Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), a controversial painter, especially in his home city of Vienna, became the outstanding artist of the Austrian Stilkunstat the turn of the century.
Born in 1862 the son of an engraver, Klimt attended the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna for seven years starting in 1876. In 1879 he formed with his brother Ernst and a co-student, Franz Matsch (1861-1942), a studio where they executed designs primarily of other artists—for instance, the graffiti designs of Laufberger for the Art Historical Museum and for Hans Makart (1840-1884). In 1886 their own designs for the decorations of the staircases for the Burgtheater were given a prize, and in 1890 Klimt received the Emperor's Prize for painting. In 1892 his brother Ernst died. In 1893 Klimt was nominated for professor at the Vienna Academy but was rejected. In 1894 he obtained the commission to paint the wall decorations for the great hall of the University of Vienna and at the same time left Franz Matsch.
In 1897 a group of Viennese artists formed the "Secession" as an exhibition association to promote the modern arts, and Gustav Klimt was elected its first president. The first exhibition in the following year included works not only of its members but also French (Carriere, Mucha, Puvis de Chavannes, Auguste Rodin), Swiss (Arnold Boecklin), and Belgian (Khnopff, Meunier) artists who were considered ultra modern. The exhibition caused heated controversy. In the same year the group began to publish the journal Ver Sacrum ("The Holy Spring"), which became the outstanding publication of the Viennese Stilkunst, as this variation of the "Art Nouveau" of France and the "Jugendstil" of Germany was called. Later exhibitions, as the one in 1899 with Max Klinger's "Christus im Olymp" and the 1900 exhibition of Japanese art, became the center of discussions concerning modern art in Vienna.
In 1900 professors at the university protested Klimt's painting "Philosophy," which was the first of the wall paintings for the great hall of the university. The Ministry of Education disregarded this protest, while the painting received the medal of honor at the Paris World Exhibition of the same year. When Klimt exhibited the second of his wall paintings, "Medicin," in 1901, protests grew even louder. The issue of Ver Sacrum which contained sketches for this painting was confiscated (a short while later the order was rescinded) and a parliamentary discussion began, but the Ministry of Education did not cancel the commission.
The Secession exhibition of 1902 made Max Klinger's "Beethoven" sculpture the centerpiece, and Klimt painted a frieze for one of the side entrance halls which was a reference to Schiller's "Ode to Joy." This frieze, as well as other works in the exhibit, caused a scandal and an even greater division between those who considered Klimt a great artist and those who rejected his works. While still working on the university paintings, Klimt travelled to Ravenna, and the influence of this trip can be seen in many of his later works.
In 1903 the famous "Wiener Werkstaetten" was founded, an artist association dedicated to transforming even everyday objects into works of art, thus making the Austrian Stilkunst an all-embracing design concept. Klimt showed 80 works in a retrospective exhibit in the Secession and at the same time received the commission for the mosaic frieze for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. The third of the university paintings, "Jurisprudence," encountered even greater protests than the two previous ones, and in 1905 Klimt withdrew these works and repaid the Ministry of Culture all advance payments. At the same time he was again refused appointment as professor at the academy.
By then he had become the most famous portraitist for the wealthy Viennese society, creating icons of beautiful women in which ornamental design and pure elegance dominated. His landscapes have the same jewel-like quality, emphasizing the full bloom of summer. His drawings, primarily of female nudes, are extraordinary in their sensitive realism and their strong eroticism. In 1907 he painted what is probably his most famous work, "The Kiss" (Austrian Gallery in Vienna), and in 1908 he completed the Stoclet-frieze; the palace for which the "Wiener Werkstaetten" designed the furniture is one of the famous attempts to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete work of art, in which all the parts blend into a true unit.
By this time Klimt had become one of Europe's famous artists, with successful exhibits in Rome, Brussels, London, and Madrid. He was made an honorary member of the Academy of Munich, and when again he was not appointed professor the Vienna Academy elected him an honorary member. But the controversy in Vienna did not end: the famous architect Adolph Loos wrote his important article "Ornament and Crime" against the aesthetic refinement of the everyday; the editor of the influential journal Die Fackel, Karl Kraus, attacked Klimt's and the Wiener Werkstaetten's refined aestheticism; and Emil Klaeger published a graphic account of the misery, poverty, and rampant crime in the poorer districts of Vienna. The concept of the Stilkunst which had so strongly influenced Vienna's arts and life was under attack when Klimt died in 1918 in Vienna.
Klimt's combination of highly refined aesthetics, strong erotic tendencies, jewel-like painting surfaces, and use of abstract ornaments made him the outstanding example of Viennese Stilkunst. The French term "Fin de Siecle" (End of the Century), with its underlying nostalgia as well as its refinement of the highest quality, its non-recognition of the social problems of the times, and its implied self-indulgence, fits well when applied to the works of Klimt. The artist himself, however, was an athletic type with an enormous appetite, a health-conscious robust man who was generous to his models, to some of his fellow artists, and to the poor.
Influences in his works can be traced to symbolist artists like Minne, Khnopff, Toorop, and even Boecklin, as well as to his confrontation with the mosaics of Ravenna. Some of the influential writers of his time came to his defense: Hermann Bahr and Ludwig Hevesi praised Klimt's achievements, and the numerous portrait commissions testify that a certain part of the Vienna society was entranced by the refined decorative appeal of many of his works with their frequently mosaic-like quality. The artist's diligence— frequently working on a painting for months to achieve the quality he demanded from himself—and his daring (one of his well-known paintings translated the biblical "Judith" into an elegant Viennese society lady) could not but arouse strong opposition. While the university paintings (destroyed in World War II) caused scandal because of the forms he chose to illustrate, the intended allegories and the strong underlying eroticism in so many of his works made Klimt the center of controversy. Some of his portraits transformed the body of the model into a flat ornament where only face and hands retained a three-dimensional likeness of the subject.
Further Reading on Gustav Klimt
The sumptuous work catalogue of Gustav Klimt was published by F. Novotny and J. Dobai in 1967. Christian M. Nebehay published a well documented biography in 1969, and Otto Breicha edited an important catalogue for a comprehensive exhibit of Klimt's works with the title "Die Goldene Pforte" ("The Golden Gate") in 1978. Dover Publishers has issued a collection of drawings, and Werner Hoffmann has edited a catalogue of the arts in Vienna during Klimt's lifetime under the title Experiment Weltuntergang, Wien um 1900 (Experiment Apocalypse, Vienna around 1900).
Additional Biography Sources
Whitford, Frank, Klimt, New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1990.