At the heart of symbolism

The cantor of the dreamed woman


Gustav Klimt at the age of 47 on the lake Attersee

Towards a global world art

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was the second of seven children of Ernst Klimt, a precious metal engraver, and Anna Finster, an aspiring musician. Very early on in his life, his father taught him numerous techniques in engraving. He entered the school of arts and crafts of Vienna (Kunstgewerbeschule) when he was barely fourteen. His younger brother, Ernst, joined him and with a fellow student, Franz Matsch, they learnt to master a vast range of techniques from mosaic to wall painting. Their professor, Ferdinand Laufberger, helped them to be sufficiently known to receive several orders to decorate official and private buildings.

Nevertheless, Gustav Klimt's style began to be different from his brother and fellow student. He rebelled against the empire of academicism, the good manners of Viennese society and the related advantages: “Enough censors! I want to be free…” He decided to focus on earning his living only from orders of portraits and painted landscapes for his own pleasure; he was attracted by the feminine gender as well as surrounding nature. It was not a matter of representing nature as such or as perceived by the senses as the Impressionist, but as a part of a whole that surpasses us. At the turn of the century, Klimt got close to writers as Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal; he was also very interested in the works of Symbolist painters, in particular Fernand Khnopff. It was no more a question of representing only, but of suggesting.

The year 1897 marked the official rupture with the creation of the Viennese Secessionist group, of which Klimt became president. A new generation of painters, sculptors, architects and decorators demanded an exhibition place destined to make the works of young Austrian and foreigners artists known and detached from financial considerations. The group's first exhibition took place in 1898 (the Secession counted 23 exhibitions from 1898 to 1905). The exhibition poster drawn by Gustav Klimt was highly symbolic and represented:

  • Horizontally, the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur, of naked truth over obscurantism;
  • Vertically, Athena carrying her attributes, a shield and a lance, which make her the protective goddess of Thought, Arts, Sciences and Industry.

Now, in various traditions, the vertical axis is relatively masculine (yang) in comparison with the feminine horizontal axis (yin). Here, Klimt reversed the traditional symbolism and depicted the influence of woman over man. The supremacy of woman over man was one of the great pictorial themes by the end of the century. Klimt borrowed his own man-woman relationship from the symbolic language of dreams. A revealing empty space separated both feminine and masculine axes on the poster. An emptiness that Klimt has tried to strive to fill all his life, notably through ornamentation.

The exhibitions of the Secession achieved a great success and made sufficient money to undertake the construction of the Secession's pavilion. The plans, drawn by Klimt, were composed of cubic volumes (symbolizing the three dimensions of the terrestrial space) topped by a spherical dome in golden bronze (representing the celestial vault). A pediment carried the motto of the group: To the Age its Art, to Art its Freedom (Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit) 1.

Nevertheless, no art can survive without patronage and the Secession found a real support with the rich families of the Viennese bourgeoisie, of which Klimt painted portraits of their spouses. These paintings, in a vertical lengthened format, underlined the elevation of the woman towards the inaccessible, indeed fatal heights that contrast with the landscapes of forests or flowers done in a more down to earth square format.

In the portrait of his great love and life long companion, Emilie Flöge (1902), Klimt represents a slender outline. Her feet scarcely touch the ground and her head is topped by an immense circular hat evoking the firmament. The model carries a material created by the painter for the high couture shop of his companion. The drawing and the cutting stress even more the verticality of the character. The “mosaic” landscapes often inspired the motives of the materials of the painter.

Klimt was also in charge of glorifying philosophy (1899-1907), medicine (1901-1907) and jurisprudence (1903-1907) for university authorities. Influenced by the readings of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, he painted, on the contrary, the failure of the art of thinking, the art of medicine and the art of ruling the society. A failure linked to the feeling of helplessness of the contemporary man and the absence of a world vision (Weltanschauung). If these arts could not bring happiness to man, then a “global art”, a Gesamtkunstwerk, unifying all arts (architectural, sculptural, pictorial, applied, musical) might succeed in regenerating the society?

The fourteenth exhibition of the Secession, in 1902, proposed such a programme around sculpture, music and a frieze of Klimt. The inner installation in Secession's pavilion was entrusted to the architect Josef Hoffmann who chose crude concrete walls in order to distract the visitors the least possible. Like the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, the frieze was constructed in three parts. It gave a symbolic interpretation of the musical work and described the aspiration to happiness of a suffering humanity that looked for the appeasement in a total Art. The work was the subject of violent criticism.

The representation of the cycle of life reached its climax in the frieze decorating the villa Stoclet edified, between 1905 and 1909, in Brussels.

Adolphe Stoclet was a rich Belgian tycoon who lived in Vienna. He entrusted the construction of an immense residence to Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Klimt. The structure consisted of cubic volumes covered with plates of white marble, the edges of which were underlined by copper corners. The Stoclet family was very fond of Far East art and Klimt created an interior where all the acquired objects could find their place. The play of colours and volumes had to strive towards a harmonious whole. His work was directly influenced by the technique of mosaic that he not only learned in his youth, but equally rediscovered during a trip to Ravenna in 1903. Klimt conceived a frieze in three parts made of gold inlaid marble, enamel and semi-precious stones.

Following disagreements with certain members of the Secession, Klimt left the group in 1908 in company of other artists. With the rise of Expressionism, he felt that the golden style, inherited from the mosaic technique, was over. He discovered the paintings of Munch, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Matisse… at the exhibition of 1909. He left the same year for Paris where he was enthusiastic about the works of Toulouse Lautrec and the Fauvism. His palette got more vivid colours, his portraits mixed more women and flowers, his landscapes abandoned the mosaic style for a composition associating buildings, water and vegetation. He followed his goal to present a canvas as a whole that it is up to us to discover.

Gustav Klimt was especially known for his golden style, less for his superb drawings and studies for portraits.

1 back The Viennese Secession has widely contributed to the popularity of the Jugenstil and New Art, both the pictorial as well as applied arts.

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