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Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making

Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making

by Colin B. Bailey (Editor), Gustav Klimt, Gustav Klimt
The most remarkable artist of late-19th-century Vienna, Gustav Klimt developed a highly personal style that combines decorative pattern with a mysterious, smoldering eroticism. This beautiful volume -- the most comprehensive survey in English of the life and work of this popular artist -- is the catalogue of a major Klimt exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada


The most remarkable artist of late-19th-century Vienna, Gustav Klimt developed a highly personal style that combines decorative pattern with a mysterious, smoldering eroticism. This beautiful volume -- the most comprehensive survey in English of the life and work of this popular artist -- is the catalogue of a major Klimt exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the first Klimt retrospective in North America.

Superb reproductions of paintings and works on paper show all the phases of Klimt's career. With texts by highly respected experts who include recently discovered information about this compelling artist, the book will attract academics as well as Klimt's legions of fans.

About the Author

Colin B. Bailey, author of numerous books on art and artists, is chief curator at the Frick Collection in New York City.

Editorial Reviews

This survey of Gustav Klimt contains excellent reproductions of the artist's most famous works, from his early efforts through the gilded period and more. Examining Klimt's role in the formation of a modernist aesthetic, the book's essays reveal a new perspective on this eccentric, innovative painter. During his day, Klimt was often criticized by the art establishment in his native Vienna for the bold use of nudity in his paintings. In response, Klimt painted even more erotic works and was instrumental in founding an alternative arts organization in an effort to free artists from restrictive aesthetics. This volume conveys the important details of Klimt's life, as well as an important analysis of his work, along with beautiful reproductions of his paintings.

Product Details

Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
Publication date:
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10.25(w) x 12.38(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Between Modernism and Tradition:
The Importance of Klimt's Murals and Figure Paintings


Hanna Egger (1942-2000) in memoriam

Measured against the huge corpus of his several thousand known drawings, Klimt's output as a painter was not large. The standard oeuvre-catalogue by Fritz Novotny and Johannes Dobai documents just over two hundred works in oil which, averaged out over the whole of the artist's working life, comes to no more than five or six pictures per year. His method of painting was slow and laborious. He was given to retouching or even completely repainting canvases that were, in name at least, already finished. Or he would lay aside a picture that was half completed, resuming work on it only after an interval of months or sometimes years had elapsed. Given the fact that a not insignificant fraction of his oeuvre is known to have perished, the chances of uncovering an unknown painting, or of retrieving some lost work are, it has to be said, not high. For all of these reasons, any exhibition, any monograph or article devoted to his career will necessarily tend to revolve around the same limited number of paintings, some of which—especially The Kiss and other works of Klimt's "golden period" — have become so popular in recent years that by now they have been reproduced many dozens of times: in books, in articles, on calendars, even on tins of Viennese coffee. It is difficult to decide which is more frustrating: to find oneself confronted by ever-growing numbers of illustrations of the same few golden paintings, of which no more than a handful survive (or indeed were ever painted), or by the same old poor-quality black-and-white photographs of pictures long since destroyed; for example, Klimt's celebrated but controversial canvases done for Vienna University, or a work such as Music II, painted for the music-salon of Nikolaus von Dumba, one of his earliest Viennese patrons—paintings familiar to us only through inadequate reproductions.

    Under these circumstances, it might appear somewhat perverse to have decided to concentrate in this essay upon just a few of the most important, and most popular, of Klimt's figure paintings, especially since, as a consequence, these works which have already been so often discussed and so frequently reproduced are, inevitably, illustrated once again here. It also scorned preferable to reiterate, even if only briefly, some well-known facts and a few frequently repeated anecdotes rather than send the reader, via the intermediary of footnotes, scurrying to ascertain the essentials of history and chronology from some other secondary source. But I have also tried to set these famous works against a somewhat broader background, and in particular to explore in more detail their intellectual context: a topic that has often been dismissed as potentially unrewarding, given Klimt's seemingly limited education and his notorious reluctance to say anything in the least illuminating either about himself or about his art. I have also tried to shed some light on his working method, to explain why it seems to me appropriate to regard particular paintings, or more accurately groups of paintings, as occupying an especially important place within his work as a whole. I stress the phrase "groups of paintings," because an examination of Klimt's total oeuvre quickly reveals one significant characteristic of his figure compositions that affords a particular insight into not only his manner of proceeding but also his whole approach to his art. On closer scrutiny, we find that as a rule he seems not to have thought so much in terms of individual pictures, but instead tended to carry forward ideas and motifs from one work to another, sometimes continuing this process over a period of many years. With respect to the motifs or compositional ideas on which they are based, particular paintings might be thought of as standing in relation to one another like links in a clearly envisaged chain of development; while certain "key" works occupy, as it were, a kind of nodal position inasmuch as they refer to or provide a summation of other groups of paintings related by theme or motif.

    This manner of working was, as far as the early years of the twentieth century are concerned, characteristic not only of Klimt but of a number of other leading modernist painters. The Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, for example, would use and re-use particular motifs over a considerable period, creating works that shared a given thematic content not merely with one another but also with other groups of paintings and drawings having at first sight no obvious resemblance as regards their subject or purpose. It is almost as if, given the decline in importance of traditional sources of patronage such as the aristocracy or the court, and the increasingly questionable significance of conventional subject matter in painting, artists began to see their works as primarily self-referential, depending largely upon a kind of private repertoire of subjects and motifs, linked with one another not externally but by a shared inner content. For Klimt, however, the traditional stuff of allegory and classical legend, of biblical narrative and amorous exploit, was not yet entirely outworn. By the early 1900s, such subjects were increasingly seen as part and parcel of the nineteenth century, of the Symbolist heritage; but for him, they could still have on occasion a profound intellectual and philosophical significance. As an introduction to the National Gallery of Canada's unique survey of Klimt's work, this essay sets out to explore that significance by analysing the nature of the subject matter he deployed in so many of his figure paintings, and to examine the tensions between these in many respects still traditional subjects and the highly idiosyncratic and increasingly innovative manner of working characteristic of his later career.

* * *

To scrutinize an artist's origins and upbringing in search of clues that might help to account for the twists and turns of his later development, or some of the more peculiar characteristics of his art, has become something resembling a commonplace of art-historical method. Yet in truth, there is little enough about Klimt's background or education that might foretell the modernist, the revolutionary, the butt of scandal that he was later to become. Like his brothers Ernst and Georg, Gustav Klimt was trained not at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), which offered in some respects a broader and more liberal education. His younger brother Georg embarked on a career as a metalworker; once established as an artist, Gustav was instrumental in steering a number of important commissions in Georg's direction, including that for the decoration of the great bronze doors that adorned Vienna's Secession building. The later collaboration between the two brothers may have deepened Klimt's interest in the possibility of incorporating into his painting the techniques of decorative art, one of several preoccupations that came to dominate his years of maturity as an artist. Whether the education he received at the School of Applied Arts influenced his thinking about his own future career is impossible to say with confidence: not much that is revealing has survived from this early period by way of documents, letters, or reminiscences. What is certain is that, even before graduating from the School, he and his other brother Ernst teamed up with a fellow student, Franz Matsch, to form a kind of workshop or co-operative called the Künstlerkompanie (Artists' Company), which was remarkably successful in obtaining commissions for the decoration of public buildings.

    This was a growth industry at the time, not just in Vienna but in many of the major provincial cities of the Danube Monarchy, such as Karlsbad or Reichenberg, where the late-nineteenth-century building boom meant that there existed any number of new opera houses and theatres and museums just waiting to be artistically decked out. Klimt and his associates spent the best part of a decade, from 1882 to 1891, on such projects, which included curtains and proscenium arches and ceiling frescoes The culmination of this highly productive period was marked by two prestigious undertakings in Vienna itself: the decoration of the Burgtheater (Imperial Court Theatre, 1886-88) and of the staircase of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum, 1890-91). In the latter instance, the historical and allegorical figures that Klimt supplied for the lunettes and spandrels above the main staircase can still be seen and enjoyed today: evidence of a precocious talent, and of his undoubted accomplishment in this particular field of artistic endeavour.

    Klimt never wrote anything of any significance about himself, or about his ambitions as an artist. He was probably behind some of the statements published in the early issues of the Secession's magazine, Ver Sacrum, and may have been largely responsible for the published descriptions of his Beethoven Frieze of 1902 (see pp. 28ff), and of his other paintings shown in the Klimt retrospective at the Secession the following year. But he never attempted to formulate any proper artistic manifesto, nor did he describe, save in the vaguest terms, his own personality and outlook on the world. His surviving letters and postcards are, moreover, largely unrevealing. Thus, we do not really know whether his preoccupation with monumental decorative art during the 1880s was part of a deliberate strategy, or whether he fell into this line of work more or less as a result of fortunate coincidence. In any case, how many people are sagacious enough to see their future lives mapped out before them, and to know what will be important to them in years to come?

    But whether by accident or design, Klimt soon began to enjoy a growing reputation as a decorative painter, together with the attendant financial rewards. By the 1890s, as Gerbert Frodl observes, his work in collaboration with the Künstlerkompanie had established his reputation as heir to Hans Makart's tradition. In 1890, he was the first artist to win the newly established "Kaiserpreis" (Imperial Prize). The following year, he was accorded the "imperial approbation" of Emperor Franz Joseph himself on the occasion of the official opening of the recently completed Kunsthistorisches Museum, and the public unveiling of Klimt's frescoes. These early successes were, as it turned out, to be of inestimable significance for his future career. On the one hand, the creation of monumental works, of cycles or thematically related groups of narrative compositions was significantly to influence his whole conception of his task as an artist, becoming a major preoccupation of his later years. On the other, this preoccupation provides a key to the understanding of his working methods, helping to illuminate the content and meaning of some of the most important of his subsequent figure paintings.

    The attention Klimt gave to monumental decorative art marks him out as very much a child of his time. He had been born into an age in which the creation of cycles of narrative paintings was a well-defined strand of artistic endeavour, of some importance for an artist anxious to gain wider public recognition. But it was not just academic painters or officially sanctioned artists who devoted themselves to such tasks. Younger and more avant-garde painters, too, seem to have regarded it as entirely natural to create series or cycles of thematically related works, often overtly narrative or allegorical in intent. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, Klimt's almost exact contemporary, spent the greater part of his career painting and repainting the canvases that together constituted what he called his Frieze of Life, which, like much of Klimt's work, revolved around the traditional themes of love and death. Indeed, there are many points of resemblance between the two artists, although for the most part these are more likely to have been parallels or affinities rather than instances of direct influence—even allowing for the showing of important works by Munch at several of the later exhibitions of the Vienna Secession. Munch's Frieze of Life was not, however, intended for any particular location, the building it might most fittingly have decorated being, as the artist ruefully admitted, a "castle in the air." Klimt's monumental works, by comparison, were invariably conceived with a specific setting in mind, their content being determined to a large extent by the physical or architectural context for which they were painted. That content remained, nonetheless, resolutely narrative or allegorical, or both, as was also the case with the majority of Munch's figure paintings.

    Contemporary graphic art, too, could boast its narrative or allegorical cycles, drawing on a long tradition going back at least as far as Gova and Hogarth in the eighteenth century, of which we might single out Max Klinger's Eine Liebe of 1887 as a "modern" example. Klinger was a "corresponding member" of the Secession, and was greatly admired in Vienna at this time. Tangible evidence of that admiration was offered by the association's fourteenth exhibition (1902), conceived as an act of homage to the Leipzig artist and to his massive polychrome statue of Beethoven that formed the centrepiece of the show. It was for this exhibition that Klimt created his Beethoven Frieze (discussed below), the largest and in many respects most ambitious of all his decorative cycles. Klimt, however, despite the esteem in which he evidently held Klinger, seems never to have interested himself in making original prints, his graphic art consisting solely of drawings (including drawings for subsequently published emblems and vignettes), done for the most part in traditional media such as pencil, crayon, or black and coloured chalks.

    His paintings, too, were essentially traditional in both subject and technique. Apart from his narrative and allegorical figure compositions, he concentrated almost exclusively on portraiture and landscape—in other words, on well-established genres of painting. He made no abstract experiments (with one possible exception), no assemblages of "found" materials that might be compared with Picasso's relief-constructions of 1913-14. Klimt never flirted with mixed media (unless the Beethoven Frieze, with its somewhat peculiar combination of medium and support, or his occasional use of gold or of costume jewellery might arguably be considered as such). Nor did he attempt to liberate himself from the confines of painting in order to experiment with other vehicles of artistic expression such as poetry or drama, as did his younger compatriot Kokoschka. Rather, he seems to have shouldered willingly and without question the conventional tasks of painting, merely clothing its traditional content in modernist garb, just as in his portraiture he clothed his sitters in a dazzling array of ornamental, quasi-abstract patterns, while still representing their physiognomy and physical characteristics with the utmost naturalism. At various stages throughout his work, these two tendencies seem to exist side by side, in a sometimes uneasy juxtaposition, as if the conventional elements of narrative or of allegory, and of naturalistic depiction, were at odds with more abstract tendencies pulling his art more emphatically in the direction of the modern, the expression of psychological states by purely decorative means.

    Nowhere is the tension between tradition and modernity in Klimt's work more clearly seen than in the paintings he created for the ceiling of the aula, the great hall, of Vienna University. After initial hesitation, the commission for the decoration of the University ceiling had been awarded to Klimt and Franz Matsch jointly—no doubt on the strength of their earlier collaboration, for example, over the Burgtheater frescoes—and specified, in addition to sixteen smaller lunettes, four large paintings that were meant to apostrophize the four faculties of a traditional German university (Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence), plus an allegorical centrepiece representing the Victory of Light over Darkness. The division of labour was, however, an uneven one: Matsch was to be responsible for the central painting and for that representing Theology, while Klimt undertook to depict the three remaining faculties—Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. (Matsch later recalled that he and Klimt had "as usual" drawn lots over who was to execute which picture, but it is not certain how much credence should be attached to his reminiscences.) As I pointed out in my book Art in Vienna, with this division the seeds of future disaster were sown, since even at this early date a growing divergence between the styles of the two artists was becoming obvious. At a joint sitting of the artistic commission of the University and the fine arts commission of the Ministry of Education that took place in May 1898, they were both forced to declare themselves ready "within the limits of artistic freedom" to undertake such alterations as might be necessary to ensure the stylistic unity of their respective contributions. Klimt, however, finally became so discouraged by the public and critical hostility which greeted his work that, despite the fact that his three paintings for the University ceiling were actually approved by the Ministry in 1903, he repaid the advance of 30,000 crowns he had received for the pictures, declaring himself incapable of "bringing this task, which is already so far advanced, to completion as long as, under present circumstances, I am obliged to continue to regard it as a state commission."

Excerpted from Gustav Klimt by . Copyright © 2001 by National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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