Seeing Like Klimt on an Austrian Lake

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The Viennese painter Gustav Klimt first visited the stunning turquoise waters of Lake Attersee, in northern Austria, as a young man in search of a summer refuge.

"It is terrible, awful here in Vienna," Klimt wrote to a friend. "Everything parched, hot, dreadful, all this work on top of it, the 'bustle' -- I long to be gone like never before."

The leader of Austria's turn-of-the-century modern art movement and Vienna's most famous painter was helping to support two lovers, two children, his mother and two unwed sisters. His need for escape should come as no surprise: fond of sketching naked models in his studio, he was facing accusations of pornography even as wealthy matrons were lining up to have him paint their portraits.

At the age of 38, Klimt journeyed to the Salzkammergut region and made his way to a stone-and-turreted villa at the northern tip of Lake Attersee, at the edge of the Austrian Alps. There, he shed city clothing for floor-length robes, temporarily abandoned his city mistresses and traded stylized portrait painting for the bracing, vivid landscapes of his summer idyll.

Klimt had found his sommerfrische -- literally, "summer fresh" -- the extended sojourn into this lake-dotted countryside that began as a tradition with the 19th-century Hapsburg emperors and is still beloved by Austrians. He returned to Lake Attersee for 15 more summers until his death in 1918, creating more than 45 of his 50 landscapes in the tiny lakefront towns of Seewalchen, Litzlberg and Weissenbach.

"Anyone who wants to know anything about me as an artist -- and this is the only thing that matters," Klimt famously told a journalist, "should look attentively at my pictures and try to discern from them who I am and what I want."

To even attempt to know the man behind Klimt's masterpieces, one must first go to Vienna. And then one must visit the Attersee, which retains the same open-air charm that drew royalty and artists here more than a century ago.

After a steaming week in Vienna researching Klimt's life and work for a novel -- and finding the city as hot and demanding as Klimt did -- my husband and I followed his footsteps and drove two and a half hours west, slipping into a low-key, lush countryside where extended families vacation in simple lake houses, cyclists spin through the valley on long treks and weekend sailors ply the lake waters.

We settled into a room with a sweeping water view at the Hotel-Restaurant Häupl and then headed out to follow some of Klimt's routine, rowing in an old-fashioned wooden boat for hours, diving from a silvered wooden dock into bracing water, dining on whole fish cooked on a long stick over open coals and hiking on lush hillsides.

The new Gustav Klimt Center, perched at the lake's edge, was our base of operations. The museum's opening last July, timed to mark the 150th anniversary of Klimt's birth, coincides with a renewed interest in his pastoral paintings. For decades his iconic gold- and silver-accented works, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" and "The Kiss," eclipsed his innovative landscapes. But in 2011 his colorful "Litzlberg on Attersee" was auctioned at Sotheby's for $40.4 million, and last year the Leopold Museum in Vienna mounted a retrospective that gave equal weight to his landscapes. The new museum at the lake beautifully and intimately highlights Klimt's connection to the lake and its surroundings.

"The story here is that you can see all of Klimt's motifs," said Sandra Tretter, a curator at the center and at the Leopold. "For 27 of his landscape paintings you can stand where he stood and see the view, see what he left out and what he included."

The center, modestly tucked between the gated Schloss Kammer castle and the local marina, also offers a multimedia history of the painter's summer life, and a self-guided walking audio tour along the Gustav Klimt Theme Trail, which turns the towns of Seewalchen, Kammer and Schörfling into an open-air extension of the museum. The tour led us to colorful kiosks along the water where we were treated to a recap of the artist's career highlights, after which we climbed aboard a small motorized skiff with a local guide for a private tour we had arranged through the Attersee tourism office.

The lake water was a brilliant, almost unreal blue and the breeze was making a brisk headwind as we left the shore, eyes peeled for the highlights of the landscape Klimt immortalized in his work.

"Klimt painted here only for himself," our guide, Katrin Mekiska, told us as we approached the private Litzlberg Island, where the artist stayed for a time. "He mostly painted from the rooms where he lived. He opened the window and he painted."

A bulky man with a sprightly face, Klimt must have cut an unusual figure as he stomped about the area in his trademark loose-flowing robes. He often went for long walks through the foothills, sometimes carrying a sketchpad. The locals nicknamed him the Wood Goblin or Wood Gnome, and apparently laughed when they saw him rowing to the middle of the lake with art supplies in tow.

Onboard our own small boat, Ms. Mekiska gave us an exact replica of the 1.75-inch-square cardboard stencil Klimt used to isolate and frame small chunks of the landscape here. The artist called this stencil his "seeker"; it is the tool that changed the way he saw and painted the lake and its surroundings.

We were invited to look across the lake as the artist did: with one eye closed, seeking a tiny square of scenery worthy of an entire painting. Peering through Klimt's "seeker" allowed us to understand exactly how this modest device led the painter to flatten perspective, raise the horizon line and fill a large canvas with blue water and only a sliver of sky -- a revolutionary vision that he immortalized in his 1900 landmark work, "On Lake Attersee."

"It was really kind of brave," Ms. Mekiska said. "He wanted something new," and he created it here by fusing a modern and boundaryless view of nature with color and emotion.

Back on shore, my husband and I made our way to the stone-and-turreted Villa Paulick, where Klimt stayed on his first trips to the lake and which continued to be the centerpiece of his social life in the Salzkammergut region.

Klimt never married, but his younger brother wed Helene Flöge, who ran a fashionable couture shop in Vienna with her sister, Emilie. Cemented by the bond of creative arts and shared affection for Ms. Flöge's niece -- Gertrude Flöge, known as Trudie -- Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge became lifelong companions (although reportedly not lovers) and spent their summers together at the Attersee. Ms. Flöge's brother married into the Paulick family, and the Villa Paulick became the three families' meeting place.

Tucked behind a hedgerow and buttressed against the lakeshore, the villa can be elusive for first-time visitors. But after learning from a Viennese museum curator that his wife rents a room at the villa each summer, my husband and I made a few local inquiries, procured an invitation and entered the Villa Paulick through the old garden gate. We soon fell under its spell and succumbed to the charm of its spirited owner, 84-year-old Erika Messner.

"I inherited this home from Trudie 40 years ago," Ms. Messner said, speaking through a guest who translated from German. "She left it to me instead of to her family, because she knew I would keep it as it was, in the original."

In a long, Klimt-like robe, Ms. Messner glided like an apparition through wood-filled parlor rooms in which all windows opened to the Attersee. The spaces -- full of original straw chairs, wood and metal furnishings, red velvet upholstery, cozy window seats and cool stone porches -- offered the same sense of deep, eternal ease they must have a century ago. Far below us, Klimt's refurbished rowboat bobbed in the shady lake house, awaiting a captain.

Regina Führlinger, an academic from Vienna who has returned to the villa for more than 15 summers, was kind enough to show us her jewelry box of a room under the rooftop eaves, where she sleeps in Emilie Flöge's carved oak bed and shares a single bathroom with the villa's other guests.

After leaving the lake in September 1913, Klimt wrote to Ms. Flöge of his trip home: "Had very mixed feelings during the journey (as if a piece of me was missing)."

For those staying at the Villa Paulick, like Romona Uhl, a professor from Linz, there are no mixed feelings.

"To me this is paradise," Ms. Uhl said as she waited for her teenage daughter to join her in the lush garden. "Now I know where God lives in the summer."

IF YOU GO

The Gustav Klimt Center (Hauptstrasse 30, Schörfling; 43-664-828-3390; klimt-am-attersee.at) is your starting point. Admission is 5 euros (about $6.50 at $1.31 to the euro); an additional 3 euros for a self-guided audio tour of the lakefront kiosks on the Gustav Klimt Theme Trail. Contact the Attersee tourism office at the center (info@klimt-am-attersee.at) to book guided tours and boat trips from 13 euros; private boat tours start at 140 euros.

Where to Stay and Eat

Call the Villa Paulick (Promenade 12, Seewalchen am Attersee; 43-0-7662-2412) to secure one of its seven rooms, all but one with shared bath (from 39 euros a person; includes breakfast). July and August are especially busy.

The four-star, family-owned Hotel-Restaurant Häupl (Hauptstrasse 20, A-4863 Seewalchen am Attersee; 43-7662-298-60; hotel-haeupl.at/en) offers lake view terraces and balconies plus excellent meals from the acclaimed chef Klaus Kobald (166 euros for doubles includes a breakfast buffet served tableside; dinner is around 150 euros for two, with wine).

Hotel Seegasthof Oberndorfer (Hauptstrasse 18, Attersee am Attersee; 43-7666-78640; oberndorfer.info), on the lake, has a private dock and 23 rooms (from 68.50 euros a person; includes breakfast).

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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