The gilded cage

The lavish, decorative works of Gustav Klimt and his associates provided the rich and privileged few

For those of a certain age, Klimt's The Kiss was the must-have student poster. All that lan guor ous passion, all those Technicolour Dream coats. It went along with loons and long hair, and looked down silently on countless messy college copulations. It became so ubiquitous that it stopped being a painting and became simply an inexpensive way to cheer up grotty digs.

Now Tate Liverpool is mounting "Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900", the first major exhibition of his work in this country. But before all you Klimt lovers jump on a train to Lime Street, I should point out that the title is a bit misleading. It is Klimt's influence on the design and modern life of Vienna in 1900 that is the real focus; anyone going in search of the opulent glory of his gold paintings, including The Kiss (1907-08) and the almost equally infamous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), will be disappointed, for these are not in the show. In fact, there are only 23 of Klimt's paintings on display. Perhaps they were simply too costly to borrow. After all, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer fetched a mind-boggling $135m (£73m) in 2006, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. "Mehr Blech als Bloch" (more brass than Bloch), sniped one wag at the original unveiling of this painting, encased like a Greek Orthodox icon in its coat of gold or like a woman rendered inert by Midas's insidious touch.

Seductive and easy on the eye, Klimt's painting makes few demands on the viewer. What began as an avant-garde movement has, ironically, ended up as art for those not really interested in the challenges of art. What once seemed fresh and new quickly became moribund, epitomising the decadence of fin de siècle Vienna. Chthonic, brilliant, darkly sexual, excessively decorative, the work of Klimt and his associates presents a vision of the collective id of a nation on the verge of disaster. If Sigmund Freud had not existed, the Viennese of the 1900s would certainly have needed to invent him.

Among the important paintings on show in Liverpool is the superbly crafted 1902 picture of Klimt's companion Emilie Flöge, dressed in a symphony of blue swirls and golden rectangles, and the Munch-like Nuda Veritas (1899). There are also the ghoulish symbolist heads of his Water Nymphs (c.1899), their dark, flowing locks echoing the cadaverous, snake-clad nudes of the unfinished Beethoven Frieze. And there is Judith II (Salome), with her exposed breasts, pale face, black hair and parted cherry lips. It takes a moment to notice that her eyes are hooded in an orgasmic trance as her hands claw at the locks of John the Baptist's severed head. This is a vision of a vagina dentata disguised in a swath of op-art gilded swirls. As for Portrait of Eugenia Prima vesi (1913-14), if it were not for her realistically painted face and hands, the dissolving floral patterns that surround her might almost be by Monet. And amid the landscapes, if you take away the realism of the tree trunks in The Park (1909-10), for example, you are left with pure Seurat.

One of the surprises of this exhibition is the person of Klimt himself - bearded, stocky and dressed in a mock-peasant smock. The contemporary photographs show him looking more like a balding, dishevelled farmer than a rarefied aesthete in the Aubrey Beardsley mould. It all began with high ideals: the founding of the Viennese Secession in 1897 is generally regarded as the birth of Viennese modernism. "To the Age its Art; To Art its Freedom" was the group's credo. Reinforced by its connections with the British Arts and Crafts movement, the aims were wide-ranging. The Wiener Werkstätte ("Viennese workshops"), started by the architect Josef Hoffmann, the designer Koloman Moser and the financier Fritz Wärndorfer, under the influence of Klimt, wanted to set up "a productive co-operative society of artist-craftsmen". Yet despite lip service to the ideals of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, there was no political agenda here, no agonising over the destiny of mankind. Art may have been regarded as a surrogate religion in a secular society, but it was a church that only the rich could afford to join. Mass production was, after all, for the masses.

The Wiener Werkstätte was elitist from the start, believing that it was "better to spend ten days on one thing than to produce ten things in one day". It was a reaction against the new industrialised processes that were churning out factory-made household goods and was, from the first, a movement that embraced only the few. An early marketing ploy by the fine Scottish craftsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to whom the founders turned for advice, was to encourage his Viennese colleagues to think in terms of "a brand" that would be known for "its individuality, beauty and precision". Every piece would be produced for a "specific purpose and place".

Just as much as Conran is today, this was art as a lifestyle choice. The meticulously designed interiors, with their matching cabinets and chairs, sugar bowls, light fittings, gorgeous cutlery and crafted loo-paper holders, all spoke of informed good taste. Even Klimt's tiepin and cufflinks, along with the jewellery he gave Emilie for Christmas, were made by the Wiener Werkstätte. But slowly this utopian vision of an aesthetic wholeness began to turn inward, away from any notion that this art might really be for general consumption by the Volk. In 1901 Hoffmann wrote that it was "no longer possible to convert the masses. Thus it is all the more urgent to satisfy the few who appeal to us." His talk of "a sense of priestly dignity" smacked of solipsism.

In his essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life", Georg Simmel, one of Germany's first generation of sociologists, argued that, as a society becomes ever more impersonal, people feel the need to assert their idiosyncratic individuality in the face of the dehumanising effects of the modern world. Gradually these highly ornate interiors of the rich became citadels against a different calibre of modernism that had been unleashed by the Machine Age and mass production. They provided retreats away from the messy problems of the public realm, places to disappear into the apparent luxury and safety of the private sphere. Rooms were so carefully co-ordinated, in colour, texture and form, as to resemble stage sets. "Even the electric chimes," the architect Adolf Loos remarked witheringly, "played motifs from Beethoven and Wagner."

Everything had its rightful place in this frozen perfectionism. No wonder Freud had a field day; it was as if all emotional, sexual and political disorder could be held down with the strictures of good design. Throughout the 19th century there had been utopian movements, particularly in fine art, which had sought to heal the prevailing social and political fissures through synthesis. The composer Richard Wagner espoused such ideas, along with the unification of German culture, with his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, described in his 1849 essays "The Artwork of the Future" and "Art and Revolution". It would not be too long until an altogether different synthesis would be proposed: the totalitarian state.

That so many of the Wiener Werkstätte's collectors were Jewish, including the wealthy industrialist father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is an interesting conundrum. It would be absurd to claim that either Klimt or the Secessionists in general were in any direct way precursors to Nazism, yet it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the deeply controlling aesthetics of the Secessionist drawing room set an aesthetic tone that would find an echo in the synchronised and highly staged rallies at Nuremberg, designed by that supremo of architectural synthesis, Albert Speer. Modernism had two possible roads to take through the wood of the first half of the 20th century. One road led towards totalitarian unity and synthesis, the other towards inevit able utopian collapse and the fragmented shards of postmodernism.

"Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900" is at Tate Liverpool until 31 August. www.tate.org.uk/liverpool

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