The name of Gustav Klimt is indissolubly linked to the Viennese Secession, of which he was one of the undisputed leaders. His father’s trade – goldsmith and engraver – certainly had an impact on the young Gustav’s decision to attend the school of applied arts of the Museum of Art and Industry where he learned several techniques and a vast repertory of decorative motifs from various eras and cultures. Klimt decided to specialize in painting and developed his own language that was initially in harmony with the historicist-academic style in which he had been trained. He received many commissions early in his career, but his true “debut” was the decoration of the Burgtheather; this was followed by the commission to decorate the entrance staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna (1896). In the allegorical murals of rudPhilosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence that he painted for the University his sprit and language were already decidedly symbolistic. By 1898 Klimt was already an authoritative figure in the Secessionist movement, and his painting was strongly defined in that ambient. At the second Secessionist exhibition he presented his Pallas Athena, a living warrior who, instead of Nike, holds a miniature figurine of Nuda Veritas, an emblem of the movement’s ideal that had already appeared in “Ver Sacrum” its official journal. In 1903 Klimt made two trips to Ravenna: he was enchanted by the gold mosaics, and this marked his “golden period” that coincided with his full creative maturity that began with Judith of 1901 and culminated with Judith II of 1909. He used the gold to modulate between the flat and plastic parts of the paintings. The slightly demoniac sensuality of the Klimt “femme fatale” was associated with its preciousness and traditionally symbolic role as codified in Judith I. The restless dual nature of femininity that developed in the Beethoven Frieze (1902) is present in Hope (1903), in the Three Ages of Woman (1905) and in the enchanted sirens who float in the water of Silver Fish (1899) and Goldfish (1901-02) and in the two versions of Water Serpents (1904-1907). The murals in the Stoclet House, a work of total art, celebrates the fusion of male and female, of the spirit with matter, of the conscious and unconscious through the symbolic motifs of the tree of life and the embrace. The theme of amorous fusion returned again in The Kiss (1908) to culminate in the golden period that closed with an artistic and psychological crisis that was to last several years. The Secessionist spirit had entered a decline and Klimt’s work was the aggregating element of Viennese artistic life was interrupted. He went through a period of searching. The gold disappeared and the dark tones prevailed until 1912 when Klimt embarked on a new phase of the “flowery style.” In the portraits from this period the expressive intensity of the faces is accentuated while the color is spread freely over the surfaces dissolving the rigid Byzantine framework of the golden period. The symbolic ornament remained, but the mosaic of earlier days was transported into a colorful carpet with strong Japanese influence. Klimt continued studying and searching until 1918 when a stroke ended his life.
Two Girls with Oleander
This youthful work is one of Klimt’s rare paintings in which the figures are in a real and recognizable natural outdoor setting, a setting that has not yet been transfigured into a precious ornamental arabesque as in his mature works. In Two Girls with Oleander, though not yet thirty, Klimt demonstrated his total mastery of painting. During these years his interest focused on English art from the Victorian era and mainly pre-Raphaelite painting. This was the moment in which Klimt went beyond the narrow confines of painting as a historical reconstruction or “photographic” realism and embarked on the path of stylistic decoration that would, within a few short years, lead him to the full poetics of symbolism.
This is Klimt’s first allegory of Music and it is also his first definitely symbolist painting. In the Hellenized Music I, in the wake of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Klimt portrays the primacy of music over the other arts in an allegorical key: it is the generatrix of the tragic and liberating myth - through Dionysiac knowledge - of the powers hidden in instinct. The girls with the lyre is flanked by a sculpture of a sphinx, symbol of the freedom of art and the enigmatic bond of the spiritual and animal elements, and by a mask of Silenius, companion to Dionysius whom Nietzsche defined as the “symbol of the sexual omnipotence of nature.” Behind the girl the golden balls, dandelion seeds, symbolize the spread of new ideas because the slightest puff of wind carries them everywhere. On the threshold of the birth of the Secession Music I is an authentic artistic program.
Jung wrote: “Sometimes a mermaid, a semi-human female fish remains trapped in a fisherman’s net. Mermaids are enchantresses” like sirens or wood nymphs, they “seduce youths and suck their lives.” Silverfish is a painting that reflects the Art Nouveau climate and the symbolic female universe. The artist celebrates woman and her powers of enchantment while he exalts the transformation of the angel-like woman of the Pre-Raphaelites into a woman-siren or woman-serpent. Silverfish creates an atmosphere of love-hate for the female being: these women-fish move flowing in water against a background variegated by the sparkle of gold, The corporeal substance of the strange creatures is left to the flow of the hair that is a serpentine line that coils round and round.
After the moralists had violently attacked the panels at the University, an irritated Klimt picked up the challenge and extrapolated those images from Medicine that had aroused the greatest furor: the perturbing and sensual nude female figures and the mother and child that is almost in the foreground behind the priestess, and turned them into the subjects of two separate works: Goldfish and Hope I. The line that softly designs the body of the malicious woman in the foreground is soft and sensuous. By showing her back she reveals all her fluid and provocative beauty. Her red hair caresses her, creating a magnificent chromatic contrast with the golden-scaled fish.
Judith is the biblical heroine who seduced and decapitated Holofernes in order to save her city, Bethulia. For this daring act she has become a symbol of female virtue as well as of the weak that triumph over the strong, and is a recurrent theme in western figurative arts. Klimt did two versions of Judith, though they are both very different from the concept of celebrating female courage and are animated by the desire to emphasize an ambiguous sensuality. Woman is like a siren that draws and mesmerizes the spectator’s gaze with her beauty and dual nature. The model for this painting was Adele Bloch-Bauer who may have been the artist’s lover. The trees, the stylized landscape behind her and the decorative motif of palmettes or rosettes are probably based o his knowledge of Mycaenean designs mediated by the illustrations in Alois Riegl’s Questions of Style (1893).Iconography
On the occasion of the XIV exhibition of the Secession (1902) twenty-one artists, including Klimt and Klinger were working in the service of a single idea: the celebration of the artist in a “work of total art”. The exhibition setting guided the viewer to Klinger’s statue of Beethoven, made of polychrome marble, ivory, alabaster and bronze. For the exhibition Klimt did a frieze on the them of man’s struggle against his suffering, giving a symbolic interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Since they were temporary panels, he used casein paints on plaster that had been applied to a lattice, and then to achieve certain effects he inserted fragments of mirrors, colored glass and even upholsterer’s nails into the composition. Here, stylization and decoration come into their own in the golden style of the frieze. The initial scene portrays the longing for happiness: grieving and emaciated humanity desperately begs the knight, symbol of virtue, for help. Compassion and Pride accompany the knight to a benevolent stream that prompts the hero to undertake the struggle for happiness. At the end of road that is filled with difficult trials, he reaches his goal to be embraced by Poetry.
Cartoons for the Stoclet Frieze
In 1905 the coal magnate, Adolphe Stoclet commissioned Josef Hoffmann to build him a new residence in Brussels, without any limit on expenses. Hoffmann involved the entire Wiener Werkstätte group in the project and commissioned Klimt to decorate the dining room. The Stoclet House is one of the most significant episodes in twentieth century art and an unsurpassed example of the integration of the arts. The frieze that Klimt designed for the dining room was executed according to his specific instructions by the artisans of the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a three-panel mosaic of marble, semi-precious stones, majolica and coral. The two main panels portray a golden tree with countless spiraling branches, with Expectation in one and Fulfillment I [of the Embrace] in the other. Here Klimt drew his formal inspiration from ancient Egypt, Byzantium and Japan telling a simple, yet charming story: amidst the golden branches of the tree of life a young girl awaits her love who finally arrives. The figures in the Stoclet Frieze exemplify the contrasts – typical of Klimt’s “golden period” between the naturalistic rendering of the faces and arms and the abstract decorative flattening of the clothes.
Klimt did two magnificent paintings on the theme of sunflowers during the same period. The one shown here is also known as Country Garden with Sunflowers and immediately brings to mind Van Gogh’s famous paintings, and vases filled with sunflowers. In fact, it is quite likely that Klimt was inspired by this great Dutchman whose works he may have seen at the 1903 Secession exhibition, or at the great retrospective dedicated to Van Gogh at the Galerie Miethke in 1906. Going beyond the similarity of subject, Klimt’s sunflowers are entirely different from Van Gogh’s: as opposed to cut flowers in a vase that are destined to wither, Klimt celebrates the joy of living nature. It is a dream of a communion of nature and sentiment, an ornamental poetic vision.
The Three Ages of Woman
After the resounding success of the 1010 Biennale of Venice, Klimt’s art arrived in Rome the following year where he won the first prize in the Exposizione Internazionale d’arte. Hoffmann’s Viennese pavilion made more than a minor contribution to his triumph. The elegant and simplified classic forms, the reverent arrangement of the canvases in the semicircular apse, as in a ritual initiatic path completed this highly praised pavilion. Among the most famous pieces from Klimt’s “golden period” The Three Ages of Woman entrusts its clear symbolic meaning to elegant decorative geometry that embraces the three figures. The extraordinary abstract background, a vibrant surface enclosed by a wide black border that retains the pulsating colors of the central scene, offsets the figurative rendering. The old woman, similar to the one in Jurisprudence was probably inspired by a famous piece by Rodin that greatly impressed Klimt at the French sculptor’s exhibit at the 1901 Vienna Secession.
A portrayal of the myth of Danae could not be lacking from the works of a painter as dedicated to the celebration of woman and Eros through the use of a color as symbolic as gold as was Klimt. Danae was the only daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos. The oracle at Delphi told the king that his daughter’s son would kill him. Therefore, Acrisius had an underground chamber of bronze built in the courtyard of his palace where he locked up Danae with a wet nurse so that she could not bear children. But it was the king of the gods himself who desired the girl. Disguised as golden rain Zeus penetrated the roof of the underground room and impregnated Danae; what had been built as a tomb became a bridal chamber and Perseus was born from the union. Klimt handled this famous subject in a rather different manner: his Danae is not a young woman who participates actively in the event, but a girl, lost in sleep and the dream world totally unaware of herself. There is no narrative element and the girl’s fetal position and childlike features are permeated with an unconscious and oblivious eroticism.Iconography
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
This splendid and pale painting, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is the most sensational of Klimt’s golden period. The subject, wife of a rich Viennese industrialist and banker, and leader of a literary salon was the only person whom Klimt painted more than once. Perhaps this beautiful and cultured Jewish lady had an affair with the artist; and perhaps Adele was the model who sat for the sensual Judith I. In an abstract surface shimmering with gold, the only parts of Adele’s body that survive are her face and hands. His Klimt dipped into the motifs and symbols of distant ancient cultures, mainly Byzantium, but also Egypt, the source of the Ugiat, the sacred eye and source of the fluid magic that comprises Adele’s dress. The profusion of gold woven around the figure in a niche, whose individuality is protected and exalted, fixes the image in the precious detachment of a religious stateliness. Like a sensual icon Adele emerges from the metallic glow of the luxuriantly abstract setting. In the delirium of the squares, ellipses and spirals, Klimt celebrates the magical and absolute function of the ornament just a step away from abstract painting.
The apex of the “golden period”, The Kiss is undoubtedly Klimt's most popular painting. The theme of the couple lost in an inebriating amorous embrace was certainly not a novelty for him. From the young Cupid suspended between realism and allegory, to the final scene of the Beethoven Frieze and the Embrace of the Stoclet Frieze these are all images that belong to a mythical-symbolic sphere that is divorced from reality. What makes The Kiss an authentic and splendid summa of Klimt’s art up to this point is the perfect balance between the naturalism of the faces and the abstraction of the garments. Isolated from the world in an embrace that is a spiritual and a sensual fusion, the lovers in The Kiss celebrate the triumph of the resolving power of Eros that is capable of sublimating the conflict between man and woman, between people and nature in ecstatic harmony. It is the lovers’ clothes, modulated in varying shades of gold that, in the cosmic union, reveal the irreconcilable diversity of the sexes. According to a symbolic code the harsh, angular shapes, such as the rectangles are identified with the masculine world, while the soft curved lines, like the concentric circles, with the female.
Life and Death
1908-1911 e 1915Life and Death marks the passage from the golden style and ornamentalism of paintings such as the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I to a form achieved through a reconquest of space. Reflections on the theme of life, through perpetual change in the indissoluble bond between birth, love and death return in this painting with renewed vigor after having been treated in works such as Medicine. Here an isolated figure is shown against a tangle of bodies that resolves itself into a group of figures one on top the either inside a protective shell, that is almost “uterine”, with intarsias of colored crystallized fragments. The isolated figure is death, the real antagonist of man. On the hand it conserves the traditional image of a human head transformed into a skull, on the other the skeletal body “wears” a bizarrely decorated dress: a sort of patchwork of crosses that seem to cancel out all possible dramatic effects. In fact, there is neither drama nor tension: through a mixture of symbols of life and death Klimt follows the passage of the seasons of man in their cyclical path.
Lady with Hat and Feather Boa
As his golden period was drawing to an end Klimt’s language underwent a brief transitional phase (1907-1909) marked by a temporary abandonment of the decorative systems and brilliant chromatic exuberance of his previous paintings. The Lady with Hat and Feather Boa is a magnificent example of this season. Matte, dark often black tones dominate this painting, a rarity in Klimt’s art. Freed from the demanding task of portraying ladies from Viennese high society, the unknown female in this painting captures all the seductive spontaneity of an elegant young woman dressed in the latest fashion who seems in a rush to leave a Viennese cafe or theater. There is a touch of Toulouse-Lautrec’s influence here, but the corrosive sign of the French artist is once again translated into a highly sensuous and perturbing celebration of female charm.
Judith II (Salomé)
After the harsh criticism that greeted Judith I, Klimt did a second, and even more “merciless” version of the painting in 1909. Judith II was exhibited in Vienna the following year and was immediately purchased by the Gallery of Modern Art. This is one of his first works in the transition from the “golden style” to the more meditative and “intimate”. A profusion of golden spirals similar to those in the Stoclet frieze, and squared geometric motifs that reveal his approach to Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte further illuminate the ground creating an interesting contrast with the dark colors of her dress. The bewitching and sensual woman of the first portrait is replaced here by the fierce femininity of a slightly demoniacal “femme fatale”.Iconography
The Black Hat
The subject is not a lady from Viennese society, but a mere model and this allowed Klimt to convey the spontaneity of the gestures and expression with greater immediately without having to make recourse to the precious stateliness with which he celebrated cold and distant woman-idols in the previous portraits. The Black Hat is distinguished from his other portraits of this period by the total lack of decoration and its muted tones. Even if we reinterpret this painting with Middle European sensitivity, the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec is undeniable. Klimt saw his works at the Secession exhibition of 1903 and then during his trip to Paris in 1909.
Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer
Fräulein Beer was only twenty-three years old when this portrait was done: daughter of the owner of two famous Viennese meeting places she had just returned from a world tour. She was part of the young Viennese Jewish intelligentsia and “adored” the Wiener Werkstätte. Klimt agreed to paint her portrait and made her try the Chinese and Japanese costumes in his collection, but he finally painted her in a dress specially created by the Wiener Werkstätte. To accentuate the decorative effect, the fur was turned to show the lining, so that she overlaps it to the extent that she almost blends into the background dominated by mounted warriors, that were taken not from a screen as the image would suggest, but from a vase that Klimt had in his studio. The “flowery style” allowed the artist once again to overcome the “horror vacui” that had been nurtured first by Byzantine gold and then by oriental arts.
The Apple Tree II
The apple tree, and fruit trees in general, appeared in Klimt’s paintings from the period of his early landscapes: the Orchard of 1901 is a luminous and poetic view on the shores of the Attersee. The Apple Tree II is a vigorous painting which, like some of the portraits from his late period, seems to share the contemporary language of the Expressionists.
Portrait of a Lady
The Piacenza Portrait of a Lady is part of a group of female portraits that Klimt painted during the final years of his career (1916-1918) some of which he never finished. The dignified and inaccessible woman-idol of the “golden-period” makes way for the self-possessed and sharp modern woman, or for the languid, disattentive ladies such as the one in this painting. In his portraits and many drawings from this period the artist revealed new interest in the face and its expressions by reducing the elaborate decorative context which in earlier works set the abstract dignity of his female figures like gems. This is revealed in other female portraits of the period in which a colorful ornamentation still invests the figures along with the background. These figures are no longer the icons of a society content with its own rituals, but the survivors of a world in decline to whom Klimt entrusts the extreme representation of his essentially nineteenth century ideal of refined beauty. Another Portrait of a Lady was discovered beneath this portrait in 1997, it was done by Klimt in 1907, exhibited in Dresden in 1912, published in 1917 and then considered lost for eighty years.
Adam and Eve
When Hoffmann designed the living room for the home of Sonja Knips he selected Adam and Eve as the focal point. It is one of Klimt’s last works and is unfinished. The so-called “philosophical paintings” from the final years are shrouded in a veil of mystery, and most of them were never completed. In this final phase, there is no hedonistic gratification, but rather a new line of thought seems to be developing: as man dreams Eve is no longer the languid seductress or destructive siren, but a new creator of humanity. In Adam and Eve we no longer see the pair of lovers of The Kiss orLove; there is no burning passion and physical desire, but an atmosphere of spiritual harmony. Eve is a source of reassurance as she watches over the sleeping Adam.Iconography