At the heart of symbolism

The splendour of the golden age (Detailed page)


The Beethoven frieze

For Klimt and the Secession's artists, only Art, as a totality, may regenerate a world prisoner of misfortune. To reach this, they seize the opportunity of the fourteenth exhibition of the group, in 1902, to centre it on music, Beethoven and the ninth Symphony. This grandiose musical work, one of the most successful of the western world, is a symphony in four movements. Its finale consists of sung parts on the theme of the Ode to joy (Ode an die Freude) of Friedrich von Schiller.

In the hallway of the exhibition stands a monumental statue of Beethoven, in polychrome marble, by Max Klinger. At the time of its inauguration, Gustav Mahler, director of the Opera of Vienna, has conducted the fourth movement of the ninth Symphony. The sculptured head, that is looking far away, perfectly expresses the intention of the composer and Secessionists. Beethoven has hopelessly given upon a better world now, instead he dreams of a better world later. The way to reach it takes the form of an immense frieze of Klimt on the superior half of the three walls of a room. The artist gives a symbolic interpretation of the musical work not only in three parts, but also according to the four movements of the Symphony:

1. The first movement is represented by the:

Yearning for happiness is symbolized by feminine faces liberated from terrestrial heaviness and floating in the air.

2. The second movement shows the suffering humanity inhabited by the “aspiration for happiness.

The suffering humanity implores the knight in golden armour to involve himself in the fight for happiness. He is assisted by two feminine faces representing compassion and ambition. He is endowed with a sword held vertically which indicates the way to follow: liberating ourselves from terrestrial heaviness and rising towards aerial heights.

3. The third movement involves the:

The powers hostile to happiness are only heavinesses. They are depicted by the gigantic monster Typhon accompanied, to his right, by his three daughters portraying “Disease”, “Madness” and “Death” and, to his left, by three other women representing “Lasciviousness”, “Burning sorrow” and “Intemperance”. A lonely woman stands on the side. It is a matter of “Gnawing griefs” at such a point that she seems to embrace her lifeless double. All these enemy powers consume the beings and slowly lead them towards a fatal decrepitude.

4. In the fourth and last movement, the aspiration to happiness blossoms in the illustration of two lines of Schiller, extracted from the last verse of his “Ode to joy”, which are:

The thirst for happiness finds its appeasement in poetry symbolized by a woman playing the lyre.

Nevertheless, joy, happiness and love only fully blossom in the union of all arts. To the left, feminine faces ascend towards heights. At the centre, the choir of angels sings the hymn to joy. To the right, the undressed knight and a woman are narrowly intertwined. The man and woman are respectively topped by an awakened (daylight) and a sleeping (night) sun face. As these faces can be interpreted as two expressions (day and night) of the same sun, the man and woman can also be seen as two facets (masculine and feminine) of the same (total) being, a being who reflects the deep unity that animates the world. This means that the couple has returned to its origins, to the stage where masculine and feminine were not separated, where everything was only harmony in the Garden of Eden.

Klimt had fun in shocking the Viennese society, cramped in good manners, while painting provocative or suggestive women. He was also attracted by women so superior to man that they constituted ethereal or inaccessible beings. Indeed, the artist has painted something of himself in each of his canvasses. This is the reason why, he has written: “I have never painted a self-portrait… Who ever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my canvasses and try to discover in them what I am and what I want.” Paraphrasing Gustave Flaubert, Gustav Klimt could have said “La femme, c'est moi.” (The woman it's me).

The mosaic of the Stoclet residence, the Tree of Life

In the great last frieze, realized between 1905 and 1909, for the inner installation of the villa Stoclet, Klimt resumes the cycle of life of the Beethoven's frieze, but in a more symbolic manner. He conceives it under the form of a mosaic divided into three parts.

The Stoclet are very fond of eastern art, of which Klimt will take account in its creations. He will combine his knowledge of the mosaic technique and the fruit of his studies of this art so fashionable at that time.

The frieze represents, in its central part, the “Tree of Life” situated at the centre of the terrestrial Paradise. The branches of the tree have a spiral form, a widespread motive in the east. The spiral unfolds or winds itself around a point. It consequently represents at once the pole figuring the beginning and the achievement of a process. And this is really the meaning of the Tree of Life.

At the centre of the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life gathers all opposite aspects of the world manifestation into a unified state. It is complemented by the Tree of Science of good and evil, the tree of the manifestation of the strictly speaking opposite aspects. While tasting the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve moved away from the centre and unified state in which they bathed. They were chased from the terrestrial Paradise and discovered the world of duality. Nevertheless, each being can regain the centre, rediscover the unified state and restore the lost origins under the condition that he has to reunify all opposite facets within himself.

In the tree, a bird sits motionless. With its black colour, it is often considered as the messenger of death. It is a question of the death of the unified state, of the Edenic state before being born in the differentiated state where unity is decomposed into complements and then into opposites. The crow is the messenger of the knowledge of good and evil proper to the world of duality.

To the left of the Tree of Life, a young woman dances. The dance is a language beyond words. Her goal consists in overcoming the dual nature of the manifested world to rediscover the primeval unity. The body and the spirit are in unison and unite themselves in ecstasy. And whom better than a woman could symbolize the “expectation” of the return to the source ?

To the right of the Tree of Life, a couple symbolizes the “accomplishment” of the return to the unified state. The man leans above the woman who sinks into his arms. The ornamental shapes of the clothing of the man and woman underline their respective roles. The circular shapes decorating the masculine clothing evoke heaven while the rectangular shapes embellishing the feminine clothing are related to earth. In contrast to the couple of the Beethoven's frieze, the man symbolizes here the active principle that unifies with the passive principle represented by the woman. In other words, the masculine vertical axis and the feminine horizontal axis meet at their intersection point representing the unified state, the state where the complements symbolized by man and woman are one.

The kiss

The golden period attains its crowning glory in “The kiss” (1907-1908), the most symbolic and known of Klimt's works.

The attitudes of both couples in “The kiss” and the Stoclet frieze are very similar. Both of them are surrounded by spiral motives. Now, when two spirals come close together to constitute a double spiral, they symbolize a link uniting two distinct poles. A superb symbol to illustrate the joining of man and woman.

During the passage from the frieze to the canvas, both couples nevertheless present a notable difference. They constitute not only symmetrical images in comparison with a vertical plan, but also exchange the motives of their clothing embellishments. It is now the turn of the man to bear rectangular embellishments and of the woman to wear bright clothing with circular motives. In other words, the man borrows the rectangular embellishments associated with the feminine terrestrial nature from the woman; the woman wears the circular embellishments of the man, which are related to the masculine celestial nature. Besides, the woman and man's original natures are reflected by the small squares on the woman's dress, near her shoulder, and the spirals on the man's clothing. The exchange of feminine and masculine attributes is characteristic of the eastern tradition, Japanese notably. It symbolically operates during a hierogamy or sacred marriage between two beings. Its goal consists in actualizing all possibilities of the human manifestation in order to achieve their complete realization. That means rediscovering the primeval state of the being where masculine and feminine aspects were in perfect balance. If man were only masculine and woman only feminine, no union would operate between them and there would be no chance to attain a balance state. As the Chinese use to say, there is no yang (masculine) without yin (feminine) or yin (feminine) without yang (masculine).

Let us note that only the extremely lengthened top of the body allows the woman to be kneeling on a blooming border next to an apparently standing man. The border underlines the link between woman and earth and nature in general. In his last artistic period, Klimt will often associate woman and flowers, a manner to represent nature as a whole.

The last years

During his last artistic period, Gustav Klimt abandons gold and partly ornamentation for a more pure style, influenced by Japanese painting (following the example of Monnet or Van Gogh).

This influence is particularly present in “The dancer” (1916-1918). The characters represented at the top-left corner of the canvas seem to come out of an etching. The artist stresses again in this canvas the vertical representation of the woman while painting an extremely stretched chest. Moreover, the colours of the clothing of the main character merge into the colours of the blooming flower setting and eliminate the perspective sketched at the bottom of the painting. Other portraits of Klimt in a squarer format will reinforce the will dear to the Secessionist to combine character and setting.

Man has no preponderant place in Klimt's works. One of the themes where man can only appear is “Adam and Eve” (1917-118). And yet, Adam is only the shadow of Eve, the projection on the horizontal ground of the vertical woman placed in full light. Here, there is no need to have an apple or any other fruit, the fleshy fruit is Eve herself. She alone is the carrier of the destiny of men; she alone contains all possibilities of manifestation of the being from the most physical to the most spiritual. Without her, no elevation towards the skies or descent to hell.

Throughout Klimt's work, the woman alone represents the highest and lowest aspects of existence. This is the reason why, she is mostly associated with the vertical axis linking different levels. Man, on the contrary, is generally linked to the horizontal axis, representative of one level only. What man usually sees as opposites, woman perceives as complements. The spiritual elevation of the being is impossible without satisfying sexuality on pain of degenerating into inner conflicts. All the same, sexuality cannot be achieved without spiritual aspiration unless to sink into obsession. When the feminine vertical and the masculine horizontal axis are brought closer, their intersection point represents a state where complementary and opposite aspects are balanced and ready to merge within an indistinct state, a state of mutual happiness where nothing separates the beings.

Let us finish with this superb unfinished “Portrait of a Lady, en face” (1917-1918).

In this painting executed the year of his death, Klimt unveils his technique. The feminine face is widely sketched before being inserted in a body and a setting, for, more than the surrounding nature, it symbolizes the mystery of life.

The secret dream of Gustav Klimt probably always was to paint the woman in her totality. His work shows us multiple facets of the woman that are as many aspects of himself and, more generally, of each of us. It is up to us to succeed in restoring this being in its globality and to rediscover the state where vertical and horizontal are crossing, where masculine and feminine are balancing instead of opposing each other.

Bibliography and exhibitions

  • Gottfried Fliedl:
  • “Klimt”. Taschen Publisher, 2006.
  • The Year of Gustav Klimt
  • In 2012, not less than ten exhibitions celebrated, in Vienna, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustave Klimt.