The early twentieth century is a period that gave rise to a number of artists distinguished as the best in their respective fields. From engravers, to painters, to sculptors and to literary greats, these individuals changed and modified the way their art was made and interpreted. They extended the tradition visions and opened new horizons for the world to better understand art. Gustav Klimt was one of these innovators, an artist that fascinated everyone with his unique style and approach in painting.
Gustav Klimt, who lived from July 14, 1862 until February 6, 1918, was born in Baumgarten. He had four sisters and two brothers, and was the second eldest of them all. His father Ernst Klimt was from Bohemia and worked as a gold engraver. At a very early age, Gustav Klimt veered greatly towards art and enrolled at the State School of Applied Arts in Vienna where he studied a field called architectural painting. This led to a career in painting interiors and large ceilings of different public structures. A lot of murals in these buildings were also accredited to Klimt (Fliedl, 2006).
In 1897, Klimt’s effect to the art world increased when he and others founded the Vienna Secession, a group of artists dedicated in bringing to the public works of unconventional artists. The group preferred no particular style, and different approaches to art existed under one roof. The movement became a revolt towards academic art style, challenging the views of the conservative fine arts (Sterling and Clark Art Institute, 2002). Throughout his lifetime, Klimt received numerous citations and awards for his contributions to art. One of these is the prestigious Golden Order of Merit from the Emperor Franz Josef.
His group the “Company of Artists”, composed of himself, his brother Ernst, and their friend Franz Matsch also gained praises from both the academic and popular art divisions (Fliedl, 2006). Aside from art, Klimt also had a family by his side, with Emilie Floge as his wife. It is, however, quite known to many that Klimt had several relationships with different women, fathering a total of 14 children (Collins, 2001). But Emilie Floge stayed dedicated to Klimt, being his companion until his death at the relatively young age of 55 (Fliedl, 2006).
Gustav’s style was known to many to be a revolution and a transformation from traditional works, and clearly from the common academic teachings of his time. His began developing his personal style at about the same time when the Vienna Secession took shape. It also evident that Klimt was consciously connected with the environment and factors around him that could have influenced his way of thinking. Klimt lived in the town of Vienna during the turn of the century. It was a time where a great battle between different aspects and standards of life was going on.
Gilles Neret (1993) described the scene: 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. (p. 7) It was within this “laboratory” where Klimt created his work, bringing up a linkage between a passing world of tradition and an emerging one of modernism (Neret, 1993).
Just like many other artists in his time, Klimt was challenged to create something totally unique and different, something that would reflect his own feelings and personality. He achieved this by creating art works that are very ornamental. Gold and shiny colors are very much present in his works, such as in the painting entitled “Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Portrait”. The portrait depicts a woman in elegancy, covered with a magnificent flowing dress of gold. The background was also painted in gold and yellowish hues.
Aside from the colors, several jewelries can also be seen around the subject’s arms and neck. One interesting thing about the painting is the presence of different styles, yet common theme, patterns along the dress of the subject and on the background. These figures composed of eyes, triangles, squares, and circles, are another trademark of the artist. Klimt uses a lot of kaleidoscopic elements in his work. Most of these can be seen as symbolic, and it would take a little more effort to be able to draw the different meanings from Klimt’s works.
Another common theme of Klimt’s art is the erotic element in his art. Vienna during those days fostered a languid yet exalted atmosphere which could have encouraged the artist to work a lot on eroticism (Neret, 1993). He is fond of using women as his subjects, and exposes their beauty and sweetness in the form of painting. The effectiveness of this element is manifested perfectly in this work “Judith I”. This is another image of a woman, also painted in a flavorful golden background. Her neck is covered with a broad ornament, also colored gold. On her hand hangs the head of a man.
Although covered with some clothing, a great deal of flesh and skin is blatantly revealed. Also, aside from holding a head, her left hand is positioned as if pushing the part of her dress away, intentionally exposing her right breast. The eroticism of the image is additionally stressed by the sensual expression of the woman: eyes and lips almost showing signs of inner ecstasy and goodness. Nevertheless, Klimt was able to capture the beauty and perfection of a woman, without compensating any single angle on which a woman may be viewed. Klimt’s eroticism, however, became the subject of many critics.
One of his greatest controversies is the attack on his murals for a Vienna university due to the bold and pornographic essence they hold (Sterling and Clark Art Institute, 2002). This however, had little effect on Klimt as he continued working with eroticism and women. Personally, I do not find the styles of Gustav Klimt to be a sign of pornography and taboo. Klimt used eroticism to further increase the sensuality of his paintings, adding a new dimension to the flat portrait of his subjects. Also, his use of this element must be seen symbolically and not just as a random factor in his works.
Gustav Klimt used a lot of symbols in his paintings, from the kaleidoscopic images to different repeating patterns around and on the subject, and even the subjects themselves. One final work of Klimt that was able to grab my utmost attention is “The Kiss”, a painting that was said to be one of Klimt’s greatest works. It is an image of a couple in an intense scene where the male is passionately kissing the female. Sensuality is present in the painting, and a hint of ecstasy can be seen from the woman’s expression. Both are shrouded in something that looks like a golden veil.
The broad background is in a bronze color, with different shadings of gray and black. On the foot of the couple lies a carpet of green area with dots of pastel colors scattered all over. This area is not that symbolical, and an experienced viewer can easily depict this as a garden, or probably a meadow of flowers where the lovers did their kiss. As with his previous works, a lot of repeating patterns are used in the painting. The male’s clothing is covered with rectangles of colors ranging from white to black. Some are “transparent”, and reveals the golden overall color of the male’s suit.
The female on the other hand is covered with circles of different colors and sizes. On the bottom part of the female, particularly on her legs and feet hangs golden necklaces that extend to the carpet of flowers. The painting as a whole is a treasure throve of symbols. This can be interpreted in different ways. The golden veil, for example, can be a sign of endlessness and infinity. It shows how strong a kiss can be in creating a union between a male and a female. Time was symbolized as an imperishable element like gold. The painting also evokes a “sparkling feeling” when someone kisses another.
Aside from the golden color, the positioning of the subjects also shows the superiority of the male. The woman, with her facial features, expresses succumbing to the power the kiss of male gives. But the hug by her hands suggests a mutual understanding between the two, and not just any abuse of patriarchal power over feminism. The patterns on the dresses of the subjects also serves as symbols that provide additional foundation on the painting. The rectangles signify a being full of strength and power. The black and white scheme also fosters an atmosphere of courage in the male.
He was also wearing a crown of vines that shows wisdom and knowledge. On the other hand, the circles define womanhood – caring, warm, open, and eternal. Some circles are drawn inside larger circles, which might suggest pregnancy and formation of a new life inside an old one. The painting “The Kiss” is ever since opened to different interpretations and translations. Some would say that it shows power of men, others would decode it as a balanced act of love, while still many unravels it as a hidden desire of pleasure in women.
Nobody really knows what Gustav Klimt was thinking when he created this work, and this is what makes “The Kiss” special. It is a work embedded with numerous symbols waiting to be identified and clarified. And this is what makes viewing a Klimt painting enjoyable. Each picture tends to create a sensation of difference and a struggle to derive the real meaning of the symbols found in the artwork. This shows the effectiveness of Klimt as an artist – someone who can stimulate an audience’s mind to think beyond the normal. References: Collins, J. (2001). Klimt: Modernism in the making. Canada: University of Michigan Press Fleidl, G. (2006). Klimt.
Berlin: Taschen Neret, G. (1993). Gustav Klimt. Berlin: Taschen Sterling and Clark Art Institute. (2002). Gustav Klimt Landscapes. Retrieved May 03, 2008, from http://www. clarkart. edu/exhibitions/klimt/klimt/bio. cfm “Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Portrait” image from NBC news archive, April 9, 2006. Retrieved May 02, 2008, from http://www. msnbc. msn. com/id/12187512/ “Judith I” image from All Posters website, 2008. Retrieved May 02, 2008, from http://www. allposters. com/-sp/Judith-I-Posters_i324971_. htm “The Kiss” image from Art in the Picture website. Retrived May 02, 2008, from http://www. artinthepicture. com/paintings/Gustav_Klimt/The-Kiss/