Staying Gold

The development of Gustav Klimt’s artistic style is studied in a new exhibition.

By Gabriel Almeida

Gustav Klimt is one of the foremost painters of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and his pictures are widely recognized today for their radical combination of physical realism, technical virtuosity and exploration of a world of instincts and emotions. A prodigious student of the historicist tradition of his time, Klimt became the leader of a young group of intellectuals and artists called the Vienna Secession who sought to separate from the academic realism of their teachers and respond to a historical period imperious in its demand for the “reshuffling of the self.” Their common ground was the rejection of the outworn worship of historical images and their conviction that art must reflect modern life. They desired to create a sensuous art that could provide, if needed, asylum from the pressures and demands of our industrial world. They looked to other artistic inspirations as well, and the story of these inspirations is the central focus of “Golden Boy Gustav Klimt”, the new exhibition of the Van Gogh Museum, organized in collaboration with the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.

Water Serpents II, 1904, reworked 1906/7. Oil on canvas, 80 x 145 cm
Private collection. Courtesy of HomeArt, Hong Kong

Klimt rose to fame in the service of the fast-changing bourgeois culture that constructed Vienna’s Ringstrasse. When Klimt was born, parochial Vienna experienced a moment of liberal culture in ascendance and the patronage for art and architecture reflected the optimism of a growing middle class. His father, an engraver, raised Klimt and his two brothers to follow in his footsteps as an artist-craftsman. Klimt, thus, began his education with an apprenticeship at home, but his personal ambitions drove him to embark on a more formal, modern education. At 14, he entered the School of Arts and Crafts (Kuntsgewerbeschule), which had been established in 1868 as the education arm of the city’s Museum of Art and Industry. There, young Klimt acquired both the technical virtuosity and the wide erudition demanded by his eclectic epoch to become a popular architectural decorator who was versatile in his talents for historical paintings to adorn the last great buildings representative of the city’s cultural achievements, the Burgtheater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Thus, even as Klimt assumed the leadership of Vienna’s modern art movement, he could already look back to a successful career of more than 15 years. But the liberal victory had scarcely been celebrated when retreat and self-criticism began. In the years of the Secession, Klimt, both in his art and in the exhibitions he helped organize, sought to create a constellation of the advanced modernist art and coalesce a coherent picture of his historical moment. The insularity of Vienna until then and its desire for progress provided an ideal context for his search for kindred artists all over Europe from whom he could learn and appropriate to pry open the possibilities of his own pictures.

Klimt’s chief spiritual doppelgänger is James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Both often are described as possessing a unique mixture of cool, self-confidence; cosmopolitanism; and a mercurial essence typical of educated provincial people. In their youth, they nibbled at the Old Masters paintings, copying anything from Ingres to Rembrandt, to refresh themselves after barren hours of technical training. Most importantly, none of Klimt’s characteristic portraiture would have been possible without Whistler’s achievements. It is difficult to imagine the slender pose and ethereal mood of Klimt’s portraits of Hermine Gallia, Emilie Flöge and Adele Bloch-Bauer, without the precedent of Symphony in White No. 1 or The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. The dominant pink or white hues in the latter are modulated ever so slightly–the delicate touch of a continuous cadence that trails the gowns of these apparitions as they open up the surface. Whistler’s abstract vision takes the curving contours of his lean models, their hair draped like a curtain, and distributes them over the surface, creating harmonious patterns of purely sensuous quality. Each color and each line are thought of as a single musical tone and its grouping, the picture, as a symphony; and it is this power of contour and the structure of design that Klimt learned from Whistler and made the basis for his own chromatic intonations.

Italian Garden Landscape, 1913. Oil on canvas, 110 x 110 cm.
Courtesy Kunsthaus Zug, Stiftung Sammlung Kamm

As portraitists, Klimt and Whistler transfigure the value of physiognomy for modern art. There is something sublime in Whistler’s inhuman devotion to the purely visual aspect of people. His removed, almost soulless Joanna Hiffernan is rendered a cruelly empty and superficial character; and Marie Stillman, though slightly more becoming, is still closer to being an actor than to the reality of the imagination. By cutting away all those methods of appeal which depend on our complex relationship to human beings and nature, Whistler set aside the humanity of his vision and painting’s illusionism. In Klimt, the sitters are not bleak mannequins, but neither are they individuals. The tender seduction of Gallia’s eyes, the rosy cheeks and ecstatic lips of Flöge and Bloch-Bauer are Klimt’s feelings as much as theirs. They are signs of adoration, respect and checked desires like that of Proust’s protagonist for Oriane de Guermantes. Both Klimt and Whistler reaped to the full the benefit of their detachment. For in an age when the works of man’s hands are becoming daily uglier, less noble and dignified, they were able to disregard the squalid utilitarianism and social deterioration around them and enshrine beauty under the supreme gifts of delicate taste.

If Whistler taught Klimt a delicacy of design and a taste for dignified splendor, the genius of Rodin affected his high regard for antique symbolism and poetic fantasy. For Klimt and Rodin, myths and symbols drawn from primitive Greece proved powerful means for laying bare the instinctual life that had been sublimated or repressed in their inherited tradition. Rodin’s Danaïd (1889), for instance, portrays a scene of the Greek legend of the daughters of Danaus who, as punishment for executing their husbands, were condemned for eternity to fill a vessel and wash their sins by carrying water in a leaking sieve. Instead of the conventional depiction of the Danaïd’s futile task, Rodin shows her given to fatigue and despair with her body outspread as if melting into the raw material. She has become the water, and now penetrates the earth through the exhaustion of her body. Rodin studiously focused here on the erotic character of the myth. The distortion of her body creates the illusion of an intense inward contemplation losing its boundaries and streaming away into the communion with the floods of fate.

Emilie Flöge, 1902, with reworking until 1908. Oil on canvas, 178 x 80 cm.
Wien Museum

Klimt too began his process of sublimation by employing pre-classical Greek symbols. In Water Serpents II, Klimt’s lugubrious playgirls of the deep, in the half-somnolence of sexual satisfaction, delight in their abandonment to their viscous medium. They are indeed water snakes, their strongly corded hair in threatening contrast to the softness of the flesh and sensitivity of the hands. Like Rodin, Klimt is not interested in a solidly fixed reality. But like an infant looking at the clouds, his imagination takes pleasure in the ecstasy of becoming. His sense of reality wavers between the physical and the metaphysical, the flesh and the spirit. The magic of his geometric abstraction breathes into nature the vigor and strength of a sensuous mind, the irregular and nervous touch of desire without losing the clarity and independence of his object.

Johanna Staude, 1917-8. Oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm.
© Belvedere, Vienna, Photo: Johannes Stoll

Klimt’s vision of the universe is Arthur Schopenhauer’s, one of the most important philosophers at the time, who saw the world driven by the force of will, a blind energy in an endless round of Dionysian creativity and expiration, love and death. This is central to Klimt’s boldest expression of utopian bliss, his Beethoven Frieze. The occasion for this work was the exhibition in Vienna of a much-fêted statue of Beethoven by the Leipzig, Germany-born artist Max Klinger, whose exalted Promethean aesthetic the Secession decided to celebrate through a collective installation. Klimt contributed an allegory in three panels to illustrate the power of art over adversity. The first panel, titled Longing for Happiness, shows a knight stepping forth from a womb-shaped tower, encouraged by two female spirits to win the crown of victory. The Hostile Forces of the second panel are a fantasy of naked sorceresses accompanied by a winged monster. These represent the declining imagination seeing in dreams a substitute, rather than the overcoming, of reality. The spirit, however, then flies above the figure of Music, elevated by the ethereal power of her melody. The last, and most interesting panel, bears the legend “The longing for happiness finds its surcease in poetry.” It is conceived around Klimt’s version of “this kiss to the whole world” a phrase taken from Schiller’s Ode to Joy and reflecting the ideal realm of pure happiness and love. In this final panel, Beethoven’s heroic fraternal fervor is transformed into an aesthetic image of erotic consummation.

Finally, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, in particular the work of Van Gogh, offered Klimt a unique model for an expressive and meditative use of color. In works such as Pink Orchard, Klimt observed the older master’s characteristic rendering of depth through a wealth of vibrating surface details: his multitude of short impasto brushstrokes and his dabs of vividly contrasting colors organized around the thick black outlines of trees. Alongside Van Gogh’s use of extreme angles of vision, these lessons are evident in Klimt’s peculiar Avenue to Schloss Kammer, and his overwhelming Italian Garden Landscape. In the former, the congealed outlines of the Dutch artist give a superficial structure to what is otherwise a sublime outpouring of yellows, blues and greens. Klimt’s palette is more refined and artificial; it stands at a greater distance not only from nature but also from fresh emotion. When one sees the explosive colors of Italian Garden Landscape, at first one is delighted by their exuberance and lavishness, but there is a tinge of luxury, a polished quality to Klimt’s pleasure. He does not reach anxiously to the vision of a disappearing world—as does the painter of Arles—but his world is under control. His design never tempers his sentiments, his feeling never dares to engulf the picture. Form serves as an enabler for his play of fancy and inventiveness within the bounds of reason and taste.

Klimt is an artist ensnared in the currents of his time. A latecomer to the development of modernist art, Klimt is a painter’s painter. His art is not directed to the brotherhood of man, but to the “happy few,” who can turn away from the horrors of society in crisis and still indulge in the charms of aesthetic experience. From his city of refuge, he rescues the liberating aspects of the art of his moment, preserving the energies of the imagination for those who would later dare to long for happiness.

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