“I have the gift of neither the spoken nor the written word,
especially if I have to say something about myself or my work. Whoever
wants to know something about me -as an artist, the only notable thing-
ought to look carefully at my pictures and try and see in them what I am
and what I want to do." - Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau movement. His major works include paintings, murals, sketches, and other art objects, many of which are on display in the Vienna Secession gallery. Gustav Klimt's primary subject was the female body, and his works are marked by a frank eroticism--nowhere is this more apparent than in his numerous drawings in pencil. Gustav Klimt was a controversial figure in his time. His work was constantly criticized for being too sensual and erotic, and his symbolism too deviant. Today, they stand out as the more important paintings ever to come out of Vienna.
Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, near Vienna, and was the second of seven children. All three sons displayed artistic talent early on. His father, Ernst Klimt, formerly from Bohemia, was a gold engraver. Ernst married Anna Klimt, whose unrealized ambition was to be a musical performer. Klimt lived in poverty for most of his childhood, as work was scarce and the economy difficult for immigrants. In 1876, Gustav Klimt was awarded a scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, where he studied until 1883, and received training as an architectural painter. Klimt revered the foremost history painter of the time, Hans Makart. Gustav Klimt readily accepted the principles of a conservative training; his early work may be classified as academic. In 1877 his brother Ernst, who, like his father, would become an engraver, also enrolled in the school. The two brothers and their friend Franz Matsch began working together; by 1880 they had received numerous commissions as a team they called the "Company of Artists", and helped their teacher in painting murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Gustav Klimt's style grew increasingly experimental and his murals for Vienna University, commissioned by the State in 1894, were roundly attacked by critics for their fantastical imagery and their bold, decorative style. Gustav Klimt became interested in Symbolism and Art Nouveau and he and fifteen other artists, dedicated to challenging the conservative Academy of Fine Arts. resigned from the Viennese Artist's Association and founded the Vienna Secession in 1897. Gustav Klimt was elected president and the group secured its own exhibition space and published an illustrated magazine. Influenced by European avant-garde movements represented in the annual Secession exhibitions, Gustav Klimt's mature style combined richly decorative surface patterning with complex symbolism and allegory, often with overtly erotic content. Gustav Klimt was commissioned to paint three allegorical panels representing Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna in 1894.
Working on the project, Gustav Klimt met criticism and protest from the public, members of parliament and press for what were deemed to be erotic and ugly images. The public outcry came from all quarters, political, aesthetic, and religious. As a result, they were not displayed on the ceiling of the Great Hall.
This would be the last public commission accepted by artist Gustav Klimt. All three paintings were destroyed by retreating SS forces in May 1945. His Nuda Verita (1899) defined his bid to further shake up the establishment. The starkly naked red-headed woman holds the mirror of truth, while above it is a quote by Schiller in stylized lettering, "If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad."
Gustav Klimt's 1903 painting "Hope I" (shown above) depicts a pregnant woman, standing nude in profile. Behind her are despairing figures and a skull suggesting death. There are small decorative features throughout the work, including flowers in the woman's hair and specks of gold and linear designs in the background. The piece was intended for display at the retrospective of his work at the 18th Exhibition of the Secession in 1903. However, Gustav Klimt withdrew it, due to impending controversy over its explicit representation.
In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the 14th Vienna Secessionist exhibition, which was intended to be a celebration of the composer and featured a monumental, polychromed sculpture by Max Klinger. Meant for the exhibition only, the frieze was painted directly on the walls with light materials. After the exhibition the painting was preserved, although it did not go on display until 1986. Klimt spent most of his summers on the Attersee, near Salzburg, where he drew inspiration for many of his landscapes, and where he painted some of his best-known works, including The Kiss (shown here).
Klimt's 'Golden Phase' was marked by positive critical reaction and success. Many of his paintings from this period utilized gold leaf.
During the First World War Klimt was no longer taking public commissions, and worked on portraits for private patrons of the Vienna elite. He also continued to produce landscapes, which he had begun at the time of the founding of the Secession and his interest in modernism. Klimt worked until his death shortly after a stroke, in 1918.
Gustav Klimt's style drew upon an enormous range of sources: classical Greek, Byzantine, Egyptian, and Minoan art; late-medieval painting and the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer; photography and the symbolist art of Max Klinger; and the work of both Franz von Stuck and Fernand Khnopff. In synthesizing these diverse sources, Klimt's art achieved both individuality and extreme elegance.