Max Klinger: A Symbolist in Art & Life

Max Klinger is one of the best-known Symbolist artists of the 19th century in Germany, whose art paved the way for future movements of modern art.

Apr 6, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art

symbolist artist max klinger art and life


The oeuvre of the Leipzig-born artist Max Klinger plays a leading and unique role in German Symbolism and the development of 20th-century art. Before Klinger emerged as a significant artist on the European art scene, he was chiefly active as a draughtsman and printmaker. The subject matter of his work relates to the late 19th-century awareness of the subtleties of the mind and its dream-like states, fantasy, and frequently morbid imaginings. Before the First World War, Klinger was one of the most radical artists, but with the ascension of modern art in Germany, his relevance faded away. Remembered as the most prolific and creative printmaker of the 19th century, his art anticipated the works of French Surrealists and Freud’s psychoanalysis.


Early Life & Education of Max Klinger

Self-portrait by Max Klinger, 1918, via The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago


Max Klinger was born in Leipzig on 18th February 1857 to a well-to-do family and began to study drawing at a young age. In 1874, he began his studies at the Grand Ducal Baden Art School in Karlsruhe and immediately transferred to the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin the following year.


At the Academy, Klinger studied in the class of the social realist painter Karl Gussow. During his time at the Academy in Berlin, he got acquainted with the works of Adolph Menzel, who became one of his early inspirations. Klinger completed his studies in Berlin in 1877 as an exceptional student and continued his education in 1879 in Brussels as a pupil of Emile Charles Wauters.


During his studies, he began to experiment with printmaking, producing drawings that he later reinterpreted as etchings. After graduating, he began to produce drawings from life and nature, many of which related to his growing interest in the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. As a young artist, Max Klinger showed outstanding technical mastery paired with a highly individual imagination.

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Public Recognition

Action (Plate Two from Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove) by Max Klinger, 1881, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Max Klinger’s public recognition came in 1878 with his debut at the 52nd Academy Exhibition in Berlin. His series of pen-and-ink drawings, Paraphrase upon the Finding of a Glove, caused an outburst of indignation but nonetheless showed the young artist’s originality and Symbolist tendencies.


Three years later, in 1881, Klinger was moving towards being an independent artist, opening his studio in Berlin and being accepted as a member of the Berlin Artist’s Association. In 1883, Klinger received his first large commission. Julius Albers, a 19th-century industrialist, hired him for the decoration of the vestibule of his villa.


Max Klinger grew ever more successful in the following decades, becoming a member of the Munich Academy. The Dresden Paintings Gallery became the first museum to buy one of his paintings (Pieta), and he was appointed professor at the Royal Academy of the Graphic Arts in Leipzig.


Parallel to these traditional and prestigious positions in the art world, Klinger became a member of the newly founded Vienna Secession. This indicates that Klinger played a seminal role in introducing modern art to Germany. He promoted artistic dialogue and supported young artists by founding the Villa Romana and the Association of Annual Leipzig Exhibitions. He purchased a villa in Florence, to which he invited outstandingly gifted artists to live cost-free for up to a year and get to know Medieval and Renaissance art.


Various Influences on Klinger’s Art

View from the Artist’s Studio, by Max Klinger, 1890, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In 1883, Max Klinger moved to Paris. After acquiring a studio in the city, he immersed himself in the works of Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Puvis de Chavannes exhibited in the Louvre. Klinger lived in Paris for most of the period between 1883 and 1887 after being encouraged by the French art critic Jules Laforgue. Laforgue had seen Klinger’s A Glove during its first Berlin exhibition in 1878 and promoted his prints to Parisian audiences throughout the following years.


Although Klinger’s later socially critical work was indebted to his early interest in French literature, the artist soon became disillusioned with the French capital.


On his return to Berlin in 1887, Klinger got acquainted with one of the paradigmatic figures of German Symbolism, Arnold Böcklin. Their friendship proved beneficial for both artists. Klinger assumed Böcklin’s way of expression and narration in his following print series. In return, Max Klinger popularized Böcklin’s paintings by mass-producing them as etchings.


Over the next several years, he explored the social issues that characterized life in modern Berlin. Today, Klinger is regarded as the first German visual artist to address the issue of prostitution in the city. Klinger’s art highlighted the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality and injustice that often befell women in the city. Through the fifteen etchings of A Life, published in 1884, we follow a tragic fate of a young, middle-class woman forced into prostitution after being impregnated and abandoned by her lover. According to contemporary sentiment, this meant social exclusion for women.


In Berlin, Klinger also spent time studying prints at the Kupferstichkabinett, a museum dedicated to the graphic arts. Early on, he also studied and was influenced by Japanese art, which at that time was considerably less popular in Germany than in France.


Max Klinger & Graphic Arts

Death from a Series of A Love by Max Klinger, 1887-1903, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The most prolific way of expression for Max Klinger was the graphic arts. Between 1879 and 1910, he published no less than fourteen print series. In his essay “Malerei und Zeichnung” (Painting and Drawing), published in 1891, Klinger set out his ideas that painting should reflect the beauty of the visible world, while prints had the function of showing the “dark side of life.” For him, they should express the deepest convictions of the artist and even evoke “associations” in the mind of the viewer, as poetry or music do. Klinger’s essay opened a new and significant role for the graphic arts as an original and experimental medium.


His earliest cycle of etchings is Etched Sketches, Opus I from 1879. The borrowing of the term “opus” from music reflected Klinger’s affinity for the medium. In the title page of the portfolio, the depiction is divided into two sections. At the top, in a moonlit space, an elf playing tambourine balances on a reed growing out of a dark pool below, where a reptile watches the airy spectacle with a rather stupid stare. The image reflects Klinger’s view of the relationship between the artist’s creative activity and the philistinism of his audience.


Klinger’s most important achievement in graphic arts is the two-part cycle On Death, published in 1889 and 1898. In the cycle, he addresses the phenomenon of death first from a microcosmic and then from a more comprehensive, macrocosmic point of view.


Symbolism & Dream-like Visions

The Blue Hour by Max Klinger, 1890, via Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg


Max Klinger’s art has been recognized by art historians as fundamental for understanding Symbolist art in Germany. The painting Blue Hour shows the Symbolist treatment of light and color, in which imagery seems to elude the normal, everyday perception. The reduced palette infuses the image with a certain mood or atmosphere. In Symbolist visual language, the color blue became a symbol of loneliness, melancholy, or vague yearning. The pervasive cool atmosphere, together with a warming fire that casts a flickering light over the women’s bodies, evokes a sense of passion.


From his earliest works, as shown by the Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove, Klinger’s art carries the viewer’s imagination out of the familiar into the world of indeterminate. Throughout the series, the viewer is carried from an everyday event to a series of wish-dreams and nightmares.


Seen in this light, Klinger’s print series precedes but is related to the works of Sigmund Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900. Freud’s writings finally codified what Klinger’s, and more generally Symbolist works had been visualizing for decades. The psychoanalyst writes: “With the manifold meaning of symbols, dreams combine a tendency to admit of over-interpretations, to represent, in a single content, diverse and often by nature very divergent thought formations and wishful impulses.”


Artistic Experimentation & Sculpture

Figure of Beethoven by Max Klinger, after 1902, via the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Throughout his life, Klinger was a versatile artist, being proficient in literature, sculpture, painting, graphic art, and music. He aimed to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (translation: Total Work of Art) which informed much of his aesthetic preoccupation. Much of Klinger’s later work was in the medium of sculpture. Experimenting with materials and colors, he created polychrome nudes with a distinctly eerie quality and statues made of different materials, recalling the Greek chryselephantine sculptures.


The life-sized, multi-media sculpture of the German Romantic composer Ludwig van Beethoven combined academic and Symbolist elements. By using the composer’s death mask, Klinger achieved a great degree of realism in marble. The bronze throne and contrasting cloth make the figure seem more lifelike. The work also evokes the ancient statue of a half-nude Zeus seated on a throne done by Phidias in the 5th century BCE. Many considered Beethoven a genius. In the 19th century, that meant that he possessed singular creative abilities parallel to God’s divine power. This creative power required imagination, a trait that distinguishes humans from animals. Klinger’s statue of Beethoven is an homage and private offering (financed by the artist) to this music “god” that recalls gifts to deities presented in ancient societies.


Death & Legacy of Max Klinger

Self-portrait by Max Klinger, 1918, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Max Klinger passed away on 5th July 1920, at the age of 63, in Grossjena, near the German city of Naumburg. Today, he is chiefly remembered for a stylistic blend of Jugendstil and Symbolism through which he expressed his dreamlike, gruesome, and grotesque visions.


Even before his passing, Klinger exuded a strong influence over young graphic artists in Germany, such as Käthe Kollwitz. Thanks to him, these young artists saw the print cycle as a powerful new means of narrative expression and formal experimentation.


Despite the unusual nature of his choice of subjects, Klinger’s art reveals to us a vision of 19th-century modern life. His combination of dark themes and the stylistic aspects of print was taken up by the 20th-century Surrealists, who admired his exploration of the uncanny. The German Expressionists later revived and advanced the graphic cycle as part of their Germanic heritage and considered Klinger’s art as integral to their national tradition.

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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.