Gustav Klimt is remembered as one of the greatest decorative painters of the XX century and Vienna’s most renowned advocator of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil who produced one of the century’s most significant bodies of erotic art.
His artistic style was determinedly eclectic, borrowing motifs from Greek, Byzantine and Egyptian art, inspired by the ethereal atmosphere of work by artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, and by some aspects of Impressionist technique.
Although Klimt’s art in widely popular nowadays, it was neglected for much of the 20th century, provoked opposition in his own day, facing charges of obscenity and objections to his lightly allusive approach to symbolism.
His treatment of erotic themes was delicate in general, and veiled in his paintings, but his drawings gave full expression to his considerable sexual appetite.
Youth & Family
Gustav Klimt was the second of the seven children born to Ernst Klimt, a Bohemian immigrant and gold engraver, and Anne Finster, an aspiring but unsuccessful musical performer who had never realized her dream of becoming a professional musician.
The Klimt family was poor, as work was scarce in the early years of the Habsburg Empire, especially for immigrants, due in large part to the 1873 stock market crash.
Klimt and his two brothers, Ernst and Georg, at an early age, displayed obvious artistic gifts; Gustav was singled out by his instructors as an exceptional draftsman while attending secondary school.
In October 1876, when he was fourteen, Klimt was encouraged by his relative to take the entrance examination for the Viennese School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstwerbeschule) and he passed with distinction. He got a full scholarship, which was no small matter considering the both his youth and the relative poverty in which he had been raised.
Klimt began his formal training in Vienna at a time known as the Ringstrasse Era, when the city was undergoing massive change. The center was constructed as one giant ring, and the bourgeois class was patronizing the arts as never before.
Vienna was entering its Golden Age of industry, science and research, but one thing Vienna did not have yet, however, was a revolutionary spirit towards the arts.
The Kunstgewerbeschule’s teaching methods and curriculum were fairly traditional for their time, something Klimt never questioned or changed. He received a conservative, classical training; through an intensive training in drawing, he was changed with faithfully copying decorations, designs and plaster casts of classic sculptures.
From the very beginning, Klimt impressed his teachers and joining a special class with a focus on painting. During the training, his work included close studies of the works of Titian, Hans Makart, the most famous Viennese historical painter of the Ringstrasse Era, and Pieter Paul Rubens.
Klimt became a huge admirer of Makart and especially his technique which employed dramatic effects of light and a pretty evident love for pageantry and theatricality.
Before leaving the Kunstgewerbeschule, Klimt’s painting class was joined by his younger brother Ernst and a young painter Franz Matsch, another gifted Viennese artist who specialized in large-scale decorative works. Matsch and Klimt both ended their studies in 1883, and together, the two rented a large studio in Vienna.
Calling themselves the Company of Artists, they agreed to focus their work on murals and also to set aside any personal artistic inclinations in favor of the historical style popular among Vienna’s upper class and aristocracy at that time.
The decision proved to be a good one, as it not only won them numerous commissions to paint theaters, churches and other public space, but also allowed them to work interchangeably on their projects
The two, soon became artists in high demand among the city’s cultural elite, including society figures, public officials and prominent architects
In 1888, the Vienna City Council commissioned each artist to create a painting as a historical record of the city’s old Burgtheater, which was slated for demolition. Klimt’s painting, The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater (1888-89), employed a unique perspective by painting the auditorium from the vantage point of the stage rather than the auditorium itself.
In 1890, Klimt, his brother Ernst and Matsch joined the Vienna Artists’ Association, a conservative art group that controlled the majority of the exhibitions in the city. Although Klimt continued to align himself with the more traditional factions of the art world, he was soon to experience changes in his personal life that would send him off on a path all his own.
By the end of 1892, his father and his brother Ernst died and these deaths profoundly affected Klimt, who was now left financially responsible for his sisters, mother, brother’s widow Helen Flöge and their infant daughter.
In that dramatic period of his life and personal tragedy, Klimt began questioning the conventions of academic painting and began to reject the naturalistic trappings of his training in favor of a more personal style, one that relied on symbolism and drew from a wide range of influences.
Accordingly, the change resulted in a rift between Klimt and his long-time partner Matsch.
In 1893, the Artistic Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Education approached Matsch for a commission to decorate the ceiling of the newly built Great Hall of the University of Vienna; eventually, Klimt did join the project and this collaboration would be the last between the two men.
Klimt produced thirty.-nine ceiling paintings for the Great Hall, including Philosophy (1899-1907), Medicine (1900-07) and Jurisprudence (1897-1908). All of these pieces employed a highly decorative symbolism, marking significant turn in Klimt’s attitude toward painting and art in general.
All three paintings were destroyed in 1945 by retreating German forces. Much controversy arose over Klimt’s University paintings, due in part to the nudity of some of the figures in Medicine, and in part to accusations that his use of symbolism was vague.
While some of Klimt’s contemporaries were strongly opposed to decoration, he believed in the equality of fine and decorative arts. Some of his work shows his great ambition to create ‘’total work of art’’, Gesamtkunstwerk, a union of the visual arts that might be created through ornament.
In 1897, he renounced his membership of the Kunstlerhaus, Vienna’s leading association of artists and these circumstances encouraged him to help found The Union of Austrian Artists, widely known as Vienna Secession, along with the group of like-minded artists Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffman and Joseph Maria Olbrich. Although primarily rejecting classical, academic art, the group did not focus on any particular style, instead focusing its efforts on supporting young, nontraditional artists, bringing international art to Vienna.
Klimt was nominated their first president, and he also served as a member of the editorial staff for its periodical Sacred Spring.
The initial exhibition of Secession received wide acclaim from the public, and they elicited surprisingly little controversy, given that the Viennese had little to no exposure to modern art. Among its featured works was Klimt’s painting of the group’s symbol, the Greek goddess Pallas Athena; in time it would come to be seen as the first in the series of works from Klimt’s best known and most successful period.
In 1902, The Secessionists held their 14th Vienna Exhibition, a celebration of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. For this exhibition, Klimt painted his famous Beethoven Frieze (1902), a massive work which was seen as a complex, lyrical, and highly ornate allegory of the artist as God, but paradoxically, made no reference to any of Beethoven’s compositions.
The artist’s symbolism is entirely invented and evidently quite personal. Klimt source of imagery remains a mystery, but viewed as a whole, the frieze takes on the qualities of a musical analogy, with each section of the frieze suggesting a symphonic movement.
The original catalogue for the 1902 Secession exhibition indicated that the frieze follows the story of a hero who begins happy, must fight dark forces in order to secure his happiness, and in the end experiences salvation.
Some of the most celebrated of Klimt’s paintings were produced during his time with Secession, which lasted until 1908 (Judith I ,1901, Adele Bloch-Bauer I ,1907, Field of Poppies ,1907., The Kiss, 1907-08 ), all of which comprised the artist’s so-called ‘’Golden Phase’’ By this time, Klimt’s personal style, which combined elements of both pre-modern and modern eras, had fully matured.
His use of gold and silver leaf recalled Byzantine mosaics; his application of repeated coils and whorls suggested both abstraction and Mycenaean ornamentation, while his portraits of women (Expectation, 1905-09) often combined a modern sensuality with the motifs of Oriental art and Japanese ‘’pillar prints’’.
While some critics and art historians contend Klimt’s work should not be included in the canon of modern art, his oeuvre, especially paintings postdating 1900, remains striking for its visual combinations of the old and modern, the abstract and the real.
Adele Bloch- Bauer I (1907), Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Viennese banker and Klimt’s lover, was one of the many women Klimt painted from life. This piece, the first of the two portraits, is considered to be Klimt’s finest work.
The sitter is adorned with ancient artifacts and precious materials, suggesting her power and wealth. But also, her stare and her grasping hands suggest that she is fragile. Despite these features, Klimt was largely unconcerned at this time with depicting his sitter’s character, and even less so with providing context and location, omissions that were common in all of Klimt’s earlier portraits. Klimt gives over most every space on the canvas to ornament, and leaves only the woman’s hands and upper body to describe her appearance.
Klimt biographer Frank Whitford has described the picture as ‘’ the most elaborate example of the tyranny of the decorative’’ in the artist’s work. Like many other artists around this period who were experimenting with abstraction, Klimt was faced with the possibility of crossing into pure form, and leaving depicted objects behind.
This picture marked an important turning point in Kimt’s work, and he chose to turn back from this extreme, which is indicated by his second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1912), in which her body stands out much more substantially against the background.
The Kiss (1907-08) is considered the masterpiece of the artist’s ‘’Golden Period’’ probably the most popular and renowned celebration of sexual love; the woman is being absorbed in by the man, while both figures are engulfed by the body of gold in which they lie.
The background suggests a night sky; bodies teeter at the edge of a flowery meadow, as if they are in some kind of danger of cascading into the darkness. Representational forms only barely emerge from a highly ornate but ultimately abstract form, in this case the golden shroud, beautifully juxtaposed against the green and brown.
The decoration is particularly elaborate, Klimt used it for symbolic purposes; circular forms evoke the feminine, while rectangular forms evoke masculinity.
Late Period Klimt
In the last decade of his life, Klimt divided much of his time between his studio and garden in Heitzing, and the country home of the Flöge family, where he and Emilie Flöge, his brother’s widow’s sister, spent many days together.
His most enduring relationship was with Emilie Flöge. The full nature of their friendship is unknown, they remained in each other’s company for the remainder of his life.
During this period Klimt produced many of his stunning, yet largely under-appreciated plein air landscape paintings, such as The Park (1909-1910), visually demanding work, and possibly one of Klimt’s finest plein air paintings. Pointillism clearly influenced this painting, even though, unlike Seurat, Klimt never expressed an interest in utilizing optics in his work.
Nine-tenths of this piece is a solid mass of foliage, thus if not for the tree trunks and strips of grass at the bottom, this composition would be completely abstract. The naturalistic elements of this piece are offset by Klimt’s decorative mosaic of green, blue and yellow dots, which are rendered representational only with the aid of the piece’s lower section.
While Klimt did not alter his subject matter during his late period, his style did underego significant change; doing away with the use of silver and gold leaf and ornamentation in general, he began using subtle mixtures of color such as coral, salmon, yellow and lilac.
He also produced a staggering number of drawings and studies during this period, majority of which were female nudes, some especially erotic that to this day they are seldom exhibited. But, many of Klimt’s later portraits of women have been praised for the artist’s greater attention to character and a supposed new concern for likeness.
These features are evident in his second portrait of Adele Bloch- Bauer ( 1912), Mada Primavesi (1913), a portrait of the young, and Friends (c. 1916-17), strangely erotic features, which portrays what appears to be a lesbian couple ( one naked and other clothed), against a stylized backdrop of birds and flowers.
On January 11, 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed on his right side. Bedridden and no longer able to paint or even sketch, Klimt lost his will to live, and on February,6th, he died from influenza.
He is buried at the Hietzing cemetery of Vienna.
By the time of his death, abstract painting, not to mention Dada, Futurism, Cubism and Constructivism, had all captured the imagination of Europeans across the continent. Gustav Klimt’s body of work was by then considered part of bygone era in painting which still focused on human and natural forms rather than outright renunciation, deconstruction of those very things.
Gustav Klimt never married, never painted a single self-portrait; and never claimed to be revolutionizing art in any way. He seldom left his native Austria, and on one occasion he visited Paris, but he left thoroughly unimpressed.
With the groundbreaking Seccession, his primary aim was to call attention to under-appreciated Viennese artists and in turn to call their attention to the much broader world of modern art beyond Austria’s borders. In that context, Klimt is responsible for helping to transform Vienna into a leading center for arts and culture at the turn of the century.
Paradoxically, his influence on other artists and subsequent movements was quite limited. As much in the way Klimt revered Hans Makart but eventually deviated from that style, younger Viennese artist like Oscar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele revered Klimt early on, only to mature into more quasi-abstract and expressionistic forms of painting.