A Viennese whirl through the life of Klimt

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The Austrian capital is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth. Adrian Mourby explores the city he called home

Gustav Klimt prompts are everywhere in Vienna, in this the 150th anniversary of his birth. Naked Klimt women gaze out from hoardings, shops sell jewellery and clothes based on his gold-leaf extravaganzas and nine museums are displaying his canvases in the city that he made home. So I was sorry to find no plaque marking 21 Josefstadterstrasse, where Klimt had his studio in the garden.

I was sadder still, a few blocks downhill, to find that the university for which Klimt painted three faculty panels (1900-07) has only black and white photos of these remarkable paintings. The originals were destroyed at the end of the First World War.

Better to start, then, at the Burgtheater (00 43 1 51444 4140; burgtheater.at; Klimt tours on Fridays to Sundays) on Dr-Karl-Lueger-Ring. This sturdy but rather dull replacement for the theatre where Mozart premiered The Marriage of Figaro was completed in 1888.

Unfortunately for him, the artist commissioned to decorate the ceilings over the theatre's two monumental staircases died before completion so Gustav, his brother Ernst and brother-in-law Franz Matsch successfully bid to paint the 10 panels. Klimt, aged 24, contributed an idealised image of Shakespeare's Globe during a performance of Romeo and Juliet.

He pictured himself in Elizabethan garb, in the audience, a rare self-portrait. Upstairs, in the Klimtraum, you can see Klimt's life-size preparatory sketch, which was only recently discovered in the theatre.

The theatre itself was bombed in 1945, which was bad enough, but the 1950s rebuild was worse. Fortunately, sandbagging saved these two grandiose Hapsburg staircases and their precious souvenirs of early Klimt from the RAF.

Continue south along Burgring, part of the circular Ringstrasse that surrounds the Innere Stadt, to arrive at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (00 43 1 525240; khm.at) which has a lovely restaurant on the piano nobile. To get to it, you climb another massive marble staircase over which a temporary platform has been built so that visitors can get up close and personal to one of Klimt's first public nudes. This Egyptian figure is one of several commissioned to fit into spandrels and intercolumniations when Klimt, Ernst and Franz Matsch took on this staircase in 1890.

Now cross Museumplatz to the former imperial stables where the city has created a multi-venue arts complex, which includes the Leopold Museum (00 43 1 525700; leopoldmuseum.org). Klimt painted no ceilings here, but there are some jolly photos of him and his muse, Emilie Floge, in an exhibition about the artist's travels (until 27 August). There are also hundreds of his postcards to Emilie, many of which read like contemporary texting.

"Katzenjammer heftig", he writes about his ferocious hangover after arriving in London in 1905. Monochrome images of Klimt and Emilie having fun on the Attersee belie the erotically tortured work he was creating at the time. His famous Life and Death (1910-15) hangs in a room near by.

Emilie may well have been the woman disappearing into the painter's embrace in Klimt's iconic The Kiss (1907-08). What is less well known about her is that she ran a successful couturier's business in Mariahilferstrasse, the street next to the Leopold Museum. Walk as far as number 1b and there's a plaque commemorating her on the outside of what is now the Humanic shoe shop.

Returning to Museumplatz, it's already possible to see the Secession Building (00 43 1 587 5307; secession.at) at the end of Getreidemarkt. Given its cupola of golden laurels, this iconic white cube could have been designed by Klimt – but it wasn't. Klimt was, however, the first president of the Secessionist movement from 1897 to 1905, after he and a number of colleagues broke away from the Association of Austrian Artists. Klimt's famous Beethoven Frieze (1902) is now housed in the basement. By this time he had embraced a two-dimensional symbolism of feverish naked women, eunuchs, madames and monsters.

If you cross Operngasse to Café Museum (00 43 1 2410 0620; cafemuseum.at) at number 7, you're back in Viennese café society. This unremarkable corner building was originally decorated in contrasting reds and greens by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. It was Klimt's local for many years.

Unfortunately, Loos's garish colour scheme was replaced by something more anaemic in 1931 and this style pertains today. It's a reasonable place to use as a pit stop before crossing Karlsplatz to the Wien Museum (00 43 1 5058 7470; wienmuseum.at), which opened its own Klimt display on Wednesday. This includes the famous portrait of Emilie (1902) that seems to be more about the blue dress than the woman wearing it. Emilie manifested her dislike by selling it on.

Carry on round the Ringstrasse and there's even more Klimt at the Belvedere (00 43 1 795 570; belvedere.at) and MAK (00 43 1 712 80 00; mak.at). But I'd say linger over your lunch – there's only so much Klimt you can do in one day.

Fresh cuts

Madame Tussauds Vienna (00 43 1 8903366; madametussauds.com) opened last year on the Prater with some very convincing Austrian icons – where else could you rub shoulders all at once with the enigmatic Empress Sisi, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franz Schubert? They've also joined in 2012's Klimtomania with a waxwork of the artist, dressed in his famous blue kaftan, his hair receding, squaring up to an equally shaggy Albert Einstein.

The new Sofitel Stephansdom (00 43 1 906 160; sofitel.com) is Vienna's newest hotel sensation with interiors by Jean Nouvel, an Antoine Westermann restaurant on the 18th floor and, so it is claimed, the largest bed in Vienna at 3 x 2.1metres.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Vienna is served from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; aua.com) and from Gatwick by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com).

Staying there

Hotel Das Tyrol, Mariahilfer Strasse 15 (00 43 1587 5415; das-tyrol.at). Doubles start at €149 (£119), including breakfast.

Hotel Imperial, Karntner Ring 16 (00 43 1 501100; hotelimperialvienna.com). Doubles start at €439, room only.

More information

Vienna Tourist Board: vienna.info.

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