Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt

Austrian Painter

Born: July 14, 1862 - Baumgarten, Austro-Hungarian Empire
Died: February 6, 1918 - Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire
"All art is erotic."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"Whoever wants to know something about me - as an artist which alone is significant - they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"Sometimes I miss out the morning's painting session and instead study my Japanese books in the open."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"There is no self-portrait of me."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"There is nothing that special to see when looking at me. I'm a painter who paints day in day out, from morning till evening - figure pictures and landscapes, more rarely portraits."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"I can paint and draw. I believe this myself and a few other people say that they believe this too. But I'm not certain of whether it's true."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"Even when I have to write a simple letter I'm scared stiff, as if faced with looming seasickness."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"Today I want to start working again in earnest - I'm looking forward to it because doing nothing does become rather boring after a while."
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Gustav Klimt Signature
"Enough of censorship. I am having recourse to self-help. I want to get out."
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Gustav Klimt, reflecting on the University of Vienna paintings controversy, 1905
"eroticism is present in all of Klimt's work, including the landscapes"
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Karl Kraus, Poet

Summary of Gustav Klimt

Austrian painter Gustav Klimt had many quirks. Once, his patron Friederika Maria Beer-Monti came to his studio to have her portrait painted, wearing a flashy polecat jacket designed by Klimt's friends at the Wiener Werkstätte. One would think Klimt would approve, but instead he had her turn it inside out to expose the red silk lining, and that was how he painted her. But Klimt, Vienna's most renowned artist of the era, had the prestige to do this. He is still remembered as one of the greatest decorative painters of the 20th century, while also producing one of the century's most significant bodies of erotic art. Initially successful in his endeavors for architectural commissions in an academic manner, his encounter with more modern trends in European art encouraged him to develop his own highly personal, eclectic, and often fantastic style. As the co-founder and first president of the Vienna Secession, Klimt also ensured that this movement would become widely influential. Klimt never courted scandal, but the highly controversial subject matter of his work in a traditionally very conservative artistic center dogged his career. Although he never married, Klimt remains romantically linked to several mistresses, with whom he is said to have fathered fourteen children, despite his extreme discretion about his personal life.


  • Klimt first achieved acclaim as a decorative painter of historical scenes and figures through his many commissions to embellish public buildings. He continued to refine the decorative qualities so that the flattened, shimmering patterns of his nearly-abstract compositions, what is now known as his "Golden Phase" works, ultimately became the real subjects of his paintings.
  • Though a "fine art" painter, Klimt was an outstanding exponent of the equality between the fine and decorative arts. Having achieved some of his early success by painting within a greater architectural framework, he accepted many of his best-known commissions that were designed to complement other elements of a complete interior, thereby creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Later in his career, he worked in concert with artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, the Austrian design organization that aimed to improve the quality and visual appeal of everyday objects.
  • Klimt was one of the most important founders of the Vienna Secession in 1897, and served as its initial president, though he was chosen less for his completed oeuvre - relatively small at that point - than his youthful personality and willingness to challenge authority. His forcefulness and international fame as the most famous Art Nouveau painter contributed much to the Secession's early success - but also the movement's swift fall from prominence when he left it in 1905.
  • Although Klimt's art is now widely popular, it was neglected for much of the 20th century. His works for public spaces provoked a storm of opposition in his own day, facing charges of obscenity due to their erotic content, eventually causing Klimt to withdraw from government commissions altogether. His drawings are no less provocative and give full expression to his considerable sexual appetite.
  • Despite his fame and generosity in mentoring younger artists, including Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, Klimt produced virtually no direct followers and his work has consistently been regarded as highly personal and singular, even up to the present day. However, his paintings share many formal and thematic characteristics with the Expressionists and Surrealists of the interwar years, even though many of them may not have been familiar with Klimt's art.

Biography of Gustav Klimt

Detail of <i>Woman with fan</i> (1917-18) by Gustav Klimt

Proudly acclaiming, ”There is no self-portrait of me,” Klimt found his means of expression not in projecting his own image, but in the erotic power of his sensual nudes, his femme fatales. He was, he said, more interested in “painting.. other people, above all women.”

Progression of Art

The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater (1888-89)

The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater

This was an important commission for Klimt's early career: the Vienna city council asked Klimt and his partner Franz Matsch to paint images of the old Burgtheater, the city's opera house - built in 1741 and slated for demolition after its replacement was finished in 1888 - as a record of the theater's existence. Unlike Matsch's counterpart to this picture, which shows the stage of the Burgtheater from a seat in the auditorium, Klimt's treatment does the exact opposite - a strange choice, but one that is quite significant architecturally, as it shows the full arrangements of loges and auditorium floor seats along with the ceiling decoration. It is typical of the academic style of Klimt's early work, and of the influence on him of Hans Makart.

When word of this commission was leaked to the public, many people begged Klimt to insert their portraits, however small, into the picture through special sittings with the artist, as being immortalized on canvas as a regular attendee at the Burgtheater constituted a tangible emblem of one's social status. As a result, the painting serves not only as a valuable record of the theater's architecture, but also essentially as a catalog of the city's political, cultural, and economic elites - over 150 individuals in all. Among the audience members are Austria's Prime Minister; Vienna's Mayor; the surgeon Theodor Billroth; the composer Johannes Brahms; and the Emperor's mistress, the actress Katherina Schratt. Though the subject is appropriate for a history painting, its dimensions (the width, its longest side, measures less than 37 inches) are diminutive, making the precision of Klimt's individual portraits all the more impressive. Critics at the time agreed, as Klimt was awarded the coveted Emperor's Prize in 1890 for this painting, which significantly raised his profile within the Viennese art community, and a flurry of other important public commissions for buildings on the Ringstrasse soon followed.

Gouache on paper - The Historical Museum of Vienna

Pallas Athene (1898)

Pallas Athene

Though the Secessionists were known as a group that attempted to break with artistic traditions, their relationship with the past was more complex than a simple forward-looking mentality. Klimt, along with many of his fellow painters and graphic artists, cultivated a keen understanding of the symbolic nature of mythical and allegorical figures and narratives from Greece, Rome, and other ancient civilizations. With his soft colors and uncertain boundaries between elements, Klimt begins the dissolution of the figural in the direction of abstraction, that would come to full force in the years after he left the Secession. This painting exudes thus a sensory conception of the imperial, powerful presence of the Greco-Roman goddess of wisdom, Athena, and the inability of humans to full grasp that, rather than a crisp, detailed visual summation of her persona.

Also significantly, the hazy quality of the image allows Klimt to emphasize the goddess' androgynous character, a blurring of gender identity that was featured in ancient descriptions and depictions of her, and explored by many other artists and cultural luminaries at the turn of the century. She is dressed in the military regalia that traditionally identifies her as a warrior and the protector of her eponymous city, Athens - qualities normally associated with masculinity. Only the strands of hair that thinly drape down from each side of her neck (and almost blend with the golden color of her helmet and breastplate) give a hint as to her femininity. Barely visible at the left side of the painting, she holds the nude figure of Nike, representing victory, arguably the only clear feminine reference in the work.

The haziness evokes the contemporaneous exploration of dreams by Sigmund Freud, whose seminal work on the subject would be published in Vienna just two years later. It is tempting to read Klimt's painting in the context of Freud's view of dreams as the fulfillment of wishes, which might suggest that the powerful, imperious woman is the object of male desire, but also potentially that the traditional feminine persona must be costumed in order to attain such powerful status.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Wien Museum, Vienna

Medicine (1900-01)


In 1894, Klimt was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to provide paintings for the new Great Hall of the University of Vienna, recently constructed on the Ringstrasse. Klimt's job was to paint three monumental canvases concerning the themes of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, respectively. By the time Klimt began painting the canvases four years later, however, he had joined the Secession and abandoned the naturalism of the Old Burgtheater to challenge the conventional subject matter. The overarching theme that was supposed to unify the three University paintings was "the triumph of light over darkness," within which Klimt was granted a free hand. None of the finished products, however, conveys this theme with any degree of clarity. Medicine, the second of the three to be unveiled, was the canvas that caused the most controversy.

This detail from Medicine shows the figure of Hygeia, the mythological daughter of the god of medicine, who was located at the bottom center of the canvas and identified by an accompanying snake and the cup of Lethe. Above Hygeia rose a tall column of light, to the right of which rose a web of nude figures intertwined with the skeleton of Death. To the other side of the light column floated a nude female whose pelvis was thrust forward, while below her feet floated an infant (to whom she might have just given birth) wrapped in a swath of tulle. The imagery provoked a storm of criticism on two levels. First, faculty and Ministry officials charged that it was pornographic, particularly the female with the thrusting pelvis - thereby demonstrating the stodginess of Vienna's cultural community. Second - perhaps a more valid argument - the painting did nothing to illustrate the themes of medicine, either as a preventative or healing tool. The acrimonious response to Klimt's works eventually prompted him, in 1905, to buy back the three works for 30,000 crowns with the help of his patron August Lederer, who received Philosophy in return.

Klimt's work proves difficult to decipher, and it appears that one of his goals with the painting was to show the ambiguity of human life, simultaneously representing the themes of birth and death. In some ways, it proves highly ironic, as Vienna at the time was one of the major centers of medical research: along with Sigmund Freud, who had just published The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), it was home to the pioneering abdominal surgeon Theodor Billroth. In this respect, Medicine demonstrates how, despite the great inroads the Secession had made in the four years since its founding, the movement had not decisively overturned conservative attitudes towards modern art in Vienna. For Klimt, the entire affair represented an ultimate public humiliation and rejection; he did not exhibit in Vienna for five years after 1903, and he swore off official commissions and withdrew to take on only private portrait commissions or landscapes for the remainder of his career. His trio of University paintings, born into a firestorm of controversy, met their own fiery fate as they found their way into the collections of Jews and became three of Klimt's many works confiscated by the Nazis. They were incinerated in May 1945 inside the Schloss Immendorf, the lower Austrian castle where they had been stored, by retreating SS troops.

Oil on canvas - Destroyed in 1945

The Beethoven Frieze (1902)

The Beethoven Frieze

The Beethoven Frieze, only a detail of which is shown here, was painted by Klimt for the 14th Secession exhibition in 1902 - arguably the group's most famous - dedicated to the eponymous German composer who was a longtime Vienna resident. It is a monumental work, measuring some 7 feet tall by 112 feet long, and weighing 4 tons. Painted on the interior walls of the Secession Building, it was preserved but was not displayed again until 1986; it is now permanently on view in the basement.

The Beethoven Frieze forms part of the exhibition-as-Gesamtkustwerk, or total artistic environment that the Secessionists sought to create. For them, this often included all branches of the arts - not simply the visual arts, but also the performing arts, such as symphonic works, theater, and opera; accordingly, the contemporary Viennese composer Gustav Mahler's adaptation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was playing at the opening of this exhibition of the Secession. The Gesamtkunstwerk is underscored by details such as the incorporation of gems into the painted surfaces to add to the shimmering effects.

The frieze's narrative tracks the narrative of three female figures, called Genii, that represent humanity seeking fulfillment. They rely on a gigantic knight in shining armor - said to be representative of a great leader for the German-speaking countries of Europe - to lead them through a harrowing minefield of characters whose elongated and exaggerated forms at once reference the Gorgons like Medusa from Greek mythology and represent disaster and vices such as sickness, madness, death, intemperance, and wantonness. Fulfillment does come at the end, represented by a pair of nude female and male figures locked in an almost erotic embrace in a golden aura, surrounded by a choir, a reference to the choral performance of Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" at the end of the Ninth Symphony.

Despite the modern notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the reliance on very old tropes - not only figures from Greek mythology but the flattened depictions of figures like those seen on ancient Greek vases - demonstrate the range of influences on the Secessionists. It also suggests their desire to synthesize a contemporary art from old and new, innovation and tradition, which would respond to the hopes and desires of turn-of-the century society.

Casein paint on stucco, inlaid with various materials - The Secession Building, Vienna

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903-07)

Adele Bloch-Bauer I

This work, considered by many to be Klimt's finest, may also be his most famous due to its central role in one of the most notorious cases of Nazi art theft. Of all the many women Klimt painted from life, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of the Viennese banker and sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, was one of his favorites, sitting for two portraits and serving as the model for several other paintings, including his famous Judith I (1901). Though Klimt was rumored to be romantically involved with numerous women he painted, his extreme discretion means there is still no consensus amongst scholars as to the exact nature of his and Adele Bloch-Bauer's relationship.

The painting is principally concerned with the dissolution of the real into pure abstract form. Though Klimt depicts Bloch-Bauer as seated, it is nearly impossible to discern the form of the chair or to separate the forms of her clothing from the background. Klimt was largely unconcerned at this time with depicting his sitter's character, and even less so with providing location and context, omissions that were common in all of Klimt's earlier portraits. Klimt's biographer, Frank Whitford, has described the picture as "the most elaborate example of the tyranny of the decorative" in the artist's work. The use of gold and silver leaf underscores the precious nature of the jewels Bloch-Bauer is wearing, as well as the depths of the love for her felt by Ferdinand, who commissioned the painting. It places the work squarely within Klimt's "Golden Phase" from the first decade of the 20th century, wherein he used dozens of gold patterns and shades of the metal in his paintings to create these glittering effects. Not surprisingly, when the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere received the painting, it was retitled The Lady in Gold, the name by which it is still sometimes known today.

Despite his move towards modern abstraction, Klimt's work nonetheless draws on several older sources. Most prominent are the Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, which Klimt visited in December 1903. Many of these mosaics use a similar flat gold background, and depict the bejeweled Byzantine empress Theodora; Klimt's depiction of the choker worn by Adele Bloch-Bauer in this portrait is modeled on these mosaics. Art historians also trace the eye-like imagery in Bloch-Bauer's dress to Egyptian motifs, while the whorls and coils and other decorative devices based on Bloch-Bauer's initials arguably resemble designs from ancient Mycenae and classical Greece.

Adele died in 1925. As the Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, Ferdinand's assets became targets of Nazi plunder after the annexations of Austria and western Czechoslovakia in 1938, and Ferdinand ultimately fled to Switzerland. The Nazis installed the painting in the Austrian Galerie Belvedere, which renamed it and eventually took the position that no art theft had taken place. Ferdinand died in 1946, but not before willing his confiscated paintings (including Bloch-Bauer I and five other Klimt works) to his nephew and two nieces. These included Maria Altmann, who in 2000 filed a lawsuit to recover the paintings. The high-profile case, which came before the United States Supreme Court, was ultimately successful and the paintings were returned to the Bloch-Bauer family in 2006. That June Altmann sold Bloch-Bauer I to American collector and cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million, at the time a record price paid for any painting. Lauder gave Bloch-Bauer I to the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art in New York, which he founded, where it hangs on permanent display today. It remains probably the most famous example of Nazi art theft, having been the subject of numerous articles, books, and films.

Oil, gold and silver leaf on canvas - Neue Galerie, New York City

The Kiss (1907-08)

The Kiss

The Kiss is perhaps Klimt's most popular and clear celebration of sexual love, and probably his most reproduced work. Like Bloch-Bauer I, it is one of the key constituent paintings of Klimt's "Golden Phase" lasting roughly from 1903-09, and is often considered a prime example of Art Nouveau painting. It demonstrates Klimt's ability to synthesize a work while drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, even though the overall composition remains fairly straightforward.

Klimt's subject matter is simple, depicting a couple locked in an intimate embrace on the edge of a meadow, indicated by the luminous, almost quilt-like pattern of flowers that extends beneath them. The composition's construction suggests a high degree of familiarity with the Arts and Crafts movement. The flattened patterning of the meadow and the clothing of the figures, for example, resemble the fabrics produced by William Morris in the late-19th century. Klimt's use of fine materials, particularly gold and silver leaf, help highlight the precious nature of the work and point to a high degree of specialized craftsmanship for their use on canvas; their presence here also recalls the combination of colored and gold paint used in medieval colophons and other illuminated manuscripts - sources that also inspired Morris in creating the Kelmscott Press.

With Klimt, however, the source material becomes much more complex. We can trace the use of gold to his affinity for Byzantine art, such as the gold fields for the mosaics he had seen in Ravenna in 1903. And while Morris and medieval sources used such precious materials to exalt textual subject matter - either the word of God or great literature - Klimt uses them to highlight the sacred nature of human relationships and the bond between sensual lovers, a key theme undergirding much of Art Nouveau. The link with Art Nouveau is further underscored by Klimt's exaggeration of the figures, as well as the way that he seems to meld their forms together despite the square-circle/male-female dichotomy. Finally, the confinement of the figures to the central strip of the canvas, with their heads nearly touching the top border, recall techniques used in vertical Japanese pillar wood-block prints, which Klimt avidly collected.

Given Klimt's studies for this work that depict the male figure with a beard, it is tempting to read the kiss as autobiographical, with the painter as the man and Emilie Flöge or Adele Bloch-Bauer possibly serving as the model for the woman, though this remains purely speculation. By leaving the identity of the figures as ambiguous, Klimt allows the image of The Kiss to embody a universal, timeless vision of romantic love, rather than merely a personal and situational significance, thereby broadening its appeal.

Oil, gold and silver leaf on canvas - Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

The Park (1909-10)

The Park

Beginning just after the turn of the century, Klimt turned to landscape painting as another genre of interest, one which would occupy him for the last fifteen years of his career. Though his landscapes such as this one suggest that Pointillism exerted a great influence on him, Klimt never expressed an interest in utilizing optics in his work, and the formal aspects of The Park seem to bear this out. Klimt does not use diametrically-opposed dots of color to increase the luminance of the greens, yellows, or blues present in the trees' leaves, for example. Rather, the top nine-tenths of the square painting appear as a massive textured abstract patchwork or decorative mosaic. Only with the aid of the work's lower section does their representational function become evident.

Klimt's manipulation of space becomes a central strategy for this work, as the seemingly solid, unbroken mass of foliage visually dominates the canvas and seems even to be pressing down on the space underneath it, including the tree trunks (those in the foreground almost appear as if they are being squashed), and the metal bench at the bottom right appears as if it will soon be swallowed by the descending curtain of leaves. Despite the function of the bench as a location for humans to rest while ostensibly enjoying the natural surroundings, here the bench welcomes no sitters, whose heads might be otherwise crushed or lost in the tangle of foliage. In this respect, therefore, Klimt is arguably drawing on the Romantic tradition of the sublime, with its exposure of the awesome power of nature, a theme that had been powerfully explored a century before by German painter Caspar David Friedrich, who, like Klimt, cultivated a solitary professional existence as a difficult artist to approach and understand. Thus, while cognizant of the developments of modern life in the transformations of the city around him, Klimt in The Park acknowledges man's continued inability to fully tame nature and bend it to his wishes.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Nude Figure (c. 1913-14)
c. 1913-14

Nude Figure

Like most visual artists, Klimt produced hundreds of drawings and sketches during his lifetime, many in preparation for larger works. He was the embodiment of the stereotypical male artist whose studio was also the location for his liaisons with many of his nude female models - a pattern of behavior that, unfortunately, has a lineage that extends back long before Klimt's era and forward to the present day. Klimt was charming, and with the various women he had relationships with he fathered some fourteen children - possibly more. He was also a great admirer of the female body, and sketches of women, particularly nude models, make up a large percentage of his surviving graphic work. It was here that Klimt probed the most erotic portions of his brain, even more so than his paintings, which often are rather tame by comparison. Many of his drawings of women are extremely explicit sexually - sometimes too much so to be shown in museum exhibitions even today, and as a result, published examples of Klimt's most erotic drawings are not always easy to locate.

This drawing, which dates from the later part of Klimt's career, is a typical example of his erotic oeuvre. The sketch of a woman reclining and touching her genitals simply gives the barest essentials of the contours of the figure, with even less detail as to the surfaces and spaces surrounding her. We are not even sure if much of her torso is covered in a bedsheet or a piece of clothing, or even what the surface is underneath her. The most detailed portion of the drawing, perhaps appropriately, is the region containing her hand and pubic hair. This, in combination with the looseness of the rest of the drawing - which, as a result, leaves much for the viewer's imagination to fill in - helps to heighten its overall eroticism. Yet another layer of salaciousness from the imagination is arguably added by the anonymity to us of many of Klimt's models.

As famous as Klimt's eroticism may be, his forays into this area are hardly unique. Klimt himself, as art historian Kirk Varnedoe has noted, likely saw on several occasions Rodin's similar loose renderings of female nudes, often in quite explicit poses, dating from the late 1890s and onwards. Klimt's own artistic expression may pale in comparison to that of his student Egon Schiele, whom Klimt introduced to various models while the former was under his tutelage. In part this is because Klimt - especially after the University paintings controversy - took pains to be publicly discreet about his sketches and other studio activities. By contrast, Schiele, was known during his short career for his repeated run-ins with authorities for the nude models - including some children - that he employed, many of whom Schiele depicted in similarly explicit poses.

Blue pencil on paper - Collection of the Vienna Historical Museum

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