Friday, 11 August 2017

Gustav Klimt

'Whoever wants to know something about me ought to look carefully at my work!’
Gustav Klimt

When preparing my mini-series on the impact of Japanese art on famous artists such as Degas, Vincent Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, I was reminded how much I liked the work of Gustav Klimt

The Kiss (1909)

This is his most famous painting. I am not sure why because it is one of his least accomplished. Bland. Anodyne. Anyway, we have to start somewhere!

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the founding members (later President) of the Vienna Secession Movement in 1897. He remained with the Secession until 1908. 

The group's goals were to provide exhibitions for unconventional young artists, to bring the best foreign artists' works to Vienna, and to publish its own magazine to showcase members' work.

The Women Friends (1916-1918)

Klimt’s primary subject was the female body and his works are sometimes marked by a frank eroticism. That may explain why he is hugely popular still and why most of us, at one time or another, have had a Klimt poster on our bedroom wall - such as The Kiss.

The Tree of Life

Klimt was trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts as an architectural painter. In 1877 his brother Ernst (like his father, an engraver and goldsmith) also enrolled in the school.

The two brothers - with their friend Franz Matsch - began working together. By 1880 they had received numerous commissions for both domestic interiors, public buildings and theatres. 

Hostile Powers

They now called themselves the ‘Company of Artists‘ and gained initial recognition with their murals for the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Personal success for Klimt swiftly followed, including a number of important  private and public commissions.

In the early 1890s, Klimt met EmiliƩ Floge.

Klimt and Emilie Floge

Notwithstanding the artist's extensive relationships with other women, Emilie Floge was to be his companion until the end of his life. 

Whether their relationship was sexual or not is still debated by art historians yet during their long period together Klimt fathered at least fourteen children with other women - so they either had a 'free' love' arrangement or she was an extremely tolerant partner! Nevertheless, she became the subject of many hugely successful paintings.

Emilie Floge (1902)

One thing that characterised Klimt's work at this time was his use of long, thin canvases. This  is derived directly from Japanese models.

Japanese hanging scroll - 18C

In Japanese art these 'pillars' are called kakemono-e or 'hanging scrolls' and date back to the 14th century. Like Degas, Van Gogh and other earlier Modernists, the Secessionists were quick to seize the opportunities this format offered.

Klimt (1899)    Moser (1898)     Kurtzweil (1903)

Klimt himself exploited this 'pillar' format brilliantly, producing at least one masterpiece - known as Judith II or simply Salome

Salome (1909)

The model here is Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a wealthy Viennese businessman and the subject for a number of Klimt's finest portraits.

Adele Bloch-Bauer

Many of Klimt's paintings from this period used gold leaf - a skill he first leaned from his father. It is also possible that he drew upon religious icons for inspiration.

 Russian Icon

In the village in Corfu where I now live my neighbour, an elderly woman, has at least ten religious icons on her sitting-room wall.

Each one shows a portrait of the Virgin Mary and Child, painted 'realistically' but embedded within a flat, highly ornate surround - either of precious metal or richly coloured paint.

 Greek Icon

The similarities to Klimt's work are striking and may also explain why his women appear so lacking in emotion. In the religious icons the figures are of another time and place and exist at a spiritual level that renders them approachable yet remote.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Klimt's women are equally iconic, yet also remote and aloof. They are figures of high fashion rather than tactile lovers or living portraits. They too - like the religious icons - have conventionally painted faces but positioned within a rich, flat decorative space, often enriched with gold leaf.

Judith 1 (1901)

Although these portraits occasionally contain erotic elements it is an eroticism that is somewhat suppressed and quite 'distant' - as if one may 'look but not touch'!

Fulillment (1905-1909)

Klimt may have derived these ornate, highly coloured yet essentially flat surfaces from the Japanese kimono, prints of which were readily available at this time in Vienna.

Keisai Eisen c.1830

Since I have tried to show the key elements of Klimt's style at the height of his fame, it may be interesting at this point to look back at his earlier work to see how much he transformed his art.

Klimt's academic training at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts and incredible natural ability helped him obtain a number of large, public commissions in which he could show off his technique.

Allegory of Sculpture

This early work (above) is very much in the style approved by the Viennese Academy but it shows exceptional skill. Klimt must have been a remarkable student. Even at the start of his professional career he painted many  murals for public buildings in this style - to considerable critical acclaim. 

Idyll (1884)

His figure drawing is also of a very high standard, as is his skill at monumental composition. This is academic work of the highest order - making his later work by which we principally know him even more remarkable.

He also acquired in these early years a reputation as a portrait painter and received numerous commissions from the wealthy citizens of Vienna - such as this charming portrait of Sonja Knips, Baroness Poitiers des Eschelles They were at briefly lovers but Klimt subsequently left her for someone else!

Sonja Knips (1898)

What is less known, perhaps, was that Klimt was also a fine landscape artist, these paintings being amongst my favourite works by him. Take this stunning painting of a copse of silver birch, for example:

Birch Forest

Klimt's landscapes are something I would like to return to at a later date. They are an important, yet neglected part of his oeuvre.

Klimt himself wrote little about his vision or his methods. However, in a rare writing called Commentary on a non-existent self-portraitt, he stated:

 ‘I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women.There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day, from morning to night. Whoever wants to know something about me ought to look carefully at my work!’

                                                                 Klimt and Emilie Folge

I said earlier how I disliked The Kiss, arguing that it was bland and uninspired. Let me leave you, therefore, with my absolute favourite. Its called Mother and Child and was painted in 1909.

The Three Ages of Women
While the young mother and child figures border on being somewhat sentimental, the powerful figure of the older woman on the left  wrenches us back to reality. The decorative elements are functional yet wonderfully textured, making this - in my view, at least - on of his greatest works.

Klimt died in Vienna on 6th February, 1918 having suffered a stroke and pneumonia due to the influenza epidemic of 1918. He is buried at the Hietzing Cemetery in Vienna. 

Mike Healey


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