Art

The Immersive Klimt Exhibit in Scottsdale Is Full of Surprises

Klimt's most popular works, like The Kiss, are in the show.
Klimt's most popular works, like The Kiss, are in the show. Lighthouse Artspace


When Immersive Van Gogh opened last year at the Lighthouse Artspace in Old Town Scottsdale, it was an immediate hit, and social media feeds were full of photos and videos of residents and tourists taking in the experience.

Last month, Lighthouse added Immersive Klimt to the mix, based on the life and work of Austria artist Gustav Klimt. The two experiences, Klimt and Van Gogh, will show in the same space at different times. But don't expect them to be the same.

Immersive Van Gogh is simple and beautiful, with the Dutch artist's post-Impressionist loveliness moving and morphing to a gentle classical score.

Immersive Klimt is darker, racier, and more challenging for the viewer — which ultimately makes for a more interesting experience.

Van Gogh and Klimt are the first two parts of a trilogy envisioned by the show's creator, Massimiliano Siccardi, according to Lighthouse creative consultant Richard Ouzounian, who was in town for the opening.

"Massimiliano, after he did Van Gogh for us, said, 'If you want more, my dream initially is to do a trilogy of Van Gogh, Klimt, and Kahlo, because I feel they were the three great revolutionaries, each in their own way.' He said, 'Van Gogh personalized putting his entire life and mental state and everything, just throwing it on the canvas. Klimt was the person who led the whole cultural revolution in Vienna, and his work evolved, and he became, I feel, prophetic. And then Frida was a revolutionary on fronts for all the areas she fought in: in racism, in feminism, in ableism, and all these things. So they were the three revolutionaries,'" Ouzounian says.

The show opens with falling pieces of sketch paper, and photos of Klimt going up in flames.

"Klimt believed that you should always paint with passion, and passion should burn," Ouzounian says.

click to enlarge A scene from Immersive Klimt. - LIGHTHOUSE ARTSPACE
A scene from Immersive Klimt.
Lighthouse Artspace

Over the next hour or so, viewers will see the evolution of Klimt's work put in the context of the world of late-19th and early 20th-century Vienna. Klimt's career in painting began with classical training, and his early works bear the hallmarks of the standard style of the time.

"In the beginning, he was doing all the great Romantics," Ouzounian says. "But then he kept trying to paint with his own voice, his own stuff."

As befits a man who never married but had 14 children, Immersive Klimt is full of images of women, clothed and unclothed. Whatever state of dress they're in, his female subjects stare directly at the viewer, challenging them to engage.

The amount of nudity, Ouzounian says, makes Immersive Klimt perhaps not a show for young children.

"We are saying this is not a family show. We don’t think anything in here is obscene, but we’re calling it a date night show, or take the college kids."

Klimt took a lot of inspiration from time he spent in Ravenna, Italy, an era of his life that figures prominently in the show. We see how Roman Empire iconography and early Christian architecture influenced some of his work.

An unexpected aspect of the show comes in the form of the work of Egon Schiele, the Austrian Expressionist painter who was a colleague and mentee of Klimt.

In contrast to the serenity and beauty of Klimt's best-known works, Schiele's paintings are rough and intense, full of sexuality and feeling.

"What is fascinating and what will be a thing that emerges in this is Schiele was a very troubled young man. He also painted endless self-portraits. He was arrested for pornography several times," Ouzounian says. "But Klimt, people asked 'Why are you staying with him?' and Klimt would say, 'I think he has great talent.'

"By the end of their lives, people were saying he was going to be the person to succeed Klimt. He had settled down and ceased being so difficult."

Instead, just six months after Klimt died from a stroke and pneumonia brought on by the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, Schiele died of the Spanish flu. He was only 28.

Ouzounian acknowledges that dropping Schiele's work into a show about Klimt could be confusing for the viewer.

"We have some printed stuff to pass out. One of the questions is, how much do you tell? What I’m trying to suggest [audiences] do is to dive in."

The highlight of Immersive Klimt for many viewers will be the section devoted to the artist's most well-known and beloved works, gold-hued masterpieces like The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (commonly known as the Woman in Gold).

That portion of the show is set to a recording of "Un bel dì, vedremo," a well-known aria from the opera Madame Butterfly.

"Massimiliano deliberately picked a recording of Maria Callas doing it in the 1950s," Ouzounian says. "Because also the recording itself, it’s a 1950s recording. It’s not digitally pure, but yet Callas had great passion."

click to enlarge The tree of life was a frequent subject of Klimt's. - LIGHTHOUSE ARTSPACE
The tree of life was a frequent subject of Klimt's.
Lighthouse Artspace

What follows this emotional and artistic high point is a descent into some of Klimt's darker works that he created near the end of his life.

"It partially could have been World War I, which had just ended, which was horrible, or the rise of the pandemic, or his feelings of his own mortality but he did explore death a lot more," Ouzounian says.

Images of skulls done in dark palettes give way to versions of the Tree of Life, a symbol that Klimt painted frequently in his later years.

The meditations on morality were all too real to the Italian creative team; they were working on Immersive Klimt during the time when COVID-19 was ravaging Italy, Ouzounian says, and a number of people on the team got sick and some also lost friends or family to the pandemic.

But, not wanting to leave the show on a down note, Immersive Klimt finishes with a wild, animated segment in which snippets of Klimt art dance around on screen to a techno-pop soundtrack.

What the viewer comes away with, then, is a deeper understanding of an artist who is so much more than just his most famous works, and an appreciation of the triumph of life and joy over darkness and death.

"This ends with an absolute explosion of joy with techno-pop music and images selected from Klimt that look like a modern art gallery," Ouzounian says. "This is supposed to be: You’ve been through all of that, now come out the other end and live, which Klimt wanted people to do. Any man who had 14 illegitimate children and 32 cats had to want you to live."

Immersive Klimt plays most days at the Lighthouse Artspace, 4301 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. Check the website for showtimes and ticket prices.
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Jennifer Goldberg is the culture editor and Best of Phoenix editor for Phoenix New Times.