At the turn of the twentieth century, Austrian society was in a state of turbulent change. The culture of the Wilhelminian era, with its veneer of prudishness and moral rectitude, was collapsing, and a new order—in social mores, in politics, and in art—was being born. The art world saw a clash between the bland, rigid establishment style and the emerging power, eroticism, and symbolism of works by the Vienna Secession—a group, cofounded by Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), that broke with the rulebound Vienna Academy and organized its own exhibitions.
Now best known for his sumptuous, semiabstract erotica, Klimt began his career as an architectural painter. Vienna experienced a building boom in the 1890s, and he was much in demand as a muralist and decorative artist. When he rejected the constraints of tradition, his modernism and his frank depictions of the sexualized human body came as a serious shock to his contemporaries. Thus in 1899 one of Klimt’s paintings was called “the most beautiful picture ever painted by an Austrian,” while a year later Klimt was excoriated for his new style. The murals and paintings we now see as graceful and deeply sensual were loathesome and nearly frightening to the early-twentieth-century Austrian sensibility.
In works such as the Beethoven Frieze, created for a 1902 exhibition of the Secessionists, the Stoclet Frieze (1905–1909), designed for the Stoclet Palace in Brussels, and his most widely reproduced painting, The Kiss (1907–1908), we see Klimt in full form. Emphasizing line, color, and ornament, he depicted humans as stylized figures and drew meaning and movement from wide swathes of negative space. He enhanced his elaborate mosaics with buttons, jewelry, glass and mirror fragments, metals, semiprecious stones, and, most notably, lots of gold paint and gold leaf—leading critics to refer to this stage of his career as his “golden period.”
Relatively modest and conventional in style, Klimt’s portraits of women still swarm with mystery. His subjects seem to swim or float in the canvas, their bodies veiled in long, draped dresses, their faces drawn in sharp focus against abstract areas of color. After 1908, Klimt’s portraiture came close to expressionism in its emotional subjectivity; toward the end of his life, he swung back to a more traditionally representative form.
Gustav Klimt’s death in 1918 was not widely noted; once Austria’s favorite painter, later seen as an aesthetic outlaw, he had ultimately fallen into obscurity. But on hearing that Klimt had died, the eminent Viennese architect Otto Wagner wrote: “If only this stupid world could realize what it has lost today!”<<< Back to Pomegranate's Klimt Gallery