Affirmation of Expressionism in the early years of the twentieth century denoted the end of Gustav Klimt’s ‘Golden phase‘. The audience had moved on, and Klimt’s ‘golden femme fatales’ were outdated, and powerless against the works of Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse which, when presented at the exhibition in 1909, astonished the viewers with their overwhelming scope of expression. Raw energy, despair and passion woven into the works of Expressionists were overpowering.
Upon traveling to Paris in late 1909 Klimt discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists which motivated him to reinvent his own style, a magical kaleidoscope of colours, shapes and patterns influenced by Japanese art; this was the last splendor of Klimt’s art before the end; the end of his life, the end of La Belle Epoque, the end of Vienna he had known.
For a fresh start Klimt decided to tone down the ornamentation, which sometimes made the subject appear lifeless and meaningless next to the rich background, and this enabled him to find new ways to express himself. A whole new world of abstract motifs, patterns and colours opened up for him. Another thing that influenced him, and many many artist before, was Japanese art. He spent his afternoons reading in his library, absorbed by the books about Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese art in general. Gustav Klimt first became acquainted with Japanese woodblock or Ukiyo-e prints in 1873. at the Weltausstellung (World Fair). This fascination with Japanese art was something that plenty of intellectuals and artists at that time shared. Klimt collected Ukiyo-e prints and other Japanese objects, and it greatly influenced his drawing skills, and encouraged his exploration of perspectives.
Klimt’s enchantment with Japanese art is most evident in his paintings such as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt, and Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer, all of which have a pyramidal composition, and a massive amount of ornaments, all fresh, vivid and exuberant, plenty of birds, animals and oriental figures in the background. While looking at these paintings, it is impossible not to think of Monet’s ‘La Japonaise (Camille Monet Wearing a Kimono)‘ or perhaps van Gogh’s ‘La Pere Tanguy‘, and not see where Klimt found his inspiration.
Word kaleidoscope means ‘observation of beautiful forms’, and by watching these magnificent paintings one does nothing else but observe those vivid colours full of life, those backgrounds so rich they could be paintings themselves, and then those ladies that almost blended into the opulent background, perhaps belonging to that other world more than the one they are painted in. These are not Klimt’s seductive femme fatales from the beggining of the century, these ladies are tamed, dreamy and lost.
Another interesting painting that belongs to the same time and style period is The Virgin (Die Jungfrau) painted in 1913. Scene is allegorical, but the influence of Japanese art is evident in every brush stroke; flatness of the surface, vivid colours and all those different swirls, circles and flowers amalgamated, the line between the dresses and the background being unclear. Still, the painting explores Klimt’s foremost interest; a girl becoming a woman, with all the emotional awakening that comes with it. All those pale figures, even paler in contrast with the rousing colours, are united and mingled in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, from the mystical purple decorated with swirls and some orange flowers that look as if they came from one of Klimt’s landscapes, to the ecstatic yellow colour that rules the backdrop.