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/Beethoven Frieze

Today the Beethoven Frieze is considered one of Klimt’s key works and a highlight of Viennese Art Nouveau.
Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries, 1902, detail, photo: Jorit Aust
Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries, 1902, detail, photo: Jorit Aust

/The 1902 Beethoven Exhibition

Gustav Klimt created the famous Beethoven Frieze for the XIVth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, which was held between April 15 and June 27, 1902. Conceived as a tribute to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, the presentation epitomized the Secessionists’ vision of an encompassing synthesis of the arts. Twenty-one artists worked together under the direction of Josef Hoffmann.


At the center of the exhibition, in the main hall, stood Max Klinger’s Beethoven statue. In addition to Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, the show featured wall paintings and decorations by Alfred Roller, Adolf Böhm, Ferdinand Andri and numerous other artists. The stated objective was to reunite the separate arts—architecture, painting, sculpture and music—under a common theme: the “work of art” was to emerge from the interplay of the design of the rooms and the wall paintings and sculptures.


Klimt’s monumental wall cycle was located in the left-hand aisle, which visitors to the exhibition entered first. An opening in the wall offered a view of Max Klinger’s Beethoven statue, hinting at the intended synergy of architecture, painting (Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze) and sculpture (Klinger’s Beethoven).


With nearly 60,000 visitors, the XIVth exhibition was one of the Secession’s greatest public successes. It also proved crucial to Klimt’s further development, as well as that of numerous other participating artists: the ideal of the interplay and aesthetic integration of all artistic disciplines and the collaboration tested in the Beethoven exhibition was successfully continued by the Wiener Werkstätte, among others.

/story of the beethoven frieze

Between the sensational first presentation as part of the XIVth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists in 1902 and its permanent installation in the Secession’s basement, Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze had a turbulent history. It was originally intended as an ephemeral work of art; like the other decorative paintings, it was to be removed after the closing of the exhibition. It was only owing to fortunate circumstances that the frieze was not destroyed as planned: the Secession had scheduled a major Klimt retrospective for the following year (XVIIIth exhibition, 1903), and it was decided to leave the work of art in place.


In 1903, the arts patron and collector Carl Reinighaus purchased the frieze, which was cut into eight pieces to be removed from the wall and stored for twelve years in a furniture depot in Vienna until, in 1915, Reinighaus sold the frieze to the industrialist August Lederer. With his wife Serena, Lederer was one of Klimt’s most important supporters and owner of what was probably the most extensive and important private collection of Klimt’s works at the time.


After several relocations and many years in storage, the work was in poor condition. Upon acquisition by the Republic of Austria, it was restored in a ten-year effort by a team led by Manfred Koller of the Vienna branch of the Federal Office of Monuments.


Finally, as part of the general renovation of the Secession in 1985, a room was created in the basement for the Beethoven Frieze. The dimensions of this room were carefully chosen to allow for the optimum climate conditions required for the frieze’s conservation and make it possible to present the work separately from the Secession’s ongoing exhibition programming.


Since 1986, the wall cycle, on permanent loan to the Secession from the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, has been on public display in the building for which it was originally created.

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, 1902, installation view Secession, photo: Jorit Aust

Erdaushub für den Klimt-Raum im Untergeschoss der Secession | Photo: Margherita Spiluttini

/Iconographic Program and Symbolism

“Three important innovations can be observed in Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze: the two-dimensional depiction and the monumental isolation of the human figure, the expressive use of the line, and the dominant role of ornament. Klimt’s participation in the Beethoven experiment marks the beginning of his famous ‘golden period.’ Today, the monumental allegory is seen as a key work in the artist’s development.”

(Marian Bisanz-Prakken, The Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession, in Gustav Klimt – Beethoven Frieze, Vienna Secession, 2002)


The theme of the frieze is based on Richard Wagner’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The three painted walls, beginning with the lateral wall on the left, lay out a cohesive narrative of man’s quest for happiness.

Contemporary Criticism

While many of Klimt’s fellow artists hailed the Beethoven Frieze with enthusiastic praise, the general public and the contemporary press frequently responded with indignation or even outrage. Klimt’s art, which enjoys such widespread popularity today, was regarded by many of his contemporaries as incomprehensible, scandalous, and “obscene”.


In the case of the Beethoven Frieze, it was primarily the central wall with the “hostile forces” that elicited outrage: the depictions of Sickness, Madness, Death and the angular expressive figure of Gnawing Grief were decried as “images of madness and fixed ideas”, “pathological scenes”, and “shameless caricatures of the noble human figure”; the lewd eroticism of the Gorgons and the depictions of Lasciviousness and Wantonness was denounced by many as “painted pornography”.

Art Restitution Advisory Board
/Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen. A New Look at the Beethoven Frieze

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen

A New Look at the Beethoven Frieze

Thursday, 16.11.2023, 6.30 p.m. 

Lecture (in English) on the occasion of the Secession’s 125th anniversary

In cooperation with the Friends of the Secession


In her book Modern Art & the Remaking of Human Disposition (University of Chicago Press, 2021), Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen singles out Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze as the groundbreaking work of art marking the inception of modernism. She proposes a surprising new reading of the iconography of the mural, created in 1902 for a temporary exhibition in Beethoven’s honor at the Secession.

Placing particular emphasis on fundamental dimensions of the depiction of bodies in Klimt’s oeuvre—bodily weightlessness, buoyancy, and the characteristic motif of the “floating head”—the lecture will demonstrate that the Beethoven Frieze is a privileged artifact: it can help us understand a much broader phenomenon in European art and culture around 1900 that also reflects recent insights into human consciousness and the mind–body relation in art. 


Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen is a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She holds a PhD in art history from Princeton University.

/Beethoven – Painting and Music

In 2020, the Secession partnered with the Wiener Symphoniker to celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday with a singular multimedia experience. For the first time, our visitors will now be able to experience the Beethoven Frieze with musical accompaniment. Using headphones, they will hear the fourth movement of the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (Finale Presto—Allegro assai, duration ca. 20 min.) in an award-winning recording by the Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. This unique experience will enhance their enjoyment of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze by giving them an intuitive grasp of the musical inspiration that went into the work: Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, on permanent display at the Secession, was created as a translation of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony into visual art.


For their project The Road to Beethoven, the Wiener Symphoniker have produced their first-ever complete set of recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies. The works were performed in the Golden Hall of the Wiener Musikverein under the direction of the orchestra’s principal conductor, Philippe Jordan. The final movement of the 9th Symphony also features the Singverein, conducted by Johannes Prinz, and the soloists Anja Kampe, Daniel Sindram, Burkhard Fritz, and René Pape.


Gustav Klimt created the Beethoven Frieze for the Secession’s XIVth exhibition in 1902. Conceived as a total work of art with a unified theme, a guiding idea in the Secessionists’ artistic program, the exhibition synthesized architecture, painting, and sculpture for a tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven on the 75th anniversary of his death. Around the turn of the century, Ludwig van Beethoven was an object of positively cultlike veneration as the embodiment of the divinely gifted suffering artist. Twenty-one members of the artists’ association staged their contributions around Max Klinger’s central statue of the composer. Gustav Klimt’s monumental cycle of wall paintings was originally mounted in the left-hand-side nave of the Secession’s main hall, facing the statue.

Beethovenfries. Raum- und Klangerlebnis

A key work of the creative awakening at the dawn of the twentieth century, the Beethoven Frieze unfolds a sprawling narrative across three walls that is propelled by man’s yearning for happiness. In the final scene, female figures—allegories of the arts—guide the quester into the realm of the ideal. Klimt’s apotheosis of art, which shows a couple kissing before the chorus of the angels of paradise, contains a direct reference to Beethoven. “Joy, beautiful divine spark!—This kiss for the whole world,” the chorus sings in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which is based on Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy.


Ludwig van Beethoven, fourth movement of the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 / Finale Presto
Wiener Symphoniker, Conductor: Philippe Jordan
Soloists: Anja Kampe, Daniela Sindram, Burkhard Fritz, René Pape
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Choirmaster: Johannes Prinz



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