Max Klinger’s art is recognized today as one of the prime examples of German Symbolism. Born in the city of Leipzig in 1857, Max Klinger earned the title of the most prolific graphic artist of the 19th century. Educated in the Academies of Karlsruhe and Berlin, he gained public recognition in 1878 with a series of drawings titled Paraphrase on Finding a Glove. Thematically, his work goes from traditional historical paintings to bizarre etchings of dream-like visions. Concerned with the “dark side” of the human psyche and social problems, his etchings describe the life of 19th-century modern man. As a part of the Vienna Secession, Klinger contributed to the dissemination of the ideas of modern art in Germany before passing away in 1920.
1. Paraphrase on Finding a Glove Series
Paraphrase on Finding a Glove is the first series that earned Max Klinger’s art public recognition. It was exhibited at the 52nd Academy Exhibition in Berlin and caused tensions among the German public. Nonetheless, it was bought by the Berlin National Gallery. After its success, the print series, or “cycle” as Klinger called it, soon became his primary means of expression.
In the first drawing, we see a skating rink where a number of people enjoy themselves, similar to contemporary magazine illustrations. In the second, the artist focuses on the series’ two protagonists, a lady who drops the glove and a gentleman skating behind her who bends to pick it up. In the third image, he is sitting up in bed, the glove in front of him on the covers. We may conclude that he has not returned it to the lady, as etiquette required, but has kept it as a reminder. Seemingly, it is a fetish that fuels his imagination, which in the following eight pictures will confront him with a series of wish-dreams and nightmares. Gradually, Klinger takes the viewer from an everyday event to the world of the fantastic.
2. Portrait Bust of Friedrich Nietzsche
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche greatly impacted Max Klinger’s art and his personal worldview. It could be said the artist was an admirer of the philosopher and even had live sessions with him for a bust series. After Nietzsche’s death, he was asked to make a death mask, but he couldn’t make the commission since he was living in Paris at the time. Though the philosopher’s sister, the artist Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, ended up doing the bust, it was requested that Klinger rework the mask. Klinger describes the mask in one of his letters: “A face of such boundless, inexpressible agony of the soul, without distortion, without wrinkles, only the greatest depth of painful resignation.”
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This bust of Friedrich Nietzsche is based on a study on which Klinger worked, circa 1902, after the philosopher’s death. It shows a brooding face whose gaze is pointed inward. The bust shows a “knowing” thinker, not a speaker. It is one of the most potent images of Nietzsche and largely contributes to the ideas of the philosopher’s appearance.
A statue of the sea goddess Galatea was made by Max Klinger in 1906. It is a nearly four-foot-tall woman accompanied by a young boy cast in polished silver and seated on a marble throne. The statue was made for the prestigious exhibition of German contemporary art in Weimar.
Galatea is one of the fifty Nereids from Greek mythology and the goddess of calm seas. In the myth, her lover Akis was crushed beneath a rock by the Cyclops Polyphemus after she refused his advances. Grief-stricken, she transformed her dead lover into a stream.
Klinger’s figure resonates with the primal aura of an idol. Galatea was known to the German public through Goethe’s famous description of the triumphant Galatea in Faust II: “Grave in aspect like the gods, in dignified immortality…” Together with a male child, she represents the archetypal union between body and mind, female and male, sexuality and the psyche, meaning Max Klinger’s art drew inspiration from the philosophy of Nietzsche and Freud’s psychoanalysis.
4. The Blue Hour
The Blue Hour, painted in 1890, is one of Max Klinger’s best-known paintings and a crucial element in understanding German Symbolism. The painting is located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig.
Symbolism greatly influenced Max Klinger’s art, including all the various media in which he was proficient. The Blue Hour shows how Klinger communicated with the contemporary art circles and their Symbolistic ideas. To Symbolist painters, light and color were merged to become a means of expression in their own right, divorced from the subject of the image. Thanks to this, Symbolist imagery appeared to elude normal perception. In order to give the image a particular mood and ambiance, the palette of Max Klinger’s Blue Hour is diminished. To Symbolists, the color blue emphasizes loneliness, melancholy, and longing. A hidden fire warms the scene and casts a flickering light over the women’s bodies, contrasting the blue color and evoking a sense of undefinable warmth and passion.
5. The Beethoven Monument
Toward the height of his career, when he was hoping to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (a Total Work of Art), Max Klinger’s art and ideas of what art is became more complex.
Max Klinger’s multi-media art is best personified by the Beethoven Monument, exhibited at the Vienna Secession exhibition in 1902. The artist financed the sculpture himself, meaning to give homage to a man considered a musical genius. It is a life-size sculpture of the German Romantic composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
As a model for the face, the artist used the composer’s death mask, which he combined with traditional artistic and Symbolist elements. Klinger made the figure look more lifelike by contrasting the figure with a bronze throne and “cloth” over the figure’s knees. The statue’s iconography associated Beethoven with ancient figures like Zeus and Prometheus. The aura of the divine gives the idea of artists’ private offering to the music god, similar to the votive gifts to deities presented in ancient societies.
6. Judgment of Paris
The Judgment of Paris is a common theme in art history, wherein an artist depicts an important episode of the Trojan War. The Trojan prince Paris sits opposite the three goddesses: Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera, judging which one is the most beautiful. The messenger of the gods, Hermes, seems disinterested and looks off into the distance.
The painting was exhibited for the first time in 1887 in the State Exhibition Building at Lehrter Bahnof in Berlin. Both the audience and critics reacted with incomprehension and rejection. For a theme that is typically classical and common, it still failed to meet the standards of the 19th-century art establishment. Klinger denies the female figures any idealism and reverses the ideas of 19th-century gender roles. Sitting next to Hermes, who doesn’t have any typical iconography elements, Paris seems embarrassed more than anything. The liberty with which the goddesses presented their charms to Paris shocked the public.
7. A Life Series
While living in Berlin, Max Klinger’s art became increasingly filled with contemporary social issues. His socially critical work was indebted to his early interest in Realist French literature and art. Max Klinger’s art is generally regarded as the first attempt by German visual artists to address the social issue of prostitution, highlighting the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality and the injustices suffered by women in the city.
Through the fifteen etchings, the series A Life, published in 1884, shows a young middle-class woman forced into prostitution after her partner impregnates and leaves her. Throughout the series, she falls deeper into the depths of urban society, which continually rejects her. She is finally seen nude and exhausted in Caught, with a crowd of onlookers surrounding her. She is gawked at and ridiculed by them. Her pale skin contrasts the dark tonality of the group, whose individuality disappears into their surroundings, suggesting apathy and cruelty.
8. A Love Series
Max Klinger’s art also explores in great depth the themes fit for the contemporary Symbolist movement. He was acquainted with Arnold Böcklin in 1887, considered by art historians one of the most important representatives of German Symbolism. That same year, Klinger took up Böcklin’s way of presenting a narrative.
While living in Rome, Klinger produced another print series based on social criticism titled A Love. Through the etchings, we follow a modern Berlin woman pursued by a suitor. Over the course of the series, he seduces, impregnates, and abandons her, leaving her to die in childbirth. We can see Böcklin’s influence through the abandonment of naturalism in representing a narrative. In A Love, the narrative is rather evoked, with examples being a woman being guided by an allegorical figure of Shame toward Death. This shadowy figure snatches her infant in the last scene.
9. On Death II Series
During the 1890s, Klinger began working on his last major cycle, On Death II, which was eventually published in 1910.
For these twelve plates, he drew upon the well-established theme Totentanz (“dance of death” or “danse macabre”) in German art. Like many 19th-century German artists, Klinger was interested in this theme throughout his career. Building upon the iconographic tradition of Renaissance artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, his prints imply rather than show death as the ultimate equalizer.
The first image, titled Night (a masterpiece by itself), depicts a man, probably the artist himself, lying beside a moonlit path, apparently contemplating the meaning of life. When the path disappears in the dark, we see a lily and a butterfly, symbolizing human purity and the soul’s return to its origins at the end of life.
Another print from the series is the Philosopher, which is considered the best work technically in the series. The figure of the philosopher had devoted a lifetime of intellectual labor to discover the secrets of things. Despite all his efforts, his mirror reveals only his unchanged and unchangeable self.
10. Works Inspired by Darwinism
Similar to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin played an important role in Max Klinger’s art and worldview. Klinger’s interest in Darwin’s works began at the age of eighteen. His graphic art probes the mysteries of human behavior and psychology, particularly those affected by biological drives. Some of his earliest graphic art from the mid-1870s documents Darwin’s theory of the struggle for existence and the struggle for mates.
Klinger’s sketchbook from 1874-77 contains scenes of violence and sexuality, many of which became sources for his later prints. Works like the Goyaesque Fox Hunt, with animals pursued by brutes, or Buzzards with a Dead Hare, document an incident observed in the backyard of his parent’s Leipzig home. The dark side of nature’s food chain is grimly depicted in Siesta I, from his first published graphic series, Etched Sketches. In it, two lobsters enjoy an after-dinner siesta next to the carcass of a fish they have consumed.