Born in 1867, Gustav Klimt was an artistic dissident against the Academy, a pioneer of modern art, and the most prominent member of the Vienna Secession. Klimt, educated at the School of Arts and Crafts in Vienna, spent his early career as a conventional artist. After his art caused a series of scandals in Vienna, he split from the established artistic circles for good. He enjoyed international success as a modern artist, while in Austria, he financially sustained himself as a portraitist. Gustav Klimt’s artworks marked the transition from academic conventions that were followed for centuries towards more abstract art. His use of flat backgrounds, repeating ornamentation, and patterns opened the path for more experimentally-oriented artists. Here are 10 of Gustav Klimt’s most notable artworks.
1. Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1908
The Kiss is one of the most beloved of Gustav Klimt’s artworks, finding itself reproduced on nearly every conceivable product sold to humans in the 21st century. The painting everyone adores today was finished by the artist in 1908. After Klimt and some other artists made the split within the already defiant Viennese Secession, they organized the first Kunstschau in June 1908.
The exhibition included some younger artists and 16 of Klimt’s artworks, but The Kiss was the center of attention. After the exhibition, the painting was acquired by the ministry of education for the Moderne Galerie (present-day Österreichische Galerie Belvedere).
Gustav Klimt’s artworks, in general, show admiration for female beauty but also a certain distance between the genders, as well as troubled sexual relations between them. The man’s face cannot be seen while holding the woman up with hands clasped around her face in a gesture of tenderness. The woman is turning away from his embrace, offering the man only her cheek for a kiss. Her hands look almost as if she were trying to pull away from the embrace. Klimt used symbolic and erotically charged ornamentation, like the streams of gilded spermatozoa-like ornament on the lower right side, indicating the moment of climactic ecstasy has just passed.
2. Paintings for the University of Vienna, 1898-1900
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
In 1894, together with Franz Matsch, Klimt received a commission for a series of paintings for the University of Vienna’s Great Hall. Klimt’s part of the commission included three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, representing the different faculties. When they were presented to the public, they all brought negative criticism to Klimt. Unfortunately, the paintings were deliberately destroyed by SS troops in the Second World War.
Philosophy disturbed the critics with its depiction of men and women drifting in a trance. Though rejected in Vienna, it won the gold medal on its first showing in Paris at the World Fair in 1900.
The first appearance of the unfinished Medicine in the following year caused even greater controversy. It is difficult to discern precisely what Klimt meant to say about medicine in this painting. The mass of human bodies and elderly figures point to human suffering, but our primary focus is on the two female figures at the bottom and top left. The traditional symbol of the serpent suggests that the woman at the bottom is the personification of Medicine. The naked woman on the left draws us into her groin as she opens her arms in a parody of crucifixion.
Jurisprudence, seen as a pornographic piece at the time, shows three women under the water in a sea world with long hair that flows beneath their shoulders. The painting is filled with dark emotion through every turn with the artwork, especially with the octopus seizing the male in the foreground, leaving the women to be frightened.
3. Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901
Created in 1901, Judith and the Head of Holofernes is Klimt’s rendition of a very popular theme in western art since the Renaissance. The first version of Judith is an archetypal femme fatale found in many of Klimt’s later works, symbolizing female erotic triumph over aggressive male dominance.
The biblical character Judith holds the head of the decapitated Assyrian general, Holofernes; however, Klimt is clearly dismissive of the narrative and the typical way to depict this story. With no biblical setting and no usual bloody sword nor Judith’s accomplice, Judith herself takes up most of the composition.
Judith’s face exudes a charged blend of pleasure and perversion, seductively gazing out of the painting. The model for Judith was the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of two other portraits completed in 1907 and 1912, and also for Gustav Klimt’s artwork of Pallas Athena. Adele was a wealthy woman and hostess of a renowned Salon at the beginning of the twentieth century, whose husband had originally asked Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife.
4. Allegory of Sculpture, 1899
Klimt was formed as a painter in the classical tradition. As an artist with an academic education, Klimt had been chosen by the wealthy liberal bourgeoisie as the decorator of their prestigious buildings. Thus, after graduating from primary and secondary school, Gustav was admitted to the School of Arts and Crafts of the Imperial Royal Museum of Art and Industry (the University of Applied Arts in Vienna) in 1876 at the age of 14.
By 1896, Klimt already began painting the human body in a more unconventional and individual manner. For example, an interesting discrepancy exists between the previous study for the Allegory of Sculpture and the fully realized painting. In the study, the wild and loose hair that would later characterize Klimt’s style is already visible, and there are traces of a more detailed depiction of pubic hair. The woman is looking directly at the viewer and strikes a provocative pose as if she was caught naked in her bedroom. The painting, on the contrary, shows a traditional figure again, with her pose being classically sculpture-like, her hair is braided, and the pubic hair is gone.
5. Death & Life, 1911
Gustav Klimt’s artworks must be considered within the context of Symbolist art and its tendency for universal themes. Like his artistic contemporaries, the struggle of life and death had always inspired Klimt’s art. Klimt presented the first version of Death and Life in 1911 at an international exhibition in Rome. Once again, he was awarded the first prize. He wasn’t really satisfied with the version, so he started working on its corrections in 1915.
The skeleton draped in a dark robe decorated with crosses watches over a floating group of sleeping human figures, representing Life on the right. Life comprises all generations, from the baby to the older woman. Unlike his more Symbolist and Expressionist colleagues, Klimt’s painting is optimistic. Death may be able to take the life of individuals, but Life itself continues. The background, probably once gold-colored, had been made grey by Klimt in 1915. The same year, Klimt added more ornaments to the figures in the painting.
6. Portrait of Emilie Flöge, 1902
A large share of Gustav Klimt’s artworks is dedicated to depictions of women. His range of female types is multifaceted and includes the eroticized woman, the demonized femme fatale, the allegorical and mythical female creature of nature, and finally, the idealized lady of society. This last type earned him a reputation as a painter of distinguished female portraits in fin-de-siècle Vienna.
Emilie Flöge is regarded to this day as the inspiring “muse” of the world-renowned artist. Emilie Flöge was one of the most influential fashion designers in Vienna. She ran the salon Schwestern Flöge from 1904 together with her sisters Helene and Pauline. Inspired by new movements and tendencies, she pursued her own artistic path alongside Klimt. Both were important representatives and trendsetters, especially for the Wiener Werkstätte, founded in 1903, and the workshop’s concept of the universal work of art.
The portrait of Emilie Flöge shows the attractive young woman wearing a dress of her own design. Many of her dresses and fabrics were designed by Klimt specifically for her fashion salon. The use of metallic geometric elements in the portrait marks the beginning of Klimt’s “golden” style that would reach a climax five years later with his first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
7. Danae, 1907
A standard theme of Symbolist painters, as previously mentioned, was the archetypal figure of the femme fatale. Among the approximately 4,000 graphic works left behind by Gustav Klimt are numerous highly erotic female depictions, which earned the artist the reputation of an “eroticist.” The majority of them were neither exhibited during his lifetime nor were they intended to be sold. They primarily served as studies for paintings and are a testament to his almost obsessive exploration of the essence of “the feminine.”
Danae is a figure from Greek mythology. As the daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos, she was locked in a tower by her father after an oracle predicted that her son would kill him. The prophecy was fulfilled after Zeus visited Danae in the form of a golden shower and impregnated her. Danae soon gave birth to Perseus, who accidentally killed Acrisius with a discus.
As typical for Gustav Klimt’s artworks, he uses the veil of mythology to mask an essentially erotic scene. Klimt puts the viewer in the role of a voyeur. We are put claustrophobically and intimately close to the sleeping woman while she is being impregnated by the shower of erotically charged golden ornament.
8. Beethoven Frieze, 1902
In the Secession Building in Vienna, together with a monumental polychrome sculpture by Max Klinger, this mural was completed in 1902. Klimt made it a celebration of the famous German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Originally intended just for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, the frieze was painted directly onto the walls and is now on permanent exhibition today.
The frieze illustrates the desire for happiness in a suffering and uncontrolled world in which human beings struggle with external evil forces and internal weaknesses, as represented in the symphonic masterpieces of Beethoven. The viewer follows the journey of discovery in a spectacular visual and linear fashion. The frieze begins with a floating female Genii searching the Earth before introducing the sinister appearing storm-wind giant, Typhon, his three Gorgon daughters, and other images representing sickness, madness, death, lust, and debauchery, displayed above and to the right. Then a knight in shining armor appears, offering hope due to his ambition and sympathy for the suffering humans.
The journey concludes with the discovery of joy (as celebrated in Beethoven’s choral Symphony #9) by means of the arts, with serenity portrayed in the close embrace of a kiss. Thus, the frieze explores psychological human yearning, satisfied only through individual and collective searching and the beauty of the arts, coupled with love and companionship.
9. The Three Ages of Woman, 1905
This 1905 canvas concerns a recurring theme of Gustav Klimt’s artwork, first found in the 1895 painting Love. It depicts the three ages of a woman: a child, a young lady, and an older woman. The painting was immediately recognized as a great accomplishment, winning the Prize at the Esposizione d’Arte Internazionale of Rome in 1911.
The following year, it was purchased by the Roman Galleria Nazionale d´Arte Moderna. The composition blends Klimt’s revealing use of gold with geometric symbols in various forms. The range of human emotions is conveyed with psychological introspection in the expressions of the three figures. He makes bold use of the dramatic premonition of death in old age, the tender protectiveness of the young woman, and the contented, seemingly naive slumber of the child. Klimt once again shows that in the eternal struggle with Death, Life manages to go on.
10. Gustav Klimt, The Tree of Life, 1909
In 1905, on the outskirts of Brussels, the Belgian financier Adolphe Stoclet commissioned Klimt to design a magnificent mosaic for the dining room of the so-called Palais Stoclet. The richly decorated mosaic relates to the Byzantine style of paintings such as The Kiss and the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Today, the Palais Stoclet, still owned by the Stoclet family, is deservedly part of the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Part of the Stoclet Frieze, finished in 1911, is one of Gustav Klimt’s best-known artworks, The Tree of Life. The tree is the dominant motif of the two sides of the rectangular dining room. The Tree of Life has golden, spiral-shaped branches which fill the majority of the picture plane. The rest is taken by blossoms, butterflies, and birds. The single standing figure is entitled Expectation, and it corresponds to the depiction of an embracing couple on the right titled Embrace.