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.
Life and work
Early life and education
Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, near Vienna in Austria-Hungary,
the second of seven children—three boys and four girls. His mother,
Anna Klimt (née 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 lived in poverty while
attending the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule),
where he studied architectural painting 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 Ringstraße, 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 (nude 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
the Austrian society, which ignored all political and social
problems of that time. In the early 1890s Klimt met Emilie Louise
Flöge (a sibling of his sister-in-law) who was to be his companion
until the end of his life. His painting, The Kiss (1907–08), is
thought to be an image of them as lovers. He designed many costumes
she created 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 style—Naturalists, 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 arts—of whom Klimt painted his radical version in
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 quarters—political, 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
by retreating SS forces 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 Flöge 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.
Golden phase and critical
Klimt's 'Golden Phase' was marked by positive critical reaction and
financial success. Many of his paintings from this period include
gold leaf. Klimt had previously used gold in his Pallas Athene
(1898) and Judith I (1901), although the works most popularly
associated with this period are the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
(1907) and The Kiss (1907–08).
Klimt travelled little, but trips
to Venice and Ravenna, both famous for their beautiful mosaics, most
likely inspired his gold technique and his Byzantine imagery. In
1904, he collaborated with other artists on the lavish Palais
Stoclet, the home of a wealthy Belgian industrialist that was one of
the grandest monuments of the Art Nouveau age. Klimt's contributions
to the dining room, including both Fulfillment and Expectation, were
some of his finest decorative works, and as he publicly stated,
"probably the ultimate stage of my development of ornament."
In 1905, Klimt created a painted
portrait of Margarete Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein's sister, on
the occasion of her marriage. Then, between 1907 and 1909, Klimt
painted five canvases of society women wrapped in fur. His apparent
love of costume is expressed in the many photographs of Flöge
modeling clothing he had designed.
As he worked and relaxed in his
home, Klimt normally wore sandals and a long robe with no
undergarments. His simple life was somewhat cloistered, devoted to
his art, family, and little else except the Secessionist Movement.
He avoided café society and seldom socialized with other artists.
Klimt's fame usually brought patrons to his door and he could afford
to be highly selective. His painting method was very deliberate and
painstaking at times and he required lengthy sittings by his
subjects. Although very active sexually, he kept his affairs
discreet and he avoided personal scandal.
Klimt wrote little about his vision
or his methods. He wrote mostly postcards to Flöge and kept no
diary. In a rare writing called "Commentary on a non-existent
self-portrait", he states "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...
Who ever wants to know something about me... ought to look carefully
at my pictures."
In 1901 Herman Bahr wrote, in his
Speech on Klimt: "Just as only a lover can reveal to a man what life
means to him and develop its innermost significance, I feel the same
about these paintings."
Later life and posthumous
In 1911 his painting Death and Life received first prize in the
world exhibitions in Rome. In 1915 Anna, his mother, died. Klimt
died three years later in Vienna on February 6, 1918, having
suffered a stroke and pneumonia due to the influenza epidemic of
that year. He was buried at the Hietzinger Cemetery in Hietzing,
Vienna. Numerous paintings by him were left unfinished.
Klimt's paintings have brought some
of the highest prices recorded for individual works of art. In
November 2003, Klimt's Landhaus am Attersee sold for $29,128,000,
but that sale was soon eclipsed by prices paid for other Klimts.
In 2006, the 1907 portrait, Adele
Bloch-Bauer I, was purchased for the Neue Galerie New York by Ronald
Lauder reportedly for US $135 million, surpassing Picasso's 1905 Boy
With a Pipe (sold May 5, 2004 for $104 million), as the highest
reported price ever paid for a painting.
On August 7, 2006, Christie's
auction house announced it was handling the sale of the remaining
four works by Klimt that were recovered by Maria Altmann and her
co-heirs after their long legal battle against Austria (see Republic
of Austria v. Altmann). Her struggle became the subject of the film
the Woman in Gold, a movie inspired by Stealing Klimt, the
documentary featuring Maria Altmann herself. The portrait of Adele
Bloch-Bauer II was sold at auction in November 2006 for $88 million,
the third-highest priced piece of art at auction at the time. The
Apple Tree I (ca. 1912) sold for $33 million, Birch Forest (1903)
sold for $40.3 million, and Houses in Unterach on Lake Atter (1916)
sold for $31 million. Collectively, the five restituted paintings
netted more than $327 million. The painting Litzlberg am Attersee
was auctioned for $40.4 million at Sotheby's in November 2011.
The city of Vienna, Austria had
many special exhibitions commemorating the 150th anniversary of
Klimt's birth in 2012. Google commemorated this anniversary as well,
with a Google doodle.
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