Gustav Klimt: Breaking the Mold

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | February 2012

In his time, many people didn’t know what to make of Gustav Klimt: To the romantics he was trapped in ornamentation, to the purists in symbols. He was called a "purveyor of perversities," yet also "provincial". Traditionalists dismissed him as decadent, once naturalist described him as merely "irritating".

But to a small circle of progressive artists, writers, musicians and intellectuals in fin de siècle Vienna, he was a veritable dynamo, a man with the vision, drive and personal charisma to launch a revolutionary movement of art and ideas.

Then a century later, Klimt began to turn the Austrian art scene upside down all over again, as his paintings re-emerged from obscurity, and in the 1980s and 90s to join the French Impressionists as some of the most reproduced art in the West. And in 2005, after a long, drawn-out restitution battle, his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold at Christie’s Auction House in London for $135 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

Today Klimt has become big business: He has his posters relieve the dinginess of college dormitory walls and details of paintings like The Kiss or the Golden Adele, the Schloss Park at Schönbrunn or Unterach on the Attersee grace countless silk scarves and coffee mugs for sale in every souvenir shop in Vienna.

But Klimt was already something of a legend when he and a remarkable group of young artists broke away from the stifling traditionalism of Vienna’s Künstlerhaus to form the Wiener Secession. This remarkable institution of which Klimt was president, was a collaboration that was to transform Austrian culture and launch the modernist movement across Europe.

In its first "heroic" seven years, before he and his closest colleagues seceded yet again to form the Klimt Group, these sculptors, painters and architects dominated the Viennese art scene, producing a profusion of highly original yet enduring work that seems radical even today. For while every one of them was a major talent, it was in their association that they truly flourished, stimulating and challenging each other; while also bringing in the avant-garde from abroad, they were feeding each other’s hunger for spiritual refreshment and tapping into a seemingly inexhaustible vein of creative energy.

Gustav Klimt was born in 1862 in Baumgarten, Burgenland, the second of the seven children of Anna and Ernst Klimt, a goldsmith from Bohemia. He left school at 14, finding his way to a local trade school, and in 1976 he won a scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerbeschule), training as an architectural and decorative painter with leading historicist Hans Makart. Largely forgotten today, Makart was the acknowledged leader of the artistic life of Vienna at the time. (see "Sensation and Sensuality: Hans Makart’s Vienna", by Saleha Waqar, TVR September 2011)

And more importantly for Klimt, Makart was a polymath, interested and active in all areas of the visual arts and design. Both the lushness of his work and his extraverted role were models Klimt emulated, supporting himself with large public commissions while still in school. Later, Klimt’s creative drive would prove too great a challenge to the art establishment. Following a series of scandals, his would spend his final seven years until his death from influenza in 1918 in creative seclusion in Hietzing, honoured and distained in nearly equal proportion.

Contradictions of this kind were characteristic of fin de siècle Vienna, writes philosopher Allan Janik in Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Diversions distracted from disaster; even the gracious waltz was described by a contemporary observer as "an escape into the demonic."

And the cafés, where one could sit all day with a single cup of coffee or a glass of wine and read newspapers from across the world, were not so much the manifestation of a leisurely, civilized life, as they were a refuge from cramped, unheated apartments, with the plumbing (if there was any) down the hall.

"Few cities have been as unkind as Vienna, during their lifetimes, to those men whom it proclaimed cultural heroes after their deaths," Janik writes…. "In a city that prided itself as a matrix of cultural creation, life was made as difficult as possible for real innovators."

Still, for a time, Klimt was the toast of the town. He was contracted for massive historical murals in both the Burgtheater (1886-88), and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (1890-91) as well as a huge memorial painting of the interior of the old Hofburgtheater on Michaelerplatz, peopled with portraits of Vienna worthies, which won him the Emperor’s Prize in 1890 and, as cultural historian Carl Schorske tells us, "catapulted him to prominence".

Commissions flooded his way.

However as the work on the great Ringstrasse came towards its end, Klimt himself was evolving in another direction. In parallel with Sigmund Freud, at work on his Interpretation of Dreams, and Arthur Schnitzler on Reigen (La Ronde), both deeply disturbing to their contemporaries, Klimt too was exploring the instinctive drives in human nature, which gradually emerged with growing force in his paintings. It was "a period of historical transition imperious in its demands for… ‘a reshuffling of the self,’" Schorske writes in Fin de Siècle Vienna – "the confused quest for a new life-orientation in visual form."

The result was a cultural revolution. In 1897, Klimt and a group of like-minded artists walked out of the hide-bound Viennese Artists’ Association to form the Wiener Secession. In what art historian Christian Brandstätter describes as "a spectacular act", the group declared a Ver Sacrum, a "‘sacred spring’ of artistic renewal", redefining the terrain of art and design in Vienna. Their creed was mounted over the door of Josef Maria Olbrich’s Secession building at Karlsplatz: "To Every Age its Art, to Art its Freedom".  But there was a second, perhaps ultimately more troubling goal, in the words of Secession architect Otto Wagner: "To show modern man his true face."

Klimt had broken the mold.

He was also working on his greatest commission: for three huge ceiling paintings representing the faculties of Philosophy, Medicine and Law, for the new University building at Schottentor. First invited in 1894, by the time he began, Klimt had become somebody else.

His first canvas, "Philosophy," brought down a firestorm of criticism. Instead of the Enlightenment ideals of Light and Reason conquering the Darkness, Klimt dramatized a murky, troubled vision of lost souls, where Schorske saw "the tangled bodies of suffering mankind drift slowly by, suspended aimless in a viscous void."

The University was horrified. Within days of its showing, eighty-seven faculty members protested, demanding the commission be cancelled. They accused Klimt of presenting "unclear ideas through unclear forms" …, "as if human existence consisted of nothing more than the infinitely repeated cycle of birth, copulation and death."

Reception of the other two panels was no better. Ultimately the University refused to mount any of them, and Klimt, defending them with a shotgun, repaid his entire commission in 1905, with money raised from friends. The panels were put away, and ultimately destroyed in 1945, by retreating Nazi soldiers.

This cataclysm sent Klimt into retreat. He closed his studio in the Josefstadt and withdrew to the little garden villa in Hietzing, where he turned his attention to portraits and landscapes. Currently under restoration as an atelier-museum, the Klimt Villa is scheduled to reopen in July, 2012. (

Still, with all this, history reveals little about Gustav Klimt as a private person;

"I have the gift of neither the spoken nor the written word, especially if I have to say something about myself or my work," he said in one of the rare pieces of correspondence of this kind. "Even when I have a simple letter to write, I am filled with fear and trembling as though on the verge of being sea-sick."

So he wrote little, and there was little written about him by others that has come to light. Perhaps he intended it to be that way: "I am convinced that I am not particularly interesting as a person," he went on.  "There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day, from morning until night."

However, an important new exhibition opening this month at the Leopold Museum entitled "Klimt persönlich" – including private photographs, and the correspondence over 20 with his companion Emilie Flöge – will begin to answer this question.

To Klimt, what mattered was the work. "I can paint and draw," he wrote. "I believe as much myself, and others also say they believe it. But [still] I am not sure that it is true."  Thus the only truth was in the work itself, in encountering himself again and again through his painting, and in supporting others as they sought to reveal the paradoxical nature of their times, in which humanity struggled to re-emerge for the chrysalis of memory and ritual to spread its wings in the unadorned clarity of the modern age.

With Klimt, we share that exact moment of emergence, naked and vulnerable from the heavy golden trappings of a tradition and political culture whose time had past.

For more information on exhibitions in Vienna about Gustav Klimt, visit:

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