A visit to any souvenir shop in Vienna’s first district will confirm that Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss has been printed on every object under the sun, from umbrellas to paper tissues (and perhaps toilet paper). Even if you never make it to Belvedere Museum which has The Kiss, the painting is everywhere you look.

So you can imagine what a breath of fresh air it was to forget about The Kiss for a few hours and discover Klimt’s earlier works at the Kunsthistorisches Museum with Instagramers Vienna. I didn’t even know these existed, let alone in such an unusual location.

Curious lion observing the Stairway to Klimt

Klimt was the most famous member of the Vienna Secession movement. The Secessionists broke away from traditional Austrian art at the end of the 19th century to create with more freedom in an increasingly modern and vibrant city, then still the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. My favorite Vienna Secession works are posters and Otto Wagner’s architecture.

This year the Kunsthistorisches Museum is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Klimt’s death with Stairway to Klimt. This is a stairway above the museum’s main staircase that allows visitors to get close to 13 portraits painted by young Klimt and his associates before the museum opened in 1891. The portraits sit on arcades between columns, close to the ceiling of the enormous building. Each portrait represents a period in art history, which explains the painter’s nods to Florentine, Venetian, Roman and Egyptian art.

I found it fascinating that the paintings have little in common with Klimt’s later style (as they heavily reference the major historical styles mentioned above), but it’s still obvious that he is the author. I believe it’s something in the eyes and reserved facial expressions. Apparently Klimt was ordered to use gold in these portraits to fit the location, which later inspired his famous paintings.

Due to low light and decades of distance from visitors, the paintings are fantastically preserved. The stairway will remain until September 2018. Don’t miss it if you’re interested in Klimt beyond checking The Kiss off your to-do list.

Address: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Maria-Theresien-Platz, 1010 Wien

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