture in question is a black chalk drawing on cream paper of a female nude by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), and is a preliminary study for his biggest ever work and career crescendo — the 7 ft high, 112 ft wide Beethoven Frieze created in 1902 for the Viennese Secession building, where the 14th Secession exhibition celebrated the 75th anniversary of the death of the German composer.
The Royal Academy in London recently held an exhibition of drawings from the Albertina Collection in Vienna by Klimt and his contemporary, Egon Schiele. ‘The show had everybody buzzing,’ says the specialist, ‘but the one thing that really took people by surprise was the quality of Klimt’s draughtsmanship. Since then I’ve been talking to clients about Klimt’s drawings non-stop.’
The Royal Academy chose another of Klimt’s nude drawings for the cover of the exhibition catalogue and the poster image for the advertising campaign. ‘That image and this one, which are the exact same size, are studies for two of the three gorgons in the Beethoven Frieze,’ Marchitelli explains.
The frieze was based on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and celebrated humankind’s quest for happiness in a suffering world. ‘It’s why both these women are rendered with such incredible sensuality,’ continues Marchitelli. ‘They’re femmes fatales who represent the sinister side of life and are convulsed with lust, madness and death.’
‘It’s no wonder that this sketch appeals to keen Klimt collectors — it captures the essence of his darker side’ — Ottavia Marchitelli
This drawing was originally acquired directly from Klimt by his patron, the Austrian entrepreneur and collector Carl Reininghaus, who in 1903 also purchased the entirety of the Beethoven Frieze, which had originally been slated for destruction after the show. Reininghaus then sold both the drawing and the Beethoven Frieze to the Czech industrialist August Lederer in 1915. Klimt painted several works for Lederer, including portraits of his wife and his daughter.
In 1938 much of Lederer’s collection, including the frieze, was seized by the Nazis, but was returned to his son Erich after the war. In 1972 Erich sold the frieze to the Austrian state, which eventually put it back on public display, and in 1985 this drawing passed from Erich Lederer’s estate into another private collection.
The drawing has changed hands between at least three more esteemed collectors since then, including the Polish art dealer Jan Krugier and philanthropist Antal de Bekessy, a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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‘It’s no wonder that this sketch appeals to so many keen collectors, because it captures the essence of Klimt's fascinating darker side,’ says Marchitelli. ‘And with the recent reappraisal of the artist’s more melancholy works, this picture, I suspect, will attract a lot of of attention when it is offered at auction in London.’