Gustav Klimt (*July 14, 1862, in Baumgarten, † February 6, 1918, in Vienna) attended the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna from 1876 to 1883. Between 1880 and 1892 he shared a studio with his brother, Ernst, and Franz Matsch. In 1897 he became co-founder and president of the Vienna Secession, until he resigned from the group in 1905. He was the recipient of many awards and honors and was a crucial, if controversial figure on the Viennese art and social scene, as well as one of the pioneers of Viennese Modernism, with a strong influence in particular on Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.

Between Decadence and the Avantgarde

“There is no self-portrait of me. I am not interested in myself as the ‘subject of a painting,’ but in other people, especially women, and even more, in different kinds of manifestations . . . .Anyone who wants to know something about me—as an artist, which is the only thing worth noting—should look carefully at my paintings, and seek to recognize in them what I am and what I want.” (Gustav Klimt)

Even during their student days at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna Gustav Klimt and his fellow student, Franz Matsch, were acknowledged for the artistry of their ceiling and theater ornamentations. They took advantage of this when, from 1883 to 1892, they formed an “artists’ company” with Klimt’s brother, Ernst, and received commissions for wall and ceiling murals at the Karslbad spa and Stadttheater (city theater), the Kunsthistorisches (art history) Museum, and the Burgtheater in Vienna.

In 1894 Klimt and Matsch were commissioned to design ceiling murals containing allegories about the academic fields for the lecture hall at the university in Vienna. Klimt’s designs for philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence provoked a years-long public debate about the position of the university sciences in society, as well as the sense and purpose behind state support for the arts and hence, the state’s possible influence on artistic freedom. In 1905 Klimt ultimately bought his paintings back and from then on refused to accept state-financed commissions.

In 1897 Klimt was one of the founders of the Viennese Secession, and remained president of the group until his resignation in 1905. When Max Klinger exhibited his large statue of Beethoven in the Viennese Secession building in 1902, Klimt created the so-called Beethoven Frieze, one of his major works. In 1905 the artist began designing a series of murals for the palais of banker Adolph Stoclet in Brussels.

Even as a student, Klimt was interested in portraiture, especially in portraits of women. He painted mythical heroines and elegant likenesses of ladies from Viennese high society. His increasingly strong stylization of his motifs and the decorative, symbolic ornamentation are characteristic of his work. In his paintings, the often naturalistic, very sculptural bodies and heads create a contrast to the detailed, two-dimensional, mosaic-like sections. Between 1905 and 1909 Klimt produced the major works of his typical, golden style, such as the famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907).

His extensive body of drawings deals almost entirely with the female body and images of women. Apart from a few studies for paintings, most of the drawings are autonomous portraits and nudes with erotic motifs.

It was not until late in his career that Klimt turned to landscape painting. Here, too, he preferred a square format. Living creatures rarely appear in them, while architectural motifs frequently enter into a dialogue with nature. The landscapes are classified geographically in his late years, for instance, when the painter captured the villages and houses in the towns around the Attersee in Salzkammergut, where he spent his summers.

Even during his own lifetime Klimt was one of the most controversial, yet respected artists of his era. Between the poles of decadence and the avant-garde he held up the mirror of enlightenment to society, and at the same time, as a member of the Secession, he was determined to help usher in the dawn of Modernism. In the arts and cultural studies he is regarded as one of the most important masters of Viennese Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil. His decorative, precise painting style remains popular to this day, and on the art market his works realize premium prices.

September 9, 2011 Monika Wolz

Unsere Empfehlung