Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map


Gustav Klimt





The Hymn to Joy and the Beethoven Frieze


Gustav Klimt

The narcissistic world of lesbian love, depicted in the flowing streams of Water Serpents I and Water Serpents II, exemplifies the terrifying dream of a female-dominated universe. Even the Beethoven hero at the end of the frieze, in "This embrace for all the world", finds himself perilously situated, naked, without armour. In spite of his athlete's body, he is, as Jean-Paul Bouillon points out, held prisoner by the woman's arms, which embrace him and hold down his head. Nothing remains of the triumphant Theseus of the Secession poster. The hero turns his back on the castrating Furies; his stance is that of the helpless old man in Jurisprudence. In him we see the ambivalence of sexuality as punishment and fulfilment (C.E. Schorske).
It is the return of the hero to his mother's womb, the end of his journey to a womb he should never have left, the last embrace, signifying also a return to the source, to the cosmos in which woman is the true conqueror. This "imprisonment in the womb" is to be found again in Hope I, in the magnificent belly that dominates everything like "a living vessel in which the hope of mankind is ripening". This intensely lyrical vision of the pregnant woman in Hope I is set in an ambiguous context peopled with masks, death's-heads, and allegorical monsters such as sin, disease, poverty and death, all threatening the incipient life. Assuredly the title of the picture and the shameless body are the epitome of perfect womanhood, a hymn to life and to the flesh. But are not the surrounding elements also images of night and death? Klimt invokes the full range of his erotic vocabulary, from the motifs of penetration in symbolic relation to the protruding belly, to the mildly perverse red hair, suggestive of Hans Baldung Grien. Nothing is there to remind us of the purity of Botticelli's Spring except the little garland of flowers in the hair. Once again, the painting was far too naturalistic and direct to be received by Klimt's contemporaries without causing a shock; inevitably they found it obscene. For a long time it remained in penitential obscurity in the private collection of Fritz Warndorfer, where it was enclosed by two folding shutters like an altar, which emphasised its sacral character. Not until 1909 was the picture liberated, for an exhibition.




Hope I

Here is Klimt's erotic vocabulary in its totality, from shameless body, through perverse nuances of red head and red hair at the pubis, to the symbolic motifs of penetration resonating with the protruding belly. Around this picture of consummate femaleness appear elements of night and of death.



Hope II

Several years separate the two versions of pregnant womanhood, hymns to life and to carnality.
The later of the two paintings reveals a more rational, or perhaps a more hypocritical, Klimt.
The aggressive or morbid elements have vanished; only the triumphant woman in full bloom remains.
Klimt has apparently made the transition from Hans Baldung Grien to Botticelli...



Auguste Rodin
 Celle qui fut la belle Heaulmiere
(She who was once the beautiful
wife of the helmet-maker)

In 1902, Auguste Rodin visited the Beethoven Exhibition and congratulated Klimt on his "so tragic and so divine" frieze. The French sculptor had been exhibiting his work in Vienna since 1882, and was well known there. The artists' feelings were mutual. Klimt had already expressed his admiration in borrowing the two despairing figures from Rodin's "Gates of Hell" for Philosophy, placing them head in hand at the bottom of the column of mankind. The Three Ages of Woman again drew on Rodin for inspiration, this time on Celle quifut la belle Heaulmiere ("She who was once the beautiful wife of the helmet-maker"). Like Hope, to which it is closely related, this painting evokes humanity, destiny, the ages, and the central role of woman, but also cosmic eternity and the fusion of the sexes. The language is rich in biological ornamentation, including motifs of penetration and penetrability. Microcosm and macrocosm merge in richly allusive mosaics and a flood of colours.
Faced with a society in which death and sexuality were regarded as elements of chaos and therefore inadmissible, Klimt seemed from this time on to be destined more than ever to be engaged in an arduous, feverish, turbulent and fearful quest, in search of answers to the ultimate questions of human existence. According to Georges Bataille, authentic art is inevitably promethean. Klimt's whole work is informed by symbols of human revolt against the tyranny of matter, by a striving towards the true and the ideal. Was not the reign of justice instituted by Zeus himself, in extending grace and forgiveness to Prometheus?
Lacking the magnanimity of Zeus, Vienna could not pardon Klimt. He fell from favour with officialdom, and received no further public commission. Within the Secession itself, the negative public response to the Beethoven Frieze caused conflict between Klimt's supporters and his critics. Surrounded by loyal friends such as Carl Moll, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner, Gustav Klimt chose to leave the Secession, which never recovered from this loss; its great days were over. "Ver Sacrum" had to cease publication. Klimt felt the need to withdraw from the public arena. The central theme of his work continued to be the life cycle, involving procreation, pregnancy and birth, but also disease, fear of old age, and death. His setbacks lessened his attentiveness to social problems and rendered him indifferent to politics. The spiritual quest concerned him as much as ever; from a blend of occultism and oriental religions, he evolved a philosophy centred on the perennial questions of life. Eros and Thanatos were always the source of his inspiration, even though, from this time on, they usually appear in the guise of two simple and fundamental themes, flowers and women. These themes offered him the greatest opportunity to give a certain permanence to all that can be grasped in passing: an ephemeral sensual joy, the ecstasy of life.



The Three Ages of Woman

Rodin visited the Beethoven exhibition in 1902, and congratulated Klimt on his "tragic and divine" frieze;
Klimt in turn drew his "Three Ages of Woman" from the French sculptor's "Gates of Hell".
Their admiration was mutual.




Foremost among these pictures were the portraits of "wives and maidens" which gave Klimt financial independence, such as the Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, which her father commissioned on the eve of her marriage to Stonborough. One cannot help wondering whether the lovely Margaret posed for Klimt in the nude, before he clothed her in the long wedding dress in the style of Whistler or Khnopff, and gently laid the elaborately embroidered floral stole in matching tones of white around her. Margaret was a strong, very avant-garde personality, a friend of Freud and a member of Vienna's intellectual and cultural elite. The sister of Wittgenstein, the ascetic philosopher, she was undaunted by any sort of game. Nor did she lack a sense of humour, shown by the fact that she positioned the portrait in the centre of her "logically conceived house", entirely white and consisting solely of cubes, that her brother had designed for her in the spirit of Adolf Loos, in opposition to the "scourge of ornamentation".
There is nothing accidental about Klimt's frequent choice of a square canvas, especially for his landscape paintings. This format, which he had first chosen for Pallas Athene, made it possible for the subject to have an appearance of repose, to be bathed in an atmosphere of peace, as Klimt put it, to become part of the totality of the universe which was so important to him. Malevich was pursuing similar aims with his White Square on


Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein

This time it was not the spouse but the father of the bride who commissioned the portrait, as a wedding gift. Margaret was a leading light among the intellectual and cultural elite of Vienna, and she enjoyed making this decorative masterpiece the focal point of her white-walled house with its Cubist interior.




White Background, which for him was a cosmic symbol on a higher level than the Christian cross. For Klimt, as for Monet in his last active phase, the remarkable property of the square was that it could be developed in any direction without the need for central reference. Monet's water lilies take up the entire picture and could extend beyond it, and in a similar way Klimt's landscape motifs are sections of the universe. Unlike the French Impressionists, however, Klimt is not interested in meteorology and changing light: what interests him is the partial representation of a great mystic whole. This is evident from the first in the astonishing pictures of water which he began to paint in 1898 on Lake Attersee, where he was to spend his summer vacations at the invitation of the Floge family.
It becomes even more apparent in his forest pictures. The method he uses in Pear Tree is reminiscent of Neo-Impressionist pointillism, and it establishes a rhythm which could continue for ever; the manner in which trees, and leaves are painted creates a sense of matter extending to infinity. Farm Garden with Sunflowers or Farm Garden make one think in terms of an "imprint" of a section of landscape, of textile surfaces printed with luxuriant vegetation, quite different from van Gogh's interpretation of the sunflower opening like an eye and blazing like fire. Yet both artists want to capture the ineffable, to apprehend that which escapes us... For van Gogh, the sunflower symbolises a blinding sun, ultimately a cause of death or insanity. For Klimt, it has a mystical aura, dwelt on by Ludwig Hevesi: "Klimt planted a simple sunflower in the flowering medley, and it stands there like a fairy in love, its grey-green skirts flowing downwards in shimmering passion. The sunflower's face, so dark and mysterious within its gleaming gold circlet, has a mystical, indeed a cosmic, significance for the artist. Does not an eclipse of the sun look just like that?"




Pear Tree

Klimt favoured the square format for his landscape paintings, not by chance and not for convenience. As he himself said, "This format makes it possible to bathe the subject in an atmosphere of peace. Through the square the picture becomes part of a universal whole."



Farm Garden with Sunflowers

Unlike van Gogh, for whom sunflowers were of paramount importance, Klimt does not make of the flowers a flaming and consuming fire.
His flowers shimmer like the gown of a "fairy in love".



Gustav Klimt was not gregarious; he was a man of few words, who preferred solitude to society.
His garden not only inspired his flower paintings; it was the wellspring from which he drew strength for all his work.


Farm Garden (Flower Garden)

This garden in bloom is Klimt's garden - the partial representation of a grand whole,
of a greater entity endowed with mystical power.
His flowers fill every inch of space, like Monet's water lilies.


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