Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map


Gustav Klimt



Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was a refined and enigmatic portraitist, a sensitive painter of landscapes, and a skilled draughtsman of sensual and delicate female nudes. In his paintings and mural cycles, he combined the intrinsic and the abstract, illusion and decoration, and maintained a harmony between the subject and the ornamentation. In this way, he incorporated the sublimity that was characteristic of the artistic experience at the end of the 19th century. The son of a goldsmith, he acquired a good reputation in the traditional Viennese art world with his large allegorical paintings in the Burgtheater and Kunsthistorisches Museum. However, at the dawn of the new century, his designs for the ceiling of the Great Hall of Vienna University disappointed the commissioning authority. Instead of exalting positively the values of science and reason as purveyors of truth, his concept was a comment on the decadence of contemporary society. The portrayal was judged to be too crude, merciless, and erotic. It was his subject matter - nude, elderly, and obese men and women, all drawn by an invisible force -that upset the authorities rather than his use of the Modern Style. The layout was asymmetrical, the technique was strongly two-dimensional, and the outlines were clear and sumptuously curvilinear -a style that Klimt initiated with other Viennese artists as members of the Secession from 1897.
Between 1900 and 1903, Klimt's style developed the characteristics that would make him the chief exponent of the Jugenclstil. He constructed images with mosaic patterns of arabesque colours and designs, which, with their lack of depth, recalled Byzantine arts, while also containing a heavy element of Symbolist abstraction. Two important mural cycles exemplify this technique and represent the perfect synthesis of the sensitive use of space: the first, the Beethoven Frieze for the Secession exhibition of 1902, was planned by Hoffmann as an expression of the synthesis of all the arts. The second was the mosaic for the dining room in the Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905-6), where the abstract figure barely emerges out of the profusion of decoration created with a variety of sparkling precious materials. From this moment onwards, until the end of World War I, Klimt continued to develop his style by placing great emphasis on abstraction and stylization. He was to become the leading artist of an alternative version to avant-garde abstract art, which had emerged from the same central European culture in the same period.

Gustav Klimt took courses at the School of Decorative Arts in Vienna and began work as a painter and decorator of public buildings, together with his brother and other artists. The style they followed was an international form of Symbolism. In 1897, he was the leading figure in the foundation of the Viennese Secession, and after a few years he had become the best representative of the Modern style. In his last years, he showed an appreciation of the avant-garde tendencies of the Expressionists. His extraordinary talent ensured the success of work that contained various expressive materials in one composition, recalling Gothic and Byzantine traditions while also anticipating the multimedia art of the 20th century.




Vienna between Reality and Illusion


Gustav Klimt


Gustav Klimt's home city was the fascinating turn-of-the-century Vienna of the belle epoque. With its two million inhabitants, the city was the fourth largest in Europe, and it witnessed a cultural flowering unparalleled elsewhere. Artists and intellectuals developed enormous creativity, torn as they were between reality and illusion, between the traditional and the modern. With inhabitants such as Sigmund Freud, Otto Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schonberg, the city was a "laboratory of the apocalypse", a late bloom, a last creative tumult before its decline.
The dominant haute bourgeoisie, known for its pretentiousness, its splendid banquets, its inordinate love of pleasure, had a catalytic effect on the city's culture.
It was out of this "laboratory" that Klimt's art grew, and his visions were at once filled to the brim with life and only too conscious of death; the traditional and the modern were dovetailed with one another, linking a passing world with an emerging one. It is fascinating to look at the sensuality of his drawing, the kaleidoscopic composition of his works, the wealth of ornamentation, and to attempt to unlock the secrets of his pictures. Above all, the viewer is held captive by Klimt's central theme, the beauty of women.
"All art is erotic", declared Adolf Loos in "Ornament and Crime". Long before Expressionism and Surrealism were credited with displaying sexuality openly in art, Klimt made it his creed, and it became the leitmotif of his work. The languid and yet exalted atmosphere of Vienna clearly incited the artist to put eroticism centre-stage, with woman in the lead.
Klimt boldly painted Eve, the prototype of woman, in every conceivable positions. It is not the apple that is seductive, but her body; she is displayed as she really is in her entirety, with no detail concealed - Nuda Veritas. Klimt contributes to the creation of a type, the recurrent castrating femme fatale, familiar also from the work of Aubrey Beardsley and Fernand Khnopff among others. She is on display in Klimt's official portraits of Viennese women as well as in his portrayals of Judith or Salome, in Danae as in unnamed girls (The Virgin) and allegorical personifications.
Eroticism was in the air at this time: Freud saw no upright object without interpreting it as erectile, no orifice without potential penetration. Even Adolf Loos, with his right-angled art and his hostility towards ornamentation, associated horizontal lines with woman and vertical lines with man.


Nuda Veritas

This veritable woman, 2 metres tall, expressive and provocative in her nakedness, is bewildering and challenging for the Viennese public. Her pubic hair suffices as a declaration of war on the classical ideal of beauty.

 Judith II (Salome)

Judith or Salome? Klimt was patently painting the "murderous orgasm" of the femme fatale,
rather than the portrait of the virtuous Jewish widow.




Drawing for Two Emblems
for Ver Sacrum
(Nuda Veritas)

Drawing for Two Emblems
for Ver Sacrum
(Der Neid)




Girl with Long Hair, with a sketch for "Nude Veritas"



After the Kiss Klimt became less willing to conceal: this is the ecstasy of love, at the very moment when the shower of gold pieces mingled with gilded spermatozoa - the form in which Zeus chooses to "visit"' the sleeping heroine, symbol of carnal and sensual beauty -
pours down between her gigantic thighs.


The Virgin

Once again, Klimt joins together several figures: entwined, they hover on a bed of flowers like a cloud.
The different figures represent different stages of sensual awakening; the girl becomes a woman.



Klimt's world is full of pollen and pistil, germ-cell and ovum, in views of nature but also incorporated into bodies and garments. At times his works were received with enthusiasm, he was celebrated and became the favourite portrait painter of Viennese society ladies. Yet it also happened that the undisguised eroticism of his works aroused bitter antagonism in this decadent city going through a time of hypocritical Victorian repression. There were periodic scandals, as in the case of his paintings for the University, which finally had to be removed. Although Emperor Franz Josef awarded Klimt the Golden Order of Merit, he declined three times to approve his appointment as professor at the Academy.
Klimt rebelled: "Enough of censorship... I want to get away... I refuse every form of support from the state, I'll do without all of it." Wishing to be independent of large-scale state commissions, he concentrated accordingly on society portraits and landscape paintings. He knew just how to give these portraits an air of respectability, while actually painting what interested him to the exclusion of almost everything else - the bewitching eroticism of women, ever-present Eros. Those who commissioned the portraits were well pleased. To keep up appearances, Klimt could not paint the women nude, so he clothed them in fanciful gowns concealing their nakedness yet drawing attention to it all the more. Floral motifs and ornamentation satisfied the need for fig leaves felt by a society enthusing over Art Nouveau. Klimt's structuring of pictures in the manner of the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna commanded respect, and attention was deflected from the actual content by the abundance of detail: flowing hair, stylised flowers, geometrical decor, extravagant hats, enormous fur muffs. Yet these same attributes intensify the erotic radiance of the woman in the centre of the picture. Before clothing the women in his pictures, Klimt clearly painted them naked. A canvas left unfinished at his death - The Bride - reveals this secret. The Orient, with its bestiary of birds and animals, plants and exotic people, contributes to the decor. The last works, often pyramid-shaped compositions, are flooded with curves and spirals, mystical whirlpools and bright assorted shapes. A newly created world appears around the central figures, enticing the viewer towards the depths of the unconscious and the labyrinths of the mind.
If today the Viennese painter Hundertwasser is in need of a theme, he immerses himself - on his own admission - in the detail of a Klimt dress. He enlarges the detail to the size of his canvas, and with the help of what he calls "transautomatic" repetition he creates a dark world of obsession. In so doing he continues in Klimt's tradition, showing the way, as Klimt did, to an unknown world.
More colour reproductions are sold in museums of the works of Klimt than of any other artist. Not only is his fantasy world seen as the expression of a society; decadency's importance is also attached to his graphic style, which helped to blaze the trail for Modernism.
Klimt's origins had considerable importance for the development of his art. He was born on 14th July 1862 in Baumgarten near Vienna, the second of the seven children of a hard-working yet poor engraver. His younger brother, Ernst, also became an engraver, and the two brothers often worked together until Ernst's death in 1892.


The Bride

The four pictures put together here are typical of the working method of Klimt in his final period. In all of them, gold has been replaced by colours which rival those of Bonnard or Matisse, artists whom Klimt revered. Seen as it were from above, in pyramid or kaleidoscope form, the compositions are influenced by Japanese art. The themes are still drawn from Eros and from the life cycle, but there is no longer any trace of the unpleasant aspects, or of the dark shades of death.



When he was scarcely fourteen years old, Gustav Klimt became a student at the School of Applied Art in Vienna. For seven years he, his brother Ernst, and Franz Matsch studied a range of techniques, from mosaics to painting and fresco work, under Professor Ferdinand Laufberger. The three worked so well together that Laufberger was able to procure design commissions for them.
In 1880 they undertook their first official commissions, the four allegories for the Palais Sturany in Vienna and the ceiling paintings in the Karlsbad spa. Klimt's style at this time developed a certain baroque virtuosity, based above all on the adaptation of classical antiquity as practised by Hans Makart, the luminary among painters in Vienna at that time. Under his auspices Laufberger's three pupils transposed several woodcuts created by Diirer in celebration of the triumphal procession of Maximilian I into large-scale decorations in honour of Emperor Franz Josef's silver wedding. Klimt's first contact with the world of Diirer provided him with rich iconographic resources which he was to draw on and develop further at a later date. In the first pictures, such as Fable, he was still working within a convention. The animals lie at the feet of the delightful, sensuous heroine, serving only to show this first voluptuous Eve to her best advantage.




Even in his earliest paintings, Klimt was already giving pride of place to Woman; he never ceased thereafter to sing her praises.
Here the compliant animals are positioned as ornaments at the feet of the wonderful, sensuous heroine,
who accepts their obeisance as her due.







Two Girls with Oleander








In 1886 the construction of the Burgtheater was completed. The three young men were commissioned to paint scenes from the history of the theatre on the tympanum and the stairway ceilings. Klimt's work developed along different lines from that of his two friends. He was no longer satisfied with classical motifs alone, but sought to supplement them with realistic portraits, painted with photographic precision. In this way, he introduced something distinctive of his own time into the paintings, as in The Theatre in Taormina.
It should not be forgotten that Klimt was an engraver's son, thoroughly schooled in a wide range of techniques. He spent many hours studying the antique vases in the Imperial Museum, or copying such pictures as Titian's Isabella d'Este. In this way he acquired outstanding technical skills, and his work never seemed like that of a beginner. The public were quick to appreciate his accomplished allegories, his optical illusions, his persistently baroque style - features which continued to mark his work.


The Theatre in Taormina

Klimt was fascinated by Hans Makart (1840-1884), the master of the Vienna historicists;
after Makart's death, Klimt continued the master's work on the stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
The youthful Klimt was inspired less by Makart's rococo style than by his baroque love of lavish design.



Hans Makart (1840-1884), the prestigious master of the historicist school of painting in Vienna, fascinated the young artist. At the time of Makart's untimely death - he was only 44 years old - the decoration of the stairways in the Kunsthistorisches Museum was incomplete. The three young men were given the dubious honour of completing his work. The trio could contemplate at length the gigantic works in progress in his abandoned studio. They were charged with the completion of eight spandrel and three intercolumnar paintings, which were intended to represent the history of art from ancient Egypt to cinquecento Florence. For Klimt this became a moment of intense searching: faced with the challenge of adapting classical antiquity without falling over the brink into academicism, he began at the same time to develop symbolist ornamentation together with decorative and floral themes, pre-figuring the manifesto which he was to proclaim at the "Internationale Ausstellung der Musik und des Theaters" (International Exhibition of Music and Theatre) in 1892.
The young artist was fascinated not so much by the rococo resonances in Makart's work as by his truly baroque exuberance in decoration and figural depiction. This influence was long-lasting, becoming especially apparent when Klimt tackled what Freud termed the complex of the "horror vacui", filling the entire background of his pictures with an abundance of shapes. In the gouache Auditorium in the Old Burgtheater, Vienna, the "horror vacui" can already be felt - every millimetre of the canvas is filled with some detail or figure. This subject would lead one to expect a view of the stage as seen from the door into the auditorium; instead, Klimt painted the auditorium as seen from the stage, thereby turning reality inside out, making members of the audience into trompe-l'oeil actors who have all the appearance of being on parade. They each look as if they had just stepped out of their own individual portraits, decked out all ready for a fancy-dress ball.



Auditorium in the Old Burgtheater, Vienna

The theatre, as meeting-point of reality and  illusion, offered Klimt the opportunity of casting the audience as players:
what is reality, what mere illusion?


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