Gustav Klimt was a prominent Austrian painter, founder of Secession – Art Nouveau movement in Vienna. Renown master of portraiture and mural painting. His style is defined by combination of decorativism and realistic details, inclination to symbolism and allegories and sensual expressiveness.
Gustav Klimt was born on July 14, 1862 in Baumgarten – a town near Vienna. He was the second of seven children in the family of not very successful engraver Ernst Klimt the Elder and his wife Anna nee Finster. The boy revealed his artistic talent early and in 1876 after having passed exams easily he was accepted to the Kunstgewerbeschule – Vienna School of Arts and Crafts.
All Ernst Klimt’s’ kids were artistically gifted. So, Gustav’s younger brother Ernst (who passed away early unfortunately) and older one George, who would later become quite a famous master, trained at the same School of Arts and Crafts. By the way, the latter used to make wonderful frames for Gustav’s paintings in the stylistic of the canvases.
The School was proud of Gustav and Ernst. Being students, in 1879, they, together with their mate Franz Matsch, united into a sort of the artistic “team” that became widely-known very quickly. In 1889 this “trio” (none of its members had reached 20 years by that time) was invited to paint the pavilion of mineral waters in Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary in Czechia).
In 1883 young artists opened their won studio in Vienna. At first they received commissions mostly from provincial towns of Austro-Hungarian Empire, but gradually they attracted attention of clients in the capital. Vienna was actively rebuilt during that period, desiring to correspond to the image of the imperial city. A grandiose Ringstraße avenue was laid out in the city center. Pompous buildings were erected along in – and the building of the first national theater (“Burgtheater”) among them. In 1886 the Klimts and Matsch participated in decorating it – they had to make murals with scene of theater history on the tympanum of the fronton and plafonds of the main stairs. The project had been finished by 1888.
Very soon (in 1890) they got another, not less prestigious, offer – to work in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Painting of the museum’s stairs had been started earlier by the recognized master Hans Makart (1840 – 1884) but remained unfinished because of his untimely death. And the “trio” had to finish his task. They admired Makart at that time and felt themselves his adherents. It was an extremely beneficial experience from psychological and artistic points of view.
After receiving a significant reward for this job, Gustav and Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch expanded the workshop in the first instance, desiring to continue such a fruitful cooperation. That took place in 1892. Unfortunately, Ernst suddenly died at the turn of the year. The “trio” turned into “duet”. Gustav took care of 28-years-old widow of his brother, Helen Floge, and his daughter. A year before the artist’s father had died, so he had to support his mother alos. Anyway, his financial status allowed him not to worry too much about future, as there were enough money for everything.
At that period Klimt became close with Helena Floge’s sister, Emilie, the owner of a fashion house. Their relations lasted for the whole life. Many considered them to be man and wife, but there’re evidence they weren’t lovers. And biographers of Gustav believe he had rather ardent romantic life, with numerous love-affairs. Some of his mistresses were his models of rather noble circles. After the death of the painter (who had never been officially married, by the way) fourteen people proclaimed themselves his bastard sons and daughters. Four of them managed to prove their agnation and received their share in Klimt’s inheritance.
In 1894 Matsch and Klimt received commission for murals in the Great Hall of the Vienna University. Its rendering was complicated because of contradictions between two close friends. As the result, each of them took separate episodes. Matsch soon left the workshop.
Controversy between Gustav and Franz was caused by discord in artistic issues: Matsch remained faithful to traditional painting, whereas Klimt was persistent in searching of new ways. He thought Austrian painting had stuck in the past, so absorbed a lot from impressionism, symbolism and Art Nouveau that flourished at time on the artistic scene of Europe. Klimt looked for “fresh air” in painting. In 1897 he, together with his like-minded fellow artists, rose in rebellion establishing Viennese Secession – a group of revolutionary-inclined masters. Klimt headed it.
In 1900s the painter turned from an authoritative master, who met interests of conservative public into the leader of Austrian avant-garde. The first piece, made while working over decoration of the Vienna University, he displayed only in 1990 at the exhibition of Secession. It was called “Philosophy”. It was supposed to be a part of triptych, with two other parts called “Jurisprudence” and “Medicine”. “Philosophy” caused discussions. Eighty-seven professors of the university wrote a petition to the Ministry of Education, in which they accused Klimt in presenting “unclear ideas through unclear forms” and asked to withdraw a commission from him. The same year the canvas received Golden Medal during International Exhibition in Paris.
The display of unfinished “Jurisprudence” and “Medicine” at the exhibition of Secession in 1903 completely spoiled the artist’s reputation in noble circles. Many of them believed his “Medicine” to be openly pornographic, and “Jurisprudence” seemed a pilpul for them. Irritated with those critical attacks Klimt returned the prepayment he received from the Ministry and retained the paintings. He sold them later to private hands. Unfortunately, all three works were burnt during World War II.
After the scandal Gustav had no more business with the state, as he treasured with his artistic freedom more. His canvas “The Nude Verity” (1899) Klimt manifested his disregard to the public opinion. He depicted a naked red-haired woman holding the mirror of truth with the quote by Schiller above it. The quote says “if you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad”. He also stopped making monumental paintings, shifting to smaller allegorical compositions for private collections. A significant number of his pieces during that period belong portraiture or ornamental paintings.
It seems Klimt was too individualistic to be an active participant of any organization – in 1905 he left the Secession. Emilie Floge remained the artist’s great support. The following years he led comparatively secluded life, dedicating himself to portrait genre – in fact, that’s the most widely-known part of his legacy. His models were mostly women of wealthy families. One of the high-points of the master’s creative life was the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, dated 1907. It, along with “The Kiss”, represents transformations in Gustav’s visual language, as he referred to active usage of gold technique. It was inspired by travels to the Apennines – Venice and Ravenna particularly, where exquisite byzantine mosaics are situated. Their lavishness and refinement prompted Klimt to experiment with intensive gold gamma, which gave name to the period – “golden phase”.
Apart from portraits and landscapes, Klimt’s heritage included a lot of drawings – mostly in genre nude. Analyzing only three or four of them might leave the impression of erotic works par excellence, however, examining them as an integral set demonstrate those sketches as virtuous studies of the professional. So, Gustav’s odious image is just the result of shallow understanding of his personality.
Certain tendency towards minimalism (when it came to formats of the pieces) allowed Klimt to receive an order from the Belgian industrialist Adolf Stoclet, who entrusted him decorating of his new dwelling in Brussels. That was the largest commission in the painter’s life: an outstanding Stoclet Frieze was done for the Palais Stoclet.
Gustav Klimt lived in an unpretentious way. He travelled abroad just for a few times (and stayed there a little time), spending most of years in Vienna ad leaving it just to for couple-week vacation near Attersee lake in Austrian Alps. Although the golden phase was the most prolific one, 1910s were also marked by some significant achievements of the artist. For instance, in 1911 his painting “life and Death” was awarded on the International Exhibition in Rome. In 1917 the master became an honorary member of Viennese and Munich academies of fine arts.
Despite Gustav was a man of strong physique, loved swimming and rowing, progressive depression force him to “take the waters” annually since 1912. Klimt lived together with his mother. He was usually so penetrated into work that sometimes even used to forget about eating. Politics didn’t preoccupied the painter, so it seemed that he didn’t pay attention to the burst out of the World War in 1914. In 1915 his mother died.
The decay of Austro-Hungarian Empire coincided with the dusk of Klimt’s life, whose oeuvre embodied “the golden age” of Viennese art. He had a stroke on January 11, 1918. He didn’t recover after it. And pneumonia caused by an awful influenza epidemic took his life on February 6, 1918.