By 1897, Klimt and some of his more adventurous artist and designer friends broke from the Vienna Artists’ Association, a more traditional association of painters, to form a radical group called the Secession (named after an ancient Roman term meaning “revolt against ruling powers”). Klimt became the group’s president and its guiding spirit. A drawing he made for the first issue of the movement’s magazine, Ver Sacrum, shows a naked woman holding a mirror up to the audience—“as if to invite new inspiration, a new beginning,” writes historian Dr. Julia Kelly.
Increasingly, Klimt’s inspiration became the psychological inquiry and preoccupation with sexuality that pervaded the Viennese avant-garde. A favorite topic of the salons was the battles of the sexes—in particular, the domination of woman over man. Klimt’s early interest in the female form mingled with these themes, and he began to take more risks in his depictions of women. In works like Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901), he presents a strong, sexualized Judith holding the head of her aggressor.
Women had always been Klimt’s favorite subjects. “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women,” he once said. But by the early 1900s, his depictions of women became increasingly expressive of their personalities and desires—and of human emotion in general. Even his portraits of society women were rife with expressive features and gowns that looked as if they’d been woven from flowers newly bursting into bloom. This exemplifies an aspect of Klimt’s work in which “the anatomy of the models becomes ornamentation, and the ornamentation becomes anatomy,” as art historian Alessandra Comini has said.