Artist: Gustav Klimt
Born: 14 July 1862, Baumgarten, Austro-Hungarian Empire
Movement: Symbolism, Art Nouveau,
Died: 6 February 1918, Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire
Gustav Klimt is remembered as one of the greatest decorative painters of the 20th century, while also producing the century’s most significant body of erotic art. Initially he found success in his architectural endeavours in an academic manner which his encounter with the modern trends in European art of the time encouraged him to develop in to his own personal, eclectic and often fantastic style. Klimt ensured that this movement became widely influential as the co-founder and first president of the Vienna Secession. Whilst Klimt never courted scandal the highly controversial subject matter of his work dogged his career among the traditional and very conservative artistic community of the time. Klimt never married and was extremely discrete about his personal life, but he remains romantically linked to several mistresses and is said to have fathered fourteen children.
Klimt first achieved recognition as a decorative painter of historical scenes and figures through his many commission to embellish public buildings. He refined the decorative qualities of his work so that the flattened, shimmering patterns of his almost abstract compositions, now known as is Golden Phase, became the real subject of his paintings.
Klimt was an exponent of the equality between the fine and decorative arts. His early success within a greater architectural framework meant Kilmt accepted many of his best-known commissions that were designed to complement other elements of the complete interior, creating a Gesamkunsdtwerk. In his later career he worked with the Wiener Werkstätte, an organization that aimed to improve the quality and the visual appeal of everyday objects.
Klimt was an important founder of the Vienna Secession in 1897 and was chosen as its first president, though this was less for his work and more for his youthful personality and willingness to challenge authority. Klimt’s forcefulness and fame as an Art Nouveau painter was no small contribution to the early success of the Secession.
Klimt’s work was largely ignored for much of the 20th century. In his day his work provoked controversy due to their erotic content causing Klimt to withdraw from public commissions.
Klimt was the second of seven children and the family was poor as work was scarce in the early years of the Habsburg Empire. The Klimts moved frequently in the search for cheaper accommodation. In addition to financial poverty there was much tragedy within the home with the death of Klimts younger sister at 5 years old and the mental breakdown of another of his sisters due to religious fervour.
Klimt was singled out by his teachers as an exceptional draftsman while attending secondary school and at 14 years old he took the entrance examination for the Kunstgewerbeschule, the Viennese School of Arts and Crafts which he passed with distinction.
Klimt began his formal training in Vienna at a time the city was undergoing major change. In 1858 the remnants of the medieval defensive walls encircling the central city were demolished under the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph I and the circular space restructured into the broad boulevards known as the Ringstrasse. Over the next thirty years the Ringstrasse became lined with trees and large bourgeois apartment houses and buildings to house the various civic and imperial government institutions including theatres, museums, the University of Vienna and the Austrian Parliament building. Along with the railway, public electricity and the rerouting of the River Danube Vienna was entering a golden age of science, research and industry. Despite these advancements Vienna, at this time, did not have a revolutionary spirit towards the arts.
The Kunstgerwerbeschule’s teaching program and methods were traditional for the time, Klimt impressed his tutors from the beginning and showed considerable talent for painting live figures and working with a variety of tools. His training also involved close studies of the works of Titian and Reubens. Access to the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts gave a wealth of paintings by Velázquez, an artist Klimt developed a deep fondness for.
Klimt’s studies ended in 1883 and rented a large studio in Vienna with fellow artist Franz Matsch. The pair soon became artists in high demand among the city’s cultural elite. Despite the demand, payment was not lucrative and Klimt enlisted family and friends to act as models.
By the end of 1892 Klimt’s father and brother had both died. Their deaths affected Klimt profoundly and he was left financially responsible for his mother and sisters, his brother’s widow and their infant daughter. It is through his brother’s widow that he met and began an intimate friendship with Emilie Flöge, a friendship that would last for the remainder of his life and provide the basis for one of his most famous portraits. Following the deaths of his father and brother Klimt’s pace of work slowed down and he also began to question the conventions of traditional academic painting, result in a rift between the artist and his partner Matsch. The last collaboration between the two men was a commission to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. He was asked to produce three large ceiling paintings that includes Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence and he employed a highly decorative symbolism thus making the turning point in his career toward painting and art. The controversy over the paintings meant that the paintings were never installed, and Klimt resolved never to accept public commissions again.
Klimt’s work of the University of Vienna paintings coincided with a schism within the Vienna art community. In 1897 Klimt, along with several other modern artists, renounced their membership in the Kunstlerhaus. As the leading association of artists the Kunstlerhaus controlled the main venue for exhibiting contemporary art in the city. Klimt and his fellow modernists complained they were being denied the privileges of exhibiting their work in favour of traditionalists. The modernists regrouped and formed the Vienna Secession in 1897. The group included Klimt, Hoffmann, Moser and Olbrich. Klimt was made the Secession’s founding president. The groups mission was to provide young and unconventional artists with an outlet to show their work; to expose Vienna to great works of foreign artists, especially the French Impressionists; and to publish a periodical titled Ver Sacrum.
Through a series of exhibitions the Secession quickly established a presence within the art scene of Vienna. Many of them featured work by foreign contemporary artists who were made corresponding members of the group. The Secessionists exhibitions received wide acclaim and elicited little controversy. In 1902 they held their 14th exhibition as a celebration of the composer Beethoven, for which Klimt painted Beethoven Frieze, a massive and complex work that was a lyrical and ornate allegory of the artist as God.
The Secession was dedicated to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the completely and harmoniously designed environment and it attempted to keep art above commercial concerns which proved problematic for its members, particularly the decorative artists. Hoffmann and Moser formed the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903, dedicated to the promotion and design of decorative arts and architecture for commercial purposes. Klimt collaborated on several of the Werkstätte’s projects, including the giant multi-panel tree-of-life painted frieze for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels in 1905-10.
Klimt, along with several his associates, resigned from the Vienna Secession in 1905 due to a disagreement over the group’s association with local galleries to market their art.
In the decade between 1898 and 1908Klimt’s personal style reached its maturity with richly combined elements of pre-modern and modern techniques. Many of his most famous works were produced during this time, including Field of Poppies (1907), The Kiss (1907-08) and the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1903-07).
During the last decade of his life, Klimt divided his time between his studio and garden in Vienna and the country estate of the Flöge family with Emilie. Undoubtedly, they shared a romantic bond, but it is widely believed that it was a platonic one. It is during these summers that Klimt produced his much underappreciated en plein air landscapes, including The Park (1909-10). While there was no change to his subject matter during his final years, his style did change as he did away with the use of gold and silver leaf and other ornamentation and began using subtle combinations of colour, including corals and lilacs.
On 11 January 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke that left his right-side paralysed. Confined to his bed and unable to paint or sketch he sank into a deep despair. On 6 February 1918 after contracting influenza he died. He is buried at Hietzing Cemetery, Vienna, Austria.
©JG Farmer 2019