Gustav Klimt, his Life and Work



From 1891 until 1897, Klimt had been a member of the Cooperative Society of Artists, a very conservative organization, and membership was essential to every artist determined to make a living . In 1897 Klimt and other members thought that this society had exerted an unfortunate influence on Austrian art and so they formed their own group named the Association of Austrian Visual Artists, widely known as the Secession. The Secession had three main aims: provide to young artists with regular opportunities to exhibit their work; to bring to Vienna the best foreign artists; and to publish its own magazine, Ver Sacrum.

The Secession adopted Pallas Athene as their protectress (left). In this painting new elements such as the use of gold and the transformation of anatomy into ornament will determine Klimt’s later work. ‘Our Secession is not a confrontation of young artists against old ones, but a struggle to revalue artists against hawkers that make believe they are artists and that have a commercial interest in preventing art from flourishing’. This declaration by Hermann Bahr, intellectual godfather of the Secessionists, served as an emblem for the foundation of the Viennese Secession in 1897, which was presided by Klimt.

The Viennese Secession played a central role in the development and diffusion of Modernism in painting and in the field of applied arts as a stylistic countercurrent against the official academic school and bourgeois conservatism of the time. This rebellion was so powerful its immediate success was translated into a utopic enterprise: the transformation of society through art. Klimt was a regular collaborator in the Secession magazine Ver Sacrum. The movement enabled the construction of the building for the Secession, designed by the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich.

A very important part of the Secession’s program was the emphasis on architecture and its insistence on the equality of all other arts. Many of the movement’s members were architects and designers and many of them were talented in painting, illustration, typography, and furniture and textiles design. Their versatility and interest in the unifying effects of style were patent in all forms of expression of the Secession. Each of the Secession’s exhibitions was a “a total work of art”. This term, invented by Richard Wagner, expressed the notion of a synthetic form of art that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Klimt’s utopic generation believed that only art could save people, thus the period’s tendency for uniting art. This idea motivated the Secession to make its XIV exposition a united work of art. The exposition was celebrated in 1902 in honor of Max Klinger, whose sculpture of Beethoven was the focus of the event. The whole exposition became an homage to Ludwig van Beethoven, a glorified musician in those years. Klimt and his friends saw in Beethoven the incarnation of a genius and in his work the glorification of the love and self-sacrifice capable of saving Humankind.

The exhibition’s opening ceremony included the fourth part of the Ninth Symphony, directed by Gustav Mahler, director of the Opera of Vienna. Klimt painted the Beethoven's frieze. This is his least known and most mystified work. The frieze was planned to remain only for the length of the exposition and was thus painted directly on the wall with light materials that could easily be removed. Fortunately, Klimt's work was perserved. Klimt had been questioning the meaning of life. This frieze tries to answer his questions through the depiction of Humankind’s salvation by the unique power of art and love.

The Stoclet frieze, painted around the theme of the new cycle of life, was the last wall Klimt decorated. The industrialist Adolphe Stoclet commissioned Klimt and Hoffman a “palace” in Brussels. Klimt designed a three-part mosaic of marble adorned with gold enamel and precious stones. This teamwork was a milestone in the history of art and became the creed of the 1920s Bauhaus movement as well as of Russian Constructivism. The difference with Constructivism and artists such as Le Corbusier, was that they offered their theories to serve the people, while Hoffman and Klimt could only work with patrons.

Klimt also worked on the motif of the embraced couple later on with his famous painting The Kiss, the most important work of his ‘golden phase’ and the emblem of the Secession. It has been compared to the Mona Lisa, as both exert a similar fascination. This time, the man clearly dominates and takes the initiative in the kiss. The woman seems to bear it with resignation. The enveloping robe subtracts force to the painting’s sexual representation, transforming the taboo of the kiss into a version that not only escaped potential critics, but also conquers the public’s enthusiasm and the puritanical bourgeoisie’s acceptance.

Klimt´s “golden age” began with the Portrait of Fritza Riedler, painted in 1906, and ended with Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907. The latter is the culmination of this phase. There is no doubt that Klimt was conscious of the dangers an overwhelming decoration could mean for his paintings. However, these feminine portraits in gold belong to one of the most important representations of women in his work. Klimt began to doubt during these years. The Secession, the harmony of the arts, had proven an utopia. He began to see the concept as old-fashioned, no longer the ideal, and decided to abandon the Secession.

Klimt’s work exemplifies the encounter between the old art of the previous century and the new art of the XXth century. One of his greatest contributions to the new era was, more than Expressionism and Surrealism, a very important theme: sexuality in art. Klimt based his work on the theme of sexuality. He painted Eva, the woman par excellence, in every imaginable erotic position. Eva seduces with her body, she exposes herself in Nuda Veritas, giving life to a femme fatale. Klimt represents her in his portraits of the Viennese, as well as in paintings of Judith, Danae and in innumerable young nameless women, such as The Virgin.

His world was constantly inhabited by pollen, pistils, semen and ovules. His work was celebrated and he even became women’s favorite portraitist, and yet, the open eroticism of his work clashed with the hypocritical Victorian repression. So, under an appearance of respectability, Klimt cleverly painted what interested him most: women’s maddening eroticism. Intiguingly, he painted women nude before covering them with clothes. This secret was revealed after his death when his last painting, The Bride, was discovered.

Klimt was not only an expert on femmes fatales. While creating controversy with his paintings in the University, Klimt also painted landscapes based on the work of the Impressionists, even though he was not interested in time’s play of lights and shadows. Klimt built his enameled mosaics, as he did in his portraits, mixing naturalism and modernism. This new style is confirmed when comparing paintings such as After the Rain, Birch Wood, or Portrait of Emilie Flöge (left).

Klimt found his way to landscape painting late in life. The first known landscapes date from the years 1898-1900. Strangely, Klimt did not draw sketches or studies for his landscapes, as he did for his portraits and allegories, even though he was a studio painter. Apparently landscapes were for Klimt an opportunity for calm and meditation. It was a theme he greatly enjoyed: 54 of his 230 paintings are landscapes. The Kammer Palace of Lake Attersee and the Cassone Church exerted a special fascination on him, since it was here that he could study the problem of including architecture in landscapes.

Klimt’s golden style lost its luster with the beginning of Expressionism, since the use of gold forced a rigid stylization that made any psychological expression impossible. He was greatly impressed with the 1909 exposition, where Munch, Bonnard and Matisse demonstrated their vast expressive palette. He also traveled to Paris where he discovered Lautrec and the Fauvists. These discoveries put his mind into action and enabled him to achieve the magical synthesis of his later kaleidoscopic work. Once more, Klimt demonstrated his amazing ability to change.

This new style is manifested in portraits such as that of Mäda Primavesi, a young woman that corresponds to Klimt’s new idea of what is feminine: the mixture of women and floral ornaments. The Dancer (left) is the height of this new style. After his mother’s death, Klimt began to ponder his own age and the closeness of death and began working once again with these themes. His painting Death and Life won first price at an international exhibition in Rome, evidence that his work was still highly regarded.

Although Gustav Klimt never married or committed to one woman, he did have numerous lovers and seemed to have an insatiable sexual appetite. At the time, artist’s models were looked upon with little more respect than common prostitutes and, apparently, many of those who posed for Klimt were at one time or another his lovers. Visitors to his studio were often surprised to find at least two or three women lounging there in their underwear. Klimt’s sensual works depicting naked and often aroused women provide a clear insight into his attitude towards sexuality and women.

After Klimt’s death, at least 14 people came forth and claimed to be his natural children. At least three of these children had been recognized by Klimt himself during his lifetime: Gustav Ucicky, son of Maria Ucicka, a washerwoman from Prague who had modeled for Klimt, and Gustav and Otto Zimmermann, sons of Mizzi Zimmermann, a model. Among the other women in Klimt’s life, a few stand out as unique. Adele Bloch-Bauer, unlike his other mistresses, enjoyed a respectable reputation as a member of Viennese high society.

Klimt did have a lifelong female companion: Emilie Flöge, who was the sister of his brother’s widow. A very attractive and sophisticated woman, Emilie ran a fashion salon in Vienna where she designed and sold clothing and accessories. She and Klimt, who was old enough to be her father, saw one another almost daily, but there is no evidence that their relationsip was in any was sexual. In fact, among the many postcards he sent to her throughout his life, not one is even remotely intimate. Emilie Flöge remained devoted to Klimt throughout his life and even after his death.

While getting dressed in his room on January 11, 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke. It was something he had feared all his life. And although not serious, the stroke paralyzed the right side of his body, including his right hand which he used for painting, but it did not deprive him of the power of speech. He desperately asked for Emilie Flöge’s presence. He was immediately admittetd to the hospital, where he is said to have greeted a visiting nephew with the words: ‘Well, just look at me lying here. I can't do anything more with my right hand and do you know what annoys me most? That I helplessly have to put up with being looked after by women!’

Less than a month later, Klimt was struck by the pneumonia epidemica ravaging Vienna at the time and died on February 6, 1918. Klimt was buried in Hietzing cemetery on February 10. The state donated the grave and the ceremony was attended by many national and municipal representatives. A choir from the Hofoper sang Shubert and Beethoven. Most Viennese newspapers marked Klimt’s passing with unambiguous tributes to the artist who had not only revived Viennese painting but had also put it on the international map.

Less than a month later, Klimt was struck by the pneumonia epidemica ravaging Vienna at the time and died on February 6, 1918. Klimt was buried in Hietzing cemetery on February 10. The state donated the grave and the ceremony was attended by many national and municipal representatives. A choir from the Hofoper sang Shubert and Beethoven. Most Viennese newspapers marked Klimt’s passing with unambiguous tributes to the artist who had not only revived Viennese painting but had also put it on the international map.