This very afternoon boredom almost suffocated me until I stumbled upon Klimt’s wonderful paintings that captivate the optimistic and decadent atmosphere of the turn-of-the-century Vienna.
1907. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Gustav Klimt really knew how to live and his paintings are painted the same way. Born in poverty stricken family, to a mother Anna whose musical ambitions stayed unrealised and a father Ernst, unsuccessful gold engraver from Bohemia, Gustav grew up with his two brothers showing artistic talent early on. Having studied in the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts and worked as a mural painter, the name Gustav Klimt became well known in Vienna. However, in 1892, at the dawn of the Vienna’s Jugendstil, his father and brother died, leaving Gustav to care for his family. This tragedy affected not only his private life but also the artistic one and Klimt soon moved to a more personal style.
Gustav’s fortunes changed, for his life coincided with the golden age of Vienna at the turn of the century. It was the time of artistic renewal and artistic bunt and also the beginning of Modernism. New art, Art Nouveau, brought confidence and decadency in art and literature, alongside came a strong fascination with eroticism. Vienna that Klimt lived in was Sigmund Freud’s Vienna; from the outside still in the spirit of Victorian moral, while the decadent behaviour was the topic of the gossips. Enthusiasm for eroticism that ruled in Vienna appeared as if it was made for Klimt for no other painter praised and emphasised Eros; the god of love and passion, and above all – women whom he considered his muses and the final purpose in life.
Klimt’s paintings are filled with naturalistic depictions of eroticism and he strived to fill his canvases with intricate decorations, often with little gold leaves that were carefully placed on the canvas in order to achieve the luminous effect. Typical for the personal style he developed at the turn of the century, Klimt’s paintings such as The Kiss (considered to be the most popular one) combine sentiments and excess decoration in magnificent way. Model for the latter painting was Emilie Louise Floge; fashion designer, Klimt’s companion and his muse. She designed artistic dresses that were loose-fitting and worn without corset; the decadency and optimistic spirit of Vienna was captured in the garments she designed. However, the clientele was small because her designs were rather provocative for those times, even for Vienna, but Klimt often found her clients through his job as a portrait painter for the Vienna bourgeoisie circles.
Klimt’s ‘Golden phase’ gained him positive reaction from the critics and helped to popularise his previous works. Inspiration for his golden phase was the travels to Ravenna and Venice; cities famous for their mosaics that date from the Byzantine period. In his private life, besides his infamous love adventures and enormous passion for women, Klimt was an introverted man, spending his days at home, painting and often chatting with his models. The simplicity of his life was emphasised by his choice of garments; at home he wore sandals and loose-fitting robe without undergarments. His private life was somewhat reserved; he lived devoted to his family and art, avoiding cafes, public appearances and communication with other artists. His affairs were also very discreet and kept private in order to avoid scandal. His paintings mirror his inner world and beauty and sensuality he saw in women.
Gustav Klimt died in Vienna on 6th February 1918; just a few month before the complete collapse of Austro-Hungarian Empire and the world as he knew it. His paintings stay as a monument to the Zeitgeist of the decadent society of the turn of the century Vienna.
“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.”