“Gustav Klimt first made himself known by the decorations he executed (with his brother and their art school companion F. Matsch), for numerous theatres and above all (on his own this time) for the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where he completed, in a coolly photographic style, the work begun by Makart. At the age of thirty he moved into his own studio and turned to easel painting. At thirty-five he was one of the founders of the Vienna Secession; he withdrew eight years later, dismayed by the increasingly strong trend towards naturalism.
“The coruscating sensuality of Klimt’s work might seem in perfect accord with a society which recognized itself in those frivolous apotheoses of happiness and well-being, the operettas of Johann Strauss and Franz L?har. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being acknowledged as the representative artist of his age, Klimt was the target of violent criticism; his work was sometimes displayed behind a screen to avoid corrupting the sensibilities of the young. His work is deceptive. Today we see in it the Byzantine luxuriance of form, the vivid juxtaposition of colors derived from the Austrian rococo – aspects so markedly different from the clinical abruptness of Egon Schiele. But we see it with expectations generated by epochs of which his own age was ignorant.
“For the sumptuous surface of Klimt’s work is by no means carefree. Its decorative tracery expresses a constant tension between ecstasy and terror, life and death. Even the portraits, with their timeless aspect, may be perceived as defying fate. Sleep, Hope (a pregnant woman surrounded by baleful faces) and Death are subjects no less characteristic than the Kiss. Yet life’s seductions are still more potent in the vicinity of death, and Klimt’s works, although they do not explicitly speak of impending doom, constitute a sort of testament in which the desires and anxieties of an age, its aspiration to happiness and to eternity, receive definitive expression. For the striking two-dimensionality with which Klimt surrounds his figures evokes the gold ground of Byzantine art, a ground that, in negating space, may be regarded as negating time – and thus creating a figure of eternity. Yet in Klimt’s painting, it is not the austere foursquare figures of Byzantine art that confront us, but ecstatically intertwined bodies whose flesh seems the more real for their iconical setting of gold.”
An Austrian Symbolist Painter
Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 February 6, 1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. Klimt is noted for his paintings, murals, sketches, and other objets d’art. Klimt’s primary subject was the female body, and his works are marked by a frank eroticism. In addition to his figurative works, which include allegories and portraits, he painted landscapes. Among the artists of the Vienna Secession, Klimt was the most influenced by Japanese art and its methods.
Early in his artistic career, he was a successful painter of architectural decorations in a conventional manner. As he developed a more personal style, his work was the subject of controversy that culminated when the paintings he completed around 1900 for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized as pornographic. He subsequently accepted no more public commissions, but achieved a new success with the paintings of his “golden phase”, many of which include gold leaf. Klimt’s work was an important influence on his younger contemporary Egon Schiele.
Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, near Vienna in Austria-Hungary, the second of seven childrenthree boys and four girls. His mother, Anna Klimt (n?e Finster), had an unrealized ambition to be a musical performer. His father, Ernst Klimt the Elder, formerly from Bohemia, was a gold engraver. All three of their sons displayed artistic talent early on. Klimt’s younger brothers were Ernst Klimt and Georg Klimt.
Klimt lived in poverty while attending the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, a school of applied arts and crafts, now the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where he studied architectural painting from 1876 until 1883. He revered Vienna’s foremost history painter of the time, Hans Makart. Klimt readily accepted the principles of a conservative training; his early work may be classified as academic. In 1877 his brother, Ernst, who, like his father, would become an engraver, also enrolled in the school. The two brothers and their friend, Franz Matsch, began working together and by 1880 they had received numerous commissions as a team that they called the “Company of Artists”. They also helped their teacher in painting murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Klimt began his professional career painting interior murals and ceilings in large public buildings on the Ringstra?e, including a successful series of “Allegories and Emblems”.
In 1888 Klimt received the Golden Order of Merit from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria for his contributions to murals painted in the Burgtheater in Vienna. He also became an honorary member of the University of Munich and the University of Vienna. In 1892 Klimt’s father and brother Ernst both died, and he had to assume financial responsibility for his father’s and brother’s families. The tragedies also affected his artistic vision and soon he would move towards a new personal style. Characteristic of his style at the end of the 19th century is the inclusion of Nuda Veritas (naked truth) as a symbolic figure in some of his works, including Ancient Greece and Egypt (1891), Pallas Athene (1898) and Nuda Veritas (1899). Historians believe that Klimt with the nuda veritas denounced both the policy of the Habsburgs and Austrian society, which ignored all political and social problems of that time. In the early 1890s Klimt met Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Fl?ge (a sibling of his sister-in-law) who was to be his companion until the end of his life. His painting, The Kiss (190708), is thought to be an image of them as lovers. He designed many costumes that she produced and modeled in his works.
During this period Klimt fathered at least fourteen children.
Vienna secession years
Klimt became one of the founding members and president of the Wiener Sezession (Vienna Secession) in 1897 and of the group’s periodical, Ver Sacrum (“Sacred Spring”). He remained with the Secession until 1908. The goals of the group were to provide exhibitions for unconventional young artists, to bring the works of the best foreign artists to Vienna, and to publish its own magazine to showcase the work of members. The group declared no manifesto and did not set out to encourage any particular styleNaturalists, Realists, and Symbolists all coexisted. The government supported their efforts and gave them a lease on public land to erect an exhibition hall. The group’s symbol was Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of just causes, wisdom, and the artsof whom Klimt painted his radical version in 1898.
In 1894, Klimt was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. Not completed until the turn of the century, his three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence were criticized for their radical themes and material, and were called “pornographic”. Klimt had transformed traditional allegory and symbolism into a new language that was more overtly sexual and hence more disturbing to some. The public outcry came from all quarterspolitical, aesthetic and religious. As a result, the paintings (seen in gallery below) were not displayed on the ceiling of the Great Hall. This would be the last public commission accepted by the artist.
All three paintings were destroyed when retreating German forces burned Schloss Immendorf in May 1945.
His Nuda Veritas (1899) defined his bid to further “shake up” the establishment. The starkly naked red-headed woman holds the mirror of truth, while above her is a quotation by Friedrich Schiller in stylized lettering: “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please only a few. To please many is bad.”
In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the Fourteenth Vienna Secessionist exhibition, which was intended to be a celebration of the composer and featured a monumental polychrome sculpture by Max Klinger. Intended for the exhibition only, the frieze was painted directly on the walls with light materials. After the exhibition the painting was preserved, although it was not displayed again until 1986. The face on the Beethoven portrait resembled the composer and Vienna Court Opera director Gustav Mahler.
During this period Klimt did not confine himself to public commissions. Beginning in the late 1890s he took annual summer holidays with the Fl?ge family on the shores of Attersee and painted many of his landscapes there. These landscapes constitute the only genre aside from figure painting that seriously interested Klimt. In recognition of his intensity, the locals called him Waldschrat (“forest demon”).
Klimt’s Attersee paintings are of sufficient number and quality as to merit separate appreciation. Formally, the landscapes are characterized by the same refinement of design and emphatic patterning as the figural pieces. Deep space in the Attersee works is flattened so efficiently to a single plane that it is believed that Klimt painted them by using a telescope.
Klimt first achieved acclaim as a decorative painter of historical scenes and figures through his many commissions to embellish public buildings. He continued to refine the decorative qualities so that the flattened, shimmering patterns of his nearly-abstract compositions, what is now known as his “Golden Phase” works, ultimately became the real subjects of his paintings.
Though a “fine art” painter, Klimt was an outstanding exponent of the equality between the fine and decorative arts. Having achieved some of his early success by painting within a greater architectural framework, he accepted many of his best-known commissions that were designed to complement other elements of a complete interior, thereby creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Later in his career, he worked in concert with artists of the Wiener Werkst?tte, the Austrian design organization that aimed to improve the quality and visual appeal of everyday objects.
Klimt was one of the most important founders of the Vienna Secession in 1897, and served as its initial president, though he was chosen less for his completed oeuvre – relatively small at that point – than his youthful personality and willingness to challenge authority. His forcefulness and international fame as the most famous Art Nouveau painter contributed much to the Secession’s early success – but also the movement’s swift fall from prominence when he left it in 1905.
Although Klimt’s art is now widely popular, it was neglected for much of the 20th century. His works for public spaces provoked a storm of opposition in his own day, facing charges of obscenity due to their erotic content, eventually causing Klimt to withdraw from government commissions altogether. His drawings are no less provocative and give full expression to his considerable sexual appetite.
Despite his fame and generosity in mentoring younger artists, including Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, Klimt produced virtually no direct followers and his work has consistently been regarded as highly personal and singular, even up to the present day. However, his paintings share many formal and thematic characteristics with the Expressionists and Surrealists of the interwar years, even though many of them may not have been familiar with Klimt’s art.