water serpents, II, Klimt

Shimmering, Impressive, Out of Forms, A Modernist with Ideas: Discover Klimt’s World

Foregrounded with patterns, shimmery gold and extraordinary depiction of nature and women, Gustav Klimt was one of the famous artists of 19th and 20th century’s Austria. However, the effect of sensual, impressive paintings and friezes of Klimt’s makes him one of the best-known artists of the 21st century, when considered especially the painting The Kiss

He had two passions in life except for painting: Women and cats. His studio was full of cats and women. He, dressed in his caftan made paintings in deep meditation without ceasing. He was a modernist but he formed his own painting style inspired by Byzantine mosaics, ancient Egypt, Japon culture as well as decorative ornaments and beautifully patterned fabrics.

The Kiss, 1908-1908
The Kiss, 1908-1908

A Life-Like Modernist: Early Career of Klimt

Gustav Klimt Seated Young Girl 1
Seated Young Girl, 1984

Klimt started painting at a very early age. When he was 14, he went to Vienna Art School. He took art classes from the masters and developed his academic painting technics. He was so talented that he could draw very life-like portraits just seen in Seated Young Girl. In school, he also learned how to make architectural design. Making architectural design was very popular and useful for Klimt to take a role for making friezes and design to the important buildings of Vienna and it was a good step for Klimt to spread his fame all around Vienna. 

When he lost his brother Ernst Klimt, he quit architectural design works, his life and perception of his art changed dramatically. Gradually he started not to embrace the academic and classic rules of painting. His new perception of art brought him a different perspective on art. He was very experimental and tried to form his own art style. He was looking something new to deliver emotions and thoughts.

Behind The Art: The Golden Age of Vienna

To understand Klimt’s style, it is good to look at the social state of Vienna in those days. There was a huge rush to making new buildings to widen the city centre of Vienna. In the early 20th century, Vienna witnessed artistic developments just as all Europe. The effect of art nouveau was unignorable. 

Psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud affected deeply the artists for searching the self. On the other hand, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity shaped and transformed both society and artists. Existentialism and Nietzsche’s ideas had quite impact on society. At the end of the century, just before World War One, the main theme was freedom in Vienna. Freedom for ideas, lifestyles, women and bodies.

Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession and Forming New Style 

Klimt’s new wave of painting style was shaped within the colourful atmosphere of these developments and transformations. So Klimt and his friends also didn’t become silent, they knew that there was a need for a new art perception to convey new ideas. They formed a group called Secession. Klimt was the leader of the group. They also published their magazine called Ver Sacrum to convey their ideas. Even if it was thought by other people they would fail; the exhibitions of Secession was very successful and even they built their our Secession building in Vienna.

Klimt’s’ wish was to create a modern, new and live painting style to reflect the spirit of the era. He was in search of developing a style integrating different art branches such as music, theatre, painting in each other. He was planning something affecting all Europe not only Austria.

Beethoven Frieze, 1902, Gustav Klimt
Beethoven Frieze, 1902

Art Nouveau, Secession and works of Klimt were followed strictly by Europe. When Beethoven Frieze was exhibited, the frieze made a tremendous impression on artists, just like Rodin. The frieze reflected the emotions of 9th symphony of Beethoven quite well, therefore it was impressive. The Wagner interpretation of the symphony, affected all artists deeply and Beethoven frieze actually gave the example of interaction of different art branches just as Klimt defended.

Scandalous Paintings: Freedom to Ideas

However, his new painting style and depiction of figures were not very well received. In 1894, the Education Ministry of Austria ordered allegorical paintings devoted the departments of law, medicine and philosophy for the University of Vienna. When he presented his paintings in the exhibitions of Secession, he was criticized harsly. The commission brought forward the figures in the paintings seemed not as mythological figures but common women from streets and they found the works pornographic.

Philosophy, Gustav Klimt, 1899-1907
Philosophy, 1899-1907
Goldfish, 1901-02
Goldfish, 1901-02
Medicine, Gustav Klimt, 1899-1907
Medicine, 1899-1907

Klimt didn’t pay attention and quit the work for them. Actually Philosophy was based on Nietzsche’s notion of “rationalism” from the work Birth of Tragedy. It emphasized the ridiculousness of the dedication of strict ideas and defended perceptions were not absolute. 

In 1902 he made the painting Goldfish and dedicated the painting to whom criticize him. The original name of the work was To My Critics. He had thought the best answer to the state was a painting again! The nudes were placed in the composition and the red-haired woman’s sarcastic smile gave the idea very well.

Symbolism and  Power of Patterns

Patterns were one of the main elements in Klimt’s pieces to place symbols inside the painting. His beloved one Emilie Flöge’s fashion house in Vienna was decorated by Secession group. It was a meeting place for the elite women. Klimt also had made some patterns for the store. In his works the effect of patterns were very strong and stroking. The store was also very influential for Klimt’s fame.

Klimt also used these patterns as a part of his symbolism. He was a symbolist painter and loved to reflect emotions through patterns. Basically, rectangular patterns mostly symbolizes men while circles symbolizes women. In Danea, for example, circles are the suggestive meaning of womanhood. In The Kiss, rectangular shapes are wrapped in man’s body while woman’s body is wrapped with circles.

Danea, 1907
Danea, 1907
The Three Ages of Woman, 1905
The Three Ages of Woman, 1905

The Three Ages of Woman, can be another example of how Klimt viewed and chose the subject of transformation of women. In the painting three phases of femininity is shown in symbolically in a cyclic pattern of life and bringing into existence.

States of Art: Shimmering Gold

The paintings Klimt made with gold is one of the famous ones. He hadn’t travelled much but he went to Venice and Ravenna in Italy. Here, he found a chance to look on golden Byzantine mosaics then he inspired from these shimmering pieces and used golden in his paintings.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907

One of the most famous shimmering paintings of Klimt was the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Adele was a very intellectual woman and came from a wealthy family. In 1903 his husband ordered a portrait of Adele but he wanted something special. Then Klimt made a marvellous portrait of Adele using gold. He also used triangles and eyes on her dress. It was assumed that Klimt’s way of revealing the romantic relationship was using these symbols.

Breaking Taboos: A Close Look at Emotions

Another unignorable fact about Klimt’s art and life was his fondness of women. He had a bohemian lifestyle. His studio was full of nude and semi-nude women. It had been rumoured that he had romantic relationship with Emilie Flöge, Adele Bloch-Bauer, Alma Schindler-Mahler, Marie Zimmerman. All of these women were his models, as well.

Throughout his career, one of the most-criticized ways of Klimt was being very erotic and pornographic in his works.

Judith, I, 1901
Judith, I, 1901

His way of depicting women always in target for the critics and state. However he never denied these critics, on the contrary he enjoyed the speculations and rumours about him. He had many bohemian elite friends and elite women of Vienna was in line for ordering their own portraits! 

The feminine power, transformation of women, pleasures and desires of women, the place of women in society, destroying and creative power of women, the relationship between nature and women were his main themes in his paintings. He was also very sensual, suggestive and erotic while he was delivering the idea. 

He said once: “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.”
In Judith I, the main subject was from the Bible however in the composition the main focus was not the story of Judith and Holofernes. Klimt truly focused on the emotions and feminine power of Judith with a tempted smile. It was also quite interesting that the model’s face was Adele Bloch-Bauer’s, as well.

Feminism Rises: Depiction of New Woman

The Portrait of Emile Flöge, 1902
The Portrait of Emile Flöge, 1902

Death and Life, 1905-10
Death and Life, 1905-10

However, it was also the era that feminism rose in Vienna. The notion and roles of women in society were started to be questioned as a rebellion to Victorian style. The new woman of the era was very keen on education. She found a place in society by herself. The other important issue was sexual independence. She revolted against the oppression of her sexual desires. For her, sexuality was not for men’s desires satisfaction but it was actually a significant part of women’s existence. 

In Portrait of Emile Louise Flöge, Klimt actually painted a new woman of Vienna. Emile was very successful and innovator fashion designer and businesswoman of the day. She has her own fashion store. Her designs were free from corsets and she was against marriage just because it had negative effect on her business.

He also loved to paint nature with his unique painting style. Therefore his landscape paintings were very tactful and full of patterns which gives the texture of the figures. He painted nature just as he painted women, his love, sensitiveness and caring can be perceived deeply.

At the end of his life, death was a foregrounded subject in his paintings as the binary of cyclic life. It was just because the before World War One and restfulness was on the air in Europe. His illnesses were also another factor of choosing death as the subject matter. In his painting Death and Life, the binary between death and life is delivered with classic style of Klimt but much rather in a dark atmosphere.

Klimt died on 6 February in 1918 because of Spanish flu at the age 56.  He left behind unfinished paintings behind him, his symbolist and extraordinary style influenced young artists such as Egon Schiele. Since then sensual paintings of Klimt has been influenced the whole world.

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