Published: January 7, 2008
Now recognized as a major figure in Twentieth Century art, Gustav Klimt (1862‱918) was a complex and private Austrian artist who created heavily ornamented, sensual, often erotic images of elegant women and patterned landscapes. As co-founder and first head of the Secession in 1897, he was a central figure in the cultural life of Vienna’s Golden Age and provided a link between Nineteenth Century Symbolism and Twentieth Century Modernism.
Anticipating the work of his peers, Klimt pushed the boundaries of artistic expression and evolved a personal pictorial vocabulary, based on sources of the past, to create a delicate, refined, highly evocative, expressive style. His work embodies the feisty spirit of fin de siecle Vienna.
Although he gained a measure of international renown, there was little American interest in Klimt in the decades following his death. Starting in the 1960s, his reputation began to grow, eventually boosted by the efforts of major collectors Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky. Today, Klimt enjoys a virtual cult status and his work is widely familiar in America.
Lauder and the late Sabarsky, co-founders of the highly successful Neue Galerie museum of German and Austrian art, assembled the largest and finest trove of Klimt works outside Austria. As Lauder observes, Klimt “is an artist of paramount importance in the development of Modern art. He is central to our museum’s collection and mission.”
Eight paintings and more than 120 drawings comprise the current exhibition, “Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections,” which fills all gallery space in the museum through June 30. The art is augmented by a re-creation of the interior of a Klimt studio and vintage documentary material, including his painting smock. This first museum retrospective of Klimt’s work ever presented in the United States was organized by Renee Price, director of the Neue Galerie.
Klimt was born in Vienna and raised there in a fin de siecle atmosphere of intellectual, cultural and aesthetic ferment, evident in the teachings of Sigmund Freud, the music of Gustav Mahler and the designs and furniture of Josef Hoffmann. The son of an engraver, Klimt was trained at home before studying at several art schools. His charcoal “Portrait of a Girl, Head Slightly Turned Left,” executed when he was 17, reflects polished academic skills.
In partnership with a brother and another artist, young Klimt started his career as an architectural decorator. Riding the building boom along Vienna’s Ringstrasse, they applied academic styles to artwork for the interiors of theaters, museums and other major public buildings.
In the early 1890s, Klimt was commissioned by the ministry of education to create paintings for the University of Vienna symbolizing medicine, philosophy and jurisprudence. His painting for philosophy, with its pessimistic imagery and blatant sexuality, was vehemently denounced by faculty members and the government. In the face of this challenge to artistic freedom, Klimt withdrew the commission, returned the advanced monies and never executed a public commission again.
By the mid-1890s, when Klimt struck out on his own, Vienna had become a hotbed of revolt against tradition in fields ranging from art and architecture to design and music. Klimt switched from young master of the old school to leader of rebellion in the visual arts, serving as president of the Secession, an association that emphasized freedom of expression and individualism.
He and other young artists sought to break prevailing academic restraints in favor of an open, experimental attitude toward painting. They looked to the French Impressionists for ideas, also to the English Pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau. Their common ground was a rejection of the classical realist tradition of their fathers and a search for modern man’s true voice.
By 1898, the Secession had completed its own building that resembled a modern Greek temple topped by a dazzling gold dome. Its motto, inscribed above the portal: “To Every Age its Art and to Art its Freedom.” In the process of making the old Hapsburg capital known abroad for the first time for its art, the Secessionists exerted significant influence on the cultural life of the city.
Working with exuberant, creative energy, Klimt experimented with a variety of new messages and subjects in a new visual language.
After 1898, his angelic, sweetly feminine early figures gave way to depictions of sensual creatures †with much attention to their hair and ornamental touches †as he strove to express their full potential for pleasure and pain, life and death.
A symbol devised by Klimt for the Secession, “Nuda Veritas,” 1899, featured the image of a virginal waif holding up a mirror of art to modern man. It was much admired by many Viennese, including prominent architect Otto Wagner, who called the Klimt “the greatest artist who ever walked the earth.”
Included in the exhibition is an early, atmospheric landscape, “The Tall Poplar Tree I,” 1900, featuring an enormous, soaring tree set against a cloudy sky and dwarfing an adjacent chapel.
Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze,” executed for the Fourteenth Secession Exhibition in 1902, was a monumental stucco and gilding work that stretched nearly 100 feet. Large photographs of this homage to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , a seven-part frieze depicting suffering humanity’s struggle to attain happiness, suggest the magnitude of the artist’s achievement.
Klimt worked zealously on preparatory drawings for paintings of nudes, many not intended for public view, and portraits of society women. Working in the seclusion of his studio, he sketched for hours on end every day, “like a virtuoso practicing scales,” said one observer.
Reflecting the artist’s meticulous preliminary work, the exhibition is loaded with sketches of partially clad or nude young women in a variety of poses, such as the head-on “Female Nude with Mirror in Right Hand,” 1898, and “Female Nude,” 1902, and the faintly sketched “Two Reclining Women Facing Right,” circa 1904, and “Raised Lower Arms, Hands Bent Backwards,” circa 1905‱911.
Klimt’s preparation for more sensuous, erotic females in suggestive poses is reflected in such drawings as the aroused femme fatale in “Reclining Nude Facing Right” of 1912‱913 and the dreamy “Head of a Woman with Closed Eyes, Facing Right,” of 1913. These are anonymous, modern women, posing confidently and in control of their own sexuality.
“Pale Face,” 1903, an early portrait, offers a deeply shadowed profile of an angular-faced, introspective woman swathed in a black, high-necked coat and hat. It was influenced by a Dutch Symbolist drawing.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec inspired Klimt’s view of a chic, modern woman wearing a large hat, “The Black Feather Hat,” 1910. Caught in a pensive moment, her red hair and imposing chapeau contrast with her pale face and slim torso.
For his formal, commissioned portraits of elegant Viennese society women, mostly from wealthy Jewish families, Klimt concentrated on their apparel, pose and setting. The star of the show is the celebrated “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” 1907, purchased by Lauder in 2006 for $135 million, the highest sum ever paid for a painting. He bought the work after the Austrian government returned it to heirs of the Bloch-Bauer family, along with four other Klimt canvases looted by the Nazis.
Measuring 551/8 by 551/8 inches, this commissioned portrait of a Vienna industrialist’s wife and salon hostess, the masterwork of Klimt’s Golden Style, is breathtakingly colorful †and beautiful. Klimt started work on the project when the sitter was 19 and completed it when she was 26. A sampling of the more than 100 preparatory drawings that survive is on view, documenting how Klimt worked through various poses and dresses until he arrived at the final image.
“Rumors of a romance between the artist [a notorious womanizer] and the [married] socialite abound,” says Price, “but no concrete evidence of a liaison has been documented.” (Klimt never married, but fathered several children, often with his models.)
Apparently influenced by recent observations of Italian Byzantine mosaics that featured gold backgrounds, Klimt achieved dazzling effects by applying gold paint over gesso in surrounding the realistic likeness of the regally dressed, dreamy sitter with all manner of golden decorative touches. “The sitter’s flushed face, full lips and fine-veined porcelain flesh are realistic depictions embedded in ceremonial, golden ornament †evoking not only&⁂yzantine mosaics, but Russian icons as well,” observes Price.
Smitten from his first viewing of “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” nearly four decades ago, Lauder says she seems “to epitomize turn-of-the-century Vienna: its richness, its sensuality and its capacity for innovation.”
Somewhat smaller but nearly as eye-popping is another Klimt painting of about the same date, “Hope II,” 1907‰8, which features a frequent motif, the pregnant nude. Risking scandal, because pregnancy was not considered an appropriate subject for the public’s eyes, Klimt depicted a pallid woman with downcast eyes, naked to her swollen belly, which is concealed by a crimson, gold and silver robe. The heads of three praying female figures, rising from below, are integrated into the magnificent, patterned robe.
Nearly a decade later, the artist created another colorful and daring posthumous portrait, “The Dancer,” 1916‱8, commissioned by a young woman’s grieving parents. Likely using photographs, Klimt sought to preserve the memory of the 24-year-old woman, who had committed suicide, in several paintings that were, understandably, rejected by the wealthy parents.
In the often-reworked version on view, which measures about 71 by 35 inches, he depicted the woman full-length, wearing a loose, colorful kimono open to her waist, looking to the left, standing against a stunning backdrop of multihued arabesques, flowers and gourds.
Eventually retitled “The Dancer,” the image has become “a seductive Viennese femme fatale †erect, erotic, breasts bared&[embodying] themes that recur in the art and literature of Vienna’s ‘Golden Age’: reverie, life-affirming female sensuality and, of course, death,” says Price.
Around the time he was working on “Hope II,” Klimt was also engaged in preparing a mosaic frieze to surround the dining room of the new palatial home of financier Adolphe Stoclet in Brussels designed by preeminent Viennese architect Hoffmann.
Drawing inspiration from Byzantine work he had seen in a church in Ravenna, Italy, Klimt combined organic and decorative elements in a symbol-filled, jewel-like composition. Highlighted by Klimt’s artwork, the Palais Soclet, still intact, is a memorable union of architecture with fine and decorative arts.
Several glorious, late Klimt landscapes, often overlooked amidst the splendor of his figurative works, are on view. In “Castle Pond in Kammer on the Attersee,” circa 1910, Klimt incorporated Impressionist and Pointillist touches into a grand, decorative composition. Bathed in bright sunshine, the artist blended green, blue and yellow tones to capture the tranquil atmosphere of the pond and its surrounding trees and foliage.
“Forester House in Weissenbach on the Attersee,” 1914, depicts in sumptuous greens the ivy-covered side of a Klimt summer residence, punctuated with red flowers in the windows. As John Collins notes in the catalog, “Klimt was an artist who dwelled restlessly on questions of death, yet these summer landscapes stand as an affirmation of the sensual delights of life.”
Giving context to the artwork are photographs of three modest studios in which Klimt worked and a re-creation of the receiving room of the second, replete with plain, modern furniture designed by Hoffmann. In the studio, Klimt always wore a blue smock; the only surviving example is displayed.
As this exhibition demonstrates, Klimt was a superb artist and risk-taker with a keen eye for beautiful women and decorative detail. The Neue Galerie show further solidifies his high standing among world artists.
The 480-page catalog, edited by Price and with essays by Lauder, is published by the museum and Prestel and sells for $65.
The Neue Galerie is at 1048 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-628-6200 or www.neuegalerie.org .
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