Klimt, Gustav

views updated May 14 2018

Gustav Klimt


Born July 14, 1862, in Vienna, Austria; died of a stroke February 6, 1918, in Vienna, Austria; son of Ernst (an engraver) and Anne (Finster) Klimt. Education: Attended School of Arts and Crafts, Austrian Museum of Art and Industry, 1876-82.


Painter. Major works include Philosophy, 1900, Medicine, 1901, Goldfish, 1902, Beethoven Frieze, 1902, Water Snakes I, 1904-07, Fulfillment, 1905-07, The Sunflower, 1907, The Kiss, 1907-08, Judith II, 1909, Avenue in the Park of Kammer Castle, 1912, Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II, 1912, The Maiden, 1913, Death and Life, 1911, 1916, The Women Friends, Adam and Eve, 1917-18, and The Bride, 1917-18. Exhibitions: Exhibited at Austrian and international Secession showings and elsewhere. Modern exhibitions at Upper Belvedere Gallery, Vienna, Austria, 2000-01, Frick Gallery, New York, NY, 2001, and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2001. Permanent collections at Österreichische Gallerie, Vienna, Austria; Secession, Vienna; MAK, Vienna; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; National Gallery, London, England; Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy; and Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art, New York.

Awards, Honors

Golden Order of Merit, 1888; Imperial Ward, 1890; Grand Prize of Antwerp, 1895; first prize, World Exhibition (Paris, France), 1911, for Death and Life; named honorary member, Academies of Art in Vienna and Munich, 1917.


Gustav Klimt, text by Fritz Novotny, Verlag Galerie Welz (Salzburg, Austria), 1967.

Gustav Klimt, 1862-1981: Drawings (exhibition catalogue), Gallery St. Etienne (New York, NY), 1970.

Gustav Klimt: Drawings and Paintings, essay and compiled by Alice Strobl, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1976.

Gustav Klimt: Erotic Drawings, text by Hans H. Hofstaetter, Harry Abrams (New York, NY), 1980.

Gustav Klimt: Drawings, edited by Serge Sabarsky, G. Fraser (London, England), 1984.

Frauen/Gustav Klimt, essay by Angelica Baumer, Verlag Galerie Welz (Salzburg, Austria), 1985.

Gustav Klimt: Landscapes, essay by Johannes Dobai, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, England), 1988.

Gustav Klimt Masterpieces, text by Gabriella Belli, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.


Best known for such iconic paintings as The Kiss and Fulfillment, with their golden-hued, mosaic-like surfaces, flowing lines, and overtly sensual content, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was a bridge between the romanticized art of the nineteenth century and the modernism of the twentieth. As biographer Gilles Neret noted in Gustav Klimt, 1862-1918, "Long before Expressionism and Surrealism were credited with displaying sexuality openly in art, Klimt made it his creed, and it became the leitmotif of his work." Neret went on to explain that the "languid and yet exalted atmosphere of Vienna clearly incited the artist to put eroticism center-stage, with woman in the lead." Such overtly erotic content won Klimt both ardent fans and bitter critics in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the ensuing controversy keeping him from winning academic positions in the bureaucratically proper Austrian capital. But if official blessing eluded him, fame did not. His signature dress—flowing robes designed by his mistress, the dress designer Emilie Floege—and sometimes scandalous paintings drew private commissions his way, making Klimt one of the most sought-after portraitists of his day. It was not simply the erotic content of his work—quite staid by twenty-first-century standards—that won Klimt acclaim. He was, according to Alice Strobl in Gustav Klimt: Drawings and Paintings, "the great pioneer of modern painting in Austria and one of the most important draughtsmen of his epoch."

A Nineteenth-Century Sensibility

Born in 1862, Klimt was the second of seven children of gold and silver engraver Ernst Klimt and his wife, Anna Finster Klimt. At an early age Klimt demonstrated an interest in drawing and art, and at age fourteen entered Vienna's Künstgewerbeschule, a school of applied art where he studied for the next seven years. Eventually joined there by his younger brother, Ernst, Klimt collaborated with his sibling in sketching portraits from photographs for a modest fee. These two, together with fellow student Franz Matsch, teamed up to take on more formal decorative commissions while still in school. In 1880, recommended by their professor Ferdinand
Laufberger, the three students won their first official commission, undertaking ceiling paintings for a spa done in the popular style of the painter Hans Makart and incorporating classical allusions.

In 1886 the team won a further commission to help decorate the newly completed Burgtheater in Vienna. Inspired by his study of classical Greek vases, as well as the art of the Assyrians and by the eye for detail instilled in him by his engraver father, Klimt produced The Theatre in Taormina for the theater. Completed in 1888, the work won him a Golden Order of Merit from Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and in 1890 work on the theater as a whole earned Klimt the Emperor's prize. More allegorical work was created for decorative work of the stairways of the new Künsthistorisches Museum, Vienna's art history museum. In these allegorical paintings, such as Sculpture and Tragedy, Klimt peopled his works with his by now trademark women, more modern than classical, in poses and hair-dos that let viewers know the models were from contemporary Viennese society. These lithesome, attractive females confront the viewer with self-assurance and defiant sexuality. As early as Tragedy several of Klimt's major motifs are in evidence: the use of metallic gold paint, a reliance on symbolism, emphasis on the female figure, and the inventive use of areas of detail counterpoised against abstract space. Strobl noted that Klimt's originality is already evident in these allegorical ornamentations "in the expression of movement and of the grand manner and also in the sensitive understanding of the subject, in the gradation of expression and the refined perception of the figures."

Moves into Jugendstil

In 1892 Klimt's father and his artist brother, Ernst, both died. Some critics and biographers have credited this double tragedy with a perceived stultification of Klimt's development for a number of years. Nonetheless, the artist won a commission to paint the ceiling of the Great Hall of the city's new university, and began working on three works, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence—all were subsequently lost during World War II. Due, however, to a dispute between Klimt and remaining collaborator Matsch, these paintings were greatly delayed, none appearing until the new century. In 1893 Klimt was also, for the first time, nominated for a professorship at the university, but was ultimately rejected. As he increasingly felt his art to be under attack by the Vienna establishment, he joined with other young artists in 1897 to form the Vienna Secession and became the group's first president. The group's first exhibition the following year, with works by avant-garde artists from all over Europe such as August Rodin and Arnold Boecklin, drew heated controversy. Many of the participants were advocates of art nouveau and its Germanic counterpart, called Jugendstil, a decorative style noted for its sinuous, flowing lines, intricate details, use of symbolism, and often sensual content.

Public debate around the new artistic style grew so heated that the Secessionists started their own magazine, Ver Sacrum—"Sacred Spring"—to present the art of its members and discuss art theory. They also built their own exhibition space, the Secession, according to a design by Josef Olbrich. With this building, Viennese society was once again shocked by the modern: a square building without the usual classicist lintel decoration, the Secession gallery was surmounted by a giant ball of metallic gold laurel
leaves which gained the building the nickname the "gilded cabbage." The Secession gallery was built just down the street from the Künstlerhaus, the main gallery of the established art community in Vienna. This defiant act helped to attract almost sixty thousand attendees to the Secession's first exhibition.

As the public debated, Klimt worked. Carl Schorske noted in his pioneering Fin-de-Siecle Vienna that, "with the Secession established as a secure social support for his work in 1897, Klimt unfolded a truly exuberant creative energy." Paintings such as 1899's two-meter-tall Nuda Veritas, with its full-frontal nudity—including pubic hair—stirred the ongoing controversy over his artwork.

Vivid Interpretations of Nature

Less scandalous by far were the landscapes Klimt indulged in for most of his creative life. In 1898 Klimt worked on his first landscape painting, and over the years his outdoor scenes became an important part of his oeuvre. Fruit Garden, from 1898, displays a soft-focus, Impressionist sensibility, as do several other early landscapes, including After the Rain, Farmhouse with Birches, and The Marsh. But with landscapes such as 1903's Birch Forest and Pear Tree, Klimt made a break with Impressionism and moved into his own colorful idiom, imprinting the surfaces of nature with the same swirling designs he painted on the robes of his society-matron models, or investing scenes from nature with almost cubist-like mosaic motifs. Other well-known landscapes and nature paintings from Klimt include Landscape of a Garden, Flower Garden, The Sunflower, and one of his final paintings, Park of Schoenbrunn. Klimt also enjoyed painting buildings in nature. Increasingly, he spent his summers with his partner, Emilie Floege, in the Austrian lake district at the town of Attersee. From those surroundings result numerous evocative and warm landscapes with buildings: Schloss Kammer on the Attersee, Avenue in the Park of Schloss Kammer, Farmhouse on the Attersee, Houses in Unterach on the Attersee, and Island in the Attersee. Another less-public form of art Klimt continued throughout his career was the pencil sketch or study. He completed thousands of these sketches, many of them erotic in content, during the several decades of his professional life.

In preparation for the 1902 Secession exhibition, Klimt created his Beethoven Frieze. As Schorske described the work, the frieze is an "allegory in three panels to illustrate the power of art over adversity." The last panel of the frieze was inspired by the
theme of German poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy," which also provided inspiration for Beethoven's ninth symphony. The work fueled the continuing controversy surrounding the artist; Klimt's painting Philosophy, which had been completed and exhibited in 1900, was protested by university professors who objected to the symbolism underlying the painting's depiction of a column of naked men, women, and children. The figures seemingly float without control or destination against a highly ornamented background, and arguments were made that science and philosophy preclude such directionless lives as the painter implies. If the Viennese academics disapproved, the rest of the world did not; Philosophy won a gold medal at the World Exhibition that same year. Much the same fate met Medicine in 1901, the bodies depicted as controlled more by destiny than science and imbued with the eroticism of its centerpiece portrait, Hygeria, goddess of health, who has her back turned to helpless humanity, looking seductively at the viewer. Jurisprudence also caused controversy, the bowed heads of its naked subjects perceived as a metaphor for insecurity regarding the new century rather than the victory of reason over irrational behavior that the law should represent. Schorske noted that "as Jurisprudence marked the height of Klimt's critical defiance of the culture of law in pursuit of modern truth, so the Beethoven frieze was his fullest statement of the ideal of art as refuge from modern life." In the end, Klimt had enough of such quibbling; he returned the commission for the university murals and kept his paintings. He was already involved in a new direction.

A 1903 trip to Ravenna, Italy, introduced Klimt firsthand to Byzantine mosaic technique. Thereafter, his paintings began to assume a mosaic-like surface with gold underlaying. This so-called "gold period" lasted through part of the first decade of the twentieth century and produced such paintings as The Kiss, Judith II, Water Serpents I and II, The Three Ages of Women, Danae, Tree of Life, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Expectation, and Fulfillment. As Neret observed, Klimt ultimately moved away from such heavy ornamentation after the first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The artist "doubtless realized the danger of superabundant ornamentation for him as a painter on beholding the scale of his use of gold and gilding in the decoration of this picture, both in the luxuriant background and in the lady's exquisite dress," Neret wrote. "Nevertheless, these gilt-edged ladies are among the most significant pictures within his oeuvre of turn-of-the-[twentieth-] century women, torn between the conservative tradition to which they were obliged to conform and an incipient awareness of emancipation."

Beyond the New Wave

Klimt broke with the Viennese Secession in 1905 and began working in a new direction as witnessed by his paintings for the 1908 exhibition Kunstschau Wien. Here he began showing a strong arts-and-crafts theme in his work, art that was also influenced by Japanese woodcuts. Though he continued to work in the angular, gold-filled style in the murals commissioned for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, Belgium, in the main Klimt was moving beyond this style by 1909. His femmes fatales lost their decadence; stylized golden backgrounds were replaced by flowers and soft pastels, as in Portrait of Maeda Premavesi. Similarly, 1912's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II marks a striking contrast to the artist's first portrait of this subject, with its golden and highly angular and ornamented background. The 1912 portrait, in contrast, presents less background ornament—the painting depicts flowers and a Japanese frieze—with more focus on the expression and features of the subject. Expressionism, too, found its place in Klimt's work, as with Lady with Hat and Feather Boa. With his travels, the artist increasingly came into contact with the work of other European painters, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri Matisse, all of which proved influential.

Sobering Effects of War

While the female nude continued to form the core of Klimt's canvasses after the onset of World War I, these figures became increasingly less eroticized and were, in contrast, made more spiritual and other-worldly. Klimt's The Maiden shows the influence of the work of younger Viennese painter Egon Schiele in its presentation of a swirling mass of bodies clothed and naked, yet far from sensual. Instead, the emphasis here is on color and composition. In Death and Life, from 1916, Klimt returns to one of his central themes: the battle between life and death. Yet even from his perspective during the bitter war years, which saw the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Klimt presents this eternal struggle with a touch of hope. A skeletal Death lurks on the left of the canvass, while the swirl of colorful humanity on the right appears to ignore him. More fanciful is the colorful Dancer from 1917, Women Friends, with its background inspired by the mythology of Central America and its rosy-cheeked ladies, Adam and Eve, and The Bride, the last two which were left unfinished with Klimt's death from a stroke in 1918. Interestingly, the unfinished paintings remaining on Klimt's easel have provided art historians with insight into his working methods. It appeared he began all his paintings of women by depicting his subject as a nude; once he captured this open sense of his subject, he then proceeded to dress and ornament her.

While Klimt was revered in his lifetime, the controversy surrounding his work cost him official recognition on four occasions, as well as a professorship each time his name was submitted for consideration. The artist did gain unofficial acceptance, however, and was elected an honorary member of the Academy of Art in Vienna in 1917. For many years after his death, Klimt's work, like that of Schiele, Otto Wagner, and Koloman Moser, was little known outside his native Austria. However, beginning with exhibitions that followed World War II, he began to be accepted as a modern master. No longer was Klimt viewed as simply an erotic painter or a producer of ornamental art; as Strobl commented, he was seen as a man who produced work "in each of his various periods which rank him among the great masters." Strobl further noted that "as a painter [Klimt] brought a style, the Jugendstil, to perfection and prepared the way for modern art in Austria."

As decorative art gained in favor in the later twentieth century, Klimt's work gained renown due to the popularity of the poster reproduction of his justly famous The Kiss. By 2002, following a well-attended retrospective exhibition in New York City and Ottawa, Canada, the year before titled "Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making," the artist experienced "a splash of dead artist celebrity," according to Time contributor Heather Won Tesoriero. Another sort of publicity also came Klimt's way as a result of a lawsuit filed by a member of the Bloch-Bauer family that sought to recover from the Austrian government six Klimt paintings commissioned by the family and later confiscated by the Nazis when the Jewish family was forced to flee from Hitler in 1938. It is a sign of how highly prized Klimt's work had become that by 2002 these six contested paintings were valued at over $100 million.

If you enjoy the works of Gustav Klimt

If you enjoy the works of Gustav Klimt, you may also want to check out the following:

The stained glass art of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the prints of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), and the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), who were all practitioners of the art nouveau style.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bailey, Colin B., editor, Gustav Klimt, Modernism in the Making (exhibition catalog), Abrams (New York, NY), 2001.

Comini, Allessandra, Gustav Klimt, Braziller (New York, NY), 1975.

Dean, Catherine, Klimt, Phaidon (London, England), 1996.

Fischer, Wolfgang G., Gustav Klimt and Emilie Floege: An Artist and His Muse, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 1992.

Friedl, Gottfried, Gustav Klimt, 1862-1918: The World in Female Form, Taschen (New York, NY), 1998.

Frodl, Gerbert, Klimt, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1992.

Hoffman, Werner, Gustav Klimt, New York Graphic Society (Greenwich, CT), 1971.

Nebehay, Christian M., Gustav Klimt: From Drawing to Painting, Abrams (New York, NY), 1994.

Neret, Gilles, Gustav Klimt, 1962-1918, Taschen (Cologne, Germany), 1993.

Partsch, Susanna, Gustav Klimt: Painter of Women, Prestel (New York, NY), 1999.

Rennhofer, Maria, Gustav Klimt: Leben und Werk, Brandstaetter Verlag (Vienna, Austria), 1998.

Sarmany-Parsons, Ilona, Gustav Klimt, Crown (New York, NY), 1987.

Schorske, Carl, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage (New York, NY), 1981, pp. 208-278.

Swinglehurst, Edmund, Gustav Klimt, Thunder Bay (San Diego, CA), 2001.

Whitford, Frank, Klimt, Thames and Hudson (New York, NY), 1990.


Artforum International, May, 2001, Robert Rosenblum, review of Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making, p. 54.

Daedalus, summer, 1982, Carl E. Schorske, "Mahler and Klimt: Social Experience and Artistic Evolution," p. 29.

Magazine Antiques, September, 2000, Miriam Kramer, "Klimt in Vienna," p. 266.

Time, July 15, 2002, Heather Won Tesoriero, "Klimt-O-Mania!," p. 17.


ArtCyclopedia,http://www.artcyclopedia.com/ (September 4, 2004), "Gustav Klimt."

Gustav Klimt Gallery,http://vortex1.no-ip.com/klimt/ (September 4, 2006).

WebMuseum,http://www.ibiblio.org/ (September 4, 2004), "Klimt, Gustav.*"

Klimt, Gustav

views updated May 21 2018


KLIMT, GUSTAV (1862–1918), Austrian painter and founding member of the Viennese Secession.

Gustav Klimt was a galvanizing figure in finde-siècle Vienna, which in no small measure due to him turned into an alternative center of the European art world alongside Paris. Born in Vienna, he studied from 1876 to 1883 at the Kunstgewerbeschule of the Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie. His initial reputation as an academic painter culminated in well received commissions for ceiling paintings in the staircases of Vienna's Burg theater (1886–1888) and Kunsthistorisches Museum (1890–1891). Executed in collaboration with his brother Ernst and their colleague Franz Matsch, Klimt contributed mythological and historical scenes relating to the theater at the former, and spandrels—the space between the arches and their frames—representing Egyptian art, Greek art, and early Italian art at the latter. A decisive turning point in Klimt's career came with the 1892 commission by the Austrian Ministry of Education to collaborate with Matsch on the ceiling paintings in the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. In the course of his work on these canvases, the academic painter steeped in neoclassical tradition transformed himself into a modern artist.

Klimt was placed in charge of three of four paintings representing the faculties—philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence, with theology to be painted by Matsch—and several related spandrels. While Klimt's first sketches were still in keeping with his early academic manner, the compositions gradually evolved to embody his mature, modern style: allegories in the form of eroticized, primarily female bodies and hauntingly isolated faces embedded in large scale, nonrepresentational areas. The latter were filled with an amorphous haze or manifold ornamental patterns derived from Mycenaean, Egyptian, and Byzantine art. If his patrons, a university commission reporting to the Ministry of Education, were skeptical and in effect rejected the results Klimt presented, this was due to dramatic changes in conception and style. These changes clashed with the work of his collaborator and made the paintings unsuitable for viewing from far below. Klimt worked on the paintings until 1907, long after any hope of their installation was lost, but they remained unfinished and ultimately perished in a fire in 1945 at Schloss Immendorf, where they had been brought for protection from the war.

Versions of Klimt's university paintings were on view in exhibitions of the Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs (Sezession)—commonly known as the Vienna Secession—in 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1903. The organization was founded in 1897 by a group of artists, designers, and architects that broke away from the established local society of artists, the Künstlerhausgenossenschaft (Artists' house society), in order to promote modern, international trends in the visual arts through its journal, Ver Sacrum, and through regular exhibitions in its own building designed by its architect member Joseph Maria Olbrich. As one of its oldest and best known members, Klimt exerted great influence over the new organization: he served as its first president, designed the poster and catalog cover for the inaugural exhibition, and received his own one man exhibition, Klimt-Kollektive, in 1903, displaying seventy eight paintings and drawings. His contribution featured prominently in the Secession's legendary fourteenth exhibition of 1902, which involved a large scale collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) of frescoes, sculptures, reliefs, and interior designs centered around a Beethoven statue by the German artist Max Klinger. Klimt's Beethoven Frieze, restored in 1985, stretched over three walls of a room framing the view into the main room. Its underlying program was humanity's progress from desire to fulfillment, which has been read as a representation of the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Abstract elements and areas now became even more prominent than in the university paintings. Ornamental patterns proliferate independently and far beyond the clothes and decorative objects worn by the allegorical figures. Their meanings shift, alternately suggesting material luxury, sensual excess, and spiritual transcendence.

The Vienna Secession is best known in the early twenty first century for the kind of integration of visual and applied arts exemplified by the Beethoven exhibition. That shared interest prevailed until 1905. Klimt and especially his peers had already shifted their efforts to a new workshop like organization known as the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna workshop) and left the Secession following internal

splits with artists favoring easel painting. Decorative techniques, materials, and motifs played an increasingly important role in Klimt's work. The Stoclet Frieze—the painter's contribution to the Wiener Werkstätte's magnum opus, the design of the palace of the Belgian millionaire Adolphe Stoclet in Brussels—eclectically applied materials such as gold, silver, enamel, coral, and semiprecious stones in techniques such as inlay and mosaic. Likewise Klimt's paintings on canvas entered the so called golden period, exemplified famously by allegories like The Kiss of 1907–1908 and female portraits like Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Human faces seem mere excuses for ornamental patterns in different tones of gold, amounting both to perceptual onslaught and fetishistic displacement, that is, a transfer of erotic desire for a person onto a substitute. Klimt was often accused for producing pornography while his sitters were suspected of having affairs with the artist. However, the eroticism is greatly tamed in Klimt's paintings by the proliferation of the decorative, especially in comparison to Klimt's drawings, which count among the most erotically evocative and elegantly sensuous works of modern art.

Klimt is broadly associated with late-nineteenth-century symbolist art, which also combined figurative motifs and abstract means to represent personifications of emotional and spiritual states. Leading contemporary painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, sometimes categorized as symbolist, would prove influential to the beginnings of purely abstract art in the early twentieth century. Klimt never had the same impact, perhaps because his understanding of the signifying capacity of pure forms and colors was more limited, and certainly more playful, than the systematic investigations of his contemporaries.

See alsoFin de Siècle; Modernism; Symbolism; Vienna.


Primary Sources

Bahr, Hermann. Gegen Klimt. Vienna and Leipzig, 1903.

Nebehay, Christian M., ed. Gustav Klimt: Eine Dokumentation. Vienna, 1969.

Novotny, Fritz, and Johannes Dobai. Gustav Klimt, with a Catalogue Raisonné of His Paintings. Translated by Karen Olga Philippson. London and New York, 1968.

Secondary Sources

Goldwater, Robert. Symbolism. New York, 1979.

Natter, Tobias G., and Gerbert Frodl. Klimt's Women. Exhibition catalog. Cologne and New Haven, Conn., 2000.

Vergo, Peter. Art in Vienna 1898–1918: Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, and Their Contemporaries. Oxford, U.K., 1975.

Christine Mehring

Gustav Klimt

views updated May 17 2018

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), a controversial painter, especially in his home city of Vienna, became the outstanding artist of the Austrian Stilkunstat the turn of the century.

Born in 1862 the son of an engraver, Klimt attended the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna for seven years starting in 1876. In 1879 he formed with his brother Ernst and a co-student, Franz Matsch (1861-1942), a studio where they executed designs primarily of other artists—for instance, the graffiti designs of Laufberger for the Art Historical Museum and for Hans Makart (1840-1884). In 1886 their own designs for the decorations of the staircases for the Burgtheater were given a prize, and in 1890 Klimt received the Emperor's Prize for painting. In 1892 his brother Ernst died. In 1893 Klimt was nominated for professor at the Vienna Academy but was rejected. In 1894 he obtained the commission to paint the wall decorations for the great hall of the University of Vienna and at the same time left Franz Matsch.

In 1897 a group of Viennese artists formed the "Secession" as an exhibition association to promote the modern arts, and Gustav Klimt was elected its first president. The first exhibition in the following year included works not only of its members but also French (Carriere, Mucha, Puvis de Chavannes, Auguste Rodin), Swiss (Arnold Boecklin), and Belgian (Khnopff, Meunier) artists who were considered ultra modern. The exhibition caused heated controversy. In the same year the group began to publish the journal Ver Sacrum ("The Holy Spring"), which became the outstanding publication of the Viennese Stilkunst, as this variation of the "Art Nouveau" of France and the "Jugendstil" of Germany was called. Later exhibitions, as the one in 1899 with Max Klinger's "Christus im Olymp" and the 1900 exhibition of Japanese art, became the center of discussions concerning modern art in Vienna.

In 1900 professors at the university protested Klimt's painting "Philosophy," which was the first of the wall paintings for the great hall of the university. The Ministry of Education disregarded this protest, while the painting received the medal of honor at the Paris World Exhibition of the same year. When Klimt exhibited the second of his wall paintings, "Medicin," in 1901, protests grew even louder. The issue of Ver Sacrum which contained sketches for this painting was confiscated (a short while later the order was rescinded) and a parliamentary discussion began, but the Ministry of Education did not cancel the commission.

The Secession exhibition of 1902 made Max Klinger's "Beethoven" sculpture the centerpiece, and Klimt painted a frieze for one of the side entrance halls which was a reference to Schiller's "Ode to Joy." This frieze, as well as other works in the exhibit, caused a scandal and an even greater division between those who considered Klimt a great artist and those who rejected his works. While still working on the university paintings, Klimt travelled to Ravenna, and the influence of this trip can be seen in many of his later works.

In 1903 the famous "Wiener Werkstaetten" was founded, an artist association dedicated to transforming even everyday objects into works of art, thus making the Austrian Stilkunst an all-embracing design concept. Klimt showed 80 works in a retrospective exhibit in the Secession and at the same time received the commission for the mosaic frieze for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. The third of the university paintings, "Jurisprudence," encountered even greater protests than the two previous ones, and in 1905 Klimt withdrew these works and repaid the Ministry of Culture all advance payments. At the same time he was again refused appointment as professor at the academy.

By then he had become the most famous portraitist for the wealthy Viennese society, creating icons of beautiful women in which ornamental design and pure elegance dominated. His landscapes have the same jewel-like quality, emphasizing the full bloom of summer. His drawings, primarily of female nudes, are extraordinary in their sensitive realism and their strong eroticism. In 1907 he painted what is probably his most famous work, "The Kiss" (Austrian Gallery in Vienna), and in 1908 he completed the Stoclet-frieze; the palace for which the "Wiener Werkstaetten" designed the furniture is one of the famous attempts to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete work of art, in which all the parts blend into a true unit.

By this time Klimt had become one of Europe's famous artists, with successful exhibits in Rome, Brussels, London, and Madrid. He was made an honorary member of the Academy of Munich, and when again he was not appointed professor the Vienna Academy elected him an honorary member. But the controversy in Vienna did not end: the famous architect Adolph Loos wrote his important article "Ornament and Crime" against the aesthetic refinement of the everyday; the editor of the influential journal Die Fackel, Karl Kraus, attacked Klimt's and the Wiener Werkstaetten's refined aestheticism; and Emil Klaeger published a graphic account of the misery, poverty, and rampant crime in the poorer districts of Vienna. The concept of the Stilkunst which had so strongly influenced Vienna's arts and life was under attack when Klimt died in 1918 in Vienna.

Klimt's combination of highly refined aesthetics, strong erotic tendencies, jewel-like painting surfaces, and use of abstract ornaments made him the outstanding example of Viennese Stilkunst. The French term "Fin de Siecle" (End of the Century), with its underlying nostalgia as well as its refinement of the highest quality, its non-recognition of the social problems of the times, and its implied self-indulgence, fits well when applied to the works of Klimt. The artist himself, however, was an athletic type with an enormous appetite, a health-conscious robust man who was generous to his models, to some of his fellow artists, and to the poor.

Influences in his works can be traced to symbolist artists like Minne, Khnopff, Toorop, and even Boecklin, as well as to his confrontation with the mosaics of Ravenna. Some of the influential writers of his time came to his defense: Hermann Bahr and Ludwig Hevesi praised Klimt's achievements, and the numerous portrait commissions testify that a certain part of the Vienna society was entranced by the refined decorative appeal of many of his works with their frequently mosaic-like quality. The artist's diligence— frequently working on a painting for months to achieve the quality he demanded from himself—and his daring (one of his well-known paintings translated the biblical "Judith" into an elegant Viennese society lady) could not but arouse strong opposition. While the university paintings (destroyed in World War II) caused scandal because of the forms he chose to illustrate, the intended allegories and the strong underlying eroticism in so many of his works made Klimt the center of controversy. Some of his portraits transformed the body of the model into a flat ornament where only face and hands retained a three-dimensional likeness of the subject.

Further Reading

The sumptuous work catalogue of Gustav Klimt was published by F. Novotny and J. Dobai in 1967. Christian M. Nebehay published a well documented biography in 1969, and Otto Breicha edited an important catalogue for a comprehensive exhibit of Klimt's works with the title "Die Goldene Pforte" ("The Golden Gate") in 1978. Dover Publishers has issued a collection of drawings, and Werner Hoffmann has edited a catalogue of the arts in Vienna during Klimt's lifetime under the title Experiment Weltuntergang, Wien um 1900 (Experiment Apocalypse, Vienna around 1900).

Additional Sources

Whitford, Frank, Klimt, New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1990. □

Klimt, Gustav

views updated Jun 27 2018

Klimt, Gustav (1862–1918) Austrian painter and designer, a founder of the Vienna Sezession and the foremost art nouveau painter in Vienna. Klimt's works combines stylized nudes with bejewelled clothing or backgrounds reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics. His style considerably influenced the painters Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. His works include The Kiss (1908).