Viennese Visionary: The Life and Art of Gustav Klimt

At the turn of the 20th century, Viennese artist Gustav Klimt formed a bridge between tradition and modernity with dazzling pattern and ornamentation.

Feb 6, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art
life and art of gustav klimt

 

Marking the transition from historicism to Jugendstil, Gustav Klimt’s opus shaped the beginning of modern art in Vienna. His paintings give a vision of the world in opulence and leisure. In allegories, portraits, landscapes, and erotic figures, he focuses his attention on beauty above all else, leaving out direct references to external events. Klimt built his use of color and pattern on the influences of Japanese art, the art of ancient Egypt, and Byzantine Ravenna.

 

The flat, two-dimensional perspective of his paintings and the stylized quality of his painting’s profound sensuality are fronted by the figure of the woman. Besides his artistic career, almost nothing concrete is known about Gustav Klimt’s personal life. Represented mostly by hearsay as a ladies’ man, hypochondriac, and a bachelor with a balanced lifestyle, the man behind the art remains somewhat of a mystery.

 

The Early Life of Gustav Klimt

gustav klimt sketchbook drawing
One of Gustav Klimt’s Sketchbooks, 1897-1903, via Belvedere, Vienna

 

Gustav Klimt was born on 14th July 1862, as the second of seven children of Ernst, a gold engraver, and Anna Klimt in the Viennese suburbs. After graduating from a primary and secondary modern 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 young age of 14.

 

Gustav was soon joined by his brothers in the School of Arts and Crafts and started receiving his first commissions. This included work on the festive procession designed by the “prince-painter” Hans Makart on the wedding anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elizabeth in 1879.

 

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The Klimt brothers, together with Franz Matsch, founded a studio collective, which became known as the Kunstlercompagnie (Artists’ Organization in English) in 1883. Their first joint commissions were the work for the Viennese architectural office Fellner & Helmer and the ceiling paintings for the salon of the Hermesvilla of Empress Elizabeth in 1885.

 

Unlike his later art, for which he is better known, Klimt trained as a painter of 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. Inspired by a new approach to reality, he soon turned away from the ideals and norms of artistic historicism, both formally and in terms of content.

 

Establishing the Vienna Secession

moriz nahr members of vienna secession photo
Original Members of the Vienna Secession by Moriz Nähr, photograph taken in 1902, via archdaily

 

In the mid-1890s, a young generation of aspirational artists formed a group within the Künstlerhaus (an exhibition space for established artists, similar to the Paris Salon). It stood up against conservativism, advocating opening exhibition spaces to modern and international movements. In 1897, the rebelling artists, including Koloman Moser, Carl Moll, and Alfred Roller, proclaimed their split from the Künstlerhaus. Under the presidency of Klimt, they founded the Union of Austrian Artists Vienna Secession, intending to educate society through future-oriented artistic concepts and infusing life with art.

 

The Secession proved to be a great success from the beginning. In 1898, it held both its first and second exhibitions. In the same year, Secession received its own exhibition space with the erection of the Secession building designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich. The motto inscribed above the entrance, “To every age its art, to art its freedom,” stands to this day for the group’s radically liberal approach. The defining features of the new movement were to assert its break with the official academic tradition and speak the truth about modern man. For Gustav Klimt as an artist, this meant the loss of his status as an accepted and established painter he built for himself over the years. Once he moved away from the traditional beginnings, Klimt found himself in a series of controversies that further defined his career.

 

The Scandals of Gustav Klimt

gustav klimt beethoven frieze painting
Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt, 1902, via Belvedere Museum, Vienna

 

Together with Matsch, Gustav Klimt received a commission for a series of paintings for the University of Vienna in 1898 and 1899. As part of the work, Klimt was assigned the subjects of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. The University expected a series of formal paintings in a classical style similar to Raphael’s work in Stanza della Segnatura. However, what they actually received after several years of work caused such a scandal that Klimt repaid the advances he had received and took the paintings back.

 

One of the paintings, Philosophy, was exhibited in Paris at the 1900 World Fair and won a gold medal, showing the difference between French and Austrian artistic circles. The second painting of the series, Medicine, caused even more controversy. The female figures in the painting represented a complete departure from the traditional 19th-century academic style. Klimt’s women are long-haired and slender, possessing a sexual awareness that is both alluring and almost threatening in its directness. The faculty paintings ensured that Gustav Klimt lost the patronage of the Emperor and other establishment figures. Fortunately for him, he was able to earn a comfortable living by painting portraits instead.

 

The Secession’s 14th exhibition in 1902 led to yet another scandal. This time, Klimt contributed a frieze dedicated to the work of Ludwig van Beethoven meant to be exhibited at the Secession building. Three allegorical figures of Envy, Luxury, and Excess were designed to occupy part of the central wall of the room where Max Klinger’s statue of Beethoven was also to be exhibited. In the figure of Envy, Klimt uses the woman’s hair both to hide her sex and to draw attention to it. Excess resembles not so much a woman, but a Turkish pasha, with his chest expanded to form female breasts. Conservative Viennese society was once again profoundly shocked by these images.

 

Klimt’s Golden Phase

gustav klimt judith and holofernes painting
Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt, 1901, via Belvedere Museum, Vienna

 

Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven frieze shows that, as early as 1902, he was already employing some elements characteristic of his “golden phase.” The golden phase of Klimt is represented by the works he is most known for today, including The Kiss, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, as well as the portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Danae, and many more. The use of metallic geometric elements marked the official beginning of Klimt’s “golden phase,” which reached a climax five years later with his first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

 

In 1903, while on a trip to Ravenna, Klimt was greatly impressed by the early Christian mosaics in the churches of Ravenna. The results of that interest were seen in his own use of collage-like patterns of gold and silver ornament applied to the surface of the canvas. Klimt’s style became a combination of natural elements with large areas of abstract geometrical ornament.

 

One of the first works in which Klimt used real gold leaf is the painting of Judith in 1901. The heroine of Jewish people wears a gold choker and belt embedded with gemstones. Gold is also used in the background, with motifs of trees and vines.

 

The peak of Klimt’s golden phase was the first Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, finished in 1907. Individual ornamental motifs Klimt used in abundance show the variety of stylistic influences. Adele’s dress and armchair recall the gold mosaics of Ravenna, eye and triangle motifs on her dress come from Egyptian gold jewelry, and delicate spirals from ancient Mycenaean art. The background is made of tiny flakes similar to East Asian folding screens and lacquer pieces.

 

Leaving the Vienna Secession 

gustav klimt farm garden with sunflowers
Farm Garden with Sunflowers by Gustav Klimt, 1908, via Belvedere Museum, Vienna

 

In 1905, internal conflicts and different aims of Secession members that had been boiling for years finally led to a rift between the artists. A group of Secessionists known as “stylists,” to which Klimt belonged, split apart from those known as “realists.” The reason for the split was neither aesthetic nor stylistic, as the names might suggest, but it was due to Klimt himself. The so-called “Klimt Group” (artists who left the group with Klimt) included the most distinguished and internationally renowned Secession members who left to pursue their own artistic ideas.

 

Operating independently of the Secession, the Klimt Group organized one of the most important exhibitions at the beginning of the 20th century, the 1908 Kunstschau. In his opening speech as the group leader, Gustav Klimt emphasized the importance of applied arts, stressing that there was no difference between “high” visual and “low” applied arts. The exhibition featured 16 works by Klimt centered around the painting The Kiss, later acquired by the ministry of education for the Moderne Galerie (present-day Österreichische Galerie Belvedere). Oskar Kokoschka, another important modern artist, had his exhibition debut at Kunstschau and dedicated his The Dreaming Boys to Klimt.

 

Later Years and Death

gustav klimt life and death painting
Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, 1911, via Belvedere Museum, Vienna

 

At the beginning of the 1910s, Gustav Klimt continued his international success, with his allegorical painting Death and Life winning the first prize at the international exhibition in Rome in 1911. Like his artistic contemporaries, the duel between life and death had always inspired Klimt’s art. One of the clear influences on Klimt’s painting came from the young expressionist Egon Schiele, who was Klimt’s protégé. Schiele’s paintings and drawings commonly expressed inner angst, typical of expressionism. Unlike the young expressionist’s works, Klimt’s painting of Death seems more comforting and hopeful, with humans disregarding its looming figure.

 

In 1918, the Great War ended, bringing with it the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and its imperial capital of Vienna. On the political level, the whole of Austria was crushed, but its artistic circles also suffered significant losses. Together with Egon Schiele, Koloman Moser, architect Otto Wagner, and many others, Klimt was swept away by the same wave of death.

 

On 11th January 1918, Gustav Klimt suffered a stroke at his apartment and was paralyzed on one side. Less than one month later, on the 6th of February, in Vienna’s General Hospital, Klimt passed away from the consequences of the stroke and pneumonia. As a reaction to Klimt’s death, Berta Zuckerkandl, a Viennese art critic, writes: “… even in these times accustomed to death, Klimt’s passing pierces our souls as something incomprehensible, as a violation of a marvelous gift bestowed on mankind.”

 

Gustav Klimt’s Legacy

gustav klimt the kiss painting
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1908, via Belvedere Musem, Vienna

 

After his death, Klimt’s merits as an artist were still being discussed in Vienna. He was admired by the younger Viennese painters Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, and while Klimt certainly inspired their art, he never had any true followers. Whereas Klimt belonged to a transitional period in art, Schiele and Kokoschka represented the beginnings of expressionism.

 

Klimt himself admired Rodin and Whistler without copying them or their art style, so he had no definite predecessors either. The only statement he made about himself and his art was: “I am certain that there is nothing exceptional about me as a person. I am simply a painter who paints every day from morning till night.”

 

Today, more than a century after his death, Gustav Klimt is remembered as one of the most outstanding modern artists of all time. He left a vast body of work, including around four thousand drawings and many paintings. Though Klimt never left the realm of the realistic, his lavish use of patterns and ornamentation formed a bridge to abstraction typical of modern art.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.