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As European Capital of Culture 2008, Liverpool is hosting a motley selection of events, ranging from a performance of Chinese reggae music to the British Musical Fireworks Championships and sightings of the celebrity divorcé Sir Paul McCartney. But among all the paste there is at least one real gem: ‘Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900’ (to 31 August) at Tate Liverpool. The gallery is heralding the show as the first comprehensive exhibition of Klimt’s work ever staged in the UK. This is somewhat disingenuous: among the 270 exhibits fewer than a fifth are by him — some 26 paintings and 29 drawings. Nevertheless Klimt is a rare beast on these shores, so such an array represents riches indeed.

Despite its grand temporary title Liverpool has not managed to attract many of the key images — so no The Kiss, for example, and no portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (at $135 million, the world’s most expensive painting) — but it does have pieces from every stage of his career. Perhaps as a result, the curators have had to show some imagination to dress up this Klimtian core into something more substantial. What they have come up with is Klimt’s role at the heart of the Viennese avant-garde and how for periods of his career the traditional designation of painter applied to him less than did the rather more prosaic label of decorator.

This may seem a reductionist approach to such a lauded artist, but it is nevertheless a valid one. Klimt once wrote, “Whoever wants to know something about me ought to look carefully at my pictures and try and see in them what I am.” What you see in his pictures is his provenance: he was the son of a gold and silver engraver and cut his teeth as a mural painter. It was an inheritance that shaped him and one that he never tried to shake off.

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