November 15, 2022 was Saint Leopold’s Day in Vienna. It is an annual public holiday in Austria, intended to commemorate the Austrian Prince Leopold’s death on the same date in 1136. As is tradition, there is rejoicing and life, and the Leopold Museum is free for guests. Lorenz Trattner and Florian Wagner of Letzte Generation walked among them—the latter carrying a hot water bottle filled with black liquid concealed as a paunch under a thick white sweater.
The museum event was sponsored by OMV, an oil and gas company. The activists chose this date for their protest precisely because OMV continues to drill for new oil, even locally. They believe it cannot sustain.
Death and Life — Tod und Leben. It’s not a dramatic turn of phrase by the Letzte Generation activists shouting through Austria’s streets, but the name of the Gustav Klimt painting from 1911. This work was fitting for Saint Leopold’s day, ever-fluid in the ongoing cycle.
Klimt had previously explored the theme in Tree of Life from 1909, but this painting took on a new macabre. He later painted over the Death and Live in 1915 to increase the somber tones, covering gold leaf and even slipping onto the frame designed by Josef Hoffman. This modification was not considered damage—rather, it was a message of pathos and desperation.
Florian Wagner was not aware of the more detailed backstory of the painting Death and Life, but he knew it held great power, and that the title said it all. At 30 years old, he began his career studying agriculture and working on big German farms, then pursued a master’s degree in political economics to focus on climate change.
Wagner felt privileged to have the benefit of the tangible experience with the land and the abstract education on carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses. He became active in Democratic groups, founding initiatives and acting as a board member at Mehr Demokratie Österreich. He petitioned, campaigned, and demonstrated…all to no avail.
“I always thought we just had to develop democracy and then people would be able to vote for what they believed in, and things would be better,” Wagner said before adding a sad laugh. “But then I saw that, well, there’s just no time left.”
His optimism was waning.
“I kind of realized that it was an illusion, and that there have been lots of mistakes,” he continued. “ …We saw what happened in the last three decades, and people are not doing something. Everybody knows that it’s a problem and it’s not happening.”
The demonstration in front of the Klimt painting was more about reaching people. The slew of painting splashes over the last few months seems calibrated. From mashed potatoes at a Monet painting at London’s National Gallery to tomato soup on a Van Gogh by Just Stop Oil activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, it seems like these incidents will not stop until their message is heard and their demands are met.
Wagner practiced tirelessly for what he saw as a staged incident, a performance, as a way to effectively reach people. He knew there was a 10-centimeter gap between the painting and the protective class. He threw the liquid around six times in his shower to make sure he wouldn’t miss and accidentally damage other works, rehearsing his diction with a friend who studied theater, writing the thoughtful phrases:
We have known the problem for 50 years, and yet global emissions are higher than ever. We are headed towards an irreversible tipping point in the Earth’s climate system. This will lead to heat waves and droughts. Farming will no longer function.
In the moment, he was careful to throw from the left to avoid splatter onto the other paintings. But when it came to his well-articulated speech, he choked, repeating the first line over and over somewhat hysterically, then freestyling as the guard did what Wagner called “a little dance”.
“The planet will be destroyed! Stop the drilling! The climate will be in a hole!”
Paramedics and police rushed into the room. In later Q&A with Museum Director Hans-Peter Wipplinger for Falter.at, the professional disparaged the act, unequivocally calling it an attack. Ukrainian children recently displaced by war were present and he felt they had been retraumatized. The museum subsequently received more intense threats of damage from other organizations, and Wipplinger worried the next attack would cause irreversible damage and loss to the collection.
As is often repeated by art world professionals, there had to be a better way.
“In terms of content, we are not so dissimilar,” Wipplinger told Wagner in the German-language paper, “That’s why we’re definitely the wrong target.”
But where Plummer and Holland channeled the suffragettes, Wagner thought of Arnulf Rainer’s The Great Composers, in which the Viennese artist would obscure images of Johannes Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfang Amadeus Mozart, and others for shock value. He even painted over photographs of himself. The intention was the message. If you can’t shock people, how else will you get through to them?
Just as was the case for the Just Stop Oil activists in Britain, the debate continues over the true fiscal value of the perceived damage. Trattner and Wagner did not seek to damage the painting, and despite the mess, nothing was knowingly harmed. But Wipplinger pointed to the insurance value of the work, which suddenly jumped from 60 to 140 million Euros. The museum director claimed the institution would no longer be able to afford the work, and that the damage was fiscal rather than literal.
This raises the interesting question of valuation, but also of the secondary market. Because wealthier collectors have the financial means to step in and ‘save’ museums, the curators and believers in public access are often beholden to the ultra-wealthy and unsavory characters. In this case, the necessity of OMV’s involvement at the Leopold Museum may have been cyclical. Where there is life, there is death.
Originally titled “Death” when exhibited at an International Exhibition of Art in Rome, the Klimt painting received a gold medal and was subsequently renamed to add “Life”.
On the “Life” side of the painting, joy abounds. Fresh faces of the young and vital, including a mother and beautiful nude, all point to a sense of optimism and hope. After all, life is the end of the story, not the beginning.
During the 1915 modification, Klimt also added new figures to the Life section, heightening the chasm between the two worlds with vibrancy and hope. As he passed away just three years later in 1918, perhaps the painting edit was a moment of remembrance for a life well lived—a chance to say goodbye.
For Wagner, the optimism that was lost in traditional activism and intention has been renewed through his newfound connection with the painting. He saw Klimt as a social reformer, whose revolutionary artistry in the Jugendstil movement was a break from traditional styles.
“If you know Klimt, you know that he has been a social reformer, and he’s part of the group Wiener Moderne. These people, they always aim to change something about fundamental values in society,” Wagner said. “I think that’s the real value of art, to bring something new into the game, to have a new grasp on fundamental values and to bring them into a picture so that people can see it.”
To Wagner, the message was temporarily lost in the shuffle of collectors.
“He’s obligated to represent this insane art market thing where people just try to have an asset in order to save their wealth, not their profits. As for the real value of art, to be a renewing force for society, I don’t see that the museum contributes to that.”
If nothing else, at least dialogue has been sparked.
“If the discussion escalates, it can’t be ignored anymore,” Wanger concluded with renewed optimism that began his journey a decade ago. “I believe that more and more people will realize the dimension of this crisis. That’s my hope.”